Sweden: After the Fall (Wilson Quarterly 2/96)

Nowhere in the world has the dream of reason been pursued quite so vigorously as in the Kingdom of Sweden. Under Social Democratic leadership, this Scandinavian country became famous around the world for its humane “Middle Way.” Swedes believed that their distinctive “Swedish model,” with its massive welfare state, its near-null unemployment, and its lofty egalitarianism, provided at least a glimpse of what a rationally constructed utopia might be. In recent years, however, the Swedish model has developed serious problems, and Swedes have begun to ponder some profoundly unsettling questions — questions about who they are and where they are headed. Our author takes us to post-utopian Sweden.

Never say that Swedes have no religion. That is a myth. They do indeed — although it is not Lutheranism, which is no longer even the established religion, since church and state were finally separated this year after four centuries of official union. Moreover, although 87 percent of Swedes nominally belong to the Lutheran Evangelical Church, attendance at services has long been pitifully low. Not so with Sweden’s true religion, the one in which virtually all Swedes participate. That religion is devoted to the worship of sommar.

Sommar: that sweet, intense, yet poignantly short season from mid-June through mid-August when seemingly all nine million Swedes close up shop and head upcountry, or to one of the myriad islands or archipelagoes surrounding this narrow landmass on the Baltic Sea, to savor the long blue days and brief “white nights” at their rustic vacation cottages.

And woe betide any Swede, particularly a public official, who dares question the sanctity of summer. A hapless foreign ministry officer learned that lesson the hard way last July when, in a letter to the leading Stockholm daily, Dagens Nyheter, he ventured the opinion that perhaps, from the point of view of attracting foreign investment, it might be wise if Swedes didn’t take their legally mandated five-and-a-half week vacations during summer — or, at least, didn’t all take them then. The heretic was promptly met by a storm of criticism. (A foreign ministry press officer, discussing the troublemaker the next day, drew her finger across her throat to indicate his all-but-certain fate.)

If those who question the worship of summer are thus cast down, so especially devout worshippers are held aloft as shining examples. Thus, many Swedes hailed Goran Persson, minister of finance in the Social Democratic government, when he resisted all entreaties from his foreign counterparts and refused to interrupt his summer vacation to attend a meeting of European Union finance ministers in Brussels. Here was a man who saw clearly where his sacred obligation lay.

Any reader who doubts that summer is the true Swedish religion should book passage on one of the restored steamboats of the old Gota Canal Steamship Company, which cross the lush, viridian girth of the country by way of that great public work of the early 19th century. The canal, which long ago outlived its original freight-carrying purpose, links up a picturesque 500-mile ribbon of lakes and locks, stretching from Stockholm in the east to Gothenburg (Goteborg) in the west.

Better yet: take the boat that departs Stockholm at the end of the third week of June, and witness Midsummer’s Eve (which falls anywhere from June 19 to 25), the absolute apogee of the Swedish year. Note the fervor with which the crew leads the ship in song on the designated day of celebration. Observe the intensity with which the young maidens (and they do look like maidens) who live by the canal search the adjoining fields and pastures for flowers for their midsummer crowns. And then at night, after your gallery has docked at Motala — a fairly typical example of the sleepy small towns and cities in which more than half of the Swedish population still resides — go ashore and watch the restless youth of that Nordic Peoria stage their desultory, drunken annual riot. There is something pagan about the whole ritual — and poignant, too — as this pent-up Nordic society attempts, in one frenzied say, to rid itself of its doubts, anxieties, and demons.

Perhaps the exorcism worked in more halcyon days. Last summer, however — when I was in Sweden, on my fourth visit since 1990 — there were too many doubts and demons for the Swedes to drive out in a single day.

There was, for one, the still-rattling ghost of the Estonia, the huge, half-Swedish-owned ferry that in September 1994 sank in 15 horrible minutes in the Baltic Sea, after its cargo door came loose in heavy seas, taking close to 1,000 people to their deaths, including more than 600 Swedes — the largest number of Swedes to die from an unnatural cause in a single day since the Napoleonic Wars.

