Swedish icons 16: Olof Palme, Sweden’s most reviled politician

I had the weirdest of nightmares the other day involving the former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. When I checked her out, I discovered oddly that the very day was the 8th anniversary of her death.

No British Prime Minister in history has been so reviled, and also loved, as Margaret Thatcher. My dad absolutely hated her. With a vengeance. He blamed her for single-handedly causing the economic and social depression that utterly destroyed the north of England, where I’m from.

It made me think about what Swedish politician has been so despised through history. Who in Sweden is the most reviled?

While Swedish Prime Ministers such as Carl Bildt, and Göran Persson were not always popular, probably topping the list is Social Democratic Olof Palme. He was a legendary Prime Minister who was loved by many. On the other hand, there were a lot of people who absolutely loathed him, his ‘arrogance’ and his ‘radical’ politics. He was Prime Minister for 17 years, in two different periods, up until his assassination in 1986. One person said about him – ‘He had a very special personality, he was so intense, so brilliant but his brilliancy was a problem for him as well because many people got hurt by his harsh words.

Palme was most controversial in his overseas politics than his domestic ones. This gave him many enemies. He was often alone among political leaders in the western world in expressing his stand against colonialism. He railed against the Soviet crackdown in Czechoslovakia, criticized Spanish dictator Franco, befriended Cuba’s Fidel Castro and crusaded against apartheid in South Africa. He was anti Vietnam war, and therefore perceived by many as anti-US, who love to use the classic rhetoric ‘you’re either with us, or against us’.

Just like Thatcher, what people thought of Palme depended on their political leanings. For many, Palme was a beacon of hope – a living manifestation of the social-democratic ideology. For others, he was a socialist, a meddler and a rabble-rouser. Thatcher and Palme, I’m sure, detested each other. They were politically very far apart – she hated both socialism and feminism – two things that he firmly believed in.

Palme’s murder is considered by many to be the end of Swedish innocence. Margaret Thatcher wrote ‘ He will be grievously missed, not only in Sweden but really the world over.″ She herself had escaped an IRA assassination attempt in 1984, and said that other world leaders ‘have to carry on taking risks for democracy and not be deflected.’

A lot of mystery surrounded Olof Palme’s assassination. 16 years later in 2020, the perpetrator was identified as graphic designer Stig Engström. However, many people do not believe this conclusion.

Olof Palme, loved or hated, meddler or mediator, peace-keeper or political activist, is buried in the churchyard at Adolf Fredrik Church in Stockholm.

The legendary philosopher who died in Sweden

Yesterday, I learned something I didn’t know. Every day, as they say, is a school day. I learned that the iconic French philosopher, scientist and mathematician René Descartes died, and was buried, in Stockholm.

When I studied philosophy at university, I was fascinated by Descartes. Said to be the father of modern Western philosophy, his list of notable ideas is long. Radically, Descartes shifted the debate from God to Man by asking ‘of what can I be certain?’ rather than ‘what is true?’ The latter question relies on belief in an external authority, whereas Descartes instead relied on the judgement of the individual. This was an extreme, and dangerous, thought as it emancipated the individual from religious doctrine and equipped mankind with autonomous reasoning.

This controversial thought sparked the Age of Enlightenment – the fascinating intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. How we reason today in the western world is profoundly based on this period – our embrace of doubt and our attitudes towards pursuit of happiness, sovereignty of reason, search for liberty, progress and secularism are all based on Descartes initial ponderings. On top of this, his scientific and mathematical theories later inspired the works of Leibniz and Newton.

Perhaps his most known legacy is a famous quote. In his ‘Discourse on the Method’, he wrote ‘je pense, donc je suis’. This appeared later in the Latin form it is today famous for – ‘cogito, ergo sum’ – ‘I think, therefore I am’. As Descartes explained it, “we cannot doubt of our existence while we doubt.” He was the father of doubt – challenging the blind faith that was the norm of his time.

Descartes was active when Queen Christina was the ruler in Sweden. Intrigued by his philosophies, she invited him to visit her in Stockholm. The idea was that Descartes would organise a new scientific academy in Sweden and tutor the Queen in science, philosophy and love.

