Showing posts with label sweden. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sweden. Show all posts

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Damn, Girl-Queen Christina of Sweden, Minerva of the North

One of the most colorful queens of history, Christina of Sweden lived many lives within the span of 62 years. An enigma wrapped in a mystery deep-fried in a contradiction, she ruled Sweden for fourteen years and oversaw some of the best infrastructural and cultural improvements of the country at the time, yet she abandoned her country to live unfettered by duty. She was a philosopher and a patron of the arts whose collecting and patronage preserved some of the best late Renaissance/early Baroque art and music, and was a major player on the European political stage.

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Christina
Christina was born in December of 1626 to Queen Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg and Gustav II Adolf, who were desperately seeking an heir. Maria had had three previous miscarriages, and all of them had been girls. When Christina was born, Maria was very disappointed that she had another daughter instead of the son she had hoped for. Gustav, on the other hand, was ecstatic that they finally had a living child and ordered that she be treated and educated as a prince. Four years later, she was declared heir apparent.

Gustav was deeply embroiled in the Thirty Years War, and after being separated from his men, he died in battle in 1632. Gustav was a remarkable ruler in his own right, but his wife was...unstable. Before his death, Gustav had ordered that Christina be raised by her aunt Catherine and not by her mother. However, that order was disobeyed, and Christina lived with her mother for several years.

To say that those years were unhappy would be an understatement. Maria Eleonora had plunged into a deep depression after the death of her husband. She had her apartments draped in black and refused to let Gustav be buried keeping his body lying in state, except for his heart, which she kept with her in a small, gold casket. She insisted that Christina be with her at all times and, in turns, verbally abused her daughter for not being a boy, criticized her for not being feminine enough, and scarred the young queen with outbursts of violent affection. The governors appointed by Gustav to take care of Christina during her minority deemed Maria unfit as a mother and gave custody of Christina to her aunt. Maria Eleonora was exiled to Gripsholm castle.

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Gustav II Adolf
Christina's youth with her aunt and cousins was filled with lessons. This might have been tedious to any other child, but Christina passionately loved learning and would spend her life in hours of daily study, and she often said that her favorite activity was learning new languages¹. In her childhood, she would rise at five, then spend six hours at her lessons. On weekdays, those lessons were the academics one would expect. On weekends, she was tutored in the princely sports of riding, shooting, and swordfighting. Afternoons saw politics lessons with Axel Oxenstierna², one of the most accomplished politicians of the era.

Christina's main tutor was Johannes Matthiae, a retired clergyman and skeptic of the Lutheran faith. The Lutheran faith, then as now, was the state religion, and rulers were required to be Lutheran. Mathie taught Christina to question Lutheranism, a skill that would aid and plague her throughout her life.

Though Christina would not formally assume the throne until 1644,³ she was consulted in serious political matters as early as 1638, when she was just twelve years old. She started ruling with the council in 1640. During these early years, she showed a strong inclination against warmongering and favored the improvement of Swedish infrastructure and extending welfare and education to the lower classes. Achievements of this time include overseeing the refurbishment of Stockholm, and the setting out of the "Instructions", a document that stated in exacting detail how the colony of New Sweden was to be run. The "Instructions" contained progressive ideas like not warring with the surrounding colonists and not massacring the Native Americans. It instructed that colonists were to pay tribes for their lands and that they were to practice religious tolerance.⁴

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Maria Eleonora
After reaching majority, Christina most notably helped bring an end to the Thirty Years' War by declaring that the official religion of a state should be the same as the religion as its ruler. She established the first Swedish newspaper and opened up education to all citizens.

Christina's goal was to bring the fledgling Enlightenment north. She wanted to turn Stockholm into the "Athens of the North", and for this, she is often known as the "Minerva of the North". A big fan of philosophy, going so far as to claim it was more important than science, Christina imported philosophers to her court--most notably Rene Descartes, who tutored her personally.⁵

All of this was quite expensive, and Christina's habit of giving away crown lands and her refusal to marry worried her nobles. Even more worrying was her relationship with her beautiful Maid of Honor, Ebba Sparre.

Ebba Sparre was the daughter and granddaughter of politicians and was also a celebrated beauty. As is the case with so many people of the era, much of the details of her life are lost to history, and the lady herself might have been entirely forgotten had she and Christina not been lovers.

