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.

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

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.

International Romani Day-Roma in Sweden

Today, 8 April, is International Romani Day. It marks the first World Romani Congress that was held in London in 1971, making today the 50th occasion it has been celebrated. The day exists to shine a light on the ongoing persecution and abuse that the Roma population of the world has been forced to endure throughout history.

The Romani originate from northern India. They are dispersed, and their most concentrated populations are located in Europe, and Western Asia, since around 1007. Nobody really knows why the Roma left India in the first place, as no records were kept. However theories abound: from early persecution based on caste, to banishment from angering the king, and religious war.

The estimated 12 million Roma are consequently a nomadic people with no land to call their own. Their mobility and the fact that they lived in temporary camps contributed through the centuries to associations with poverty and accusations of high rates of crime. The discomfort that others felt about their presence led to perceptions of the Roma as antisocial, unsophisticated or even dangerous. Partly for this reason, discrimination against the Romani people has continued to the present day.

Romani have existed in Sweden since at least the 1500’s and today they are classed as one of Sweden’s five national minority groups (together with Jews, Sami, Swedish Finns and Tornedalers). Romani chib has the status of official minority language.

Over the centuries, the people of Sweden discriminated against, marginalised and excluded its Roma population. For 40 years, Sweden had a legal policy of enforced sterilization of people to avoid ‘unacceptable offspring’. Much suggests that Roma women were particularly subjected to this abuse, and mostly it was involuntary. Sweden removed this law in 1976. The Pew Research Poll of 2016 found that 42% of Swedes held strong anti-Roma views (compared to 82% in Italy, and 37% in Holland).

A Romani political activist in Sweden was Singoalla Millon, who died in 2020, and spent her entire life fighting for education, housing and acceptance. Another was Katarina Taikon who dedicated herself to improving conditions for Romani people in Sweden. She tried to convince the Swedish government to see the Romani as political refugees. She died in 1995. Today, the politician Soraya Post has worked as an EU politician defending the rights of the Romani and other minorities.

In 2012, the Swedish government introduced an 20-year equal opportunities strategy for Roma people. The strategy includes objectives and measures within several areas such as schooling, employment; housing, health, social care, culture and language. Of course, discrimination and marginalization are still very real in Sweden, but this is at least a step in the right direction.

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.

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.

Sweden chooses its song for Europe

Finally, after six long weeks of televised qualifying competitions, Sweden voted for the song to represent the country in the Eurovision Song Contest. Called ‘Voices’, the song is about everybody’s right to be be who they are and to be heard. The song won far ahead of its nearest competitor.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the winning song is actually the singer. His name is Tousin Chiza, but he is known as Tusse. In 2019, he won the Swedish equivalent of Pop Idol.

The 19 year-old singer came to Sweden as an unaccompanied child refugee, fleeing the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2009. He ended up in the small village of Tällberg in county Dalarna where he still lives today and has an adopted Swedish family. He has been widely criticized for his appearance, as he often wears non gender normative outfits.

This is a moment where the lyrics of the song and the artist are closely connected, which possibly explains its popularity and success in the competition. Tusse sings:

There’s fire in the rain
But we’ll get up again
We’re thousand miles apart
But we’ll overcome
I’ll never let you down
World is turning us around
But I feel it in my heart
Let’s make a brand new start
Can’t stop us now, forget the haters
Get up and live and make it matter
There’s more to life so go ahead and sing it
out’

It’s certainly a song that is a product of its time and it remains to be seen if the message resonates with the voters of Eurovision.

On 22 May in Rotterdam, Sweden will get the answer, and we will see if Tusse is Sweden’s 7th winner. If so, Sweden joins Ireland as the country with the most Eurovision wins since the competition began.

Swedish politics – alarmist or accurate?

There’s a change blowing in Swedish politics and I’m really interested to hear your point of view.

In recent years, the far right, nationalistic party Sweden Democrats (SD) have gained traction. However, although they have a 17% representation in the parliament, they have never sat in the government. This is mostly because the other established parties have refused to negotiate or cooperate with them.

Today, Sweden has a minority government supported by smaller parties. One of the raison d’etre of this solution is to keep SD away from any form of governmental influence.

However, there is a shift. The two other right-oriented conservative parties, the Moderates (M) and the Christian Democrats (KD), are now opening the door to SD. In a bid to gain power, M and KD have understood they cannot reign without SD. Together, this block could get the largest number of votes, if not an outright majority.

Many people are concerned about this. History tells us how radical right-wing parties have previously gained political domination via the established conservative parties. The conservative parties opened the door, and then lost control. People are worried that this will happen in Sweden and that a right-wing union would devastate the country.

What do you think? Is this a valid concern or are people simply being alarmist?

Please share your thoughts.

Why should we in Sweden care about today’s US election?

There’s been a lot of media coverage about the US election in Sweden, so much that many of us are sick of it. However, today the day is finally here. Millions upon millions of votes are counted and a winner will hopefully be announced. So, why should we in Sweden care what the outcome of the election is? Here are 5 reasons why.

1. Swedish economy. Sweden is a small, export-dependent country, heavily dependent on trade with USA. If Trump gets re-elected, he may very well continue to apply protectionist import restrictions on foreign goods. If Biden gets in, global trade agreements are probably safer. This will have a deep financial impact on Sweden’s economy.

2. Swedish jobs. Reduced trade with USA means fewer jobs in Sweden. It will be harder, and take us longer, to recover from the devastation of the pandemic and create employment.

3. Global health crisis. USA is one of the largest financial contributors to the WHO. Trump is a sceptic and wants to withdraw. Should this happen, the WHO will not be as effective in fighting future pandemics and world health crises.

4. Political quality. Trump’s divisive style of presidency sets a standard for the national stage. He normalizes hateful language, bullying and arrogance. This has ripple effects in Sweden, where some of our elected representatives imitate his style and, in my opinion, lower the quality of politics. Trump certainly has entertainment value, but I would like to see a resurgence of dignified, respectful debate both in the USA and Sweden. Hopefully Biden as president can pioneer its return.

5. Trust and security. There is a trust deficit in the world today. This has been exacerbated by Trump, with his unabated attacks on science, journalism and research. He is a fact denier, whose presidency has been characterised by lies, and more lies. The trust deficit is not Trump’s fault, it existed before he was elected, but he has fanned its flames. A global reduction in trust makes the world an unsafe place, and this affects us in Sweden. It increases the chance of conflict, of instability and in worse case, war. The leader of USA has a major influence on how trust develops or declines in the rest of the world.

So, USA is a deeply split country, and whatever the result, the large rifts will remain. The soul of the country will not be healed after this. We can probably expect a long period of chaos, civil outrage and refusal to accept the result, regardless of what it is. Without a doubt, what happens in USA affects us in Sweden. There is no getting away from that. Today’s election is crucial for setting the stage of how our world, our economy and our humanity develop.