Power struggles around the Baltic Sea

Excavations in the major Nordic Viking towns of Hedeby, also known as Haithabu (in Schleswig), and Birka (near Stockholm), and at other sites have revealed an extensive trade in the Viking Age from the Baltic region and further down towards the Black Sea along the many river systems. Novgorod in Russia occupied a central place in the Vikings’ trading network. From 1157, Finland was under the Swedish crown.

Cape Arkona was conquered in 1168 from the local Wendic tribes and the whole island of Rügen became a Danish fiefdom which was included in the dioceseofRoskildeuntil1325. During the reign of Valdemar the Conqueror in the thirteenth century, parts of current Estonia were subjected to the Danish crown. The capital was called Tallinn, which is derived from the Estonian words Taani Linn, meaning `Danish town’. The conquest was encouraged by the Catholic Church, which at the time was seeking to increase its power and influence eastwards. From the opposite side, the Slavic population was spreading the Greek/Russian Orthodox faith and for centuries the River Narva was the border between these two faiths. The River Narva runs from Lake Peipus northwards and flows into the Gulf of Finland. It was on the west bank of Lake Peipus in 1242 that the canonised Russian national hero Alexander Nevsky defeated the German knights.

From 1241, the Hanseatic League, and above all Lübeck, started to be an economic power in the region. It lasted for the next three hundred years. Visby on Gotland played a special role as a natural centre for the Baltic trade – Gotland was Danish from 1361 to 1645. Danzig (now the Polish town of Gdansk) later evolved into the centre for all trade in cereals in northern Europe, and the German knightly orders and the Hanseatic League were firmly in the driving seat in this part of the economy. The power of the orders of knights began to wane in the 1550s as a result of the Reformation.

The Danish King Frederik II restored the Danish presence in Estonia in 1559 when he bought the diocese, which included Saaremaa and Hiiumaa. Near the mouth of the River Narva lie two towns: Estonian Narva on the west side and Russian Ivangorod on the east. There is a fort belonging to each settlement. Danes, Swedes, Poles and Russians have fought in this area throughout the centuries for land, trade and ports. Narva was founded in 1222 by Valdemar the Conqueror and remained in Danish hands until Valdemar IV Atterdag’s sale of Estonia to the Teutonic Order in 1346. Among the Estonian regions, the island of Saaremaa remained in Danish hands the longest – right up to the Peace of Brömsebro in 1645.

Sound dues and power relationships in the Baltic Sea

From 1429, the Danish king extracted `Sound dues’ from ships that passed Kronborgat Elsinore (Helsingor).Almost all transportation of large amounts of goods over longer distances took place by ship. As maritime and trading nations, the Netherlands and England were very interested in the significant trade in the area. This gave rise to the classic problems of power and rights. Those coastal states which were strong enough wanted to enforce a principle of mare clausum, ie a closed sea, where only the coastal states were involved in the trading. The weaker powers and the intruders wanted a mare liberum, a free sea where trading was open to all. This battle for dominance of the Baltic Sea affected Danish and Swedish foreign policy and the Latin name was often used: Dominum Maris Baltici. It led to wars for hundreds of years and the Netherlands and England, in particular, used their naval power to support a policy in favour of the weak powers in the Baltic Sea. The aim was to ensure that no single nation got total dominion over the coastal reaches in the straits. The wars between Sweden and Denmark were mainly about trading rights in the Baltic Sea and all rights were based on the power that each state could put behind its demands.

Poland and Lithuania

From 1386 right up to Poland’s dissolution in 1795, Poland and Lithuania were united and at times the two countries formed a strong polity. Formally, it was the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a union in which Poland was the dominant partner. The Teutonic knightly orders were kept in check by the Polish king, who defeated them at Tannenberg in 1410; Moscow was captured and was under the domination of the union from 1610 to 1612 – the nation stretched all the way to the shores of the Black Sea at certain periods.

