Polarisation | Sweden

Blind spot

Sweden has long stood for cosmopolitanism and tolerance. But now a shift to the right is sweeping through the country - and its colourful image is crumbling. How could this happen?

Men in suits, a few women in between, everyone talking, party atmosphere. In the background, a screen on which a moderator presents election results.

An election party of the Swedish Democrats in Nacka (near Stockholm) during the Swedish general election on September 11, 2022

After securing many seats in the Swedish parliament, the ultra-right Sweden Democrats have emerged as a major player in Swedish politics.

Since the 2022 parliamentary elections, they have been Sweden’s second strongest party and their demands for a ban on begging and the expulsion of non-Swedish criminals will almost certainly be passed in this legislative period - and their sway over cultural life will probably be substantial.

The party sees the media, but also cultural workers and state funding institutions as left-wing, elitist and “anti-Swedish”. This mindset has already played a part in the recent rise of a horde of angry men in Sweden who persecute, frighten and threaten people considered to be left-wing.

“Already when the Sweden Democrats were founded in 1989, they were a neo-Nazi party”

We all have heard a similar line from the USA and Donald Trump, but the situation in Sweden is not the same.  Sweden Democrats, the nationalist and right-wing populist political party, unlike ideology-less capitalists, do not work only for their own benefit, nor are they a purely populist party that simply wants to spark chaos in the political establishment.

On the contrary, when the Sweden Democrats were founded in 1989, they were already a neo-Nazi party with members who gave Hitler salutes at private parties and shouted slogans like “Sweden shall remain Swedish”. Initially, the party remained on the political margins.

But since the 2010 election, when they entered parliament, the Swedish Democrats have grown stronger with each passing year. They have thus already overtaken the bourgeois-conservative “moderates”, who had been the first port of call for right-wing voters since the 1970s.

“Swedish culture suffers from a massive contradiction: people’s actions and beliefs are pathologically divergent”

But how could it ever happen that one in five eligible voters in Sweden votes for a party that subscribes to a racist worldview and preaches white supremacy? Wouldn’t that have been unthinkable just a few years ago in a country praised as an international champion of human rights?

One reason for this development is that Swedish culture suffers from massive disconnect: Actions and convictions have diverged almost pathologically here for quite some time.

The Swedish welfare state was founded in the 1930s and reached its peak during and shortly after the term of office of the Social Democrat Tage Erlander, who resigned from his 23-year service as prime minister in 1969. Even before that, however, quite dissimilar currents had spread in Sweden as wealth slowly increased.

Thus, at the oldest and most renowned university in the country, the University of Uppsala, the Institute for Racial Biology was founded as early as 1922. The aim of the institute, for which there was also great encouragement from many intellectuals in the country at the time, was to work out a scientific justification for racial hygiene measures.

“At the same time, the idea of a welfare state, which supports everyone, was steadily developing in Sweden”

So by the time the Swedish Parliament approved a sterilisation law in 1934, the Institute had been doing a working for years. As a result of the law, thousands of people were sterilised because they were considered “mentally ill”, “promiscuous” or “antisocial”, or simply because they were not “real Swedes”, even if this was not how it was expressed at the time.

The latter group also included, for example, the Roma and Sámi ethnic groups. Other European countries passed similar laws. In Sweden, however, the sterilisation law was put on the political agenda particularly early and was formulated as if it dealt with voluntary sterilisations. Only later did research reveal that many of the procedures were coercive.

At the same time, the idea of the welfare state, which supports everyone, developed steadily in Sweden. Over time, this gave rise to the idea of the so-called people’s home, i.e. the idea that society should be organised like a home where all citizens have a place. A series of reforms targeting the weakest in society subsequently helped to lift a large part of the population out of poverty.

All this could be financed because Sweden had got off lightly in the Second World War and had a bulging treasury. The country was rich. The people were doing well. In 1969, when Tage Erlander resigned as prime minister, his successor Olof Palme was able to look out into the world for the first time.

“In the essay ‘A Letter from Sweden’ (1969), Sontag ponders Swedish culture and social life”

He became known for his foreign policy: as an opponent of the Vietnam War, a critic of military dictatorships in Spain, Greece and Chile, the first Western head of state to visit Cuba after the revolution, and a supporter of the anti-colonial movements against apartheid in South Africa.

The welfare state flourished and abundant money enabled the Swedish government the space to establish itself on the international stage as a mediator and as a champion of morality and decency, and also to invite artists and radical intellectuals, to pay them and to bind them to Sweden.

