The Nordic Countries

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Panu Pulma

The principalities of Sweden and Denmark-Norway took their shape in the sixteenth century. Gustavus Vasa of Sweden ascended to the throne in 1523, while Christian III became king of Denmark in 1534, bringing the independent kingdom of Norway to an end. The consolidation of monarchy gained further momentum from the incipient Lutheran reformation, but a centralized state power did not, however, come about swiftly or suddenly in either kingdom nor were its consequences similar. Sweden (including the Finnish provinces) became a unitary state with a unitary legislation and a fairly uniform administration. Exceptions to the rule were the conquered lands south of the Baltic Sea (such as Swedish Pomerania), but Swedish law and administration were imposed on another conquered land, Scania, immediately after it was won from Denmark in 1658. The Scanian peasantry was integrated into the state system as one of the four estates—the Swedish diet was an assembly for the nobility, clergy, burgesses, and peasants—and given power at the local parish level.

In contrast, the kingdom of Denmark-Norway was a typical European conglomerate state. The sovereignty of the Danish king covered areas with different systems of administration and legislature: Norway applied its own law, also in use in the Faroe Islands, whereas Iceland was ruled centrally from Copenhagen, but as a separate legislative unit. The duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, too, were entities of their own. The Scandinavian kings ruled over large and sparsely populated areas with heterogeneous economies and social structures.

Seventeenth-century European history was about war and state-building. The two were linked, and the Scandinavian countries did not escape either. Sweden and Denmark-Norway fought over supremacy in the Baltic, and Sweden became embroiled in a struggle against Russia's growing influence. To succeed in the contest, the Scandinavian countries, mainly dependent on agrarian production, needed resources that could only be produced through a reliable military and bureaucratic machinery. The creation of this machinery—the centralized state power—was key in molding the Scandinavian social order.

While important variations exist in the social histories of the individual regions in Scandinavia, there are some unifying themes. Scandinavian society in the early modern centuries was distinguished from other parts of western Europe by its highly agrarian character, as well as by the extent of the government's impact on society. Aided by pervasive Lutheranism, government efforts led to high literacy rates beginning in the early modern period. In many cases, this resulted in exceptionally good record-keeping, which has allowed social historians to undertake detailed studies of such topics as demography.

The nineteenth century in Scandinavia was marked by rapid population growth and high rates of emigration. Industrialization brought many familiar features, but by the late nineteenth century Scandinavia began in some ways to set itself apart from most of industrialized western Europe, particularly with its rapid development of a reformist welfare state and with changes in women's rights and, later, family forms. In these areas many Scandinavian countries anticipated trends that subsequently played themselves out in the rest of Europe, and they took these trends farther than most countries. As a result, foreign attention repeatedly turned to Scandinavian social history—whether as a model or as a target for criticism.


The population of the Nordic countries was small and unevenly distributed, estimated to have risen from 1.6 million to 2.6 million in the course of the sixteenth century. The population concentrated in the heartlands, but the fastest growth took place on the fringes: there were three times more Danes than Norwegians in the early sixteenth century, but three hundred years later the Danes outnumbered the Norwegians by only 10 to 20 percent. The population of 1.9 million in Denmark-Norway in 1800 included a million Danes, just under 900,000 Norwegians, and 50,000 inhabitants in Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Among the subjects of the Swedish crown, there were three times more Swedes than Finns in the sixteenth century, five times more in the early eighteenth century but only two and a half times more in the year 1800 (2.3 million in Sweden; 830,000 in Finland). The population and economic importance of Norway and Finland grew considerably in the eighteenth century in particular.

Scandinavia was predominantly rural throughout the early modern era. Only the capitals, Stockholm and Copenhagen, stood out in European terms: the population of Copenhagen grew from 70,000 to almost 100,000 in the eighteenth century, while Stockholm's population almost doubled from more than 40,000 to more than 70,000 people. Except for the busy trading port of Bergen in Norway, other Scandinavian towns remained commercially stunted and under close state control. The principalities relied on the countryside instead.

The core agricultural lands in Denmark (including Scania), mid-Sweden, and southwestern Finland had mostly passed to the hands of the nobility as early as the Middle Ages. However, the countryside took different routes of development. Noble estates and a peasantry tied to their lords became common in southern Scandinavia. Burdened with strict labor services, peasants were forbidden to leave the estates without permission. Where 15–20 percent of Danish peasants had been independent at the beginning of the sixteenth century, only 2 percent retained their independence in the 1680s. Until the late eighteenth century, the conditions of serfdom in Denmark and the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein were similar to those found east of the river Elbe. The economic, social, ecological, and political pressures of the eighteenth century finally spurred an agrarian reform that gave birth to an independent peasantry also in Denmark. The transition from Gutherrschaft (in which the landlord's economy is based on the work of dependent peasants on the manorial lands) to Grundherrschaft (in which the landlord receives rent or other revenue from peasant landholdings) is a peculiar and much-debated process, which nevertheless made the social structure of the Danish countryside more typically Nordic. Manorial estates were few in Norway and nonexistent in Iceland.