Though not much is known about their affair, that it existed is unquestionable. Even for an era where friendship was proclaimed in far more florid and intimate terms than it is now, Christina was suspiciously demonstrative of her love for Ebba. She proclaimed Ebba as her royal bedfellow and frequently gushed about her "friend" to foreign ambassadors, urging them to appreciate Ebba's beauty and wit. Surviving letters from Christina to Ebba paint an undoubted picture of extreme passion. In 1656 Christina wrote to Ebba:
"How happy I should be if only I could see you Beautiful One. But I am condemned by Destiny to love and cherish you always without seeing you; and...I cannot be completely happy when I am separated from you. Never doubt this fact, and believe that, wherever I may be, I shall always be entirely devoted to you, as I have always been...Goodbye Beautiful One, goodbye. I embrace you a million times."⁶
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Ebba Sparre
Though Ebba married Jakob de la Gardie in 1652, some sources claiming on Christina's suggestion, others her ire, the two women remained in contact throughout their lives. Christina tried to visit Ebba several times but was prevented by Ebba's family. The pair would never meet again after Ebba's marriage.

In 1654, Christina finally achieved her dream of abdicating. She had been trying to give up the throne since 1650 and had petitioned the Riksdag no less than 20 times, claiming that ruling was bad for her health. They had previously denied her requests, but in 1654 they relented.

Why, exactly, the Riksdag relented is a matter of some debate. Some sources claim that it was because Christina had alienated the nobility with her spending and attempts to enlighten her court. Some sources say that the affair with Ebba Sparre and Christina's refusal to marry made the Riksdag worried about the future of Sweden. Other sources claim that it was because Christina had converted to Catholicism, and that the Riksdag was forced to let her abdicate. Whatever the reason, Christina designated her cousin and once fiance Carl as her heir and abdicated.

The Swedes, at large, were NOT happy with this development. Despite the feathers she ruffled, Christina was still wildly popular with nobles and peasants alike, so popular that she had to uncrown herself during her abdication ceremony, as the gentleman assigned to the task refused to do so.

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Christina was described as being "short,
pockmarked, with a humped right shoulder"
Dressed as a man, Christina left Sweden, and arrived in Rome. In 1655, she officially converted to Catholicism, which was a huge coup for the Vatican. The conversion of a previously Protestant ruler made Pope Alexander VII so happy that he gave her sumptuous apartments in the Vatican and gave her a stipend from church coffers to help maintain her lifestyle. This enamorment didn't last long, as the pope soon discovered that Christina wasn't one to blindly accept the religious teachings of the church. That aside, Christina kept a home in Rome for the rest of her life and was called friend by seven popes.

Finally, free to do as she wished, Christina traveled Europe. She became a major patron of the arts, amassing a huge collection of Venetian school paintings, opening the first opera house in Rome, sponsoring the composers Arcangelo Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti, founding the still functioning Arcadia Academy, and rescuing the reputation of the architect Bernini. She began writing herself, publishing three main philosophical works and sponsoring philosophical conventions around Europe.

Though Christina spent most of the rest of her life writing, art collecting, and philosophizing, she did make two more forays into politics. In 1657, it came to light that Christina had been plotting the takeover of Habsburg Naples with the support of the French crown. The scheme collapsed after Christina attended the summary execution of a traitorous servant at Fontainebleau. In 1667, she attempted to have herself elected queen of Poland but was unsuccessful. She was, reportedly, not too distressed about this failure.

In 1670, Christina returned permanently to Rome and lived there until her death in 1689. She died a well-respected philosopher and patron of the arts. She was buried in the Vatican Grotto--one of only three women to be buried there.

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Christina in her later years
Christina's main focus in philosophy, like so many other philosophers of her day, was on the nature of love. According to Christina, real love was religious in nature, and very rare. She also believed that men and women were equal, saying that "soul had no gender". She was also a big fan of religious tolerance, exerting her influence to protect Rome's Jewish community and the Huguenots in France. In government, Christina was a big fan of Enlightened Despotism, believing that a good and enlightened ruler with absolute power was the only way to properly govern a country. She wrote three books on her philosophical views.

One of the most commonly discussed aspects of Christina is her gender and sexuality. Historians have been quibbling over the question since before Christina was history, and unless Christina rises from the grave to give us a definitive answer, it is unlikely that we will ever have a definite answer. Christina has been, by turns, described as straight and slandered, bisexual, lesbian, transgender, hermaphrodite, and asexual.

This historian strongly favors the bisexual and lesbian theories, as Christina's name was later linked with that of Cardinal Decio Azzolino, as well as that of Ebba Sparre. Christina also wrote passionate letters to women whose writings she admired and once spent several hours alone with a famed courtesan. Whatever Christina may have felt and done with other people, it seems likely that Ebba was the love of Christina's life. Christina's lifelong letters to Ebba show a woman who is very much in love, and neither party ever found happiness with another person (Ebba's marriage was famously unhappy).

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Christina's tomb beneath St. Peter's Basilica in Rome
Christina was a woman of contradictions. She hated the task of ruling, yet attempted to take over two countries. She believed in gender equality, but said on multiple occasions that she didn't think women should rule. She loved women, but did not often enjoy their company. Christina led a troubled life and has gone down in history as one of the most complex and intriguing monarchs in European history.





