Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 28, 2019

Made in Sweden, 25 Ideas that Created a Country (2018), by Elisabeth Åsbrink, translated by the author

In this fascinating book, in just 150 pages, Swedish author Elisabeth Åsbrink makes us re-think the assumptions that we tend to have, about Sweden.  This is the blurb:

What are the real Swedish Values? Who is the real Swedish Model?

In recent times, we have come to favour all things Scandi — their food, furnishings, fiction, fashion, and general way of life. We seem to regard the Swedes and their Scandinavian neighbours as altogether more sophisticated, admirable, and evolved than us. We have all aspired to be Swedish, to live in their perfectly designed society from the future. But what if we have invested all our faith in a fantasy? What if Sweden has in fact never been as moderate, egalitarian, dignified, or tolerant as it would like to (have us) think? The recent rise to political prominence of an openly neo-Nazi party has begun to crack the illusion, and here now is Swede Elisabeth Åsbrink, who loves her country ‘but not blindly’, presenting twenty-five of her nation’s key words and icons afresh, in order to give the world a clearer-eyed understanding of this fascinating country.

Each chapter consists of 5-6 pages that interrogate an idea.  It begins by reminding us that Sweden as a nation state is a comparatively new idea, and its history is vague.  And in reminding the reader about this, we are reminded of something else that we ought not to forget. Noting the scanty historical sources that mention peoples who might, or might not be Swedes, Åsbrink writes:

Spurred by a general longing for logic in the random events we call history-leading-up-to-the-present, historians and nationalists use Tacitus and the others as if they were suppliers of indubitable facts, when it would be more accurate to describe them as isolated sources of light in a compact historical darkness.  (p.2)

Indeed.  (We’re just as guilty here in Australia, where until comparatively recently, we’ve acted as if our history began in 1770.  We didn’t even acknowledge European landfalls, much less our Indigenous history).

The second chapter is about Beowulf, the English epic poem about a hero who comes from afar to rescue the Danes from a savage monster.  Because it’s set in Scandinavia, with a hero who might have come from present-day Sweden, it’s regarded as a national epic there too.  But the fact is, nobody actually knows where the Geats lived.  Maybe Götaland in Sweden, maybe not.  (The Danes, says Åsbrink, use Beowulf to entice people to visit Viking museums.)

The Øresund or Öresund Bridge (Wikipedia*).

Apparently the Danes and the Swedes do not Get On.  Later in the book she uses the word ‘hate’ to describe the relationship, and there were major conniptions over a bridge linking the two countries.  They can’t even agree on the spelling of its name.  Now that it’s been built (commercial imperatives usually win) it looks as if they had a tiff during construction and both sides went home in a huff, but in fact it drops down into a tunnel from that artificial island so that shipping can get through.  The bridge was supposed to end passport control but Sweden reneged on this to prevent refugees coming in from Denmark.

Perhaps because I’ve never been to any of the Scandinavian countries, I’d never really investigated their history so the murkier aspects of their society came as a horrid surprise.  Ikea and ABBA and their sophisticated welfare systems all seemed so bland and benign.  (Well, benign, that is, until you actually try and assemble something from Ikea.)  But Ingvar Kamprad, founder of Ikea, had a very dubious personal history:

… there are also two ways into the Ikea story.  One is uplifting and inspirational: a young man from a modest background, but with more than the usual dose of business acumen, builds an empire.  Although the hero of the story makes an occasional mistake, that is precisely what made him human and such a treasured symbol of Swedishness.

The other way leads from Mr Kaprad’s childhood and adolescence in a Hitler-loving family, Germans who had immigrated from the Sudetenland, in Czechoslovakia, where both his paternal grandmother and his father were Nazis; his long-lasting commitment to the Swedish fascist movement; and his membership, during the Second World War, of Sweden’s Nazi party, Swedish Socialist Unity.  Both stories are equally true.  (p.90)

Equally dubious is their posturing about neutrality during WW2.  In fact they facilitated the movement of Nazi troops and supplies almost from the beginning.