Swedish peasantry could be divided into three categories: freehold tax-paying peasants (skattebönder); peasants on crown land (kronobönder); and peasants on noble estates (frälsebönder), whose owners enjoyed tax-free status in return for services rendered to the crown. Lacking all political rights, the frälsebönder were in the weakest position, but they never lost their personal freedom and, in contrast to Denmark, the Swedish lords of the manor did not have the right to administer justice over their peasants.

The nobility in seventeenth-century Scandinavia grew stronger, as the state needed ever more revenue to maintain growing armies. At first, the crown allowed for an expansion of tax-free frälse land, thus gaining much-wanted manpower in the army. In the eastern parts of the Swedish realm, and in Finland, the number of frälsebönder tripled as early as the end of the sixteenth century. In 1655, the nobility held 65 and 58 percent of the arable land in Sweden and Finland, respectively. However, in the seventeenth century the crown counteracted its previous policy, because the large-scale transfer of crown land to the noble estates was eating away at the tax base. When royal absolutism was introduced in Denmark (1660), it became possible for any man of wealth to own a manorial demesne, irrespective of his birth. In Sweden, the Crown carried out a large-scale cancellation of donations to the nobility in the late seventeenth century, transferring great numbers of peasants from the category of frälsebönder to that of crown peasants. Out of the Finnish peasant holdings, as many as 70 percent were crown estates. By the mid-eighteenth century, a third of the Swedish farms, but only 7 percent in Finland, were on tax-free frälse land owned by the nobility.

The need for officials in the much-expanded state machinery shifted the emphasis from a landed nobility to a service nobility, whose economic interests were not as immediately tied to the land as they had been in the early seventeenth century. In Denmark, the large estates began to be transferred into the hands of the nonnobility in the 1600s, in Sweden a century later. Norway and Sweden underwent an even bigger change: crown estates and church tenant estates were increasingly being bought as independent tax-paying estates. In the course of the eighteenth century, this strengthened the economic, social, and political status of the peasantry, although land was obviously ceded to other groups in the society as well. The absolutist Swedish king Gustavus III was forced to buy the support of the lower estates in 1789 by granting them the right to own tax-free land and by improving the state of the crown peasants. At the time, the transfer of tax-free land from the nobility, often badly in debt, to the clergy and the burgesses, but also to wealthy peasants, was in full swing in Sweden, too. In Iceland, where agriculture was possible only on a narrow coastal strip, the biggest landowner was the church, but the clergy and officials also owned estates in large numbers, occupied by tenant farmers.

Peasant households. Whether Scandinavian agriculture was based on manorial estates or (semi)independent peasant farms, farming nevertheless relied on peasant families, whose lives were bound by restrictions on farm ownership and the demands imposed by coping with increasing responsibilities. As in northwest Europe, the typical Scandinavian family type was the three-generational stem family. One of the sons would inherit the estate or tenure to it, but the old farmer and his wife would still live on the farm. Normally, the peasant household also had one or more maids or farmhands. Because the transfer of farm ownership was governed by many administrative restrictions (permission from the lord of the manor or crown official), the son would get to his inheritance fairly late in life, which in turn raised the average marriage age. The families therefore remained fairly small: three to four persons made for an average Danish peasant household in the eighteenth century, while the average size in Norway and Iceland—where peasants were free from such restrictions and thus could marry earlier—was seven persons, and households there often included more distant relatives.

As a rule, the family structure and size in the old Scandinavian rural society reflected the economic and social status of the family. The households of the nobility and clergy could be very large indeed, making room even for unmarried relatives, whereas the landless families were typically nuclear. This is evident in the development of the Åland archipelago, part of the heartland of the Swedish realm: in the seventeenth century, when most of the population were peasants with their own land, the number of extended families could rise to more than 30 percent of households. With the rapid rise in the number of landless households in the eighteenth century, the family structure became simpler and the share of large extended families decreased to less than 10 percent.

