The Northern Wars. War, State and Society in Northeastern Europe, 1558-1721 Modern Wars in Perspective
Robert I Frost
Harlow, Longman, 2000; 414pp.
University of Copenhagen
Date accessed: 11 February, 2016
Sweden, Prussia, and Russia. Three great powers were forged in the fire of the Northern Wars. The military monarchies fed on weaker neighbours where such existed. In the sixteenth century, Poland-Lithuania, Brandenburg and Sweden carved up the small Baltic empire left by the crusading knights of the Teutonic Order. In the eighteenth century, the neighbours devoured the mighty commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania, the largest state ever to disappear from the map of Europe. The partitions of Poland lie beyond the scope of this book, but represent the logical conclusions to a development which started in the second half of the seventeenth century.
These wars transformed the Nordic-Baltic region into the most heavily militarised part of early modern Europe. Louis XIV amazed his age by waging war with an army of 400,000, supported by twenty million French. But his contemporaries, Charles XII of Sweden and Frederic IV of Denmark, fielded more than 100,000 soldiers each from populations of about 2.5 million. Their navies were also relatively larger than those of most other states. It is no wonder that the Nordic-Baltic region pioneered bureaucratisation, centralisation, and state regulation of civil society during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Therefore, the Northern wars are of great importance for anybody interested in the processes of European state formation, the development of the European state system, or those changes in the ways of war which are often labelled 'The Military Revolution'.
There exists a large amount of historical research in the languages of the region. So little is available in English, however, that the book under review wisely does not contain any guide to further reading, only a 20-page select bibliography. So this is a welcome addition to the minimal literature in English on the history of northeastern Europe. It is also rewarding for those of us who read some, but not all, of the relevant languages. There is indeed, as it is stated in the introduction, a shortage of synthetic treatments in any language. There is also, it may be added, a shortage of modern treatment of military history in most of the national languages. Most of the extensive literature is quite old, and much of the rest is old-fashioned.
What were the Northern Wars according to Robert Frost? The term is not used in a consistent manner in previous research. It is, indeed, not a very well established term at all. Here it is used as a label for the conflicts between Sweden, Russia and Poland between the Livonian War 1558-1583 and the Great Northern War 1700-1721, with their extensive ramifications. This is almost identical with the division championed by Klaus Zernack back in 1974. This means that this is the story of the rise and fall of Sweden as a great power, of the culmination and beginning decline of Poland-Lithuania, and the first steps of Russia and Prussia towards great power status. As military history the focus is on the battles over Estonia and Livonia, but the contemporary wars between the Scandinavian kingdoms are not neglected.
The chronological delimitation functions well, especially at the end. The Swedish-Russian and Swedish-Prussian wars during the eighteenth century were indeed very different from the wars of the previous centuries. At the beginning, however, it is less clear why the Russian-Swedish war of 1554-57 does not belong together with the Russian-Swedish-Polish war starting 1558. The geographical boundaries are more problematic. It works fine to treat the Danish-Swedish wars as a kind of side-show - even if this side-show had its own roots in the breakdown of the medieval Nordic union, and the fighting was on a scale equal to that on the main theatre. It functions surprisingly well too, to deal with the Swedish participation in the Thirty Years' War in a summary fashion. What you miss in the book is a fuller treatment of that state which began as the electorate of Brandenburg and ended as the kingdom of Prussia. It is not completely neglected, of course; Brandenburg-Prussia was after all a full participant in most of the Northern Wars. But it is not dealt with so extensively as the other major participants. This is a pity. The comparative analysis of the interlocking changes of society and war-making would have gained from a fuller discussion of the Prussian case, especially as Prussia became more important as a paradigm for the states of Europe than any other of the military monarchies which were shaped by the Northern Wars.
