The King of Sweden and I

When I tell people that I am an historian I am often met with an enthusiastic declaration of interest in history alongside a regret that this interest had once been dulled by dictation. For a long time the principal method of teaching history seems to have been to dictate long narratives of facts and events. Certainly that was my experience at secondary school in the 1980s. In a monotonously metallic voice and military manner (as befitting the Commanding Officer of the school’s Combined Cadet Force), my history teacher would, week after week, term after term, read from his script, only occasionally breaking off to invite questions from the mostly numbed class. History seemed an unchallenging subject (a good thing I thought at the time), but also painfully dreary (a bad thing). That I would, after such inauspicious beginnings, end up becoming an historian seems an unlikely tale. But then along came the king of Sweden and suddenly I got interested.

Sweden struck me at the time as a cool and appealing place. My chequered teenage knowledge of the country associated it with solid cars, metronomic tennis players, wholesome pop music, racy pornography, liberalism, egalitarianism, neutrality and pacifism–I was quite drawn to various of these things. Sweden compared extremely favourably in my mind with the Britain of Thatcher. Britain stood for militarism and social injustice; Sweden for peace and social justice. (Teenagers ought to be forgiven such simplistic thinking.) And in my limited historical understanding I somehow assumed that Sweden had long been a country of virtuous and pacific ways–it had never featured in any of the history I had done, so I presumed that, while the rest of Europe was busy ending one war then beginning another, the Swedes were quietly getting on with building a welfare state and a prosperous liberal society.

Gustavus Adolphus at the Battle of Breitenfeld (1631)

So I was astonished when, in the middle of the teacher’s wearying narrative about the Thirty Years War (a remarkably violent conflict, largely in Germany–you can understand why I supposed history remained rather static), seemingly out of nowhere the Swedes, led from the front by King Gustavus Adolphus, invaded Germany. Surely they would go the way of the Danes before them, I guessed, and quickly succumb to comprehensive defeat. But no, Gustavus, the Lion of the North, won a spectacular and crushing military victory against a larger force, turned the tide of the conflict which had hitherto been going only one way, and established the foundations for Sweden to emerge from the war as one of the leading European powers with territories extending around the greater part of the Baltic. All this seemed wondrous, both because it was achieved by a country with a tiny population, and because it revealed an imperialist phase in Swedish history that I would never have previously imagined. I remained equally gripped as I learnt about the fortunes of this empire, particularly in the Great Northern War at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Danes, the Poles and the Russians combined in an effort to dismantle the Swedish empire, now ruled by the 18-year-old Charles XII. Naturally I was impressed at how this teenager defeated each of Sweden’s enemies in turn, displaying a remarkable military genius. But superior numbers generally win in the end: the Russian army under Tsar Peter the Great inflicted a crushing defeat on the Swedes at Poltava in 1709, resulting in the exile of Charles in Constantinople. Even then he attempted an audacious and valiant recovery of the Swedish position, before eventually falling in battle (probably accidentally shot by one of his own men) in 1718.

Charles XII of Sweden; mezzotint portrait by John Faber the Younger; early 18th century

I have often wondered why it was early modern Swedish history that got me hooked on the past. Most likely it was the apparent incongruity of the imperialist history of a country that had become synonymous with peace and neutrality. I also felt slightly ashamed to be so keen on this history–after all, for all my avowed liberal and socialist views, here I was drawn to, and consciously fascinated by, a clear example of imperialism and military adventure (even after I learnt how the Swedish army, consisting mostly of mercenaries, was notorious for its brutality against soldier and civilian alike). Perhaps this is a good example of what history can do: it can surprise us, not only in relation to our assumptions and expectations of the world around us, but also in relation to ourselves. It also reveals that, even when the presentation is uninspiring, the past can always touch us in arresting and exciting ways.

Poster for the 1933 film, Queen Christina, starring Greta Garbo and directed by Rouben Mamoulian

My fascination with early modern Swedish history continued at university (and was much indebted to the work of Michael Roberts, the leading historian of the period), but gradually my wider interests moved onto the history of ideas. I found myself focusing more on the meditations of Descartes than the martial exploits of Gustavus Adolphus. But even then Sweden added an irresistibly exciting touch to, and connection between, my interests. For Descartes, at the end of his life, became the personal philosopher of none other than Queen Christina of Sweden (the daughter of Gustavus Adolphus, notorious for her later conversion to Catholicism and retirement in Rome, and glamorized in film by Greta Garbo). Accustomed to warmer climates and sleeping late, Descartes suffered under Christina’s insistence on beginning her studies at five in the morning. A year after arriving in Sweden, the great French philosopher died in Stockholm.

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