Family size was also affected by the system of production. Before their landless population grew in the eighteenth century, the Åland islanders, living off fishing and the sea, and the tar-burning inhabitants of Finnish Ostrobothnia could live well in complex family systems. In eastern and southeastern Finland, where labor-intensive slash-and-burn agriculture and haulage of goods to St. Petersburg were increasingly important, the extended family was the common family type. The different partnership-type households typical of the region ensured an adequate workforce on the farms, which functioned like conglomerate companies. Each family was allotted certain responsibilities, which were outlined in a legally binding document; disputes between families were often resolved in court. People married earlier than elsewhere in the Nordic countries, because marriage was not tied to land tenure or to the division of the inheritance. The old farmer or his widow was head of the farm until his or her death. Likewise, there were fewer landless people and births outside wedlock than in the rest of the Nordic area. Even if the prevalence of the large and complex households in these eastern and northern parts is easiest explained in socioeconomic terms, we cannot completely overlook cultural factors. Complex families were also common in Russia, the Baltic countries, and eastern central Europe as far as the Balkans.

Loose population and other vagrants. People relegated to the margins for one reason or another were an integral part of the old society. In an estate society, "official" status was only granted to those unable to work and to the infirm and poor, who ended up being the responsibility of parish poor relief. Among the marginalized were also different travelers' groups, vagrants, prostitutes, and people engaged in despised trades. The state resorted to ever-tightening vagrant restrictions and forced labor for the Crown to control the marginal population.

In the seventeenth century, when life was burdened with continuous wars and army recruitments, vagrants able to work had little chance to escape the control machinery of the state, even if estate owners and peasants facing labor shortages were willing to employ them and could to a certain extent protect them. A new category emerged in vagrant restrictions as early as the sixteenth century—the "Egyptians," who were beginning to be known as zigenare or tattare in the seventeenth century. The Roma (or Gypsies) were kept under close surveillance because of their foreign origin and traveling way of life. Apparently, in the other Nordic countries, the Roma started to mix with other marginal vagrant groups in the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they called themselves the "travelers." In Finland, however, where the wilderness was out of reach of state control and where there was a demand for the services of the traveling Roma among the sparse population, no such mixing took place. When Finland was annexed as an autonomous region to the Russian empire in 1809, the Finnish Roma population joined that of Russia and the Baltic area.

Birth of the rural proletariat. The need to secure an adequate workforce led to the birth of a new type of worker. Tenant farmers on manorial estates could not increase their daily workload indefinitely, so the lords of the manors started to set aside land in order to establish small crofts. In Denmark, the crofters were called husmaend, in Norway husmann, and in Sweden they were known as torpare. Where new settlements could be established, the peasants, too, increased their cultivation by setting up crofts. The Danish husmaend already outnumbered the peasants in places at the end of the seventeenth century, while elsewhere in the Nordic countries the crofter class started to grow vigorously in the mid-1700s. This coincided with the rapidly increasing population growth in general. Many peasant farms resorted to setting up crofts to settle the sons' inheritance.

The husmaend/husmann/torpare were an intermediate category of sorts between the landowners and the landless population. Their social status varied dramatically according to whether the croft was part of a manorial demesne, established to alleviate a labor shortage; a new settlement on a peasant holding; or part of an inheritance settlement, in which case the croft could have significant cultivation of its own.

Underneath the crofters there grew even more vigorously a heterogeneous landless class. This new proletariat was separate from the servant population, who were hired for a year at a time and whose time in service usually finished with their getting married. The new proletariat were often already married and lived in their own cottages on somebody else's farm or on the village common land. They paid their rent mainly in work and had no cultivation of their own, at most only a small vegetable plot and a couple of livestock, grazing on common village grounds. Members of this class went by several names: inderster and indsittere in Denmark; gadehusmand in Denmark and Scania; arbeidhusmann and strandsittere in Norway; backstugusittare and inhysing in Sweden; and itsellinen, loinen, and kesti in Finland. The poorest among them did not even have a cottage of their own, but would live under other people's feet, in the drying-houses and saunas of the peasantry.

Rather than hiring a large workforce year round, the peasant household needed a reliably available seasonal workforce. This is where the landless population, reasonably stationary, proved vital. It was also this section of the population that grew quickest from the late eighteenth century onward.

The rapid population increase, the growth of the rural proletariat, and the agricultural reforms changed the social structure of the countryside. The peasantry started to form an intermediate group in society, a rural middle class that, together with the clergy, civil servants, and other burgesses, was in charge of local administration. Ever more conscious of its own estate and status, the peasantry demanded a say in the political processes either through the political system (Sweden and Finland) or through protest and rebellion (Norway).

Sami regions squeezed by population growth. The Sami people, also known as Lapps, differ from the Scandinavians both genetically and linguistically. The Sami region, known as Sameätnam, consisted of different ecological environments that left their mark on Sami sources of livelihood, ways of life, and culture. The Skolt and Kola Peninsula Sami relied on hunting and trading for their livelihood. Their life was inextricably tied to the Russian Orthodox cultural sphere. The sea Sami of the North Atlantic and Arctic Sea coasts lived off hunting, fishing, and trade. The fell (pelt) Sami used to occupy areas in both Norway and Sweden, and in Sweden in particular they adapted their way of life to the annual reindeer migrations between the Swedish woods and the Norwegian coast. The forest Sami of Sweden and Finland drew their livelihood from the wilderness, living in a more confined area than did the nomadic fell Sami. It was the forest Sami who came to bear the brunt of the population growth, as there was a persistent migration of Finns from the southern parts of Finland to the north. The slash-and-burn farming, fishing, and hunting Finns pushed the forest Sami ever farther north. With the colonizing push, the Sami increasingly started to settle down, tending the reindeer and farming their small farms. Communication and intermarriage with the colonists was common.

