Norstedts, 2010. ISBN: 9789113024387
Reviewed by John Gilmour in SBR 2011:2
Omvälvningarnas tid accomplishes the fusion of military and political history that so many attempt and few succeed in doing. The vast panorama of events in the revolutionary and Napoleonic period is set out chronologically from a distinctly Swedish viewpoint without miring the reader in tempting distractions. Hårdstedt maintains a vital sense of time and place that complements rather than overwhelms the personalities whom he describes. And what a cast of characters! Napoleon’s presence pervades the period that changed the lives and destinies of millions in Europe while his opponents, some ideologically intractable such as Sweden’s ill-fated Gustav IV Adolf, and some malleable such as Russia’s Emperor, Alexander I, schemed and plotted to put the revolutionary Jack back in the Box. Hårdstedt reminds us that it took six international coalitions and twenty-three years to do so at the cost of four million lives. The experiences of ordinary individuals are blended with those of the powerful to provide the reader with contemporary insights of horror and fascination as the marauding military engulfed Europe. Hårdstedt dissects the manner in which the warfare acted as a catalyst for changes in the Nordic countries, and Sweden in particular. Against a backdrop of Gustavian dynastic insecurity, the kingship of Gustav IV Adolf was fatally damaged by his decision to enter Pomerania in 1805-7 against Napoleon with no clear national interest – ‘idealism overshadowed realism.’ His hatred of Napoleon, together with the disasters of the Finnish War in 1808-9, led directly to his removal and replacement. In a comment strikingly reminiscent of the Swedish dilemma in 1941, Hårdstedt notes that over a century earlier, ‘It was difficult for a second-rank power to face great power antagonism while simultaneously pursuing its own foreign policy goals with care, which was evident in the issues concerning Germany.’ As well as losing one dynasty and replacing it with another, Sweden emerged in 1815 without Finland, where its forces had been comprehensively routed by the Russians, and without Pomerania (a possession since 1648), but united to Norway, previously held by Denmark since 1380. Hårdstedt reminds us that the loss of Finland began the ‘long farewell’ still in evidence two hundred years later: in the Finnish elections of April 2011, the Swedish language remained a political issue. He also shows that the seeds of later Norwegian secession from Sweden were sown when effective separation from Denmark created physical hunger between 1803- 09, killing 21,400 in 1809. Meanwhile, nationalism was nurtured by the first local newspapers, a devolved military and a shift to Christiania as ‘unofficial capital.’ The 1814 Norwegian Eidsvoll constitution had radical roots in the 1791 French constitution and was forced on an unwilling Swedish monarch, who ironically had been a French citizen in 1791. Hårdstedt traces the revolutionary career of Jean Baptiste Bernadotte from his humble roots, through diplomacy, politics and military leadership to his metamorphosis in 1810 as Crown Prince of Sweden and later King Karl XIII Johan, a fortunate beneficiary of his brother-in-law Napoleon’s preferment, his innate talents and active planning by a group of nobles to block the return of the absolutist Gustavians. Despite harbouring a lingering personal ambition to return to the larger European stage, he astutely guided Sweden into finally accepting its diminished role and the reality of Russian hegemony to the east. In military terms, the changes were no less profound. Small, inflexible professional armies with aristocratic leadership, often motivated by money and glory, were set upon by conscripted French mass armies of ideologicallycharged citizens, fired by conviction and led by meritocratic Marshalls in the Napoleonic image, whose innovative tactics and formations time and again overcame their adversaries throughout Europe. Hårdstedt perceptively identifies the Achilles heel of the French forces as a carelessness in provisioning and logistics; not a problem in the rich agricultural areas of Italy but a serious weakness in the wastelands of Russia, where the Grande Armée perished in 1812 and along with it, Napoleon’s imperial edifice. Mass armies also required limitless funds and the period demonstrated cruelly to Sweden that economically smaller states simply could not match the funds consumed by active participation in mass army warfare. Omvälvningarnas tid contains a wealth of illustrations, including maps of contested territories and specific battles but some of the less significant pictures could usefully have been exchanged for additional maps. For example, a more detailed diagram of Wellington’s Spanish campaigns would have supplemented the barely adequate map of Iberia (p. 215) while the crude sketch of a Russian prison in Kaluga could have been omitted (p. 280). That said, this is a well-researched, first-class work that ranks Martin Hårdstedt with Anthony Beevor and Peter Englund in his ability to guide us through complex military and political situations while recognising the humanity of the protagonists.