The Swedish wars

From about 1560 until 1660, Sweden carried out a dramatic expansion of its territories and consolidated its power in what are now Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Denmark and Norway. A large part of the Baltic coast thus fell into Swedish hands. The Swedish army was partly financed by export earnings from iron and arms. Generally speaking, the Swedish armies were very strong, but the Swedish navy was sometimes poorly led and in a worse shape than the Danish. In 1644, the Danish navy was almost wiped out by a Swedish-Dutch fleet and the subsequent Peace of Brömsebro was the beginning of the collapse of Denmark’s foreign policy. When the next war broke out, the King of Sweden came from Torun, in what is now Poland. He gathered together some scattered Swedish forces and immediately marched west. A strong Danish-Norwegian fleet could usually maintain the security of the Danish islands, but not Jutland and Scania, and when in 1658 Danish territorial waters became ice-bound, the Swedish army crossed the ice and thereby won the war. In this way, Denmark lost the provinces of Scania, Halland and Blekinge in southern Sweden, all of which had constituted an integral part of Denmark since the Viking age. The Swedish wars were very much about the right to maritime trade. Shipping paid Sound dues to the Danish king. During the Scanian War of 1675-1679, the Danish-Norwegian navy transported a large army over to Scania, but it was defeated.

Russia becomes a Baltic power

In 1558, Russia fought her way out to Narva and started trading from there. The Swedes captured Narva in 1581 and forced the Russians back from the Baltic Sea again. One of the reasons for the Great Northern War from 1700 to 1720 was a Russian desire to regain access to the Baltic Sea and thereby to the extensive trade in the area. During this war, Sweden was crushed as a great power. Because of the intervention of the great powers, Denmark did not get its lost lands back, despite a renewed attempt at reconquering Scania. Russia captured the River Neva estuary in 1703. The Baltic states were incorporated into the Tsarist Empire in 1721 and from this year, Russia became a significant power in the Baltic Sea.

The Napoleonic wars

The Napoleonic wars also reached the Baltic region. In 1801, Britain had prepared a punitive action against the second League of Armed Neutrality. This consisted of the three naval powers of Russia, Sweden and Denmark, which, thanks to a joint convoy system, were earning enormous sums trading with everyone, including the warring parties. The action against Sweden and Russia was called off after the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, when it became known that the Russian Tsar Paul I had just been murdered.

The siege of Copenhagen and the subsequent bombardment in 1807 was due to British demands for the surrender of the Danish-Norwegian fleet, together with the merchant fleet, both of which Britain did not want to fall into Napoleon’s hands, as this would pose a significant threat to Britain, particularly of French invasion across the English Channel. The subsequent gunboat war in Danish and Norwegian waters was a series of pinprick operations directed against Royal Navy and commercial ships. Britain had to obtain imports of hemp, mast poles, timber and much more from the Baltic ports to maintain the Royal Navy, as well as her merchant ships, and it was too expensive and too dangerous to sail around the North Cape and obtain the goods in Arkhangelsk. But the Danish-Norwegian resistance did not have any significant impact on Britain, whose fleet sailed in and out of the Baltic Sea with large convoys. The Royal Navy was simply too strong.

In 1809, Sweden had to cede Finland, which then became a Grand Duchy with the Russian tsar as Grand Duke. At the conclusion of peace in 1814, Sweden got Norway as compensation for the loss of Finland.

The Schleswig Wars and the Crimean War

Prussia and Denmark fought two wars over the duchy of Schleswig-Holstein (Slesvig-Holsten). The end of the First Schleswig War from 1848 to 1850 was not brought about by the action of the Danish army and navy – Russian diplomatic pressure, supported by a strong Russian Baltic Fleet, persuaded Prussia to end the war.

The Crimean War (1853-1856) took a small detour to the Baltic Sea, when British and French naval forces bombarded the Russian forts at Bomarsund on Åland and in Helsinki. This event revealed Denmark’s impotence: two major naval powers just sailed through the Danish straits and did what they pleased. It was the direct reason for the United States demanding the abolition of the Sound dues. They were lifted in 1857 after an international conference.

During the Second Schleswig War in 1864, Prussia only had a modest fleet, and therefore the Austrian fleet in the Adriatic was called in to provide assistance. At the Battle of Heligoland on 9 May 1864, the force was turned back by a Danish squadron under Orlogskaptajn Edouard Suensson before it came into the Baltic Sea, but this war was lost on the ground to an army against which the Danish forces were powerless. From the Danish point of view, the naval victory was the only bright spot of the war, but irrelevant when peace terms were dictated.

Germany rearms at sea

In the late nineteenth century, Germany began a naval rearmament which was primarily directed against Britain and France. It was also intended to support Germany’s ambitions for empire and its growing number of colonies in China, the Pacific Islands and Africa.