Descartes moved to the Swedish capital in the middle of winter, and lived in a cold and draughty building near the palace. It became clear after a couple of visits that he and Queen Christina did not like each other, and on February 11 1650, Descartes died from pneumonia. Another theory is, however, that he was poisoned by a Catholic missionary who opposed his controversial views.

He was buried in the cemetery of Adolf Fredrik’s Church in Stockholm, where there is today a memorial to him. In 1666, his corpse was transferred to France and his skull is on display in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

It was surprising to learn that this giant of intellectual thinking died in Sweden. It makes me wonder what other non-Swedish, internationally-noted people spent their last days in this frozen country of the north. If you know of any, please share your insights with me and the rest of the readers.

Swedish icons 15: Anna Q Nilsson

In 1907, Anna Q Nilsson was named the most beautiful woman in America. Born in 1888 in Ystad, Southern Sweden, Anna Quirentia Nilsson emigrated to the USA and became one of the most famous actresses of her time.

Her era was the golden era of the silent movies. During her career, she appeared in almost 200 films, but she didn’t successfully make the transition into the talkies. Her most important films are considered to be Adam’s Rib, They Died with their Boots On, The Luck of the Irish and The Thirteenth Commandment. A qualified pilot, she was well known for being daring and she carried out her stunts herself. Consequently she was burned, broken and bruised throughout her career. She was also the first woman to smoke and wear trousers on camera.

She broke the record in fan mail, and was the first Swedish actor to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard. She appeared opposite legendary actors such as John Barrymore, Loretta Young, Errol Flynn and a young Elisabeth Taylor.

Her final credited appearance was with Buster Keaton and other contemporaries playing themselves in cameo parts in the classic ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ After this, she appeared uncredited in movies such as Showboat, An American in Paris and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Her final movie appearance was in 1954.

Aged 85, Anna Q Nilsson died in 1974 in Sun City, California. When she died, tv channels in the US interrupted their broadcasting to make the announcement. Her ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean.

Transgender Sweden

Today is the International Day of Transgender Visibility. The day is dedicated to honouring the victories and contributions of the transgender and non binary communities while also bringing awareness to the work that is still needed to protect trans lives. In the USA during 2020, 45 trans and gender nonconforming individuals were murdered. So far in 2021, the figure is 11.

Transgender in Sweden: It has been a long and rocky road for the transgender population to receive legal protection in Sweden. This road has been lined with demands on enforced divorce and enforced sterilization. In fact, it wasn’t until 2013 that the requirements to be sterilized and undergo sex reassignment surgery in order to change gender became unconstitutional. Sterilization had been in effect since 1972, and enforced on 500 to 800 transgender people.

Today, the transgender community is protected under the Anti-Discrimination Law of 2009. Additionally, in 2018, “transgender identity and expression” was added to the hate crime legislation.

It would however be naive to believe that this has eradicated this type of discrimination and crime in Sweden. In fact, many transgender people report a constant feeling of insecurity and vulnerability in society. Around 12% of the reported hate crime in Sweden has a homophobic or transphobic motive. Who knows how much happens that isn’t reported?

Days like International Day of Transgender Visibility are hugely important for breaking the negative cycle of hate. If you would like some input on how to support the trans and non binary people in your life, go to http://www.thetrevorproject.org and look under Resources.

Swedish icons 13: Max von Sydow

What words can be used to describe Swedish acting legend Max von Sydow’s career? Extensive? Impressive? Formidable? Whatever the word, there is no doubt that this man, whose career spanned 70 years, is a true Swedish icon.

In 1929, Carl Adolph von Sydow was born into an academic family in the university town of Lund. In early adult life, he moved to Stockholm to start studying at Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm. Here, he also took the name Max as people kept spelling his name incorrectly.

Max von Sydow’s career spanned theater, television, many genres and over 150 movies. To some he is known as an Ingemar Bergman actor, and especially known for playing chess with death in The Seventh Seal. In total, he starred in 11 Bergman films.

To others he’s known as the actor who played Karl Oskar in the epic Swedish film series The Emigrants about poor Swedes who emigrate from Småland, Sweden, to Minnesota in the mid-19th century.