Then, in January 1995, came the “Stureplan massacre,” so named after the Stockholm square where the senseless crime took place. Denied entry to the popular discotheque Sture Companiet, a young Swedish delinquent decided to take revenge by returning with an assault rifle and opening fire on the crowd inside the disco’s barred, glass doors. Four people were killed and some 20 injured.

That outrage stirred memories of a similar mass shooting that had darkened the previous summer, when a Swedish army lieutenant stationed in the northern town of Falun went berserk after being jilted by his girlfriend. With his government-issue automatic weapon, he ambushed a group of bystanders and murdered seven.

Ship sinkings, machine gun massacres, and, still unforgotten and unsolved, the 1986 assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme — couple these terrible things, many wondered, really have happened in Sweden?

“In Sweden there is a fantastic, erroneous belief in rationality,” the noted Swedish cancer specialist Georg klein, a Hungarian refugee, recently told an interviewer. He elaborated: “People here live with the assumption that if only the laws are just, then society will also be perfect — that everything can be planned.” In Sweden, Klein explained, “there is a basic ignorance of the fact that good and evil exist within every human being — that we can never know what will happen.”

Now, in the wake of the Estonia sinking, the Stureplan and Falun massacres, and all the other afflictions that the Swedish nation has suffered since Palme’s assassination in February 1986, the once cozened and complacent Swedes seemed to be questioning their confident rationalism. Perhaps they were beginning to realize that the inexplicable and unforeseen could happen, even to them.

There were doubts and anxieties, too, about matters less cosmic but no less portentous, including Sweden’s decision, in November 1994, to abandon two centuries of isolation from the Continent’s messy affairs (including World Wars I and II) and join the European Union. The national plebiscite was less than overwhelming: 52 percent approved integration, while 47 percent were opposed. A subsequent poll indicated that if Swedes were able to vote again, they would say no to Europe — as their recalcitrant Norwegian neighbors ultimately did by a margin of more than two to one.

Last September, isolationist feelings surfaced even more strikingly in the remarkably low turnout (41 percent of eligible voters) for the election of Swedish representatives to the European Parliament. Just as remarkably — and dealing a severe blow to the pro-Europeanist prime minister Ingvar Carlsson — a mere 28 percent of the vote went to his Social Democratic Party, while no less than 30 percent went to the anti-Europe coalition parties of the Lefts (formerly, the Communists) and the Freens.

But Swedes were and are troubled by more than the question of relations with Europe. Since 1993, unemployment — once negligible and thought certain to remain so — has been hovering around 12 – 13 percent. Could it be that Sweden’s lavish welfare state was partly responsible?

There seemed to be grudging support for finance minister Persson’s campaign to bring the massive welfare state under control, and with it, Sweden’s public debt. The government budget deficit currently runs more than 11 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Belt-tightening measures, such as cutting tax-free allowances to families with children seemed the only solution.

To many Swedes, however, especially older ones with memories of fatter, happier times, it is dismaying, if not disorienting, to see the same Social Democratic Party that had erected “the strong society” — as one of its greatest architects, Tage Erlander, the long-time postwar prime minister, proudly called it — now moving to weaken it (even if it appeared to be the weakness of the supposedly “strong” society, “the Swedish model,” that was necessitating the unwelcome measures).

Adding to Sweden’s confusion has been the end of the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire meant that Sweden could no longer play the neutralist role it had confidently assumed during the long conflict between East and West, calling steadily, and perhaps a bit self-righteously, for peace, disarmament, and alternatives to confrontation. Internationally, as well as at home, the Swedish certitudes have been rapidly crumbling.

Over and over last summer I heard the same anxious questions, in one guise or another, the questions of a nation newly in search of itself, nostalgic for its past, and fearful of its future. Who are we? Swedes were asking. Where are we? Where are we going?

And who will lead us? Not Ingvar Carlsson, the recent heir to this century’s tradition of long-serving Social Democratic patriarchs. In mid-August, just as many Swedes were returning to work after their long summer vacations, the 61-year-old politician announced — ostensibly out of sheer weariness with politics, but doubtless also from heartsickness at having to cut back the cherished welfare state — that he would retire at the next party conference, in March 1996. (His term runs until 1998.) “I led the party back into power,” was all the tired technocrat would say in explanation, alluding to his success in November 1994 in ousting the “non-socialist” coalition government headed by Carl Bildt of the Moderate Party.

