On 30 November 2018, in the Kungsträdgården park in Stockholm, neo-Nazis from the Nordic Youth group marched towards the statue of a long-dead king. The stated objective of the group was to ‘re-civilize the West’ and to resist the ‘levelling of all cultures’ — messages that have been shouted from beneath this statue, on this day of the year, for generations. Fighting promptly broke out between Nordic Youth supporters and counter-demonstrators, leading to two arrests.
The statue beside which this drama played out is of Charles XII, king of Sweden from 1697 until his death on 30 November 1718. He was the last to rule over the country during its ‘age of greatness,’ when Sweden briefly ranked among the most powerful nations in Europe. Although Charles does not feature very highly in the day-to-day consciousness of most modern Swedes, his military campaigns against Denmark, Poland and Russia still fascinate audiences through best-selling books and, more recently, video games. In 2012 he was even immortalised in four songs by the Swedish metal band Sabaton.
For well over a century, however, Charles' legacy has also been closely associated with royalist, ultra-nationalist, and racist movements — including the Swedish Nazis in the 1930s. Throughout the twentieth century, 30 November was regularly marked by press reports of nationalist rallies, often leading to violence. A gathering in 2007 ended in similar fashion.
What drives this obsession? Why has Charles XII, out of all the militaristic kings in Swedish history, been adopted as a darling of the far-right? The answer lies largely in the fact that, as the leader of a besieged nation surrounded by larger opponents, his circumstances are broadly similar to an ultra-nationalist interpretation of modern Sweden. By dying in defiance against the fate of a doomed empire, Charles XII became a convenient martyr for nationalism.
The most common narrative strung by ultra-nationalist leaders is that of a struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds. The most obvious example is Adolf Hitler and his conspiracies about global Jewish dominance. Today, white nationalists across Europe emphasise a perceived attack from Islam and immigration, which, they argue, pose an existential threat to their cultures and traditions. For his modern admirers, the threats faced by Charles's XII are largely analogous in scope.
When Sweden gained its independence from Denmark in 1523, it was a marginal and inconsequential nation with a population of perhaps 1 million. France, by comparison, was fast approaching 20 million, and Russia 10 million. Over the following two centuries, however, Sweden began to exert international power far beyond its demographic or economic stature, enabled by an advanced military establishment. At its height, the Swedish empire played a pivotal role in the Thirty Years War (1618–1648) and possessed a sprawling expanse of territory including modern Estonia and Latvia, parts of northern Germany, and small colonies in America.
The reasons for this expansion have been subject to debate. The most common answer is that Sweden feared encirclement by its larger neighbours — Denmark to the west, Poland to the south, Russia to the east — and felt compelled to fight for its survival. But there was also a racial and cultural aspect to this underdog mentality. As the denizens of an upstart nation, members of Sweden’s small educated class set about tracing a fanciful genealogy for their people which connected them directly with the sons of Noah. The message was that the Swedes, though marginal at the time, had a rightful place among the first rank of nations.
Whatever the reasons for its imperial expansion, Sweden’s power was already on a downward trajectory by the time Charles XII ascended to the throne in 1697. Denmark, Poland and Russia — all having suffered numerous defeats at Swedish hands — launched a joint attack on Sweden in 1700. The Great Northern War, as it is known, would prove to be the final act in Sweden’s imperial career.
Charles XII was just fifteen years old when he became king. As a boy, he had shown great intellectual promise under the attentive eyes of his tutors, but his principal interests turned out to be military. He would assiduously partake in mock battles and drills, and as king would insist on wearing military uniform, eating and living simply, and personally leading his armies. Like many European monarchs of this time, he cultivated the image of a warrior-king. Hagiographers would later list ‘precocious manliness’ and ‘manly gravity’ among his most striking features.
At the outbreak of the Great Northern War, Charles remarked: ‘I have resolved never to begin an unrighteous war; but I have also resolved never to finish a righteous war till I have utterly crushed my enemies.’ He duly began a remarkable spree of military victories: he besieged Copenhagen, defeated a much larger Russian army in Estonia, marched through Poland (installing a friendly king in the process), and invaded Saxony. His next campaign, however, was less well-fated. Marching through Russia in the biting winter of 1708–9, the Swedes were crushed at Poltava by a rejuvenated Russian army under Peter the Great.
After a period of exile in the Ottoman Empire, during which he tried and failed to provoke a sustained Russo-Ottoman war, Charles led an invasion of Danish-controlled Norway in 1714. He was ultimately killed during the siege of Fredriksten on 30 November 1718. The Treaty of Nystad in 1721 brought the Great Northern War, and with it the ‘age of greatness,’ to an end.
Charles XII’s campaigns brought the Swedish economy to the brink of disaster — the country was in severe debt, and its population began to shrink. But many commentators, far from criticising the social impact of his wars, have praised instead the spirit of national sacrifice displayed by Swedish peasants. In 1895, for instance, the admiring historian Robert Nisbet Bain enthused:
Wonderful, indeed, was the dogged endurance and the persistent dutifulness of the bulk of the Swedish peasantry during the trials of Charles’s later years: to posterity it seems almost superhuman. Even the splendid valour of the Swedish soldier in the field was as nothing compared with the heroic endeavour of the Swedish yeoman at home to respond to the endless and ever increasing demands made upon him by the Government.
This dynamic lies at the core of Charles' contemporary appeal: the Great Northern War can be packaged as a national struggle, and the king as the leader of a do-or-die collective effort of self-preservation. For a country which is now known internationally as a non-combative, welfare-oriented society with a liberal approach to migration, Charles XII represents an historical lodestone around which the far-right, who see these qualities as self-destructive, can build a very different, more assertive, and ultimately race-based identity.
It is impossible, however, to draw a direct line between the ideology of Charles XII and the ideology of some of his admirers 300 years later. The real Charles was complex. He was indeed a militaristic man, but ‘nationalism’ in its current form would have been utterly incomprehensible to him, as it would be to anyone in the eighteenth century.
In any case, while there are many aspects of Charles' life and character that are appealing to ultra-nationalists, there is one aspect above all which makes him a curious choice of hero: that he, like his idolaters, and like so many far-right heroes, found himself on the wrong side of history. Try though he did to preserve his endangered empire, his efforts were not only unsuccessful, but inflicted a period of extraordinary pain on the Swedish people. These two features — an indifference to suffering and a fatalistic commitment to a dying cause — are inextricably ingrained within far-right ideologies. It should come as no surprise that their historical heroes tend to be callous failures.