Friday, September 21, 2018

The Mad King

“En kunglig tragedi” is a book in Swedish about one of Sweden's most unpopular kings, Gustav IV Adolf, who ruled from 1796 to 1809 (nominally he became king already in 1792). Gustav IV Adolf was the son and successor of Gustav III, one of Sweden's most popular and colorful kings, who was assassinated in 1792. In Swedish history books, Gustav IV is primarily associated with the disastrous war against Russia in 1808, when Sweden lost control of Finland – in effect, almost half of its territory. In 1809, Gustav IV Adolf was overthrown and forced into permanent exile. His progeny was forever barred from the Swedish throne. He died destitute in Switzerland in 1837. Ironically, however, the present king of Sweden is a descendant of Gustav IV…but also of his opponent Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, who became king of Sweden in 1818 under the name Karl XIV Johan!

Mats Wickman attempts to rehabilitate the disgraced monarch the best he can. Gustav IV Adolf was a modestly competent administrator who modernized Sweden on a number of important points. Agriculture was reformed and became more productive, British technology was introduced in some branches of industry, and the public schools abolished Latin in favor of French, German and natural sciences. Plans to build a canal from the Baltic Coast to the West Coast were developed – the king probably got them just a few days before he was overthrown! The king also undertook reforms in Swedish Pomerania, a German territory controlled by Sweden. Serfdom was abolished.

On most other points, however, Gustav IV Adolf wasn't particularly modern nor successful. He was even more absolutist than his father, saw himself in effect as a divinely-appointed ruler, and convened a Parliament only once. Freedom of speech was sharply curtailed, censorship reintroduced. The king's inflexible foreign policy, devoted to smashing Napoleon come what may, gave him a heroic reputation on the European continent, but was also the reason why Sweden lost Finland to Russia (at that time, an ally of Napoleon). Above all, Gustav IV Adolf had an intractable personality, marked by bouts of depression, constant mood swings, delusions of grandeur and an apparently quite sincere religious fanaticism. While the author never says so explicitly, I get the impression that the king might have suffered from Asperger's syndrome. Many of his personality traits seem to be “on the spectrum”: social ineptness, stiff walk, an inability to lie and dissimulate, a naïve belief that other people always told the truth, inflexibility to the point of obsession, a need to micro-manage everything, but also precocious learning.

After his removal from power, “Colonel Gustafsson” (as he now styled himself) must have suffered some kind of psychotic break. His behavior became erratic, and I think it's obvious that he had gone more or less completely mad. Moving from country to country, he pestered the local authorities with imaginary problems, lived at run-down hostels, visited prostitutes, and wrote bizarre letters to various rulers, who usually didn't answer. In his confusion, he developed sympathies for his erstwhile enemy Napoleon and wanted to undertake a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (all his associates were to dress in black). Sometimes he was seen restlessly wandering the woods with a bible in his hand, at other times his strange dress made the local children bully him. In response, Colonel Gustafsson wrote an indignant letter to the king of Holland, demanding that he punish the children! Later, in Belgium, he published a pamphlet about the Dutch king's refusal to do so…

Personally, I'm somewhat fascinated by Gustav IV's religious side. On the one hand, he was a strict Lutheran who guarded the doctrinal orthodoxy of the Church of Sweden against any forms of Enlightenment rationalism and Rosicrucian occultism. On the other hand, he wasn't really a confessional Lutheran at all, instead being drawn to the Moravian Brothers and the writings of Johann Heinrich Jung-Stilling, often described as a mystic. These appealed to his emotional (perhaps over-emotional) side. He was particularly impressed by Jung-Stilling's exegesis of the Book of Revelation. Gustav IV Adolf was convinced that Napoleon was none other than the Beast of Revelation. Regardless of what you may think of Bonaparte, this idea might not have been the best foundation for realistic statecraft, especially not for a relatively small nation like Sweden.

The story of Gustav IV Adolf is tragic. Even a better man could have failed during the stormy days of the Napoleonic Wars. There are rumors that Gustav IV wanted to abdicate long before 1809, and it would probably have been for the best if he had done so. Still, his domestic micro-management did put Sweden (and Pomerania) on the right track to modernization, so I suppose his time as king wasn't entirely wasted after all…

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