The Baltic, as a great inland sea, has much in common with the Mediterranean. Each is of a size and complexity to ensure maximum interaction between the people living on its coasts. Each has only the narrowest outlet to the ocean, raising the enticing possibility of treating the sea as an inland lake within a single vast empire. Once in history, under the Romans, this is achieved round the Mediterranean. Once it is almost achieved round the Baltic, by the Swedes.
More than fifteen hundred years separate these events, because the people of the northern sea are so much later than those of the Mediterranean in achieving civilization.
At the time of the early civilizations of the Mediterranean, Indo-European tribes such as the Balts and Germans reach the shores of the Baltic. During the Roman empire their descendants, in the form of Goths and Vandals, begin to move south to terrify more settled folk. A millennium later another wave of fierce Scandinavians – the Vikings – follow a similar pattern.
None of these groups could hope to control the great northern sea. Such an ambition only becomes feasible in the 16th century, when the Baltic coast is held by three strong nations (Denmark, Sweden, Poland) and a fourth, Russia, is eager for a share.
Denmark and Sweden: AD 1523-1574
Control of the Baltic, and of its entrance through the narrow Sound, first becomes an issue between Denmark and Sweden after the separation of the two kingdoms in 1523. The Swedish king Gustavus I makes plain his ambitions in the Baltic when he founds Helsinki, in 1550, as a trading post for the natural resources of Finland.
From 1559 a new king on the Danish throne, Frederick II, takes an aggressive stance by controlling the passage of foreign ships through the Sound – thus potentially severing Sweden’s main channel of trade. Denmark’s action is feasible because the Sound is only three miles wide at its narrowest point, and at this period both shores are part of the Danish kingdom.
By 1563 Denmark and Sweden are at war over the issue. The conflict lasts until 1570, becoming known as the Seven Years’ War of the North. It achieves no territorial gain for either side, but Denmark wins international recognition of certain Danish rights over the narrow waterway.
After the war, ended by the peace of Stettin, it is accepted that Denmark may levy a toll on ships passing through the Sound. To ensure collection of the payment, Frederick II builds (from 1574) the world’s most impressive tollbooth – the great Renaissance castle of Kronborg at Elsinore, overlooking the narrowest part of the channel. The toll is collected until 1857. Meanwhile, in the 17th century, Denmark intervenes rashly in the Thirty Years’ War.
From Sweden’s point of view the disappointment of the Seven Years’ War is that Skåne, the southern province of the Swedish peninsula, remains in Danish hands. It will do so until 1658.
In the meantime the more volatile shore of the Baltic is the eastern one, where Sweden, Poland and Russia fight over the regions now known as Estonia and Latvia. Grouped together under the medieval name of Livonia, they have been harshly governed for some three centuries by a German military order, the Teutonic Knights. By the mid-16th century the Knights are vulnerable. Already disbanded in neighbouring Prussia, they are enfeebled in Livonia.
Sweden’s gains: 16th – 17th century AD
The weakness of the Teutonic Order leads to intervention by all the neighbours of Livonia. In 1558 Sweden annexes the northern part of Estonia. In the same year the Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible invades from the east. Three years later Poland claims regions in the south.
During the next seventy years, in a series of wars and treaties, Sweden prevails over both its rivals. After the truce of Altmark, ending a war between Poland and Sweden in 1629, the whole of Estonia is in the Swedish empire. So is Latvia north of the Daugava.
Sweden’s successes in the eastern Baltic are rapidly followed by similar gains from Denmark in two wars between 1643 and 1660. These wars bring into Swedish hands the two largest islands in the Baltic and even more significantly – after a Swedish march across the ice towards Copenhagen in 1658 – the ceding of the province of Skåne on the northern side of the narrow entrance to the sea.
These conquests give Sweden an unbroken stretch of the Baltic coastline all the way from Göteborg in the west to Riga in the east.
This stretch of territory so nearly rings the entire Baltic that Charles X claims in 1658 a right to keep foreign fleets out of the Swedish sea. English and Dutch outrage soon forces him to back down. But profit from ferrying international trade through the Baltic remains a central part of Swedish economic policy – particularly Russian trade, since Sweden’s territorial gains have blocked Russia’s access to the sea.
The founding of the Bank of Sweden in 1668 is an indication of the kingdom’s commercial health. So is the construction of a merchant fleet which amounts at its peak to 730 ships.
Equally the building of a strong navy and the maintenance of a massive standing army (40,000 national conscripts and 25,000 mercenaries) represent a clear statement of Sweden’s new status as a European power. But it proves hard to maintain.
The Swedish gains of the 17th century have been at the expense of many different powers – Denmark, various states of north Germany, Poland and Russia. The death of Charles XI in 1697, when his son Charles XII is fifteen, is followed by secret alliances between Sweden’s enemies for concerted action. The result, beginning in 1700, is the Northern War.
Baltic campaigns: AD 1700-1706
The Northern War, often called the Great Northern War, distributes the coastline of the Baltic among the neighbouring nations in a manner which lasts into the 20th century.
Provoked by Sweden’s dominant position, and launched in 1700 by an act of concerted aggression against Sweden by the kings of Poland and Denmark and the tsar of Russia, the war seems at first to give conclusive proof that Sweden fully deserves her pre-eminence in the region. The early Swedish successes are in large part due to the energy and military genius of the young king, Charles XII, eighteen years old in 1700 and three years into his reign.
The concerted attack on Swedish territory during 1700 takes place in three regions. In February the Polish king, Augustus II, moves north to besiege the port of Riga. A month later the Danish king, Frederick IV, marches south into Swedish possessions in Schleswig-Holstein. In August the Russian tsar, Peter the Great, brings an army west to attack the port of Narva.
Charles XII deals with each in turn, scoring rapid hits against his multiple enemies almost in the manner of a lone hero in a western. First, in August 1700, he ferries an army across the water to the island of Sjaelland, landing a few miles from Copenhagen. By the end of the month the Danes have withdrawn from the war.
In October Charles lands with 10,000 men at Pärnu, a point from which he can move south to relieve Riga or east to the defence of Narva. He selects as his first target the Russians besieging Narva. An attack in November on the tsar’s fortified encampment, containing 23,000 soldiers, is entirely successful. Peter the Great withdraws from the immediate fray (giving himself a lull which he will use to excellent effect, establishing a naval base in the Gulf of Finland).
Meanwhile Charles is able to give his full attention to the Polish king, Augustus II, who is also the elector of Saxony.
Over the next six years Charles XII has a series of unbroken successes against Poland and Saxony, extending his already great control over the Baltic. By 1707 he is ready to attack Russia, now his only major opponent in the region.
Like other generals rash enough to march an army into Russia, Charles’s fortunes are reversed by the harsh realities of winter. Defeat by the Russians at Poltava in 1709 proves a turning point. Sweden is already greatly weakened when Charles XII dies, still campaigning, in 1718.
Peace negotiations continue for three years after the death of Charles XII, and the final terms are a disaster for Sweden compared to the high hopes raised early in the war. Most of the Swedish possessions on the southern coast of the Baltic are now ceded to Prussia and to Hanover. And the commercial advantage of free passage through the Sound for Swedish goods is surrendered.
But the greatest blow is Sweden’s loss to Russia. By the treaty of Nystad, in 1721, Peter the Great obtains the east Baltic coast from Vyborg down to Riga (a stretch in which he has already built himself St Petersburg). With these advantages Russia replaces Sweden as the leading power in the Baltic.