Why is May 1st celebrated in Sweden?

In Sweden, and in many other countries, May 1st has been embraced as the International Workers’ Day. In 1938, May 1st became Sweden’s first non-religious public holiday and has been an important celebration of labourers and the working classes since then.

But why specifically May 1st?

The answer is found in a massacre in the USA. On 1 May 1886, laborers in Chicago went out on strike for an 8 hour working day. On 4 May 1886, Chicago police and the demonstrators clashed and 11 people died. The event is called the Haymarket massacre. Seven of the demonstrators were sentenced to death, despite lack of evidence. To commemorate the massacre, the socialist organization suggested that 1 May should become day of demonstrations every year.

Around Sweden, traffic is shut off, huge flag-waving demonstrations are held and people gather to hear speeches from their politicians and representatives. Since the demonstrations are most commonly from the political left, the streets are awash with bright red flags and banners. However, this year, like 2020, is different. As large public gatherings are banned, the speeches are instead broadcast from a studio over Facebook and YouTube.

Contrary to the stereotype, not everybody in Sweden supports left wing political groups. Many Swedes lean towards the centre or the right. For them, today is just a day off work – an opportunity to perhaps nurse hangovers from the festivities of the previous evening or to relax, watch Netflix, go for a walk and enjoy the day.

Swedish nationalism

In the paper today, the leader of Sweden’s right-wing party claimed that some of the other conservative parties are ‘getting closer to our form of nationalism’. This made me think about the concept of nationalism, and how it impacts Swedish society.

What is nationalism? Nationalism is an idea that says each nation should have the power to govern itself, without outside influence or interference. It aims to build and maintain a single national identity on shared characteristics of ethnicity, language, religion, traditions and culture. It promotes national unity, and seeks to preserve a nation’s traditional cultures. It rejects ‘foreigness’. National symbols, flags, songs, languages and myths are highly important in nationalism.

Nationalism often goes hand in hand with Authoritarianism. This means the rights of individuals can be sacrificed for the good of the majority. As a result, nationalistic parties tend to be authoritarian, with authoritarian rhetoric.

What is patriotism? Patriotism is closely related to nationalism, but crucially different. Also called ‘national pride’, patriotism is the feeling of love and sense of attachment to a homeland and alliance with others who share the same sentiment. The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that patriotism does not include a desire for power.

What about Sweden? So, how do these manifest themselves in Sweden? Flag waving, snaps drinking and supporting Sweden in ice hockey or Eurovision are all examples of patriotism.

When politicians place increasing demands on immigrants to culturally integrate and learn Swedish, it is nationalism. When politicians say that Jews and Sami are not Swedish, it is also nationalism. When political parties gain votes on arguments of preserving Swedishness and protecting against ‘foreign criminals’, it is nationalism. And there is one motivation behind it all – power.

Is nationalism bad? Is nationalism positive or negative? Well, in practice, it can be both – depending on context and your point of view.

Nationalism can give people a meaning. It provides people with a purpose in a world which is increasingly meaningless. This means that if people have a meaning larger than their lives, they are more likely to do, or fight for, something.

For example, nationalism was instrumental in independence movements such as the Velvet Revolution, Greek and Irish Revolutions, the creation of modern Israel, the dissolution of the USSR and even Brexit.

So nationalism wins wars and conflicts – but it is also the creator behind them. It has been the foundation of terrible human atrocities such as the genocides in Rwanda and Armenia, the Yugoslav wars and the Holocaust. So what makes the difference?

A factor that unites all of these latter cases is that nationalism was combined with racial hatred. Is this when nationalism turns into something more horrific?

So let’s go back to the original quote from Sweden’s leader of the right wing party – they are getting ‘closer to our form of nationalism’. Notice he didn’t say ‘patriotism’, he said ‘nationalism’. And that tells us it’s all about one thing, and one thing only – the lust for power.

Swedish nationalism

In the paper today, the leader of Sweden’s right-wing party claimed that some of the other conservative parties are ‘getting closer to our form of nationalism’. This made me think about the concept of nationalism, and how it impacts Swedish society.