A central thesis of the book is concerned with the "backwardness" of Eastern Europe. It is asserted that there was no ignorance of western European military developments. Most traits which western historians have interpreted as evidence of incompetence or military conservatism - notably the extensive use of cavalry - were instead adaptations to the local strategic and logistic requirements. The famous Polish hussars, for example, were not medieval knights with a new label, but were a new type developed during the sixteenth century to deal with the new infantry, which they did with great effect. The military failure of the Polish commonwealth from the middle of the seventeenth century onwards was caused by the insufficient size of its armies. Not by their quality, and even less by their tactical composition. The roots of the problem were political and connected with the structure and mental world of Polish noble society. They were not military in a strict sense. Generally, the will and the ability to modernise were essential in the Northern Wars, but appropriate modernisation was not identical with westernization - or following any other set pattern - and westernization was not always followed by success in the field. At a few occasions this line of argument is pressed a little too hard, tending towards an apology for (especially) Polish arrangements. On the whole, however, I find that the arguments in favour of the thesis are strong. The book presents a step towards a much more sophisticated - rather than an alternative - view of the developments labelled 'the military revolution'.
It is impressive how well the author uses a remarkable amount of historical literature written in an even more remarkable number of languages. Where I am able to judge (Scandinavian languages, German) the account we get here is very accurate, very up to date, and makes use of essentially every important work, old and new, and judging from the notes and the bibliography, relevant research written in Polish, Russian, Lithuanian etc. is also included. It is possible to find errors. Sweden was not exempted from the Sound Dues in 1645 (but exemption was extended to the new Swedish provinces), and Landskrone may be spelled Landskrona, but never with an Umlaut. Errors are very few, however, compared with almost any work in English on Scandinavian history which I have read. I do sometimes disagree with this account within my field of expertise, but in most cases because I do not agree with other Scandinavian scholars, whose works have been used as a basis. It is difficult to blame a foreign author for that. So I recommend this book, which treats an unusual subject in a highly qualified manner.
Writing a synthetic account of the history of four states is quite the most terrifying thing I have ever done. As soon as the manuscript is delivered, platoons of experts begin to haunt one's dreams, accusing fingers extended; as soon as the book emerges from the press, all one can spot are errors. I'm sure Gunner Lind is being kind; if one errant umlaut and a mistake in the terms of one peace treaty are all he has spotted, I am delighted. Alas, I am aware there are more, which others will no doubt uncover and I feel duty-bound to point out one howler that occurs right in the middle of my main field of expertise, clearly provoked by unwarranted complacency at proof-reading stage: the Treaty of Hadiach with the rebel Ukrainian Cossacks was not rejected by the Polish-Lithuanian Sejm in 1659, although it is true that it never came into effect.
With regard to more serious matters, Dr Lind has unerringly pointed to several important issues over which I agonised before making up my mind. I am delighted he has done so, for they give me an opportunity to explain why I wrote the book in the way I did. Let me begin with Prussia. I admit that, in comparison with the analyses of Denmark, Sweden, Poland-Lithuania and Russia, the section on Prussia is sketchy; moreover, it repeats a well-worn tale which others have told better. Nevertheless, while I could not completely ignore Prussia, which did play an important role in the Northern Wars, I examined it less comprehensively than the other participants because I believe that while the Kingdom of Prussia was undoubtedly one of the main beneficiaries of the Northern Wars, it was not essentially 'forged in the fire of the Northern Wars' as Dr Lind claims. Compared with the other powers, Brandenburg-Prussia fought only sporadically: it played no significant military role in the sixteenth-century wars; it was more an anxious observer than a combatant in the Polish-Swedish wars of the 1620s, and although it was a major participant in the Second Northern War between 1656 and 1660 and fought Sweden in 1676-9, it only entered the Great Northern War after Poltava, in another demonstration of the remarkable Hohenzollern talent - one not inherited by Kaiser Bill - for joining the winning side in time to enjoy a share of the spoils. The Prussian army was undoubtedly a useful instrument by 1700, but its development was as much, if not more, determined by Brandenburg-Prussia's involvement in the wars of western Europe in the age of Louis XIV, rather than its participation in the Northern Wars. Finally, if the development of the Swedish army was completed by Gustav Adolf and Charles XI, and that of the Russia army by Peter I, it was not until the age of Frederick II that the Prussian Military Revolution was complete. Influenced by Peter Wilson's brilliant recent article in German History volume 18 (2000) on social militarisation, I would argue that while the Northern Wars incontestably played an important role, it is better to see the rise of the Prussian army in the context of general German military development after the 1635 Peace of Prague. The emergent Prussian military state was heavily influenced by the Northern Wars; it was not forged by them.
