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Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Swedish Independence as an Expression of German Greed and Danish Avant-Gardism

Idealised image of Gustavus Vasa raising the rebellion. 

Do countries and states have DNA -- elements present at their creation that then resonate throughout their history and help to shape them? If so, what are we to make of Sweden and the odd collection of forces that brought that state into existence? The key date in this piece of historical alchemy was the 6th of June, 1523, exactly 495 years ago today.

Up until that date, Swedish history had seemed to be a tributary subsumed into the wider current of Danish history. As a backward and ill-defined area, it had been united to Denmark in 1388, as part of the Union of Kalmar, and its fate as a somewhat reluctant provincial region of that powerful Baltic monarchy seemed set until the early 16th century.

The forces that intervened to split Sweden off from Denmark and set it on its own trajectory were threefold. They included the obvious and ubiquitous one of regional resentment against the centre and the desire for local autonomy or more. But this on its own would not have succeeded without the other two forces, namely German greed and Danish avant-gardism.

Much of Swedish history is distorted by a fake nationalist lens that retrospectively interprets petty feudal squabbles featuring Danes and Swedes as proto-nationalist stirrings. Former Swedish leaders like Sten Sture the Elder, Svante Nillson, and Sten Sture the Younger, who served as occasionally rebellious "regents" of Sweden, are often shoehorned into this retrospective narrative, but the truth is they fit better into the pattern of "stroppy nobles" than visionary nationalist leaders.

The first true "Swedish nationalist" -- and then only because he was forced into the role himself -- was Gustavus Vasa. 

Hanseatic trade routes and the Union of Kalmar
The propelling factor here was the oppressive nature of the Danish king Christian II, a man impulsive both in his cruelty and kindness, of which more later. Just after the Swedish crown was added to his other titles in 1520, he arrested several Swedish nobles, whom he had invited to his coronation banquet and had them executed in what became known as the "Stockholm Bloodbath."

As Gustavus's father and nephew had been among those butchered, he feared that he might be next. Accordingly he became something of an outlaw, heading for the hills and attempting, at first unsuccessfully, to raise a force of men to share his resentments and fears. At last he finally managed to get a slow-burning rebellion going, but one safely confined to the remoter regions of the Swedish north. It was only in 1522, when German greed took a hand in the affair, that things pick began to pick up. This happened in the form of the Baltic city state of Lubeck, then one of the leading cities of the powerful Hanseatic League of trading cities.

For centuries before this, the Hanseatic League had dominated the sea lanes and trade of the Baltic, but the rise of a powerful Baltic monarchy in the form of a united Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, created a natural rivalry, both economic and political. Lubeck, as the main Hanseatic city in the Baltic, saw the potential of Gustavus's rebellion to break up the political power of Denmark to create a freer trading environment for its own ships and merchants.

But before this could happen, one additional factor was required, namely the misplaced and ill-timed avant-gardism of the Danish king Christian II.

Christian II
Fearing little from an insignificant rebellion in a remote part of his territories, Christian II decided on a "study trip" to the Netherlands, then the most economically and culturally advanced part of Northern Europe. In June 1521, before the City of Lubeck's intervention, he headed for Flanders, a territory ruled by his powerful brother-in-law the Emperor Charles V. Here he made the acquaintance of the leading artists of the day, had his portrait painted, and also entertained the humanist philosopher Erasmus. 

Coming from a giant, backward, Northern kingdom that was frequently unsettled by the acts of rebellious noblemen, he was drawn to the orderly and well-run, bourgeois towns and cities of the Low Countries and their hard-working and law-abiding people. He decided that he could improve his collection of unruly kingdoms with some reforms drawn from that milieu. 

On his return home in September, he immediately started to implement various reforms to modernise his territories. On the face of it, some of his reforms were "good" or at least "just" -- namely improving the education of the lower clergy, reducing the power of the bishops, protecting the rights of peasants, liberalising the highly restrictive trade guilds, forbidding cartels by rich burghers, etc. But the problem was that such innovations, introduced in a flurry and with the impulsiveness that characterised Christian II, increased discontent, especially amongst the powerful elites. 

Seizing the chance that this offered, Lubeck allied itself with Gustavus, and when this raised the costs of the war and thus the tax burden required to fight it, the murmurings against Christian became louder and louder. 

Finally on the 23rd of January, the nobles of Jutland rose against him and offered the Danish crown to his uncle, Duke Frederick of Holstein. The new king, Frederick I, hoped to succeed his nephew as king of Sweden as well. But the overthrow of Christian had given the Swedish nobles the confidence to push for independence. 

With the support of Lubeck -- in return for trading privileges -- they declared Gustavus king on this date 495 years ago at the town of Strangnas. This site was used because nearby Stockholm was still under Danish control. A couple of weeks later, Gustavus's forces were able to retake the Swedish capital, thus setting the scene for the great Swedish and Danish rivalry that would dominate the Baltic for the next 200 years. 

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