Peter Englund’s book The Battle that Shook Europe: Poltava and the Birth of the Russian Empire is an account of the Swedish military defeat, and its circumstances, and its significance in paving the way for the birth of Imperial Russia. Unlike other historical accounts of similar battles, he does not just talk about issues considered superficial, for example, opposing armies and their generals. He at least attempts to draw the connection between the cause of the “Great Northern War of 1700-1721” (Englund 11) and its significance, not only for Sweden, but also for the difference between East (i. e. Russia) and West (i. e. Western Europe and North America).
Englund starts the story with an example of the concept of “deus ex machina,” Latin for divine intervention, a concept discussed earlier in this course. In other words, the role of a higher power in, in this case, military victory. One early example of divine intervention is when the Roman legions under Emperor Constantine painted crosses on their shields before heading to the battle of Milvian Bridge, which they won. Constantine eventually attributed that victory to him sending a prayer beforehand. This happens to be one explanation for the repeated Swedish military victories in the early 1700s (1700-1710), despite being greatly outnumbered by the enemy, up to 4:1 in some cases, as the Swedish army relied on “strict church discipline” (23), with prayers twice a day and services every Sunday and Holy Day. However, as a Swede, he became a little subjective in placing the Swedish soldier “in a Christian armour” (Englund 25), however, Constantine employed a similar tactic with his legions at Milvian Bridge (see above).
Another aspect examined is the background surrounding the war—as it turns out, it eventually has to do with commerce. Unlike other military accounts, Englund discusses the origins of the Swedish Empire as a result of the collapse of an earlier empire, the Order of the Teutonic Knights, and the subsequent power vacuum in the Baltic Sea (Englund 29). Effectively, the Baltic Sea zone was up for grabs. The key countries to attempt to fill in the gap were Poland, Sweden, Denmark, and Russia, each of which controlled various portions of the sea zone at one time or another.
Unlike other history books, this reads more like a novel than a standard military history. Englund makes this possible by avoiding all footnotes in the text, and instead saves all comments for the end of the book.
Englund, Peter. The Battle that Shook Europe: Poltava and the Birth of the Russian Empire. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2002.