Svenska Swedish flag


1999: The Swedish Success Story?

The modern project promises that man can create the world anew. Sweden in the 20th century was a supreme embodiment of that promise. During that century it evolved from a minor state on the fringes of northern Europe – with no foreign policy function in the European system of states (other than as a potential ally of Germany against Russia) and with a population many of whom dreamed of getting out of the country as soon as possible – to a world ideological alternative.

The formula had already been expressed in 1936, in Marquis Childs’ book Sweden: The Middle Way, in which Sweden was seen as a possible midway between the individualist USA and the collectivist Soviet Union. Sweden seemed to represent compromise, a balance between self-assertion and subjugation.

Modernity aims to eliminate contradictions between freedom and equality, between state and society. In many people’s eyes, no state achieved more headway in these respects during the 20th century than Sweden. It became a symbol of modernity. The freedom which Sweden sought to realise has been a “freedom to”, aimed at making possible a “freedom from”. In this “freedom from” modernity seeks its own enigma, its own inherent meaning.

Sweden in the 20th century was also to actively assimilate the notion that it could abolish the contradictions of modernity. Modernity became Sweden’s self-image: the promise of a future which had left historical ties behind it, a harmonisation of modernity sustained by perpetual and continuous peace.

Sweden entered its fourth age of greatness: at one time (in the 17th century) a military power, in the 18th century it had become a great power in the field of science (Linnaeus, Celsius and others) and then, in the late 19th century, became a great power in the field of engineering (“industries of genius”): tele- communications, ball bearings, electronics. Starting in the 1930s, Sweden faced the modern age with its eyes wide open, and the fourth age of greatness began. From this perspective, the Second World War could only be termed a deviation, a temporary dip in the development curve. The casus belli between the great powers was really no concern of Sweden: the war centred round problems which Swedish society had already left behind it. Then, after the war ended, the modernity project could be resumed with full vigour. Under Social Democratic leadership a welfare state was formed, intended to give people the freedom which would enable them to realise their potential and in doing so find the meaning of secular life.

In one field after another Sweden, in relation to the size of its population, took the lead. An advanced technological culture resulted among other things in Sweden having two car manu- facturers when most comparable countries had none at all. Swedish industry was able almost single-handed to rearm the country’s armed forces with ultra-modern weaponry. A close- knit social insurance system appeared to provide comprehensive security. Equality between the sexes is another pivotal criterion of a country’s modernity. Here again, Sweden took the lead.

For just over a decade now, though, the Swedish self-image has been disintegrating. “The world’s most modern country” – the paradigm no longer serves as a benchmark for the future. Sweden seems to have lagged behind. Swedish self-esteem is rocking on its heels. The welfare consensus supporting post-war society has been broken. What used to be the bulwark against harmful influences from the outside world – the policy of neutrality – seems to have lost its relevance in a world from which the great power blocs have vanished. After accession to the EU, Nato membership beckons. Sweden’s go-it-alone approach is finished and the sense of leading the world and being unique has gone. Sweden itself no longer believes in modernity – in the model of progress, willingness to negotiate and technical progress which was once fundamental.

Such, in part, is the perspective in which we have found the themes for this conference, aimed at drawing up a balance sheet for Sweden’s 20th century.


Rolf Torstendahl: Sverige i ett europeiskt perspektiv – särväg eller huvudfåra?

Department of History, Uppsala University, Sweden

Rune Johansson: Konstruktionen av svenskheten

Professor, Ethnic Studies, Linköping University, Sweden

Jonas Frykman: Svensk mentalitet

Professor, Department of Ethnology, Lund University, Sweden

Håkan Arvidsson: Modernitetsbegreppet

Lecturer, Department of History, Roskilde University, Denmark

Henrik Berggren: Nationalism och modernism

PhD; Editor, Dagens Nyheter, Stockholm, Sweden

Bo Stråth: Neutralitet som mentalitet

Professor, European University of Florence, Italy

Mikael af Malmborg: Neutraliteten och lusten att bestämma själv

PhD, Department of History, Lund University, Sweden

Ann-Sofie Ohlander: Den välsignade tillväxten av människovärdet

Professor, School of Humanities, Education and Sciences, Örebro University, Sweden

Hans Ingvar Roth: Det multi­kulturella Sverige

Master of Letters, Researcher, Uppsala University and Department of Theology, Lund University, Sweden

Klas-Göran Karlsson: Förintelsen – ett svenskt problem?

Lecturer, Department of History, Lund University, Sweden

Anders Isaksson: Normaliseringen av Sverige

Author and Journalist, Dagens Industri, Stockholm, Sweden

Per Molander: Vad har gått förlorat under moderniteten?

Researcher, SNS (Centre for Business and Policy Studies), Stockholm, Sweden