¹Christina reportedly learned to speak Latin, Spanish, Italian, German, and French, in addition to Swedish. She also had some knowledge of Hebrew and Arabic. Out of all of these, French was the one she used most frequently and the language she wrote in.
²Christina loved learning from Oxerstina and claimed to prefer learning from him above all else. However, later in her reign, she limited his power, resentful of his attempts to limit her power during her minority. Oxerstina, a devout Lutheran, tried to limit Christina's contact with her cousins due to the Calvinist leanings of their parents. This may also have contributed to Christina's later ambivalence toward him.
³Though she assumed the throne in 1644, she was not officially crowned until 1650 because of Sweden's involvement in constant warfare.
⁴Religious tolerance aside, colonists of New Sweden were still supposed to try and convert the Native Americans to Christianity.
⁵Descartes unfortunately died of pneumonia four months after reaching Stockholm. This may have been contributed by Christina's insistence at 5 am study sessions in the freezing winter.
⁶Quote taken from "'A Girton Girl on a Throne': Queen Christina and Versions of Lesbianism, 1906-1933" by Sarah Waters.


This article was edited by Mara Kellogg.


Sources
"Christina of Sweden" by Marguerite Horan Gowen
"Christina of Sweden (Continued)" by Marguerite Horan Gowen
"A Girton Girl on a Throne': Queen Christina and Versions of Lesbianism, 1906-1933" by Sarah Waters
"Two Portraits of a Queen: Calderón and the Enigmatic Christina of Sweden" by Deborah Compte
Wasa, Kristina (1626-1689)
Christina, Queen of Sweden
Famous Queen Christina
Queens Regnant: Christina of Sweden--the Girl King
Queen Coins: LGBTQ Rulers Through History

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

How the Bernadottes Came to Sweden

What do Napoleon, the son of a French lawyer, and being kind to prisoners of war have to do with the Swedish monarchy? Significantly more than you would think. In 1810, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte was elected Prince Royal of Sweden, and eight years later became the founding king of the dynasty that rule Sweden to this day, proving that, contrary to what Michael Palin said, sometimes you do vote for a king.

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Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, the hero of our tale.
To understand the Bernadotte's rise to power, you have to understand late eighteenth century Europe. In the summer of 1789, Louis XVI, an absolute monarch from a long line of absolute monarchs attempted to solve his financial issues using the nominal democratic system France already had in place. This went poorly, and resulted in the common people calling for a new constitution, taking the Bastille, forcing Louis and his family from their opulent home in Versailles, and culminated in a lot of very wealthy and important people losing a very important appendage to the guillotine. "What does this have to do with the price of meatballs in Sweden", you ask? Well, the act of dethroning and de-heading Louis, scion of the long and noble line of Bourbon, sent a shock across Europe. After all, if the French monarch could be thrown out of power, and a 'democracy' instituted in less than two years, were any of the other absolute monarchs of Europe safe?

With the English kicked out of their American colonies, and the French monarchy quite literally headless, it seemed that the age of the 'enlightened despot', or the benevolent philosopher dictator was coming to an end. This was particularly worrying to the Swedish king Gustav III who was a great admirer of Marie Antoinette. He was a little more politically savvy than Louis XVI, and he survived his initial summoning of the Riksdag--or the (at the time) nominal Swedish democratic system. However, he made enemies, and bit a bullet Abraham Lincoln style  in 1792.

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Gustav III
Gustav III left his throne to his thirteen year old son, Gustav IV, or Gustav Adolf. The years in which Gustav IV's uncle served as regent were the best of his reign. Gustav Adolf grew into a paranoid and arrogant king, which lead to him losing Finland, Pomerania, and the Aland islands. He was forced to abdicate, and handed the throne to his uncle, Charles XIII.

Charles XIII wasn't so much the best choice for king as he was the only choice for king. The House of Vasa had been struggling since the abdication of Queen Kristina in 1654, and Charles had only tenuous claims to the throne himself. Furthermore, Charles was childless and a bit senile. It was clear to Charles and the ruling class of Sweden that if they wanted to continue to have a monarchy, they would have to elect somebody. The year was 1809.

Now, the 'election' of a monarch wasn't an uncommon thing, the Vasa's themselves had been elected. In cases where a royal line was dying out without an heirs, or in the case of creating an entirely new country, the nobility of a country would take a look at all the princes of Europe, and see who they liked. This sort of thing had been happening since medieval times, and in the tumultuous world of nineteenth century Europe, it was nothing to balk at.

Two distant cousins of Charles XIII were nominated as heirs, but one was an idiot, and the other died. There was a whole host of unsuitable candidates for Crown Prince of Sweden, and a significant portion of the Riksdag were sick of it. They wanted a successful monarch, someone who wasn't an idiot who would lose Finland. And who was more successful than the plucky young Corsican ruling France?

