Sweden and Norway

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agrarian and industrial change
art and science
the union

The Sweden that entered the nineteenth century stood ruled unevenly by a despotic king and four cowering medieval "estates" bodies representing the clergy, nobility, peasantry, and the burgher class. Designed for a society innocent of the steam engine, this arrangement would not last.


The estates system was turned almost completely on its head in 1809 because of Gustav IV Adolph (r. 1792–1809), whose belligerence had almost led to an invasion of Sweden by Russia and France. His gamble forced the writing of a new, liberal constitution. This "instrument of government" guaranteed freedom of the press, speech, and worship; to achieve as much, and more, it also introduced the ombudsman, an agent to police the nation's administration. Its statutes moreover stipulated that noblemen surrender their exclusive, hereditary claims to state careers. More ambitiously still, the constitution forced the crown to accept a compromise between legislative and executive authority: members of the Riksdag, or Parliament of Estates—still intact, indeed stronger than ever—now enjoyed the right to veto legislation and the budget. Should the need arise they could impeach the king's councilors and ministers.

One after another these rights and liberties were withdrawn, however, provoking fury but no rebellion. Eventually Lars Johan Hierta, founder in 1830 of the newspaper Aftonbladet came to lead the campaign against censorship—against the 1812 indragningsmakt, or right to seizure, that held the press in check. His daily suffered fines and probations for its outspoken stands on issues. But however severe and numerous, punishments had the effect of inspiring rather than inhibiting cries for change. The imprisonment in 1838 of the journalist Magnus Crusenstolpe provoked rioting and casualties, martyrs for the cause of yttrandefrihet (freedom of speech).

King Charles XV (r. 1859–1872) understood the need for democracy and recognized, too, that his career depended on it. He immediately allowed public worship for creeds other than Lutheranism: hence the emergence of Baptists, Methodists (headed by the Scotsman George Scott [1804–1874]), Pentecostals, and other sects, although dutiful religious conviction was by and large waning. On 22 June 1866 this sovereign, agreed to relinquish much of the extensive executive power granted him by the constitution, allowing the creation of a bicameral, partially elected parliament to meet annually. An upper house would guard the interests of old noble families, and a lower house was to serve the aspirations of prosperous farmers and increasingly those of professionals like doctors, lawyers, and teachers. Appointees to this assembly were to be chosen by men at least twenty-one years of age with reasonable incomes—a franchise comprising a quarter of the adult male population. (Women would have to wait until 1919 for their right to vote.) Not until years later, however, between the world wars, would this system of representation function effectively and without prejudice. Be that as it may, the crown could no longer dictate, but had to negotiate its authority. Baron Louis De Geer, whose counsel as minister of justice had led to

the Riksdag's transformation, in 1876 became Sweden's first prime minister. In 1883 a commoner, Carl Thyselius, took the office.

Given the hold of socialism on twentieth-century Sweden, one might think that this ideology developed comparatively early and quickly there, but like republicanism and capitalism it did not—this despite the influence of the revolutions of 1848 in France and elsewhere, which brought riots to Stockholm. Only in 1889 did Hjalmar Branting establish the Social Democratic Labor Party. At that time no legislation of significance regulated labor conditions for either adults or children. And employers owed their employees neither health insurance nor retirement pensions. This state of affairs also motivated the creation of the Confederation of Trade Unions in 1898. These socialists and syndicalists would make a difference, helping for example to assure working women a month of leave after childbirth.

agrarian and industrial change

Agriculture in nineteenth-century Sweden was on the whole traditional, never becoming especially advanced either in technique or technology. Often living hand to mouth, isolated, and without education, peasants—over half of whom were landowners—did not all know about enclosing their fields or rotating crops. It took many years for iron plows and harrows, not to mention harvesters, to become widely employed. Scania (Skåne) was the exception: here, Rutger Maclean (1742–1816) of Svaneholm, focused on profitability, selected seed for cultivation and applied fertilizer in abundance. This region's fields, some reclaimed from marshes, were blessed with fertile soil and ample sunshine. By 1900, however, although the country's overall productivity remained low, advances such as selective animal breeding and centrifugal cream separators for making butter were being employed in some areas.