Swedes had grown accustomed to Carlsson. To many, his visage had become as familiar as an old shoe. Indeed, “the Shoe” had become his nickname. (A helpful bartender at my favorite Stockholm restaurant showed me why, by taking off his own shoe and placing glasses on it. The resemblance to the outgoing prime minister was indeed uncanny.) However, it is probably an exaggeration to say that Carlsson will be missed. After some internal jockeying, his young, tough-talking, spike-haired deputy prime minister, Mona Sahlin, emerged as his designated successor. But then, after revelations that she had misused her official credit card — a real “no-no” in a country that is prudish about personal finance — the 38-year-old heir apparent removed herself from consideration, as well as from the government. This pitched the party into a new crisis, as it searched for someone to take Carlsson’s place. No one seemed to want the job. Finally, in December, the long search came to an end when the finance minister Persson — he of fiscal-austerity and stand-by-your-sommar fame stopped saying no, and agreed to be nominated by the party to fill out Carlsson’s term. The news sent a wave of relief through party ranks, but it did not solve the larger problem: the party’s — and the country’s — identity crisis.

Who are we? Where are we? Where are we going? This was the refrain I heard in the stateroom of the Juno, the longest-serving (since 1874) vessel of the Gota Canal company’s small fleet, one night last summer as I was gliding across the country and sharing aquavit with some new Swedish acquaintances. “We know we are becoming something different,” sighed Maria, a schoolteacher and married mother of three from Stockholm. “We just don’t know what it is.”

I had heard a small plaint — with elaboration — in the comfortable Stockholm apartment of Jan Guillou, an author of best-selling detective novels and Sweden’s most commercially successful writer. He once went to jail for revealing the workings of a government espionage agency and now expresses his sometimes controversial views on current affairs in a regular newspaper column.

“People talk about an economic crisis,” Guillou said. “Perhaps there is an economic crisis. We certainly are broke. But the real crisis here is a crisis of confidence. It all began with that Soviet submarine that ran aground, after our highly trained navy failed to detect it.”

The 1981 incident, which took place near southeastern Swedish coastal base of Karlskrona, was disturbing as well as embarrassing. It seemed to demonstrate not only the incompetence of the Swedish navy but the naiveté of official government attitudes toward the supposedly friendly communist regime in Moscow.

Guillou went on to catalog a series of further blows to Swedish self-confidence, including the one that angers and baffles Swedes the most: the protracted and thus far unsuccessful investigation into the 1986 assassination of Prime Minister Palme, who was killed while walking home with his wife from a Stockholm movie theater. The mystery writer himself believes that the police had their man — a former mental patient who had to be released, after Palme’s widow, Lisbeth, failed to identify him in court. The besieged head of the decade-old police inquiry disagrees. Meanwhile, the media are full of conspiracy theories. “The loonies have taken over,” Guillou lamented.

Sweden is just not the same anymore, he noted, and for Swedes, this is extremely troubling. “You must understand, we’re not used to being a second-rate nation. My God, we can’t even make decent tennis players anymore!”

I heard a similar sentiment from Peter Jager, a professor of statistics at Chalmers Institute of Technology, as we lunched in his backyard on a blazing summer day: “It’s so hard to accept. We used to be the Americans of Europe. We used to be somebody.”

For a relatively small, sparsely populated country on the periphery of Europe, the Kingdom of Sweden has in this century and in other recent ones exercised considerable power and influence over the world’s affairs and imagination.

In four discrete historical periods, Sweden attained or enjoyed imperial, economic, or cultural greatness. Each of these eras left its mark on the Swedish state and social consciousness. Eerily enough, each era climaxed with the murder or suicide of its most representative or formative figure. Little wonder that Sweden sometimes seems a haunted land.