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Bernadotte again
There was no way in hell that any self respecting Swede was going to invite Napoleon to be their king--they were an independent country after all. But maybe one of his brothers, or one of his Marshals, the military geniuses who had won Napoleon his vast empire.

Enter Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte. A commoner from Southern France, he ran away from his apprenticeship as a lawyer at age eighteen to join the French army. Like Napoleon, he had used the chaos of the French Revolution to rise rapidly through the ranks, eventually becoming a general. He supported Napoleon on his campaigns, eventually being made the French Minister of War, a Marshal, and then the Prince of Ponte-Corvo, a small principality in Italy.

Bernadotte was an attractive candidate for a number of reasons. He was a proved general, a proved administrator, and he already had an heir. He was extremely popular in Sweden, having received and made peace with Swedish officers independently of Napoleon's commands. He was also unemployed, which was very convenient for the Swedes.

Most importantly, he had been kind to the right person back in the day. Baron Otto Morner was about to become the brother-in-law to the Swedish Chancellor, and he was a big fan of Bernadotte. Bernadotte had been a major player in the Battle of Lubeck, during which Bernadotte and the French had roundly kicked Prussian and Swedish ass, but, like, nicely. Bernadotte captured a contingent of Swedish soldiers, and was so nice to them that Otto Morner was still a huge Bernadotte stan four years later. While in Paris, Morner brought the proposition to Bernadotte, who was incredulously flattered.

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Jean's wife, Desiree Clary. She and Napoleon
used to date.
There was a lot going against Jean Baptiste Bernadotte however, and he knew it. He didn't speak Swedish, he wasn't Lutheran, and all of this was seemingly happening behind Napoleon's back. Napoleon and Jean Baptiste had never been great friends, and they certainly weren't bosom friends at the time, but Bernadotte said that the religion and the language thing could be fixed easily, and that, should Emperor Napoleon and King Charles agree, he would be happy to have his name up for consideration.

There was a hiccup. Morner hadn't been acting entirely officially. He was just a lieutenant, not an ambassador. An ambassador had, in fact, been sent to Napoleon, asking him on his opinion on who should succeed Charles XIII. Napoleon had backed King Frederick VI of Denmark-Norway, hoping to unite Scandinavia under a friendly flag. When he found out that Jean Baptiste had been offered the position, he wasn't crazy about Bernadotte being on the Swedish throne, but he loved the idea of a Frenchman on the throne. He went to his ex-stepson, Eugene, the Viceroy of Italy, and offered the position to him. Eugene refused. Napoleon decided to, well, not support Bernadotte, because if Bernadotte failed it would be embarrassing for Napoleon, but he wasn't not not supporting Bernadote.

Jean Baptiste discussed it with his wife, and after getting Napoleon's 'do it if you want', formally submitted his name for consideration. Baron Morner was an enthusiastic hype-man, campaigning for Bernadotte much like how modern pundits campaign for elected officials. Though there was a significant faction in favor of Frederick VI, and King Charles still wanted to elect his idiot cousin, Jean Baptiste was elected unanimously.

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Some of today's Bernadotte's.
Pictured: King Carl Gustav XVI, his daughter,
Crown Princess Victoria, and her eldest child,
Princess Estelle.
There were a few hurdles that had be overcome before Jean Baptiste could become Prince Royal, however. He had to become a Lutheran, that was non-negotiable. He also had to promise not to give any Swedish posts to Frenchmen, and allow Charles XIII to adopt him. Jean acceded, and took the name Charles John, becoming king Charles John XIV, or Carl Johann XIV to the Swedes.

The new Charles was good to his word, and any worries of a French takeover of Sweden were assuaged for good in 1813 when Charles and Swedish forces joined the sixth coalition to fight against Napoleon. Charles was Crown Prince for about eight years, from 1810 to 1818. During this time, he conquered Norway, and unified Sweden and Norway again. By the time he became King, he had thoroughly won over his new people.

Jean Baptiste Bernadotte's legacy lives on today in the ruling family of Sweden. The current king, Carl Gustav XVI is the great, great, great, great grandson of Jean Baptiste. When Carl Gustav's daughter, Crown Princess Victoria, becomes Queen Regnant, she will be the eighth Bernadotte monarch.


 Sources
Bernadotte: Napoleon's Marshal, Sweden's King by Alan Palmer
Karl Johann XIV-King of Norway and Sweden
Charles XIV, King of Sweden and Norway
The Bernadotte Dynasty
The House of Bernadotte
Charles John XIV, King of Sweden and Norway

Friday, May 4, 2018

Damn, Girl-Sigrid the Haughty? More Like Sigrid the Petty and Bloodthirsty

Influential in four countries, Queen of both Sweden and Denmark, mother of two great kings, and instrumental in one of the greatest sea battles of the Viking age, Queen Sigrid the Haughty is most known for setting two potential suitors on fire. Much about Sigrid's life is unknown, and even if she was a real person, a legend, or a combination of several different Viking queens is up for debate. However, the myths around Sigrid are epic in proportion, and if a girl ever made you say 'damn!', it was certainly her.