In the last quarter of the century Swedes suffered the effects of their shortage of production, especially as the population had grown, invigorated by peace, the potato, and vaccination against traditional diseases. During this period, marked by a series of long, cold winters, farmers' plots gave surprisingly meager yields. Consequently—and because the cereal market had become increasingly international and competitive—many people began trying to make a life elsewhere, particularly around the Great Lakes of the United States. To a degree such emigration had taken place in the decades before 1850, but this had been the result of religious discrimination. In the 1880s alone nearly a half-million emigrants, mainly the landless young, opted to leave their homes, nation, and continent behind. Vilhelm Moberg (1898–1973) portrayed one family's migration from Småland to Minnesota in four heart-wrenching books, all enduring, popular classics. The author spoke from experience, for many of his own relatives had left (and were to leave) Sweden for the promise of land to call their own.

Like Denmark and Germany, Sweden experienced industrial mechanization in the second half of the nineteenth century. Helped by the abolishment of guilds in 1846 and a maturing system of private, speculative investment, Sweden's equivalents to Britain's Manchester and Sheffield began to develop in Norrköping and Eskilstuna. These textile and steel manufacturing centers eventually created large and effective "economies of scale." The nation had long been successfully engaged in iron production, despite competition from Russia, exporting the bulk to Britain along with timber in return for coffee, sugar, tobacco, and coal. Yet the majority of Swedes continued to work the land: in 1850 some 90 percent of them lived in villages; a half-century later the proportion was smaller but not by a considerable amount.

Industries of this sort depended on an improved and expanded infrastructure. By 1900 railways were common, and in subsequent years Sweden would construct an intricate, efficient network. Igniting this "revolution" in transportation, a twelve-mile track between Örebro and Ervalla opened in 1856. Soon train service also linked Gothenburg with Jonsered, and Malmö with Lund. In each of these cases a combination of public and private monies funded research, development, and production. The nation was becoming one, a phenomenon speeded by the introduction of the telegraph and telephone in 1853 and 1880 respectively.


Improvements in education likewise deepened a sense of nationhood, of sharing as citizens. By 1900 Swedes boasted rates of literacy that were the envy of Europe. Each parish, supervised by an elected, lay board, was required by the School Law of 1842 to teach its children proficiency in reading, writing, and arithmetic with the help of a trained, professional corps of teachers. In 1882 it was mandated that students stay in school between ages seven and fourteen.

Like primary schools, secondary institutions of learning grew in number during the nineteenth century. They increasingly emphasized a new "modern" curriculum at the expense of the old classical canon of Greco-Roman language and culture. Students who excelled at this level stood a chance of admission to the Universities of Lund and Uppsala or to either the Technological or Medical Institute of Stockholm, each of which would in time be granted university status.

art and science

Sweden enjoyed a legacy of ambitious, original scholarship, especially in science. The botanist Carl Linneaus's 1735 System of Nature, a taxonomy of plants (and living things generally) by genera and species, guides research in the field to this day. The centigrade scale for measuring temperature, devised in 1742, was the work of the astronomer Anders Celsius. In the nineteenth century Jöns Berzelius and Svante Arrhenius added to this record of distinction: the former, in 1818, authored a comprehensive if erratic periodic chemical table; the latter, in 1889, introduced the concept of "activation energy," helping to explain the reactions of molecules. In the tradition of Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742–1786), these chemists led a vanguard that also included physicists: Johannes Rydberg's (1854–1919) work on electromagnetic radiation gave rise to a formula, while Anders Jonas Ångström's (1814–1874) name still graces a unit of measurement used in spectroscopy. Although not Swedish by birth, the Russian mathematician

Sofia Kovalevskaya merits mention. A specialist in partial differential equations and the geometry of rotating solid objects, in 1884 she was appointed professor at the University of Stockholm, earning a chair five years later. (At the time only two other women in Europe enjoyed such rank.) With a view toward promoting such achievement, Stockholm's Alfred Nobel (1833–1896), the inventor of dynamite, willed his fortune (partly earned from petroleum exploration in the Caspian Sea) to fund annual international awards beginning in 1901 for triumphs in science, medicine, literature, and peace.