Among them was the writer Susan Sontag, who lived in Sweden for a few months after the film producer Göran Lindgren invited her to direct a Swedish film production. During this time, Sontag also published the essay “A Letter from Sweden” (1969), in which she ruminates on her impressions of Swedish culture and social life and sketches a psychological profile of the people of Stockholm.

“The Swedes had created a ‘people’s home’ but did not know how to invite people into their homes”

The conclusions of the text seem paradoxical: For although Sontag says she finds ideal professional and financial conditions for her work in Sweden, she strongly doubts whether she will return to the country again. 

Susan Sontag’s observations refer to the time when Swedish prosperity had reached its peak and the most important and far-reaching social reforms had been accomplished. People were proud but seemed timid.

People were industrious but seemed awkward. People cared for each other but seemed stingy. The Swedes had created a “people’s home” but did not know how to invite people to their homes.

Sontag points out that there is a special self-image in Swedish national identity. If you believe her, the Swedes perceive themselves and their system as politically, economically and morally outstanding - and expect the rest of the world to do the same.

“You see yourself as good and superior, but in fact you not infrequently act meanly and as if you are somehow inferior after all”

At the same time, the idea of the people’s home, that is, the assumption that society functions like a family for all citizens, contributes to the belief that all people in the country have something in common. Citizens of the state, according to Sontag, are bound together in thought because they belong to the same “people”.

And criticism they face quickly integrates them into their national self-image. “Sure, sure,” they then murmur, “that’s how it is for sure: we Swedes are shy, we are awkward, so inhibited.” At the same time, however, the Swedes always insist that they are actually different than they appear.

People in Sweden are very keen to assert that they have no bad intentions, even if their actions do not always match their intentions, Sontag writes. People see themselves as good and superior, but in fact not infrequently act meanly and as if they are somehow inferior after all.

“Sweden opened the borders to asylum seekers, but could not bear that they were not Swedes”

This is probably also the reason for the misanthropy, the social inhibitions and the neuroses that appear in Sontag’s observations, because: Every human contact bears the danger of revealing the contradiction between inside and outside, between narrative and practice, between self-image and behaviour.

Accordingly, xenophobia in Sweden is probably not primarily based on the fear of foreigners, but on the fear of conversation and proximity. When labour immigration decreased in the 1970s and refugees came to Sweden from Chile and later, in the 1980s and 1990s, from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and the Balkans, the urban landscape changed.

Sweden opened its borders to asylum seekers but, at the same time, could not bear that they were not Swedes. In theory, they wanted neighbours from all over the world, but in practice they couldn’t stand it when they moved in.

In a study conducted in Sweden a few years ago, new mothers state that they would prefer their children to grow up in a “diverse” environment where many different languages are spoken and many different cultures meet.

“Many voters do not see themselves as racists but vote for an anti-democratic and racist party”

But no sooner had the proportion of neighbours immigrating from outside Europe reached three to five percent in Sweden for the first time than these same mothers decided to move to other neighbourhoods.

It is a similar story today with one fifth of the eligible voters in Sweden: just like the new mothers who think of themselves as cosmopolitan but then act quite differently, many voters do not see themselves as racists but nevertheless give their vote to an anti-democratic and racist party.

Once again, the two parallel worlds that are always evident in Sweden meet here: on the one hand, the welfare state, on the other, sterilisation laws; here the desire for diversity, there the flight into a culture of uniformity; here the narrative, there what people actually decide.

Olof Palme became prime minister in 1969 and remained in office until 1976. Later he came to power a second time and ruled the country until he fell victim to an assassination attempt in Stockholm on 28 February 1986. He died pretty much exactly a year after my family and I came to Sweden as refugees, together with a lot of other Iranians.

“Can you confront these people? No. You can’t”

While the children in the schoolyard gave us the Hitler salute and shouted that we should go back to where we came from, and while the “laser man”, a neo-Nazi terrorist, started shooting at people he thought were “immigrants”, every one of my teachers told me that there was no racism in this country. Little has changed in that regard to this day.

While many of my colleagues, on the one hand, shed bitter tears over the fate of refugees, engage in critical studies about whiteness and set up committees for equal treatment and diversity, they also find it difficult to accept a co-worker from a different background. After all, they might change the workplace or affect the way things are done.

Can you confront these people? No. You can’t because they don’t see it themselves. Racism is so far away from them, so far away that they cannot recognise their own racist actions.

And that is where we are today. Sweden’s second largest party is a racist nationalist party with roots in the neo-Nazi movement. It has one-fifth of the electoral vote. But the majority of people who voted for them don’t see any racism.

Translated by Stephanie von Hayek and Jess Smee