State-building processes at first interfered little with the Samis' largely nomadic way of life, although their taxation began already in the Middle Ages. When the consolidation of centralized states began, however, there emerged a need to draw the borders more clearly. This proved especially harmful to the fell Samis. The states were primarily concerned with tax collection, and the Lapp Codicil enclosed in the border agreement between Sweden and Denmark in 1751 regulated this matter. The agreement also guaranteed the Sami right to their traditional livelihoods and free passage across the borders, and even made provision for Sami officials to supervise the passage. However, the agreement that the Sami have called their Magna Carta failed to protect them against the pressure later caused by the migration of Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish populations to traditional Sami regions. The Sami in Finland found it especially hard that Russia, of which Finland was then part, canceled the Lapp Codicil in 1852. This stopped the free passage of Finnish Sami over to Sweden and Norway. At the same time, nationalistic policies all over the Nordic countries were starting to make ever more significant inroads into the Sami language, culture, and way of life.


Population growth was rapid in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as mortality rates, and infant mortality in particular, kept falling and birthrates remained high. The Nordic countries went through a "revolution of life," followed by decreasing birthrates from the late nineteenth century onward, first in towns and central areas, and then, in the early years of the twentieth century, on the peripheries, too. The populations of Denmark and Finland almost tripled in 1814–1914, and the populations of Sweden and Norway doubled despite the fact that almost three million Scandinavians emigrated before 1920, mainly to North America. Some of the emigrants did return, but the emigration from Norway, in particular, was truly large-scale. In relative terms, the only countries to see off more emigrants than Norway were Ireland and Italy. There was also sizeable immigration to the New World from Sweden, but less from Denmark, Finland, and Iceland. Emigration from these countries also started later than from Norway and Sweden, where the massive emigration of young men left its mark in the demographic and labor force structure.

The rapid population growth in the country and the beginning of the massive migrations of the nineteenth century were part of a fundamental change in society. Urbanization, emigration, and internal colonization all took place at the same time. Toward the latter part of the nineteenth century, the wood and paper industry also gave rise to new growth centers in previously sparsely populated areas. Still, industrialization did not cause the breakup of the society of estates, although it did speed up the process.

The Nordic society based on the hierarchy of four estates had begun to crumble while still at its peak. Outside the stilted estate structure, there was a power base of nonnoble officials and entrepreneurs known in Sweden as ofrälse ståndspersoner, people of wealth, position, and "quality." As tax-free land was increasingly granted to nonnobility, the traditional landed gentry found its status weakened. The various elite groups began to mix, and their financial discrepancies evened out.

An even bigger change took place among the rural laborers. The peasantry grew stronger economically, socially, and politically, first in Sweden and Norway, and then also in Denmark, in the nineteenth century. In Norway it was only in the 1800s that the number of peasant farms grew substantially, but there was a rapid increase in all other Nordic countries in the number of crofters and landless peasants. By mid-century, the rural proletariat was the biggest population group in the Nordic countries. The social gap between them and the peasants, who were decreasing in relative terms and getting richer in absolute terms, opened up in more ways than one. The peasantry closed the doors of upward mobility to the landless population, but sought their own ways of moving up the social ladder through education and political involvement.

The change in the peasants' social status was also seen in the powerful religious awakenings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These movements drew part of their strength from a self-pedagogical and educational strain in evidence throughout Scandinavia (Grundtvigianism in Denmark, Haugeanism in Norway, free-churchism in Sweden, Laestadionism in the north of Sweden and Finland) and shared a critical attitude toward the elite and the Lutheran state church.

Economy, industrialization, and urbanization. Scandinavian economic and social development were influenced by the changes in European economic structures and international trade. Industrialization in Europe opened up expanding markets to agriculture in western Scandinavia in particular. Agriculture in Denmark and fishing in Norway and Iceland underwent a boom, while forestry in Norway, Sweden, and Finland benefited from a growing demand in Britain and Germany. The Nordic home market remained undeveloped, leaving economic expansion mainly dependent on export production. This led Nordic industrialization in different directions: the industrial development in Denmark served dairy and cattle farming, while the forest resources in Norway, Sweden, and Finland found their utilization first in sawmills, then in the pulp and paper industry. The Swedes had long made use of their iron ore supplies, which gave them a head start in metal industries and technical engineering, whereas Danes and Norwegians rose to be important seafarers with a shipbuilding industry that also opened up markets for other branches of industry.