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Sigrid and her second husband, Sweyn
Sigrid was born in the mid 900s most likely in Poland, but also possibly in Pomerania (modern Czechia) or Denmark. One of the solid facts about Sigrid was that she married King Eric the Victorious of Sweden, and it was written by medieval chroniclers that Eric the Victorious married the daughter of King Mieszko I of Poland and Doubravka of Bohemia (also modern Czechia). Whatever her origins, Sigrid definitely married Eric the Victorious, and they had at least one child, a boy named Olaf, who would succeed his father.

In Sigrid's late twenties or early thirties she was widowed, leaving her as regent for her son Olaf. Beautiful and wealthy, Sigrid was an attractive marriage prospect. Much like Penelope of Homer's Odyssey, suitors came out of the woodwork to compete for Sigrid's hand, including Sigrid's foster brother, Harald Grenske, a minor king in Vestland.

Unlike fair Penelope, Sigrid was not down to deal with suitors tramping around her house disrespecting her, especially if those suitors did not have the fortune or title to match her own. To demonstrate her distaste, she invited Harald, as well as a Russian prince named Vissavald to a great feast. About halfway through, she locked the doors of the meadhall, and set it on fire with Harald and Vissavald still inside. She reportedly stabbed anyone who tried to escape.

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Most of what we know about Sigrid comes from the Icelandic
Sagas
Unlike in the case of Elizabeth Bathory, another famous blood soaked woman, setting a group of rude noblemen on fire was completely respectable. Viking society was harsh, and as the regent of Sweden (keep in mind, this is the WHOLE of Sweden, not just a small part. Sigrid was the overlady, the queen of queens.), Sigrid needed to show that she would not be disrespected. Most of the suitors got the message.

Unfortunately, King Olaf Trygvasson of Norway didn't quite get the message. He came courting, and failed epicly. He praised her beauty and wit, then belittled her manner. He informed her that if she wanted to marry him (keep in mind, there is no record of Sigrid wanting to marry him), she would have to convert to Christianity, something that was completely unthinkable to the deeply devout pagan Sigrid.

When Sigrid gave Olaf his marching orders, he snapped. He called her ugly, saying that he would never want to marry such an old woman anyways. He slapped her on the face--a fatal mistake on his part. According to legend, Sigrid informed Olaf that his blow may 'some day be thy death'.

Several years after her first husband's death, Sigrid remarried, this time to Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark. This united Sweden and Denmark, and Sigrid and Sweyn had two sons, the most famous of whom was known as Canute.


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Sigrid's son, Canute, would later conquer
England
Sigrid didn't forget insults, especially not from the King of Norway. The Icelandic sagas say that she convinced Sweyn, who was already feuding with Norway, to take to the sea against Olaf. Sweyn, combined the Sigrid's Swedish forces, cornered Olaf and the Norwegian navy, thoroughly defeating them at what would later be named The Battle of Skold. Olaf didn't survive the battle. He either jumped off, or was thrown off the side of his ship and sank, dragged down by the weight of his armor.

From here, the details of Sigrid's life get even murkier. From all reports, her marriage to Sweyn wasn't very happy, and the pair split. Sigrid went back to Poland to assist her brother, King Bolesław. With her help, Bolesław was able to make Poland thrive, and they were both well loved by the people. Sigrid could have stayed happy and content in Poland, but when her son Canute conquered England in 1016 she jumped on a ship to join him. Though the details of her life in England are unknown, she likely died, and was buried there.

Many historians dismiss Sigrid as a myth. There are very few surviving historical records from that period, and most of her history was recorded in the Icelandic sagas, written many years after her death. However, mentions of the men she was close to, namely her father and husbands, help establish her existence, if not quite her deeds.


Sources
The Viking Tale of Svein Forkbeard and Sigrid the Haughty
Sigrid the Haughty
Sigrid the Haughty: Queen Consort of Four Countries and Owner of a Forceful Personality
Sigrid the Haughty (D. before 1013)

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Karl XII, the 'Alexander of the North' Has a Bad Decade

It's highly ironic that Karl (Often anglicized to Charles) XII¹ is referred to as the 'Alexander of the North', given that his reign saw the end of Sweden as an empire and significant global power. While Karl may have started out strong by conquering Denmark, Poland, and parts of Russia, he ultimately failed his country abroad and at home. A nickname that makes more sense is 'The Swedish Meteor'. Karl earned this nickname because of, you guessed it, his meteoric rise to power, and quick fall from grace.

