From Warfare to Welfare State Sweden's Search for a New Identity

By Barton, H. Arnold | Scandinavian Studies, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

From Warfare to Welfare State Sweden's Search for a New Identity


Barton, H. Arnold, Scandinavian Studies


IT IS OFTEN SAID that national feeling in Sweden is relatively weak compared with that of its Nordic neighbors, Norway, Finland, Iceland, and even Denmark. The Russian-born Uppsala historian Alexander Kan has made this point by comparing the exuberant celebration of national holidays in Norway and Finland with the "practically inconspicuous" observance of such holidays in Sweden and Denmark (Kan 215; see also Engman, "Commentary" 246). This evident lack of patriotic fervor did not fail to arouse much indignant criticism in Sweden, particularly around the turn of the last century when the nation faced what seemed serious threats from the conflict with Norway over its status within the Dual Monarchy, from emigration and from the internationalist Social Democratic and labor movements.

The poet Verner von Heidenstam deplored in 1896 his countrymen's excessive modesty in admiring all things foreign while attaching little value to what was their own. Swedish literature, he complained, was filled with self-criticism, which was always warmly received. Such self-doubt, appealing as it may appear, was to Heidenstam a sure sign of decline. According to Gustaf Sundbarg in 1911, nationalism, the great intellectual current of the nineteenth century, had passed Sweden by, just as Italy had been bypassed by the great sixteenth-century Reformation. Idealism in Sweden was characteristically cosmopolitan, he held, rather than national in orientation, so that there one need be no more idealistic than to become a vegetarian--to forget that one had a fatherland. In contrast,

   Norges historia gentemot Sverige under 1800-talet dr historien om
   ett folk uppfylldt arden kraftigaste nationalanda, gentemot ett folk
   i afsaknad af all nationell instinkt.... Heir ligger den fornamsta
   forklaringen till Norges styrka under hela derma tid, och till
   Sveriges svaghet. (73)

   (Norway's history, as compared with Sweden's during the nineteenth
   century, is the history of a people filled with the most powerful
   national spirit, in contrast to a people lacking in any national
   instinct.... Herein lies the most important explanation of
   Norway's strength and of Sweden's weakness.)

He recalls Bjornstjerne Bjornson's observation in 1898 that the Swedes were an old people who doubted, while the Norwegians were a young people who believed. Even across the Atlantic in America, the Swedish visitor Patti Peter Waldenstrom noted wearily in 1902 that the Norwegians were more Norwegian than the Swedes were Swedish. Similar complaints are not hard to find (Heidenstam, Samlade verk 9: 10-30; Sundbarg, esp. 46, 59, Bull 255-6; Waldenstrom 50).

It has been held that both the Swedes and the Danes' lack of conspicuous patriotism derived from their long histories as established nations with their own institutions, cultures, and languages. The Swedes could look back on a still not too distant past in the seventeenth century, when their country had been a great European military and imperial power. They could, that is, take for granted what the inhabitants of the newer Nordic nations, Norway and Finland, were still striving valiantly to create.

Moreover, Sweden has had the rare good fortune to remain at peace for nearly two hundred years, since 1814, whereas Norway, Denmark, and Finland during the same period have had to fight hard battles to preserve their territory and indeed their very independence. This factor can hardly be stressed too strongly.

After the end of the Napoleonic wars, Sweden was no longer confronted with any immanent threat to its security. In 1812, when Napoleon invaded Russia, Crown Prince Carl Johan--the former Napoleonic marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte--concluded an alliance against France with Emperor Alexander I, through which Sweden renounced any future claims to Finland, which the Russians had conquered shortly before. In return Russia committed itself to helping Sweden acquire Norway from Denmark in compensation. …

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