Sweden Democrats Raise Unsettling Questions About the Past: Are the Progressives Regressing?

The Sweden Democrats (SD) have become the latest far right party to make significant gains in a European election, scoring 18% in the recent vote that has seen the country’s two main coalitions fall short of a majority.

SD leader Jimmie Akesson on election night

‘Either we stay with a decent democracy or we choose another path’ said Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lovren, as the anti-immigrant SD preyed on the electorate’s fears of a rapidly changing society.

From one of the most homogeneous nations, Sweden’s generous immigration policies, high acceptance of asylum seekers, and low indigenous birth rate have changed the ethnic and religious make-up of the country.

The SD has tapped into frustrations over immigration

Since the late 1970s, in particular, refugee immigration from war zones and impoverished states abroad has rocketed. This once fit in nicely with Sweden’s political image, often held-up as the epitome of Social Democracy operating at its finest.

Yet the reality now is that about 15% of Sweden’s population was born overseas and another 10% have foreign born parents. Understandably, this radical demographic change has unsettled some of the natives.

The Swedish population has become increasingly diverse in recent decades

But whilst the SD has to an extent capitalised on these fears, its prospects for altering the political landscape appear slim. For a start, neither coalition – one centre-right and the other centre-left – is willing to include the SD in government. Then there is the small matter of Sweden’s history.

Whilst the SD has its roots in fascism and white supremacism, it is not a neo-Nazi movement and Sweden has typically been free of extremist political groups. At least, none have caused much of a political tremor.

More disturbing, and perhaps something that remains ingrained in the minds of some Swedes, is the government’s tacit support of the Nazis during World War Two (WWII).

Technically neutral during the conflict, it is not an overstatement to say that the Swedes were a substantial contributor to the German war effort. Hitler’s regime was reliant on Sweden for a huge proportion of its iron ore, which arrived at German ports in Swedish ships. Swedish miners were even exempted from the draft so that production for the Nazis would face minimal disruption (Judt, 2005, p.84). Simultaneously, Wehrmacht troops were given free transit through Sweden during their forays into Norway.

Nazi riflemen transiting through Sweden in 1940

The Swiss have received considerable scorn for their role in playing financiers to the Nazis, their unscrupulous banking system siphoning the ill-gotten gains from persecuted Jews and re-directing them to Hitler’s ministries. For the Swedes, criticism has been rather muted.

Of course, the alternative for the Stockholm government was hardly appealing. Risk war with the Nazis? Cosy up to the Soviets after their invasion of Finland? Acquiescence is understandable, although a certain complicity is undeniable.

Perhaps a collective guilt has prevented its people from dabbling in right-wing politics in the past? Is this now changing through a younger generation with no memories of the war in their immediate families?

Tough questions and even tougher decisions undoubtedly lie ahead for the Swedes, as they do for the rest of Europe. With continental economies still not fully recovered from the Great Recession, and rapid demographic change proving an insurmountable challenge for some governments, citizens are necessarily concerned.

It often needs a rising tide of populism to prompt decisive action. How will Sweden’s politicians – oft lauded for their progressive and fair social and economic agendas – decide to respond?

Lovren’s Social Democrats are no longer the undisputed power in the land

Embrace the legitimate concerns of the SD voters? Or band together and carry on as before in the hope that the far right quickly fades away?

Needless to say, the ‘good old days’ will take some recapturing.

Historical Source

Judt, T. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005)

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Scandinavian Tolerance Tested by Copenhagen Shootings: a restrained response is crucial

Local media have named Omar El-Hussein, a Danish citizen, as the gunman in attacks on a free speech debate and a synagogue in Copenhagen which left two people dead. El-Hussein had recently been released from prison where it is feared that he was ‘radicalised’ by Islamic extremists and subsequently attempted to imitate the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris that stunned the international community last month.

Bullet-holes mark the glass at the venue of a free speech debate that resulted in the death of a film maker Source: NY Post
Bullet-holes mark the glass at the venue of a free speech debate that resulted in the death of a film maker
Source: NY Post

Denmark was the source of controversy in 2005 when the Jyllands Posten newspaper published inflammatory cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, infamously including one depicting him with a bomb in his turban. Reprisals have long been feared but never realised in Denmark itself (although several of its foreign embassies were attacked).

The Copenhagen assault has led to renewed concern that Scandinavia may be yet another region vulnerable to attack by Islamic extremists. Muslims are the largest religious minority in Scandinavia, accounting for about 3-4% of the population in most countries.

Finland and Sweden experienced some limited Muslim immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when ethnic Tatars arrived from north-eastern Europe. Most of these were involved in the prosperous Baltic trade which had links to mercantile enterprises in the Middle East.

Most Muslim immigration to Scandinavia, however, has occurred fairly recently. From the 1960s, there were several waves of immigration from the Middle East as Muslims came to work as labourers in the underpopulated Nordic countries. By the 1980s and 1990s, Scandinavia had become one of the primary destinations for Muslim asylum seekers. Many of these people were escaping conflict, whether it be in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan, the relaxed immigration laws and reputation for tolerance attracting many desperate people north. Their children have subsequently been born Scandinavian citizens.

Somali Swedes play the popular Scandinavian game of Bandy Source: UNHCR Northern Europe
Somali Swedes play the popular Scandinavian game of Bandy
Source: UNHCR Northern Europe

What is most striking about the Muslim population of Scandinavia is that it is, on the whole, secular in nature. Islam is not as invasive as it is in other European countries and few of the Muslim immigrants to Scandinavia subscribe to the state religion of their homelands. Indeed, for many this was a reason to flee.

Despite their excellent integration, Muslims have been the target of much populist rhetoric in Scandinavia which trumpets the values of Nordic nationalism, Euroscepticism and a homogeneous society. In Finland (Finns Party), Sweden (Sweden Democrats) and Denmark (Danish People’s Party), the third biggest political parties pursue an anti-immigrant, nationalist agenda that often targets the Islamic community as a threat to ‘Nordic values’. Norway’s Progress Party, whilst not as extreme, has also adopted populist nationalist rhetoric in recent years. Even the German-born Pegida movement has reached Scandinavia. 

Many Scandinavians remain proud of their countries’ reputations for generous social welfare programmes, religious and cultural tolerance and inclusivity. Yet change is in the air, partially precipitated by the deeds of Islamic extremists abroad. An attack at home is likely to encourage more people to reassess their ultra-liberal stance.

Anti-Islamist Pegida supporters march in Oslo Source: RT
Anti-Islamist Pegida supporters march in Oslo
Source: RT

Ironically, Scandinavia is probably one of the regions least threatened by Islamic extremism. Integration amongst the Muslim population has been far more successful here than in countries such as France and Britain. Whereas in Scandinavia many Muslim immigrants and their offspring are grateful of the opportunities provided to them in asylum, in other Western European countries, some Muslims seem to see their hosts as perpetuating a colonial legacy that renders them socially immobile.

Islamic extremism is now a constant global threat. Yet it would be wrong for the Nordic nationalists to take advantage of the Copenhagen shootings to identify a particularly virulent strain of extremism in Scandinavia. History, in this instance, does not bear them out.