Lost history

I keep by my bed, as an antidote to hopes of progress, a volume of the Cambridge Modern History dealing with the Thirty Years’ War. It wouldn’t be an antidote if I were certain that we had left these times behind. In any case, it is worth re-learning how it was that Europe invented the idea of religious tolerance, and why much of Germany stayed a poverty-stricken wasteland for the next 200 years.

In particular, anyone who supposes that there is something uniquely Islamic in the combination of militarism, religious fanaticism, and brutal bureaucratic efficiency should study the history of the Swedish Empire. Between 1618 and 1658, Swedish armies marched all over Germany, Poland, and beyond. They besieged Prague and Lwow Their courage, endurance, and brutality are all hard to believe — I liked the throwaway line that “In the earlier stages of the enterprise the famous Swedish discipline had been maintained, and the hanging corpses of some 500 mercenaries marked Wittenberg’s route”.

But the story I learned this morning was something I am astonished not to have known before — how the Kattegat got two sides. I had known, of course, that the southern provinces of Sweden, below the great forests of Småland, used to be Danish. Skåne still looks and sounds that way. But I assumed they had been conquered from the North, where the rest of Sweden is, and I had wondered, I suppose, why the war had stopped so close to Copenhagen.

In fact, Skåne is Swedish because of the Little Ice Age. When the Danes declared war on an over-extended Sweden in 1657, Charles X of Sweden had just finished a siege of Lwow, in the Western Ukraine. He marched back from Brecz to Warsaw, and then across Northern Germany to Hamburg, where he turned north up into Jutland. There he found himself an his armies trapped: the Danish Navy controlled the sea, and his enemies were approaching from the South.

[UPDATE] Wikipedia has an article which appears to be lifted, all but the last sentence, from the old Britannica. So far so good. However, where the Cambridge History has “Brecz” as the town from which he started, whicvh Google Maps seems to think is “Blecz” the Wiki/Britannica article has Bydgoczsz. Are these the same place? Will any devoted listener to Radio Marija come to my aid?

Charles X was rescued by the unusually terrible winter. On 30th of January he marched his entire army over the sea-ice to the island of Fyn, something so reckless it had been thought impossible. Two squadrons of cavalry went through the ice, along with his own carriage and that of the French ambassador (spare a thought for the ambassador, sent out to a court, and finding himself on a campaign of suicidal lunacy). But the rest of the army made it to the island and sacked it.

Still, Fyn is a small island, and he remained trapped there. So, starting on the fourth of February, he did it again, marching successively across the ice through all the smaller islands of the Belt. The one thing that everyone knows who lives in countries where lakes freeze in winter is that ice is dangerous over running water. The ice across which he led his army lay over the outflow of the Baltic to the North Sea, which has huge, deep currents that made building modern bridges dangerous and difficult. A thaw could have drowned the whole army. But the cold held. He arrived at the walls of Copenhagen to find the enemy suing for peace.

At the ensuing peace of Roskilde, Sweden won from Denmark the provinces of its south and West coasts: Halland, Blekinge, Skåne, Bohus (which the Cambridge History spells Båhus) and two mountainous provinces on the Norwegian border — Jämtland and Härjedalen — as well as the useful town of Trondheim, which soon revolted. Why not more? Because the Dutch and the British were determined to partition the Kattegat, so that no one country would control both shores, and be able to tax or choke off the Baltic trade at will. When Charles tried to grab the rest of Denmark later, it was the Dutch and British fleets who enforced the terms of Roskilde: he died, aged 37, in Gothenburg, preparing for a war on Norway.

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One Response to Lost history

  1. Nick says:

    I have a similar role reserved for C.V. Wedgwood’s ‘The Thirty Years War’, yes it’s old but it’s also one of the most beautifully written history books of the last hundred years or so. (although if you know any more, please say). English people just don’t seem to know anything about the period, Cromwell and his repercussions rather overshadows everything around then. I didn’t know much more than a paragraph sketch about it until my second year at university when I took a course on it by accident. And wow, it’s very, very interesting. Fine post and has inspired me to dig the Cambridge history out and sample another view.

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