What is nationalism? Nationalism is an idea that says each nation should have the power to govern itself, without outside influence or interference. It aims to build and maintain a single national identity on shared characteristics of ethnicity, language, religion, traditions and culture. It promotes national unity, and seeks to preserve a nation’s traditional cultures. It rejects ‘foreigness’. National symbols, flags, songs, languages and myths are highly important in nationalism.

Nationalism often goes hand in hand with Authoritarianism. This means the rights of individuals can be sacrificed for the good of the majority. As a result, nationalistic parties tend to be authoritarian, with authoritarian rhetoric.

What is patriotism? Patriotism is closely related to nationalism, but crucially different. Also called ‘national pride’, patriotism is the feeling of love and sense of attachment to a homeland and alliance with others who share the same sentiment. The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that patriotism does not include a desire for power.

What about Sweden? So, how do these manifest themselves in Sweden? Flag waving, snaps drinking and supporting Sweden in ice hockey or Eurovision are all examples of patriotism.

When politicians place increasing demands on immigrants to culturally integrate and learn Swedish, it is nationalism. When politicians say that Jews and Sami are not Swedish, it is also nationalism. When political parties gain votes on arguments of preserving Swedishness and protecting against ‘foreign criminals’, it is nationalism. And there is one motivation behind it all – power.

Is nationalism bad? Is nationalism positive or negative? Well, in practice, it can be both – depending on context and your point of view.

Nationalism can give people a meaning. It provides people with a purpose in a world which is increasingly meaningless. This means that if people have a meaning larger than their lives, they are more likely to do, or fight for, something.

For example, nationalism was instrumental in independence movements such as the Velvet Revolution, Greek and Irish Revolutions, the creation of modern Israel, the dissolution of the USSR and even Brexit.

So nationalism wins wars and conflicts – but it is also the creator behind them. It has been the foundation of terrible human atrocities such as the genocides in Rwanda and Armenia, the Yugoslav wars and the Holocaust. So what makes the difference?

A factor that unites all of these latter cases is that nationalism was combined with racial hatred. Is this when nationalism turns into something more horrific?

So let’s go back to the original quote from Sweden’s leader of the right wing party – they are getting ‘closer to our form of nationalism’. Notice he didn’t say ‘patriotism’, he said ‘nationalism’. And that tells us it’s all about one thing, and one thing only – the lust for power.

60 years ago – a momentous Swedish event

On this day, 60 years ago in 1961, something amazing happened in Stockholm’s harbour. This event would cast the Swedish people back 333 years and come to change the face of tourism in Scandinavia.

In 1626, a grand battleship was commissioned by King Gustav II Adolf. He was expanding his realm into the Baltic and wanted a battleship that would be beautiful, awe inspiring and armed to the teeth. When she was completed she was richly decorated, with bronze cannons and was one of the most powerfully armed vessels in the world. He called the ship the Vasa, after his grandfather.

However beautiful she was, the flagship Vasa was dangerously unstable, with too much weight in the upper structure of the hull. Despite her obvious lack of stability, she was sent on her maiden voyage in 1628, and after only a couple of minutes afloat, she sank to the bottom of the harbour. The King was of course livid, and after a long process, blame fell upon the ship’s designer Henrik Hybertsson. As he had been dead for a year, he couldn’t defend himself, and instead became a historic scapegoat. King Gustav II Adolf himself died 4 years later at the Battle of Lützen.

The Vasa’s bronze canons were salvaged in the 1700’s after which she was forgotten, left to her watery grave. But then, in 1956, her exact location was identified and 5 years later, on April 25th, she was raised to the surface.

The Vasa ship is the only 1600’s galleon in the world that has been salvaged in such good condition. The cold, dark, brackish waters of the Baltic meant that the wood did not rot, and the ship’s huge hull was almost completely preserved. Today, the fully-restored ship and its other contents, are displayed in an enormous museum in central Stockholm. It is the world’s best preserved 17th century ship and Scandinavia’s most visited museum. On the roof of the museum, the masts indicate how high the ship was on its day of launch.