Export-led and boosted by industrialization, economic growth leaned on overseas demand and extensive indigenous labor force reserves. The migration from the country to the towns gathered speed, and the social structures of the Nordic countries were shaped by urbanization and industrialization from the 1840s onward. The share of the rural population was already under 60 percent in Denmark in 1840, and in 1870 agriculture employed 44, 54, and 72 percent of the population in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, respectively. In Finland, urbanization had speeded up but did not yet affect the population distribution, because the growth in rural population continued to exceed the urban growth rate as late as the end of the nineteenth century. Nor did migration to the New World or St. Petersburg, large as it was at times and in places, decrease the growth of the rural proletariat. In Iceland, too, the share of the rural population remained high until the early twentieth century, when the "industrialization" of fishing finally pushed for a change in the economic structure.

Industrial development in Scandinavia gained momentum in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Before World War I, industry employed more than 30 percent of the employable population in Sweden, just under 30 percent in Denmark and Norway, but only 10 percent in Finland. Danish industries were typically small in size, while in the other Nordic countries economic development was led by large-scale industries such as metal and wood processing.

Rise of the urban population. The urban population boom was the result of growth in trade, crafts, industry, construction, and administration and services for the expanding middle class. In 1914, one in every four Swedes and two-fifths of the Danes were town-dwellers. Even in agrarian Finland the urban population made up almost 15 percent of the population, and there were tens of thousands of Finns living in St. Petersburg. The capitals were the seats of the most rapid growth: at the beginning of the twentieth century, Copenhagen already had more than half a million inhabitants, while Stockholm had a population of 380,000; Christiania (Oslo) a quarter of a million people; and Helsinki more than 100,000 inhabitants. The trade centers of Gothenburg and Bergen also grew significantly. The development of inland towns and the building of railroads typically went together. The railroads also gave rise to a new type of population center.

Rapid urbanization left the towns heavily segregated. Those who had left the countryside settled on the outskirts of the towns or outside and beyond the town administrative boundaries, in areas that grew into slums. Housing policy turned into an object of speculation: housing costs were high, housing standards poor. The new working-class areas were densely populated, with poor hygienic conditions and a high infant-mortality rate. The situation swiftly improved, however, with the introduction of municipal waterworks and public health care at the turn of the twentieth century. The administration of the urban centers had been rationalized, though not democratized, in the nineteenth-century local government reforms, but national legislation was often used as a stick—and state subsidies as carrots—to make the local bodies carry out effective reforms. Little by little, local self-government was beginning to be controlled more closely by national government.

Urban life and restructuring of the society. What the urban middle and working classes found in common was the growing separation of work and home. Those who had moved to town from the country were often young and about to be married. In towns, the nuclear family became the norm, even if the middle class kept their servants, and the working class often shared their homes with others. The increasing mass production of consumer goods began to take over from the production of homemade goods, which decreased the need for servants. The middle-class husband worked outside the home, while the wife devoted her life to looking after home and children. The ideal of a family wage was kept alive in working-class families, too: the husband was supposed to provide for his family, but practice usually proved otherwise. The wife and children had to supplement the husband's earnings by working outside the home or by taking in work such as sewing, laundry, and child minding.

The growing social problems in towns—the "dangerous liberty" of working-class children and the high extramarital birthrates in particular—had been cause for concern to the middle classes and the elites ever since the early nineteenth century. One of the first manifestations of civil society were the philanthropic organizations. Charitable work, teaching, and poor relief were considered suitable areas of social engagement for middle-class women.

Women's organizations and the fact that single women from the upper classes increasingly took up white-collar positions fostered a wider debate about women's status, duties, and rights from the 1840s onward. At the core of practical charitable work and of the social and national debate was the significance of the family, particularly of the mother as the backbone of social and moral upbringing. In societies geared around family farms it was difficult to justify the tradition of male supremacy with a peripheral female status. The man might be the head of the farm, but the wife still held the keys to the larder. The status of boys and girls as inheritors was brought into line without much opposition. Women had started their march toward a public role. The universities opened their doors to them in the 1870s and 1880s. The 1906 parliamentary reform in Finland—enacted in a euphoria of national self-defense against Russian inroads against Finnish autonomy—earned women equal and universal suffrage and the right to stand as candidates in national elections. Other Nordic countries followed suit later.

There were many ways to get involved in civic organizations. National and cultural associations, voluntary fire brigades, savings associations, and agrarian organizations grew more popular in all the Nordic countries from the 1830s onward, and political organization was boosted by the crises that stirred political life and reforms throughout the Nordic countries. The reorganizing and consolidation of the civil society tied in with the diminishing significance of the monarchy, the expansion of political participation, the growing importance of public debate, and the bureaucratization of the state.