As Dr Lind rightly observes, questions of taxonomy are distinctly problematic. I confess to long and painful deliberation over the various conflicting traditions of nomenclature. In the end, I felt that Klaus Zernack's modification of the Polish tradition was the most convincing. I did not include the Swedish-Muscovite war of 1554-7, since I believe that it was more of an isolated sideshow than an integral part of the wars. Muscovy was still primarily committed to the southern frontier, where Astrakhan did not fall until 1556, and the Northern Wars were really begun by the unexpected collapse of Livonian resistance to the Muscovite attacks in 1558-61 and Muscovy's failure to secure its conquests. If Livonian resistance had been stouter, I suspect that the war of 1554-7 would have remained a brief curiosity demonstrating the difficulty of fighting along the Finnish-Muscovite border. Nevertheless, if future historians more expert than I wish to push the starting-date of the Northern Wars back to 1554, I would not be too concerned.
I hope that I do not treat the Danish-Swedish wars as a sideshow; I certainly did not regard them as such. There are separate sections on the Nordic Seven Years War and the Scanian War, and I accept fully Dr Lind's contention that the fighting was on a scale that matched other fronts. If I did not deal at length with the roots of the Danish-Swedish wars in the breakdown of the Kalmar Union, this was because I was not primarily interested in origins, but impact: there is a similarly sketchy account of the background to the wars between Muscovy and Poland-Lithuania. Moreover, it remains true that if the Danish-Swedish wars were certainly as intense as those on other fronts, they were briefer: the Kalmar War and Torstensson's War each lasted two years; Denmark's participation in the Second Northern War was limited to three, and it was hustled unceremoniously out of the Great Northern War almost before it began, although, like Prussia, it joined the pack of states seeking to dismember the Swedish Empire after Poltava, and this time managed to last more than three years. The book was never intended to be a narrative account of the wars - something which would have been twice as long and would have bored most readers (and me) to death - and I had to concentrate on the main conflicts. Thus, while I certainly devote much space to the impact of war on Denmark-Norway, I examine more fully the triangular conflicts between Sweden, Poland-Lithuania and Muscovy which, I confess, I do believe lay at the heart of the Northern Wars.
With regard to the backwardness thesis, I'm not sure I say that there was no ignorance of western military developments. I certainly argue that many Poles in particular were well aware of the main features of western military development - the Muscovites perhaps less so in the sixteenth century. My main concern was to suggest that western methods did not necessarily work in the east, and that the condescension of generations of western military historians is unwarranted. I am happy to admit that not all of my ideas would necessarily be shared by Polish military historians, but I did try hard to avoid the impression that I was merely mounting an apologia for Polish arrangements. I spend much time indicating the problems of the Polish military system, and explaining why it was unable ultimately to compete; if, on occasion, I overstate my case, I felt it necessary to mount a strong argument, since the prevailing consensus is so strong and there are enough dogmatic statements in the general literature which are based on supposition and sheer ignorance. Sometimes one has to shout to be heard. With regard to individual points at which I may have pressed too hard, I shall be delighted to justify my arguments.
In conclusion, I should thank Gunner Lind for such a careful and thoughtful review. My main concern in writing the book was to provide an accessible account; I was also determined to keep it down to 150,000 words. Thus there was much that had - reluctantly - to be cut out and I am steeling myself in particular for broadsides from naval historians for my relative neglect of the war at sea, but Jan Glete has recently covered such matters with far more expertise than I can muster, and has had the good grace to publish his findings in English. I hope that my book will encourage study of aspects of the conflicts I was able to cover, and I shall be quite happy if experts wish to test my hypotheses and challenge my arguments: as Dr Lind points out, much of the available literature is out of date. While I have a great deal of respect for the nineteenth- and early-twentieth century historiography on which, so often, I was forced to rely, many of these wars require fundamental and far-reaching reconsideration. I hope that I have demonstrated that they are important enough to warrant it.