The Swedish success story? (1999)

The Engelsberg Seminar, 1999

24 – 27 August, 1999, Engelsberg Ironworks

The promise of the modernist project is that man can create the world afresh. In the 20th century, Sweden very much embodied this promise. A minor country on the periphery of northern Europe – without any impact on the international politics of Europe (except as a potential German ally in a war against Russia), with a population that mostly dreamt about emigrating at the first opportunity – Sweden evolved into a viable global ideological possibility in the 20th century.

This formula was expressed as early as 1936 in Marquis Child’s book “Sweden: The Middle Way”, where Sweden was presented as an alternative to the individualism of the USA and the collectivism of the USSR. Sweden seemed to represent compromise, striking a balance between self-assertion and subordination.

The objective of modernity is to eliminate the contradiction between freedom and equality, the state and society. It is a commonly held view that Sweden achieved more in this regard during the 20th century than any other nation. Sweden came to symbolise modernity. The freedom that Sweden tried to implement has been a “freedom to”, to enable a “freedom from”. In this “freedom from”, modernity seeks its own riddle, its own inherent meaning.

In the 20th century, Sweden also actively came to see itself as a country that actually could eliminate the contradictions of modernity. Modernity became the Swedish self-image: the promise of a future liberated from the shackles of history, modernity’s harmonisation based on perpetual, continuous peace.

Sweden entered its fourth era as a superpower: a military superpower in the 1600s, the country became a superpower in the natural sciences in the 1700s (Linnaeus, Celsius, etc.) and an engineering superpower from the late 1800s, with its “genius industries”: telecoms, ball-bearings, electronics. From the 1930s, Sweden looked modernity straight in the eye. This was the start of its fourth superpower era. From this perspective, the Second World War was merely a deviation, a temporary glitch in the development curve. What the other superpowers were fighting over did not really concern Sweden. The war was about problems that Swedish society had already left behind. After the war, the building of modernity could resume in full. Under the leadership of the Social Democrats, a welfare state was created that was designed to give people that “freedom to”, which would enable them to realise their true nature, and thus find the meaning of secular life.

In area after area, Sweden was number one relative to its sparse population. Thanks to its highly evolved technological culture, Sweden could boast two car producers at a time when most other comparable countries had none. Swedish industry was almost able to single-handedly arm the Swedish defence forces with hypermodern weapons. The dense web of the Swedish social security system seemed to provide the population with comprehensive welfare. A critical benchmark of a country’s modernity is gender equality – another area where Sweden was in the lead.

However, the Swedish self-image began to dissolve more than a decade ago. “The most modern country in the world” was no longer a feasible guideline for the future. Sweden appears to lag behind, the Swedish self-confidence is careening. The welfare consensus on which post-war society was built is crumbling.  Once a shield against the destructive forces of foreign countries, the Swedish policy of neutrality had lost its relevance in a world that was no longer characterised by the blocs of the Cold War era. After joining the European Union, Swedish membership in NATO is on the horizon. Sweden is no more a “lone ranger”, and the feeling of being a unique world leader has evaporated. Sweden has lost its faith in modernity – in the model for progress, negotiation and technical development that formerly its underpinned its society.

These and other perspectives have prompted the theme for this conference, which aims to offer a balance sheet for Sweden in the 20th century.

What was gained, and what was lost? To what extent was Sweden’s development unique? Is modernism no longer the future, but history? Is it time to abandon the modern project once and for all?


National Consciousness Transformed

Rune Johansson
Professor, Department of History, Uppsala University
Lecture: Konstruktionen av svenskheten (Constructing Swedishness)

Jonas Frykman
Professor, Department of Ethnology, Lund University
Lecture: Svensk mentalitet (Swedish mentality)

Alf W. Johansson
Professor, Institute of Contemporary History, Södertörn University
Lecture: Svensk självbild i förvandling: Mellan tradition och modernitet (Swedish self-image in transformation: Between tradition and modernity)


The Concept of Modernity

Håkan Arvidsson
Assistant Professor, Roskilde University
Lecture: Modernitetsbegreppet (The concept of modernity)

Henrik Berggren
PhD, editor of page three in Dagens Nyheter
Lecture: Nationalism och modernism (Nationalism and modernism)


“Advocate of World Conscience” – Just Above “Rock Bottom in Hell”

Bo Stråth
Professor, European University Institute
Lecture: Neutralitet som mentalitet (Neutrality as mentality)

Mikael af Malmborg
Docent, Department of History, Lund University
Lecture: Neutralitet och lusten att bestämma själv (Neutrality and the desire for self-determination)


The Blessed Growth of Human Dignity

Anne-Sofie Ohlander
Professor, Örebro University
Lecture: Den välsignade tillväxten av människovärdet (The blessed growth of human dignity)

Hans Ingvar Roth
Master of Letters, researcher at the Centre of Multi-Ethnic Research at Uppsala University, and at the Department of Theology at Lund University
Lecture: Det multikulturella Sverige (Multicultural Sweden)


The Crisis of the Swedish Self-image

Klas Göran Karlsson
Lecture: Förintelsen – ett svenskt problem? (The Holocaust – a Swedish problem?)

Anders Isaksson
Author and journalist, Dagens Industri
Lecture: Normaliseringen av Sverige (Normalising Sweden)

Per Molander
Research group leader and author, SNS
Lecture: Vad har gått förlorat under moderniteten? (What was lost under modernity?)