The birth of the labor movement was part of this social mobilization. The basis of working-class organization lay in the old trade guilds, extinct in all the Nordic countries by the mid-nineteenth century. Run by middle-class liberals, the first phase of the labor associations was mostly pedagogical in nature, aimed at educating and civilizing the masses. Socialist doctrine began to be widely debated in the press in the 1840s, and the ideas were examined by both middle-class and working-class organizations, although workers' associations did not adopt the socialist line until much later—in the 1870s in Denmark, the 1880s in Sweden and Norway, the 1890s in Finland, and only in the 1910s in Iceland. Behind the decision to adopt a socialist line lay the reorganization of labor relations, the breakup of patriarchal ties, and the increased frequency of industrial action such as strikes. It was not surprising that trade unions should grow into strong national organizations in early-nineteenth-century Scandinavia. In a limited democracy, the trade unions became even stronger than the political (Social Democratic) movement. In Finland, however, where all political forces were united in national self-defense against Russia, the position of the political labor movement was stronger by far than that of the trade unions.

In the Nordic countries, the agrarian population and the workers typically organized at the same time. This was especially well demonstrated in the breakthrough of the cooperative movement. The Danish peasant movement and production cooperatives gained a prominent status both economically and politically. The working class and in part the rural and urban middle classes, too, favored the consumers' cooperatives, which tied political movements to economic and business life. The cooperative movement grew to be a significant economic power base.


The course of nineteenth-century Nordic societies was determined by urbanization and the political involvement of the proletariat. At the local level, the changes meant higher taxes, because one of the core duties of autonomous municipal administrations was to look after the ever-increasing poor relief costs. Attempts to reduce these costs had failed: neither the efforts to create British-style workhouses nor the classically liberal poor relief laws of the 1860s and 1870s, which stressed individual responsibility, had succeeded in bringing down the costs. A crucial factor in the widening economic and social gap between the middle classes and the lower classes was the tightening grip on power at the local level by the middle class. Local government was practiced—and its autonomy boosted by reforms—in all Nordic countries in the nineteenth century. But the rural and urban middle classes did not content themselves with wielding increasing power locally; they wanted their share in national politics as well.

Health insurance and pension reforms in Denmark in the 1890s and Sweden in the 1910s relied on state funding. Rather than stemming from abstract egalitarian ideals, they were born out of the struggle between agrarian parties, the urban middle class, and the conservative elites who had traditionally ruled the state. The competition was about power, customs duties, and taxation. The labor movement had little initial impact on the reforms, although the status of the working class was an important political argument. When the Nordic countries adopted social security systems, ideals of solidarity and egalitarianism took second place to the old statist traditions. The state-centered nature of politics fostered the aim to create large political coalitions—a politics of consensus—which further reinforced the legitimacy of national politics. With the rise of the labor movement in the twentieth century as a political player of the first degree through reformist Social Democratic Parties, it was natural to continue the egalitarian and universalistic social policy, usually supported by the strong agrarian movements and the middle class. The depression of the 1930s further spurred welfare measures, amid lower levels of political polarization than occurred elsewhere in Europe.

The Nordic countries grew to be important industrial states, albeit at varying dates and rates. Relying on metal and engineering industries, Sweden changed quickest, whereas Finland retained an agrarian character until the 1960s. Agriculture employed 20 percent of the Swedish workforce in 1950, some 25 percent in Denmark and Norway, and almost 50 percent in Finland. The difference was less marked in industry: 40 percent of the Swedish workforce was employed in manufacturing, 35–37 percent in Denmark and Norway, and 28 percent in Finland. The biggest differences in 1950 were in the service sector, which accounted for as much as 47 percent of the workforce in Norway, around 40 percent in Sweden and Denmark, and only 25 percent in Finland. The differences evened out in the years following World War II, which saw the birth of the "Nordic welfare state" as we know it. In 1970, the service sector employed a little more than 50 percent of the workforce in the Scandinavian countries, and 46 percent in Finland.


Twentieth-century Nordic societies were characterized by the high organization rates of the occupational groups. Blue- and white-collar workers' trade union membership and the extent of organization among farmers were among the highest in the world. This corresponded with intense class loyalty in political involvement, which is explained by the ethnic and religious homogeneity of the Nordic countries. National politics has built on a hegemonic tradition guided by prevailing ideological conceptions of the common good or the interest of the nation, and starting from the 1930s, on coalitions between the labor movement and the agrarian parties in particular.

