Chapel Talk: Gustavus Adolphus Day
November 7, 2011
Today we remember Gustav II Adolf – king of Sweden from 1611-1632 and namesake of our college. Yesterday, November 6, marked the 379th anniversary of his death on a battlefield in Lützen, Germany during the Thirty Years’ War. Since his death, numerous individuals have created mythical images of this great king, invoking his name and his image to suit their own purposes. This was particularly evident in the nineteenth century, when November 6 became a day to celebrate his legacy as one of the great Swedish kings, as well as a day to celebrate the Swedish heritage. While he was regarded by his contemporaries as one of the great rulers of the seventeenth century, he was not a saint. As a historian, I feel we should understand his reign and his legacy, regardless of how great or how complicated it may be. All history, all individuals, are more nuanced and need to be looked at in depth.
Erik Gustav Geijer, a prominent Swedish nationalist stated, “The history of Sweden is the history of her kings.” (Roberts, 2) And in that respect, Gustav II Adolf is one of the most important of the Swedish monarchs. He expanded the borders of the Swedish empire (spreading Swedish influence and fame), he brought Sweden into the Thirty Years’ War to support the Protestant League, and he reinvigorated the Swedish educational system. Nineteenth century nationalists viewed Gustav II Adolf as emphasizing the potential of Swedes and their obligations to the world. (Kümmel, 46-47) These nationalists realized that Sweden’s military greatness was behind them, and instead focused on how Sweden could still be relevant to the world and what made them unique.
This perspective of Swedish history and of Gustav II Adolf was central to Swedish immigrants in Minnesota, too. In 1876, when our college relocated to St. Peter, the name Gustavus Adolphus College was chosen. On the occasion of the opening of our first college building (what we now refer to as Old Main), Eric Norelius, founder of this college echoed this sentiment when he proclaimed:
Gustavus Adolphus is a name that shines like a star of the first magnitude with a resplendent luster in the firmaments of the annals of the world, and its very sound has a particular charm in the ears of a true Swede – not only because he was a great and good king and hero of Sweden, but because his name is associated with the greatest and dearest interests of all mankind. In every part of the world, Gustavus is known as the great and successful defender of the Protestant religion, and of human freedom in general.
On the bloody field of Lutzen in Germany… this champion of truth, of freedom of thought and conscience, of constitutional liberty and civilization breathed out his precious life, but his work did not die with him. It still lives and triumphantly attests itself in the victories of Protestant Christianity, education, humanity, intelligence and true liberty. (Eric Norelius, Oct. 31, 1876)
Certainly these are profound qualities, and still seem to ring true for what we as a community value – excellence, faith, leadership, justice, and community. But as a historian, I must emphasize that the history of Gustav II Adolf is more complicated than the simple hagiographic image promoted by nineteenth century nationalists. They were looking to the past for heroic individuals that brought greatness to the Swedish nation. But through such a lens, they glossed over more nuanced perspectives, remembering Gustav II Adolf for many qualities that were not entirely true.
So who was Gustav II Adolf?
Gustav II Adolf was not a monarch who promoted constitutional liberty. While he took an oath at his coronation to consult with a council and to seek approval for any tax increases, he never felt obliged to follow this pledge. Like other rulers from the seventeenth century, he set the stage for an absolute monarchy – centralizing power and taking greater control over many aspects of government and society. He modernized the bureaucracy of Sweden, not to expand the liberty of his people, but to exert more power and resources he needed for his continued string of wars. While he increased the freedoms of peasants in Estonia, he was not motivated be pronouncements of individual liberty, but rather to weaken the nobility who were hostile to his reign.
He reformed the educational system in Sweden, which provided a more solid foundation of scholarship. In this respect, we can see the long-term benefits through Swedish scientists including Carl Von Linné and Anders Celsius. But we should also remember that he established the libraries of his universities by liberating books from the libraries of lands he conquered.
Much has been made of his role in transforming the military and leading his troops into battle – against Denmark, Poland, Russia, and perhaps most importantly in the Thirty Years’ War. He literally led his troops into battle, and died on the battlefield. While we tend to focus on the religious nature of the Thirty Years’ War as a battle between Protestants and Catholics, it was much more than that. Several historians point out that Gustav II Adolf’s motives were based on security and economic considerations, with religion playing only a minimal role.
The expansion of Swedish power to a vast empire is impressive. It required re-imagining military techniques, which revolutionized the battlefield. But he also lacked the financial resources to regularly pay his military. To receive their pay, the soldiers would pillage the lands they traversed. With the lack of resources, it also meant that the Swedish empire would inevitably end.
Gustav II Adolf’s legacy was shaped by his contemporaries; they approved the title of “The Great” shortly after his death. It was out of respect for his accomplishments, but also an attempt to increase and maintain the prestige of Sweden as a new player in European politics. In the nineteenth century his image was invoked again, as nationalists sought to assert their claims to greatness.
The point of all of this is not to diminish the importance of Gustav II Adolf, but rather to put forward a historically accurate picture. And I certainly do not argue that we should not celebrate this day. The celebration of November 6 is about more than Gustavus Adolphus. More than just a hagiographic celebration of Gustav II Adolf, it is also a celebration of Swedishness. While it began as a celebration grounded in nineteenth century nationalism, it can also have relevance for us. It is about celebrating the Swedish language and what it means to be a “Swede.”
Much like the history of Gustav II Adolf has changed over time, so has what it means to be a “Swede.” Sweden of today is quite different from the Sweden of the seventeenth or nineteenth centuries. Today, it is a society that values openness, equality, and peaceful engagement. It is a country of diversity, but also one that continues to struggle. It is not a perfect society, and it does not have a perfect and always glorious history.
So today we gather here to commemorate and remember Gustavus Adolphus, and the Swedish tradition. But in doing so, we do not need to be beholden to a nineteenth century view of history. We should be mindful of a more complete picture of history, and rather than selectively remember and recreate myths, celebrate the modern Swedish mentality and what we view are the legacies of our Swedish heritage. Our values and our traditions do not need to exactly correspond to those of our ancestors or our college namesake. As a society we hopefully evolve; we should not be beholden to the beliefs of earlier periods. Nor should we condemn the past for not valuing the same things we do.
More specifically, as we celebrate our Sesquicentennial, we should not try to assume the founders held the same perspectives that we hold. We can look to their motivations and value and respect the legacy that they left for us. But we also need to respect how we as a community have evolved, taking their foundation and building something vastly different than perhaps they could have ever imagined. The Sweden of today is vastly different from the Sweden of Gustav II Adolf’s day, and we as a college are vastly different from the college of Eric Norelius’ day.