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Karl on a horse
Karl was groomed to be king from a very young age. After his mother's death in 1693, Karl's father, Karl XI, took Karl with him everywhere, including him in royal progresses, meetings of the Riksdag, and other monarchical duties. Daddy Karl also saw to it that young Karl had the best tutors and religious mentors. When Karl XI died in 1697 the fifteen year old Karl was ready to assume the throne.²

When the power's abroad heard about Karl's ascension to the throne, many countries saw the Swedish Empire as ripe for the picking, especially after negotiations for a royal marriage between Karl and a Danish Princess broke down. Not wanting to waste the opportunity of a lifetime, Denmark, Poland-Lithuania, Russia, and Saxony banded together, and with promises from the Swedish nobility that they would start rebelling if a war started, this coalition started attacking Sweden from all sides.

However, young Karl was no dummy. He went on the offensive, and invaded Danish Zeeland, and at the Battle of Narva he took the Danes out of the war with one blow. It wasn't long before Karl's armies had driven the Russians and Saxons out of the Swedish provinces on the Baltic. With 3/4 of his enemies driven back, Karl turned his sights on the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

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Karl not on a horse.
Many of these early achievements cannot be attributed directly to Karl. He was still young, and he didn't have a great deal of war experience. However, he was smart enough to listen to the advisers and generals left to him by his father. As time went on Karl became better at battlefield strategy, and many of his advisers died. By 1702 Karl was almost entirely in charge.

It was this year that Karl invaded Poland. Poland was a deeply divided country, and they were no match for the united Swedes. Karl overthrew the reigning monarch, Augustus II, and installed Pole Stanisław Leszczyński as king. Safe in the knowledge that Stanisław would do what he was told, Karl made Poland his base for invading Russia.

Now, Karl had been doing very well up until then. He'd been at war for the entirety of his reign, but had still managed to help with administrative decisions back at home. Had Karl decided that enough was enough, and gone back home he might have been remembered as a hero King who conquered vast swathes of territory, and subdued Sweden's enemies. However, in 1706 Karl made a fatal mistake--he invaded Russia.

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The Swedish Empire
We've discussed Karl's invasion of Russia before, so I won't go into too much detail here. But here's a brief summary: Karl invades western Russia, and reconquers the Baltic provinces that Russia had taken. The Russian soldiers scorch the earth behind them, and attack the Swedish baggage trains, leaving the Swedes without supplies. When they lost battles, the Russians withdrew further into Russia. Though Karl made it all the way to Moscow, lack of supplies forced him to turn back, and a Russian victory at Poltava forced Karl to flee to Turkey.

Turkey was a seemingly good place to seek refuge. The Turkish sultanate was friendly to the Swedes, and the Turks also had a beef with Russia. The Turks agreed to jointly attack Russia. However, though Karl requested another army from Sweden it never arrived, and efforts to attack Russia petered out.

In 1714 Karl left Istanbul for good, and headed to the Swedish provinces in Pomerania. His five years in Turkey had shifted Karl's priorities from expanding Swedish territory and punishing his enemies to merely keeping his empire intact, and making peace. Karl decided that ceding pieces of land, either for money or treaties, was the only way to go. He ceded vast swathes of Swedish territories, and lost others to various German kingdoms. In 1718 Karl was shot through the head while fighting the Norwegians. He died, leaving no children to succeed him.

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Death mask of Karl XII, also not on a horse.
Karl was a king of Sweden, who didn't actually spend all that much time in Sweden. He was deeply religious, and a highly intellectual man. He didn't drink alcohol or have affairs with women. His close relationships with his fellow soldiers have lead many historians to speculate that he may have been homosexual. Towards the end of his life he was reviled by his own people, and rumors that he was shot by one of his own men abound.

Karl is heartily disliked by most modern Swedes. Not only do they blame them for the loss of their empire, but they also blame him for the enormous amount of money and lives that his wars cost. Additionally, Karl XII has become an icon for far-right Swedish Neo-Nazi groups, which certainly doesn't boost his posthumous reputation.

¹I refer to him as 'Karl' rather than 'Charles' in this post because it makes very little sense to refer to a King of Sweden by an English name.
²Karl XI had arranged for a regency should he die before Karl XII came of age. However, due to internal fighting within the regency, the Riksdag asked Karl to assume the throne early.


Sources
Charles XII- King of Sweden
The Blazing Career and Mysterious Death of 'The Swedish Meteor'

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

General Frost vs. Europe

When making a 'Top Ten Places Not to Invade In The Winter' list, Russia inevitably comes in number one (with Greenland and Canada following close after.). There were multiple occasions in history, when European leaders thought it might be a good idea to poke the Russian Bear with a stick. Some, like the Mongols, were successful, most, like pretty much everyone else, were not.