Another important component of Nordic social policy is the politics of consensus, institutionalized in many ways. The collaboration between labor market organizations and interest groups was elevated to an official policy, particularly in times of crisis and war. After World War II, a special form of consensual politics was seen in so-called social corporatism: social, employment, and tax aims and resolutions were jointly settled by the trade-union movement, employees, and the government. Political settlements were made in conjunction with collective-bargaining agreements.

There are of course differences between the countries, but the fact remains that ever since the 1950s the social conditions in the Nordic countries have been brought into line by joint institutionalized state policies. These helped create a joint labor market for the Nordic countries and a broadly uniform social policy at an early stage. Nordic cooperation also shaped common principles into more or less official "national programs." These principles include universal social rights; government responsibility in ensuring general welfare; equal opportunities for both sexes and in income distribution (including redistribution through taxation); and (in varying degrees in different countries) the target of full employment and high employment participation.


Women have gained a prominent position in the Nordic societies, both at work and in public life. This was possible because industrialization came late and because the countryside was dominated by family farms. The wife's role was determined by the division of labor in family farms and would change according to whether the household was dependent on jobs, such as fishing and logging, that necessitated the husband's being away. In these cases, it was the women who bore the main responsibility for agriculture and animal husbandry. The division of labor between the sexes was ecologically determined and flexible, but it was socially determined as well, because the low wages of the landless population and urban working classes meant that both sexes and even their children had to earn their share of the family's living. These structural terms become especially evident, if we compare Finland, where industrialization came last, to the Scandinavian countries. The Finnish level of industrialization was the lowest in the Nordic countries between 1860–1970, the pay rates were two-thirds of those in Sweden, but the women's employment rates were the highest.

The sovereignty of single women and their right to dispose of their property became established between the 1840s and 1880s. This was especially important to the growing urban middle classes, whose ranks were swelling with single women to be recruited as teachers, nurses, and office workers in the expanding service sector. These urban middle-class single women were also the basis of the women's charitable organizations and the women's movement that kept the flag flying for women's issues. What came into being in the Nordic countries was a singular concept of bipartite female citizenship: the fact that she was expected to raise the future generation determined the woman's role within the family and in the society at large. Voting rights for women were granted earlier in the Nordic countries than in any other European region.

The family mother fulfilled her social responsibility in raising the children and in promoting rational housekeeping, whereas a single woman's duties were done in civic organizations, in schools and various childcare institutions. Education was a prerequisite for women to be able to optimally fulfill their parenting and housekeeping roles. Because the married woman's dependency on her husband was considered a problem, the marriage law reforms of the 1920s and 1930s defined paid employment outside the home and work within the home as equal functions for the benefit of the family. Women were released from needing a man to speak and act for them.

The gender bias in the welfare systems goes back to how welfare services were developed. Charity and child rearing were considered women's jobs. This view became entrenched when the state expanded its services. A case in point is the statutory municipal daycare system, the expansion of which helped women work outside home toward the latter part of the twentieth century and also provided tens of thousands of jobs. The public sector employed between 25 and 34 percent of the Nordic workforce in 1975, and 52–62 percent of public-sector employees were women.

The development of wide-ranging social service systems in the latter half of the twentieth century was based on the aims of high employment rates and equality. The high employment rate was a necessary condition for taxation and social security contributions, which laid the basis for the development of the service systems. These were justified both in terms of equal opportunities and labor policy. Women's integration in the labor market was linked to the individual nature of the rights of both sexes. In the individual model, both spouses were seen as equal providers and caregivers. Social security benefits applied to all citizens as individuals, irrespective of their family status. The fact that spouses were taxed independently was also an incentive for women to work outside home.

There are both differences and similarities among Nordic countries in the women's employment participation. Part-time work in Scandinavia was clearly more common than in Finland, where women traditionally worked full-time. The similarity lies in a persistent difference between men and women: in 1960, women in industry were paid less than 70 percent of men's wages; in the 1980s, women received 90 percent of the men's earnings in Sweden, 85 percent in Denmark and Norway, and 77 percent in Finland. These were much higher figures than in Germany or Britain at the time. In sectors dominated by women (such as textile industries and public services) the pay rates are usually lower than in male-dominated sectors. In the public sector, however, the internal sex hierarchy, or glass ceiling, has grown more fragile. Women have been employed in senior positions more often than before.

The twentieth century saw the consolidation of female participation in public life. That the Nordic welfare model has helped to improve the lot of women is a widely accepted political truth, which has also slowed down the tendency to erode the welfare state. Changes in women's status, along with a steady decline in religious influence, accounted also for significant shifts in family forms in the later twentieth century, including a rapid growth of sexuality outside of marriage and, particularly in Sweden, a decline in the marriage rate altogether.