To mention some other films, he starred in classics such as The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Exorcist, Flash Gordon, Pelle the Conqueror, Dune, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Quiller Memorandum, Minority Report, Never Say Never Again, Shutter Island, Robin Hood and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Younger generations might remember him as the enigmatic Three-Eyed Raven in HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Max von Sydow had a enormously successful international career. But it wasn’t always destined to be so. Early on, he was satisfied with his life in Sweden, and consequently turned down iconic roles such as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music and Dr No.

Towards the end of his life, Max von Sydow became a French citizen and had to relinquish his Swedish passport. He died in Provence and was survived by his wife and four sons.

Swedish icons 12: Queen Christina

Great Britain has its strident Queen Elisabeth I, France has its flamboyant Marie Antoinette and Russia has its legendary Catherine the Great. For Sweden, there is one Queen to measure up against them in icon status – the notorious Queen Christina.

Born 1626, Christina was the Queen of Sweden from 1632 to 1654, although the country was governed by a regency council until she reached the age of 18.

She is known to have been an independent, outspoken and untraditional woman, and as such has ignited the imagination of novelists, play-writes and film makers throughout history.

Christina’s father was Gustav II Adolph, one of Sweden’s warrior kings, a military commander credited with the rise of Sweden as a great European power. He wanted Christina to be raised in the same way a boy would be – so Christina was an unorthodox and controversial person already at an early age. She studied 10 hours per day, could hunt and fight, was knowledgeable in politics and could speak seven languages other than Swedish.

This learned young woman who was ‘masculine’ and ‘rough around the edges’, was a great sponsor of the arts. Wanting to turn Stockholm into a centre of learning and culture, she attracted many great minds to her court. This was, however, very expensive and eventually the dream died – gaining her a reputation for being wasteful and extravagant in the process.

She was also a peace maker, negotiating peace that ended the 30 Year War. Under her reign, Sweden settled New Sweden in the USA, which is today in the area of Joe Biden’s hometown Delaware.

However, she is mostly remembered for three main things. Firstly, her refusal to marry. Secondly, her unprecedented abdication in 1654. And thirdly, her scandalous conversion to Catholicism.

Christina expressed a distaste for marriage and felt pressure to provide an heir. She realised that if she married she would effectively hand power to her husband. She is quoted as saying ‘I am unsuited for marriage.’ In today’s terms, she would have been defined as lesbian, and she had several mistresses – the most important one being Ebba Sparre, who she called ‘La Belle Comtesse.’

She gave up the throne partly because of her refusal to marry, but mostly due to her increasing unpopularity and pending religious conversion. After her abdication, she shook off the shackles of court protocol and dressed more frequently in male clothes. Historians often describe Christina as unattractive and androgynous in her physical appearance. Whether this is true, or whether her ‘ugly’ appearance was exaggerated in order to undermine her position is unknown. After her cousin took over the throne, Christina quickly left Sweden and ultimately settled in Italy. Although she made several attempts to regain power in Europe, she never succeeded and eventually died in Rome aged 62.

Queen Christina’s funeral was held at St Peters Basilica, reflecting her provenance, prominence and influence. She is one of only three women to buried in the Vatican. That alone is enough to earn her icon status.

Swedish icons 10: Monica Zetterlund

Born 1937 in the small town of Hagfors, Monica Zetterlund was Sweden’s most prominent jazz singer throughout time. She was also a celebrated cabaret artist and actor.

She started her career as a teenager singing in her father’s band, and gradually gained fame touring in Sweden, Europe and the USA. She sung mostly in Swedish, but did release a few albums in English. The most famous album was Waltz for Debby that she recorded with the legendary Bill Evans Trio. As a singer, she was frequently compared to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee, and she performed with Quincy Jones and Louis Armstrong, amongst others.

As an actor, she participated in many popular theatre and cabaret productions and acted in many successful films. Her most famous role was in The Emigrants where she played an award-winning role of Ulrika, the fiercely independent village whore. A biographic film of her life, called Monica Z, was released in 2013 and is, in fact, one of the best Swedish films I’ve ever seen.

Throughout her life, she was plagued with severe back pain and developed scoliosis. She walked with a cane and often sat down on stage, and towards the end of her life she was in a wheelchair. She died tragically in 2005 in a fire in her apartment in Stockholm, caused by her smoking in bed.

