Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Conscience of the Rich: Djursholm, Birkastaden, and Swedish Liberalism

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Conscience of the Rich: Djursholm, Birkastaden, and Swedish Liberalism

Article excerpt

AT THE BEGINNING of the twentieth century, Djursholm was Stockholm's most prosperous suburb while Birkastaden on the city's northwestern outskirts was one of its poorest quarters. Both had come into existence relatively recently and were products of a new industrial age. The relationship that would soon develop between them tells much about conditions at the time in Sweden and the spirit of that era.

Sweden's economy and society had been largely transformed during the preceding century. At its beginning one of Europe's poorer countries with an economy still based largely on subsistence agriculture, Sweden had become increasingly industrialized, especially by the 1890s. (1) As more and more of the population moved into towns and industrial areas--as well as across the sea to America--the old local ties of kinship, parish, and patriarchalism broke down. Classic Manchester liberalism, in Sweden as elsewhere by mid-century, regarded and treated working men and women as simply cogs in the machinery subject to shifts in supply and demand. Industrial workers crowded into old city slums or hastily thrown-up workers' housing, where sickness, alcoholism, crime, and domestic violence flourished. (2)

The problems caused by industrialization and urbanization could not be overlooked and various efforts at private charity were made to help at least some of their victims. By the 1880s, meanwhile, the rise of positivist social science gave hope that social problems could be analyzed rationally and effective means be found to remedy them. One expression of this new attitude was socialism and an organized labor movement, which arose during that decade and which envisioned an entirely new social order. Another--and in its time more effective--was social liberalism, which was prepared, unlike classic liberalism, to employ legislation to limit the excesses of unbridled capitalism and improve the lives of the working classes.

It was a time of high optimism for the future and not only for the working poor. Among the middle class, new ideals for a freer, healthier, and more "natural" way of life flourished. These characteristically called for escape from the confines of flats in the older, more fashionable quarters of the cities, to villas in newer more spacious quarters. This in turn led to a growing interest in the concept of the "garden city," like those that by then were to be found in Germany and especially in England and America. (3)

The ideal of a better life for those with means came to be embodied in the Djursholm community, established in 1889, some six kilometers northeast of Stockholm. Its initiator was the prominent financier Henrik Palme, who had recently developed Villastaden, the "villa quarter" north of Humlegarden in the city. This project had not satisfied his hopes, and he began to consider where next to turn. In 1888, Palme traveled to the United States to visit new "garden cities" While there, he learned that the owner of Djursholm Manor, on the coast close to Palme's summer home, was prepared to sell his whole property. On his return Palme, together with a business partner, negotiated the purchase and in October 1889 the Djursholm Company was chartered to subdivide and develop it. Already that month, it sold fifty-eight lots, and less than a year later construction began on Djursholm's electric railway connecting with the Rimbo line into Stockholm, which made it possible to live close to nature and commute to work in the city (Palme; Stiernstedt esp. 176-213, Johansson 270-7).

Palme was an idealist as well as a practical businessman, inspired by the vision of a new and better way of life which Djursholm was to make possible. He attracted people from the wealthier liberal middle class with a strong intellectual element to settle there. Several of the more influential moved out from Palme's earlier Villastad in the city. A particular coup was Palme's successful invitation to Viktor Rydberg, the bell-wether of Swedish liberal idealism, to move out to Djursholm (Palme 24). …

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