As in science so in art: Selma Lagerlöf (1858–1940) of Mårbacka, Värmland, and Stockholm's August Strindberg (1849–1912) produced some of the nineteenth century's richest and most varied literature. A restless sort, Strindberg wrote plays in multiple genres: historical works such as Charles XII (Karl XII, 1902), on the king who for his aggressive, military ambition earned himself the soubriquet "Alexander of the North"; realistic works such as Miss Julie (Fröken Julie, 1888), about a Midsummer Night tryst between lady and servant; and symbolist or expressionist works such as Easter and Dance of Death (Påsk, 1901; Dödsdansen, 1900). Thus while Strindberg normally wrote about the world he knew through experience, in the tradition of Viktor Rydberg, he also on occasion explored the fantastic and bizarre. Yet in all these plays lurks Strindberg's own turmoil, which makes the drama convincing and grave. The son of a well-to-do but failing merchant family, he was married and divorced three times, having children with each wife. A combination of socialist and anarchist, he loathed the bourgeoisie for its insipidity and materialism, evident in his novel The Red Room (Röda rummet, 1879) and his history of Swedish People at Work and Play (Svenska folket i helg och söcken, 1881–1882). For a commentary he wrote on Jesus, Strindberg was tried for blasphemy. In him there was something of the painter Ernst Josephson, not to mention the Norwegian Edvard Munch, whose Scream (1893) with its churning, cavernous Oslofjord, begs the question of whether existence precedes our essence.

Trained as a schoolteacher, Lagerlöf wrote with less doubt and more joy than Strindberg. There is imagination and humor à la Gustav Fröding (1860–1911) in her oeuvre: witness the signature fairy tale The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige, 1906–1907). Inspired by Rudyard Kipling, the book consists of witty, graphic lessons in geography—seen through the eyes of a mischievous, elfish teenager riding a goose through the sky. Generally the book teaches love of nature, specifically an appreciation of Sweden's varied terrain and climate. While typically amusing and never caustic, Lagerlöf—who spent much of her life with a woman, Sophie Elkan (1853–1921)—also wrote critically. In The Story of Gösta Berling (Gösta Berlings saga, 1891), a novel about her home province, she explores the ruination of an estate by a dozen reckless cavaliers, outsiders without either feeling or respect for the land: ultimately a benign, knowledgeable countess (played by Greta Garbo in Mauritz Stiller's 1924 film adaptation) sets them straight, teaching their leader a lesson in responsibility.

Within the work of both Lagerlöf and Strindberg there is manifestly a touch of Esaias Tegnér's (1782–1846) "nationalism." The poet and bishop based much of his poetry on Old Norse legend, trumpeting Scandinavia's primacy—as did artists in all fields, music included. What the composer Edvard Grieg of Bergen, Norway, loved above all, however international his training in Leipzig, was the vernacular of the folk song. He cherished its history and melodious, narrative aspect, as evidenced in "Morning Mood" and "Mountain King" from his 1876 score for Peer Gynt (1867) by the playwright Henrik Ibsen. The play centers on an antihero and his transformation from an innocent youth of imagination to a worldly adult—a womanizer, thief, and slave trader—confused by his own ambition and hypocrisy. Its story actually suggests why nineteenth-century musicians, writers, and others found themselves inspired by national and local traditions. Memories of an allegedly simpler and ordered way of life

offered refuge from a century that threatened to become the property of larger, global forces of change, symbolized by the locomotive.

the union

The "union of Sweden and Norway, formed in 1814, ended on 7 June 1905. As of that date the houses of Bernadotte (King Oscar II; r. 1872–1907) and Oldenburg (King Håkon VII; r. 1905–1957) stood as equals—as separate constitutional monarchies. Sweden had acquired Norway from Denmark, as penalty for its defense of Napoleon I (r. 1804–1814/15). Norway, which protested the agreement, threatening war, eventually won considerable autonomy from Sweden. The king of Sweden enjoyed not an absolute but a suspensive veto on legislation passed by the parliament (Storting) in Oslo. Yet aware of how liberty was maturing elsewhere and roused by the nationalist Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832–1910), Norwegians increasingly wanted their nation to themselves. Tempers began flaring over the appointment of a liaison between "master" and "subject" governments: Whose prerogative was it to select him? Soon too the dispute concerned Norway's wish to represent itself abroad, independently of Sweden. Without Norway and Finland, which had been lost to Russia in a series of battles in 1808–1809, Sweden could no longer, claim to be a stormakt, or "great power."

See alsoDenmark; French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars; Finland and the Baltic Provinces; Russia.


Barton, H. Arnold. Sweden and Visions of Norway: Politics and Culture, 1814–1905. Carbondale, Ill., 2003.

Derry, T. K. A History of Modern Norway, 1814–1972. Oxford, U.K., 1973.

Oakley, Stewart P. A Short History of Sweden. New York, 1966.

Stråth, Bo. Union och demokrati: De förenade rikena Sverige-Norge, 1814–1905. Stockholm, 2005.

Johan Åhr