Russia and its fleets

In relation to Russia, the Baltic Sea should not be seen in isolation, but also considered in conjunction with the country’s ambitions in other maritime areas. The Russian tsars sought for years to get access to the oceans. Russia started as a small city-state around the city of Moscow and was expanded gradually and very slowly during centuries of struggle against diverse invading forces, such as the Mongols, the Teutonic orders of knighthood, Swedes, Turks, Lithuanians and Poles. From 1555, it was possible to establish maritime trade with English merchants from Arkhangelsk via the tsar’s newly established Muscovy Company, but the area was not inviting for either industry or traffic on a large scale. Peter the Great’s victories over Sweden gave Russia access to the sea in the Baltic. In 1703, Peter founded the new city of St Petersburg on the estuary of the River Neva, which became the country’s capital as early as 1712. From here, Russia had access to conduct maritime trade in the ice-free periods from May to December. English merchants could now buy their Russian goods via St Petersburg and avoid the expensive and dangerous voyage up to the Barents Sea.

The two oldest Russian fleets are the Baltic Fleet and the Black Sea Fleet, which originated during Peter the Great’s reign. The Pacific Fleet was established in 1860, but after the defeat by the Japanese in 1905, it was not re- established until 1932. In the northern area, a naval force was established in 1916 that could co-operate with the Allied transports. In 1933, it received the status of a flotilla and in 1937 of an independent fleet, the Northern Fleet. At the outbreak of war in 1941, a modest number of submarines and destroyers were based here.

The outcome of the Russo-Japanese War 1904/1905 was a disaster for Russia and its population and it contributed to both the February and the October revolutions in St Petersburg in 1917. 3 The human sacrifices and the economic consequences were both enormous. When the Pacific Fleet was defeated by the Japanese fleet, the entire Baltic Fleet was sent to Vladivostok and Port Arthur. It was a relocation which took more than seven months, as most units had to sail south of Africa. In the end, the naval force was destroyed by an inferior, but ably-led, Japanese naval force in the Battle of Tsushima Strait in May 1905. After 1905, Russia thus had no Baltic Fleet, and there were therefore no forces available to protect St Petersburg.

Russian analyses in 1909 concluded that an attack on the capital would naturally come by sea. Following a major commission, work was begun in 1914 on the Peter the Great naval fortress in what is now Finland and Estonia. The plans also included sketches for a small fleet. In this way, according to the plan, it would be possible – with limited use of warships – to hold an invading enemy at a distance from St Petersburg simply by fortifying the entire entrance to the Gulf of Finland. Twenty-five forts were built on the Finnish side and seventeen on the Estonian side, where the artillery had a calibre of between 2in/57mm and 14in/355mm. In 1912, the Russian State Duma adopted a long- term building programme which should have lasted over eighteen years. Twenty-four battleships, twelve battlecruisers, twenty-four light cruisers, 108 destroyers and thirty-six large submarines were to be built.

The Baltic Sea during and after the First World War

When the First World War broke out, the German navy got its best ships ready for the battle against the Royal Navy, while they could make do with the older and outdated vessels against the Russians. To relieve the Russians, but also to put maximum pressure on the German economy, industry and fleet, the Royal Navy from 1915 onwards sent a number of submarines in through the Sound to the Baltic Sea. These submarines were supported at Russian bases.

Russian military participation slowly ground to a standstill because of domestic social upheavals near the end of the war. The Germans made a very large and successful landing in October 1917, when a landing force of 23,000men captured Saaremaa and the nearby island of Muhu. The Germans actually won the war on the Eastern Front, partly because of Lenin’s seizure of power in Russia one month later, but the outcome of the war was decided on the Western Front where the Germans lost during 1918. With the end of the war and the Russian Revolution, a special situation arose in the Baltic region. Two of the losers from the First World War were no longer strong naval powers. As losers, they came together in co-operation during the following decade.

In Sweden, German naval rearmament leading up to the First World War had been followed with some concern, because this development had reduced Sweden to a secondary power. Russia had been Sweden’s natural enemy for centuries and, with the revolution and Russia in chaos, this threat was suddenly eliminated. Sweden could therefore save on military spending after the First World War and went towards apparently problem-free times in the 1920s and 1930s.

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