Although the rest of the world has forgotten it, the Swedes once had a considerable empire. For more than a century, from the first decade of the 17th century, when the cunning Gustavus Adolphus II began to conquer his various Baltic neighbors — including the Danes, the Germans, the Poles, and the Russians — until the second decade of the 18th, when his brilliant but demented descendant Charles XII was slain by a soldier (probably one of his own), Sverige ranked among the great European powers. Although it would take another century, and a series of wrong-headed wars with Russia, for Sweden to completely give up its expansionist ambitions, the end of its empire effectively took place when Charles keeled over dead in the trenches outside the Norwegian outpost of Fredrikshald, to which his forces were laying siege.

Although Sweden was reduced again to a minor state, its imperial period left it with several enduring legacies. These included a deep revulsion toward war and untidy entanglements with the Continent, as well as a massive state administration — built up, ironically, for the purpose of waging war — and a profound popular respect for the authority of the state.

The reign of Gustav III (1771-92), the so-called Gustavian Age, was Sweden’s second period of greatness. It, too, left a lasting imprint on the Swedish national character. A passionate Francophile, Gustav was in Paris when his father, Adolf Fredrik, died in 1771. Returning home to take the throne, Gustav resolved to make Sweden a cultural power like France — and nearly succeeded, thanks to a wealth of talented Swedes: painters such as Carl Gustav Pilo and Alexander Roslin, and the poets and writers such as Carl Michael Bellman, Johan Henrik Kellgren, and Anna Maria Lenngren. Gustav’s first concern was to protect and promote the Swedish language. To that end he founded the Swedish Academy in 1786, modeling it after l’Academie francaise. Later, he established and nurtured the Royal Dramatic Theatre and the Royal Opera. An amateur thespian, Gustav played minor roles in several of the productions he commissioned. No king or queen was ever friendlier to the arts, or more beloved by the intelligentsia.

The nobility, however, were less enamored of Gustav III, especially after he drew the country into a futile war with Russia (1788-90) and took steps to make himself an absolute monarch, in the style of Louis XIV. In 1792, an aggrieved nobleman shot the would-be Swedish Sun King at a masked ball in Gustav’s own opera house, no less. It would be the last assassination of a major political figure in Sweden for nearly 200 years.

Today, Gustav’s influence sometimes shows up in unexpected ways. At an open-air band concert I attended last summer in Djurgarden, Stockholm’s Central Park, I was surprised to see figures in 18th-century garb capering about — members, I was told, of the “Gustav the Third Society.” More substantially, Gustav’s enthusiastic patronage and promotion of the arts for the whole society may help to explain why there is less of a gap between elite and grassroots culture in Sweden than in the rest of Europe.

The 19th century was a wretched one for Sweden. Although individual Swedes — including explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiold, who assayed the first trans-Arctic circumnavigation of Asia in 1878, and the inventors Sven Wingquist, Lars Ericsson, and Alfred Nobel, who brought forth ball bearings, the table telephone, and dynamite, respectively –showed daring and inventiveness, Sweden as a nation stood out as one of the sluggards of the Industrial Age. In many ways, in fact, it remained mired in the feudal age.

Lacking in risk capital and the necessity infrastructure (at mid-century, there still were no railroads), the country had to watch the Industrial Revolution from the sidelines. Meanwhile, Swedish agriculture, hampered by medieval laws such as primogeniture, could not keep up with the demands of a surging population, by the end of the century, 1.5 million Swedes — mostly displaced farmers and their families — had moved to other countries, particularly the United States. This Great Emigration of one-fourth of its people left Sweden in a bad way.

Yet there were glimmers of the “strong society” to come. The 1847 Poor Law required each parish and town to feed its own needy. King Oskar I (1844-59) became internationally renowned for his interest in prison reform. And in 1889, a band of Swedish progressives founded the Social Democratic Party. Although the rhetoric of the movement that produced the party, especially that of founder August Palm, a professional agitator, was severe and confrontational, in practice the party favored compromise. Credit for this goes largely to Hjalmar Branting, the party’s first secretary. A pacifist and a fervent advocate of workers’ rights, he was also a pragmatist, and he quickly moved the stable Palm out of the way. In the next century, Branting became the first Social Democratic pr