In Stockholm, there is a park near her home called Monica Zetterlund’s Park. Here there is a sound installation, where you can sit on a bench and listen to her sultry tones.

Below is a sample of her music:

Swedish icons 9: Zarah Leander

Zarah Leander was a legendary Swedish singer and actor born in 1907 in the town of Karlstad. She was enormously famous in her day, a huge star and a scandalous provocateur. With her robust, characteristic deep voice, Zarah Leander was one of highest selling international recording artists prior to 1945.

Although a famous and popular film and cabaret artist in Sweden, she made her fortune in wartime Germany. Between 1936 and 1943, she was contracted by the German Universum Film corporation and starred in ten highly successful films. For the Germans of that time, she was a mega star – a box office sensation. She has been strongly criticized for participating in Nazi propaganda, although she vehemently denied that she supported the party.

It seems like she walked a hazardous line between entertainment and politics; she didn’t socialize with German officers, nor take part in Nazi party functions. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels called her an ‘enemy of the state’, and once upon meeting her said ‘Zarah? Isn’t that a Jewish name?’ Her iconic response was ‘What about Joseph?!’

In 1943, she retreated to Sweden and died in 1981 of a stroke. Throughout her time in Sweden, she was considered highly controversial, partly because of her association with Nazi Germany and partly because of accusations against her for being a Soviet Agent operating under the name ‘Stina-Rose’. Naturally, she went to her grave denying all allegations.

After her return to Sweden, she eventually made a come back. She released hit songs, and performed in successful films and cabarets and, once again, reclaimed her mantle of prima donna supreme.

Zarah Leander was a fascinating woman, a legendary artist and a true diva. She is buried just outside the town of Norrköping, opposite the Zarah Leander Museum.

The signature song she is most associated with in Sweden is called ‘Vill ni se en stjärna, se på mig’ – ’If you want to see a star, look at me’. Many impersonators and drag queens have mimicked her melodramatic performance in this song. You can listen to it below.

The most common names in Sweden

According to svenskanamn.se, here are the most common names for men and for women in Sweden. If you’re living in Sweden, chances are you’re called one of these names – if not, you’ve definitely met one!

Most common names for men in order of frequency: Erik, Karl, Lars, Anders and Johan

Most common names for women in order of frequency: Maria, Anna, Margareta, Elisabeth, Eva.

The website also lists the most common surnames: Andersson, Johansson, Karlsson, Nilsson, Eriksson.

So technically, Erik and Maria Andersson are the most common names in Sweden.

Swedish icons 8: Selma Lagerlöf

Selma Lagerlöf was a legendary Swedish author, born in 1858 in the county of Värmland. Today, 16th March, is the anniversary of her death in 1940.

Selma Lagerlöf is considered to be one of the most groundbreaking female writers in the Nordics. Three of her many novels are ‘The Wonderful Journey of Nils’, ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Gösta Björling’s Saga’. Her works have been translated into 50 languages.

In 1909, she was the first woman, and Swede, to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Five years later, in 1914, she was invited to join the highly-respected Swedish Academy – the body that chooses the Nobel prize for Literature. In doing so, she became the first woman to sit at the table.

In 1991, she was the first woman to appear on a Swedish bank note. The 20 crown note, referred to as a ‘Selma’, was removed from circulation in 2016 and she was replaced with an image of another iconic writer Astrid Lindgren.

She was highly politicized, leading the fight for women’s suffrage in Sweden and an active critic of nazism and the persecution of the Jews. She never married, and had two long-standing partnerships with two women. Love between people of the same sex was illegal in her day, but their passion was undeniably clear in a series of letters that became public knowledge in the 1990’s.

Selma Lagerlöf was born into a privileged middle class in a large house called Mårbacka, which today is open for visitors. Around Sweden, there are several statues of her, as well as one in Minneapolis in the USA. When planet Venus was discovered, the larger craters were named after famous significant women. One of them is called Lagerlöf, reflecting the size of her legacy.

Selma Lagerlöf died aged 81. She is buried in the churchyard at Östra Ämtervik not far from her family home.