When traveling is allowed again, and museums are reopened, you must visit Stockholm. When you’re here, your top cultural priority should be the Vasa Museum. You will be blown away by the sheer dimension of this boat and you too will be thrown back to a time when Sweden was a great military power to be reckoned with.

For more information, go to http://www.vasamuseet.se

Gun salutes in the UK and Sweden

To mark the recent death of the UK’s Prince Philip, a 41-gun salute was held across Great Britain yesterday. For many, it seemed like an odd number. So, why 41?

In both the UK and Sweden, gun salutes mark special royal occasions and the number of rounds fired depends on the place and occasion. The basic salute in both countries is 21 rounds.

In the UK, however if fired from a royal park, an extra 20 rounds are added – making 41. At the Tower of London 62 rounds are fired on British royal anniversaries (the basic 21, plus a further 20 because the Tower is a Royal Palace and Fortress, plus another 21 for the City of London.)

The most shots have been given from the Tower when the late Duke of Edinburgh’s birthday (62 shots) coincided with the Queen’s official birthday (62 shots). This gave a total of an annoying 124 shots booming out over the city.

So, does Sweden always have 21 shots?

No, not always. When a Royal birth takes place and the infant is the firstborn to either the reigning monarch or to the heir to the throne, an extra 21 rounds (for a total of 42) are added to the normal salute. Additionally, 19-gun salutes are used for heads of government, cabinet ministers and ambassadors.

Another gun salute consists of two rapid gunshots only. This is used by the military and was fired to identify a Swedish ship entering a harbour or on the battle field to identify the Swedish troops. This signal is called the ‘Svensk Lösen’ – the Swedish Signal. This salute is today fired on special occasions, usually within the armed forces.

21-gun salutes in Sweden occur on:

  • 28 January – the King’s Name Day
  • 30 April – the King’s birthday
  • 6 June – Sweden’s National Day
  • 14 July – Crown Princess Victoria’s birthday
  • 8 August – Queen Silvia’s Name Day
  • 23 December – Queen Silvia’s birthday.

So, why is 21 standard?

Well, it originated in British maritime tradition. Historically, ships would fire 7 shots as they approached a foreign harbour. As ships usually had seven cannons on board, this was to show they had disarmed themselves and declare the vessel to be no threat on entry.

The military on land could store more gunpowder and therefore could reload their cannons more quickly. The tradition became that they would fire three shots for every one shot made at sea – hence 21 shots – as a sign of welcome and peace.

Interestingly in Sweden’s neighbouring country, Denmark, the gun salute given to majesties is 27. Could this be based on the same thinking? 3 x 9 shots?

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.

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 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 Press Freedom – the first in the world

In several countries, I would not be allowed to freely write what I want in this blog. Many nations are fighting for press freedom and against censorship – some of them not very far away. Thankfully, Sweden has solved this issue of media independence. Everyone is free to express themselves in writing, provided they do not publicly defame another person or commit an illegal act.

Obviously, Sweden didn’t always have freedom of the press. In the early days of print, Swedes fought many battles against censorship and limitations on the printed word. However, things changed when, on 2 December 1766, Sweden became the first country in the world to write freedom of the press into the constitution. The Swedish Freedom of the Press Act also allowed public access to information, which made it legal to publish and read public documents.

The Act that applies today actually came into effect in 1949. Today, laws cover press ethics, disputes, freedom of expression over digital media and protection of the individual and of whistleblowers.

Compared with other countries in the EU, Sweden is the 3rd best country in terms of media independence, preceded by Finland and Denmark. Sweden holds the 4th position on a global scale, the number one country being Norway.

According to Reporters without Borders, one reason that Sweden isn’t ranked higher is that over 50% of local media is owned only by five major companies. These control the editorial line and job security.

Additionally, one third of Swedish journalists claim they self censor due to threats and harassment from trolls, violent groups, heads of overseas states and security forces. Very few perpetrators are sentenced.