Migrant, officer and traitor to the motherland: The death sentence against Fredrich Sahlgård and perceptions of national belonging in Sweden during the Great Northern War
In September 1717, the Danish officer Fredrich Sahlgård faced a Swedish court martial accused of treason. During his trial, defining Sahglård’s nationality became a focal question. Sahlgård was born in Sweden but had moved to Norway as a child, and the defendant therefore claimed that he could not be considered a Swedish subject. His judges, however, argued that Sahlgård was a Swedish subject by birth and therefore bound by both God and nature to protect his native land. On the basis of this argument the court found Sahlgård guilty and sentenced him to death. A few days later he was executed.
This court martial trial from the Great Northern War reveals the limitations of studying perceptions of national identity through normative sources. Analyses of national identity in early modern Sweden have primarily focused on ideas of Swedishness communicated by state propaganda and elite discourse. Several scholars have claimed that contemporary perceptions of loyalty were strongly centred on the person of the monarch and expressed by the politically potent term ”fatherland” (Sw. fädernesland). These sources tell us little about the practical application of notions of nationality, however. During Sahlgård’s trial the military court defined Swedishness in a way that not only ran counter to, but expressly rejected, contemporary norms. The judges rejected the foundations of natural law, despite its status as contemporary legal dogma, and formulated an essentialist definition of nationality,based around the concept of ”motherland” (sw. fosterland) – completely disregarding the royal propaganda.
On the one hand, the case study suggests that the intense military mobilization in early 18th-century Sweden had a significant impact on perceptions of national identity within the Swedish army. The arguments of the court diverge from both contemporary Swedish and European norms identified by previous research. On the other hand, the study questions the role played by national identity in the trial. Sahlgård was sentenced to death for being a Swede serving in the Danish Army, but notions of oaths and rank seem to have been just as important in defining bonds of loyalty as definitions of nationality – if not more so.