Old and new minorities. Social and political development in the Nordic countries has been determined to a great extent by the extraordinary ethnic and religious homogeneity. There are, however, endogenous minorities, both nation-specific and multinational minorities. The more than 300,000 Swedish speakers in Finland gained linguistic equality in the 1920s and 1930s, and they see themselves not as a national or ethnic minority but as a linguistic minority only. The status of the German-speaking population (some 15,000 of them) in southern Denmark was also established in the twentieth century. A little more complicated is the status of the Finnish-speaking minorities in Sweden and Norway. The Finnish-speaking minority in northern Sweden (some 50,000 people) is part of the indigenous population, whereas the Norwegian Finns, known as kveenit (totaling around 7,000) moved to the area in the nineteenth century. Both groups were the targets of nationalistic pressure, and their linguistic rights were given due consideration only at the end of the twentieth century.

The biggest endogenous multinational minorities include the Sami (totaling some 45,000), the Roma (some 10,000), and the Jews (around 25,000). The Sami came into conflict with the majority population and the state apparatus when traditional reindeer herding became harder in the structural economic changes. Sami status has been granted on the basis of varying criteria: in Finland, with a population of 4,000 Sami, they were classified on ethnic-linguistic grounds, whereas in Norway and Sweden, with a Sami population of 25,000 and 15,000, respectively, only reindeer herders qualified, even if most Sami were engaged in other trades altogether. Ever since the 1960s, the Sami have applied for a special linguistic, cultural, and economic status. Their efforts have been rewarded by the granting of the status of an indigenous people, ratified by the United Nations. Sami-language schools, political bodies for self-rule, and cultural institutions were granted official status on a pan-Nordic level and in each individual country in the 1990s. The struggle for the privilege of utilizing certain natural resources in Sami areas goes on.

Among the minorities in the Nordic countries, those in the weakest position are the Roma. Assimilation attempts have been overpowering, but Roma resistance has proved stubborn. The largest Roma population is in Finland, which has more than half of all the Roma in the Nordic countries. There was little official discrimination, but unofficial discrimination and pressures were tangible until the 1960s. It was then that the Roma became organized and made themselves heard as part of the international racial discrimination debate. Officially, the discrimination of Roma, as of all other minorities, was banned throughout the Nordic countries, but there was little positive action to improve their social status. A similar awakening as an "ethnic minority" took place toward the end of the 1990s among the "travelers" of Sweden and Norway. They have demanded that the sterilization policies and the many incidents in which their children were forcibly taken into care be reexamined and that they be compensated. Since the Roma were granted minority status, ratified by the European Union, the "travelers" have started to identify themselves as Roma, something they still refused to do in the 1970s.

Attempts at assimilating the Roma to the majority population may have come to nothing, but the opposite is true in the case of the Jews. They were tolerated between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, but their position grew more secure in the twentieth century. Also, neither the Nordic governments nor their peoples went along with the anti-Semitic Nazi agenda, even when Denmark and Norway were under German occupation. The most recent additions to the Jewish population in Sweden (numbering some 15,000) came from those escaping the Nazis and Stalinist terror after World War II, but in the other Nordic countries the Jewish population is so small that their being assimilated out of existence was a real threat until the final decades of the twentieth century.

While the Nordic countries learned to accept their endogenous minorities and even safeguarded their position in many ways in the twentieth century, the composition of the societies was at the same time changed by new minorities who arrived as immigrants. In Sweden in particular the rapid economic growth and labor shortages in the 1960s led to a widespread recruitment of labor from abroad. Finland was at the time in the throes of an economic upheaval, and as many as 400,000 Finns moved to Sweden. The Finnish immigrants still numbered some 300,000 by the mid-1970s. Sweden also got its share of the Gastarbeiter ("guest workers"), typical of the west European labor market after World War II. A particularly large number came from Yugoslavia, Greece, and Turkey, some 50,000 people altogether.

The labor migrations slowed down in the 1970s but, instead, growing numbers of refugees flowed to the Nordic countries from Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The biggest cities in Sweden and Denmark in particular but also in Norway became multicultural communities. Official policies and public practices were antiracist and adhered to international regulations. There have been no serious political demands to weaken the minority rights and status. However, the tensions between minority groups and parts of the majority population had grown by the end of the twentieth century.

The relatively high degree of internal homogeneity in the Nordic countries has been tested in the face of expanding international integration, but the responses to these challenges have changed. Sweden would not let the Roma settle in the country between 1914 and 1954, and by refusing to let the Norwegian Roma return to their homes via Danish territory in the 1930s, Denmark sent them to the Nazi concentration camps. In contrast, the Nordic countries in the era of the European Union deal with immigrants and minority groups in accordance with common European norms. What used to be a historical European periphery has become part of the Western European core in economic, social, political, and ideological terms.

Translated from Finnish by Pirkko Hirvonen.

See also other articles in this section.


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