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St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow.
Russia's pretty big, which makes it difficult to defend and control. Russia's long history of internal conflicts (more recently in Georgia and Chechnya) prove this. However, Russia has a secret weapon-General Frost.

You've probably guessed this, but General Frost is a poetic name for winter. Russia is far north, and has some pretty gnarly cold spells. We're talking spit freezing before it hits the sidewalk cold. The winter snows cover everything, and the country more or less goes into hibernation. Nothing grows, and game isn't always plentiful. If you haven't prepared, you're dead. 

So, despite its size, Russia is pretty well defended. They have reasonable armies (and more recently nuclear weapons) to help the in the summer, and unlivable conditions in the winter. However, that hasn't stopped some people from trying to invade Russia in the winter.

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Charles XII
The Swedes were the first (as far as I can dig up) to try invading Russia in the winter. They were the first, so they get a bit of a pass. Sweden itself is northerly, and it's not like they had someone else's mistakes to learn from.

Although, quite frankly, even if there had been someone else's failed attempts to learn from, it is doubtful that that would have stopped Charles XII, the young, brash, and ridiculously successful King of Sweden. Charles was a genius military commander, and dangerous risk taker. He frequently dove into battles with forces that vastly outnumbered his own, and usually came out victorious. Charles was That Kid. You know, that kid in school who claimed to never study for a test, and then got full marks. Charles was the monarchy equivalent of that kid, and, quite frankly, the rest of Europe was a little sick of it.


See, Sweden at the time was something of a world power. They'd taken most of the land around the Baltic sea. The only things they didn't own was Denmark and Norway (Norway belonged to Denmark). This worried the Danes, as well as the newly minted Czar of Russia, Peter the Great. So, to combat the Swedish, the Danes, Russians, Poles and Saxons (part of modern Germany) all decided to gang up on Charles. They were banking on his youth and inexperience (Charles was only 18 at the time). Bad decision. Charles was not only something of a genius, but he had good advisers, ad he listened to them. When the Danes came for Sweden, Charles snck into Denmark, and took them down. Then he turned his eyes to Poland, and successfully installed a King favorable to Sweden. Done with Poland, he turned his eyes to Russia.

Charles had had great success with small armies that attacked quickly and unexpected. He adopted the same strategy in Russia. In 1700 he attacked Narva, a town in Modern Estonia. He was outnumbered about 3 to 1, and it was the middle of a blizzard. Remarkably, but also unsurprisingly, Charles won.

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Peter the Great, czar of Russia at the time
of Charles XII's invasion.
The Swedes continued across Russia like this, but the Russians, as per the usual, implemented a scorched earth policy, leaving nothing for the Swedes to eat. The Russians then cut off the Swede's supply lines. Despite all this, the war wasn't going too badly for the Swedes, until General Frost stepped in.

1709 was one of the coldest winters of that era. 2,000 Swedish soldiers died from cold in a single night. Northern Russia wasn't a good place to hang out, so, against the council of his advisers, Charles decided to winter with his buddy Mazeppa in the Ukraine.  

Ivan Mazeppa was a former Russian ally who wanted to get the Russians out of Ukraine. He told Charles of his plan to start an Ukranian rebellion, and invited Charles to invade. Never one to pass up new territory, Charles agreed.

Thing was, most of Charles' forces were very ill, and couldn't fight. Charles himself had been wounded. Additionally, the Russians found out about the planned uprising, and moved to quash it before it even began. So when Charles arrived in Ukraine he had much fewer Ukrainian troops than expected, and only the skeleton of an army.

Realizing the fight was already lost, Charles escaped with 2,000 of his sickest men, leaving the rest of the army behind. The Russians caught up with them, thoroughly defeating the 16,000 Swedish forces left behind.

Next up to the plate was the young French protegee, Napoleon. The year was 1812, and Napoleon had had it with Russia. Russia was supposed to be his ally. They were buds. They were part of the continental system, they had no reason to fight each other, and they promised each other that neither of them would trade with England. It was a good arrangement. For France.

What Napoleon failed to realize was that this arrangement wasn't helping out Russia very much. Russia needed trade with the English to bolster its economy, and France had done the unthinkable--they helped Poland.

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Napoleon Bonaparte, making sure
his ribs are still there.
Well, Napoleon couldn't handle that sort of betrayal, not from an ally, so he invaded Russia to teach Czar Alexander a lesson. He gathered some 450,000 men (give or take), the largest military force ever assembled in Europe to that point (probably). With his typical modesty, Napoleon named his forces the 'Grande Armee'

Now, I have absolutely zero historical evidence to back this up, but I imagine Czar Alexander's reaction to Napoleon's invasion was something like 'lol wut?', and he slipped on his shades, and watched the French armies confidently walk into his territory, just knowing that they wouldn't last a year in Russia.

As I mentioned, there's no historical evidence, but it's a pretty amusing picture.

What is fact, though, is that the Russians put up very little resistance to the French at first. Instead of standing to fight, they let the French take the towns of Vilna, Vitesbk, and Smolensk, virtually without a fight. Instead of fighting the Russians torched the cities and all surrounding crops, leaving the French to die of starvation, exposure, and sporadic attacks. This worked very well. Tens of thousands of soldiers died of starvation, exhaustion, and dehydration. Many more deserted.

The Russians didn't stand and fight until the French were just 75 miles from Moscow. The French and Russians were fairly evenly matched, and each suffered heavy losses. The Russians, however, decided not to stick around. They set fire to Moscow, all of Moscow's food storage, and left, leaving only a large amount of hard liquor behind.

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Czar Alexander I
So, while they French may have been merrily drunk, they were also starving. Napoleon had decided to stay in Moscow for a while, and wait for Czar Alexander to make peace, but Czar Alexander decided to sit back, and let winter take care of things. Eventually, Napoleon threw in the towel, and decided to head back to France, just as winter was approaching.


Now, this went as well as you might expect, which is to say, poorly. The Russians were determined that the French stay out, so they drove the remnants of the Grand Armee along the same route they came in on. If the food options had been picked over before, they were completely nonexistant on the way back. The Russians kept the French from ranging further afield to find further sustenance. Added to that was the cold. Many men froze overnight. Dead bodies were stacked up against walls to provide insulation, and tales were told of men slitting open their horses, and climbing inside them to keep warm. The French died in massive waves, and only 20,000 of them returned home to France.

Then there's Hitler. As I'm sure you well know, nothing good ever starts with Hitler, and this is no different. Stalin was in charge of Russia at the time, and both of these repugnant knaves should have studied their history. Had they done so, many lives would have been saved, because:

  1. Hitler would have known better than to invade Russia. 
  2. Stalin wouldn't have insisted that no city be surrendered, and instead adopted the scorched earth tactics that has kept Russia independent for so many generations.
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Adolf Hitler, looking unfriendly as usual.
Instead, Hitler and the Germans were the ones scorching the earth, and the citizens of the USSR were being attacked by not only the Germans, but their own government. Stalin ordered that deserters and suspected traitors be shot, not to mention his abhorrent policy of relocating ethnic minorities to Siberia.

Having conquered France, Hitler needed to get on with the rest of the world. Conquering the UK would be a difficult, and not entirely worthwhile endeavor, so he decided to go after his land and resource rich neighbor, the USSR. This was the start of 'Operation Barbarossa'. 

Germany and the USSR had signed a non-aggression pact two years before, but Hitler still considered communism a major threat to the German Empire he wanted to build. Because Nazi Germany didn't do anything by halves, Hitler planned to completely wipe out the communist population of the USSR, not just the Jews, Romani, Homosexuals, and political dissenters that he usually went after.  

Hitler started by forming a group of elite troops called the Einsatzgruppen. He sent these soldiers into Russia to murder Jewish males, communist leaders, and anyone who looked like they might start a resistance, en masse. He then gathered a force of more than three million soldiers, and stormed Russia's frontier. While Allied powers had repeatedly warned Stalin about a German invasion, Stalin had refused to listen, and was caught by 'surprise'. 

Unlike his predecessors, Stalin refused to give ground. He ordered that no city surrender or be abandoned. As a result of that three million USSR soldiers were taken captive in Kiev. Instead of evacuating the countryside, and torching all the crops, villagers were ordered to stay put, and anyone suspected of disloyalty or cowardice was shot. Because of this the Germans were able to subsist off the crops of the small Russian villages, and were able to penetrate further into USSR territory.

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Josef Stalin, committer of mass genocide
and luxurious mustache model.
Looking through the lens of history, Hitler has done far better than expected. However, according to Hitler and company, the invasion of the USSR was taking far longer than expected. Hitler had expected the invasion of Russia to go like the invasion of France, quick and relatively painless. But the Russians held out far longer than he'd expected. By the time the Germans were ready to head to Moscow, winter wasn't too far away.

And, in a move that will surely have you banging your head against the nearest flat surface, the Germans did not have any winter supplies. They hadn't expected to stay the winter, and so they were completely unprepared. They started to slowly retreat, but before they could get out of Russia entirely, war had flared up again in the west with the invasion of Normandy. 

Unlike previous invasions, the failure of Operation Barbarossa was not a decisive win for the Russians. Had another front not opened up Hitler would have most likely started the invasion up again in the spring. The German soldiers were able to subsist off the food they found in the countryside, all they lacked was warm clothing. Had Stalin stuck to the proven tactics of his forerunners, and set everything on fire, WWII may have gone much differently.

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