Swedish politics, in fact, has been distinctly dubious for quite a while, and the rise of the Far Right there ought not to have come as a surprise.  They were the first nation in the world with racial research financed by the state.  It was called the State Institute for Racial Biology, and in 1921 a Social Democrat MP spoke in its favour like this:

We are fortunate enough to be of a race that is still quite pristine, a breed that is a bearer of very high and very good qualities.  It is peculiar that while we are indeed committed to construct pedigrees for our dogs and horse, we are not as eager to assure the preservation of our own Swedish folk stock. (p.67)

The statistics on the number of people who were sterilised are shocking.  I know what you’re thinking: many countries, Australia included, in the early 20th century had high-profile supporters of eugenics.  But read on — it wasn’t just back then.  It continued after WW2, long after eugenics had been discredited everywhere else:

Between 1928 and 1976, approximately 63,000 Swedish citizens were subjected to sterilisation.  During the same period, 58,000 Finnish citizens were sterilised.  The same goes fro 41,000 Norwegians and 11,000 Danes.

How come the Nordic countries became world leaders in sterilisation with Sweden top of the class? (p.69)

Åsbrink suggests that there are three reasons:

  • the idea of an ‘unspoiled race’ with ‘very high and good qualities’ whose superior strains should be kept pure;
  • all the European countries with mass sterilisation programs were Protestant.  Catholic countries opposed it, as they also oppose contraception and abortion: humans should not interfere with God’s creation; and
  • the generous welfare system is based on the idea that everyone contributes through diligence, work, and a subsequent high tax.  Sterilisation programs ensure that those who don’t contribute don’t continue to be a problem.

In fact, the year before child support was introduced, [1948] over two thousand people were sterilised; six people a day — a new Swedish record. That is seriously creepy, IMO….

In an era when Scandinavian concepts of ‘hygge’ and ‘lagom‘ promote Sweden as a modern, pleasant country, with good taste in design, music, and crime fiction:

… actually, Sweden isn’t ‘lagom’ at all.  On the contrary, the Swedish way of living and its basic values are extreme compared to the rest of the world. (p.ix)

It seems it’s a case of: Social reformers, be careful what you wish for…

Image credit: The Øresund or Öresund Bridge (Wikipedia), by Nick-D – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Author and translator: Elisabeth Åsbrink
Title: Made in Sweden, 25 Ideas that Made a Country (Orden som formade Sverige)
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2019
ISBN: 9781925849097
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications

Available from Fishpond Made in Sweden: 25 ideas that created a country and direct from Scribe(also available as an eBook)


  1. Well that’s another myth busted…….Mind you, you only have to watch a few episodes of Wallander to see that there is a lot of darkness in that country


    • LOL Like watching Midsummer Murders and concluding that the Cotswolds are full of serial killers who murder in batches of three!


  2. Oh that’s shut me up on singing the praises of the north. Maybe those long dark winters are a factor.


    • I used to think that people were only xenophobic when they lived in places that were always getting invaded, like Afghanistan, Poland etc, but that doesn’t explain Australia at all…

      Liked by 1 person

      • It may in fact be the other way around – those with a history of being the Invaders cannot conceive new arrivals as anything but an overthrow.


  3. Or the UK with the madness that is Brexit.


  4. As my home country commits political suicide, the number of places that seem more congenial is getting smaller; that’s Sweden off the list!


    • If it’s any comfort, Simon, we are aghast at today’s news.


  5. Wow! A real eye-opener. Like Simon, I’ve been considering options but I’m not so sure Sweden is a good one any more…


    • I’m intrigued that both you and Simon are thinking like this…
      As it happens I am reading a book in which the central character has to decide whether to leave and enjoy a congenial lifestyle elsewhere, or to stay and fight for change. That was a theme that arose in my recent reading of Ceridwen Dovey’s In the Garden of the Fugitives too.
      Both options are very difficult, and I think they get harder as we get older.
      Whatever we choose to do in the face of political circumstances that we find intolerable, it is comforting to at least be able to think of some kind of utopia elsewhere, and alas, this book comprehensively shatters that dream…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for this review, Lisa. I loved her 1947. Now I’ll keep an eye out for this as well.


    • That was brilliant, I agree. She’s a courageous writer…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve been to Denmark, the beer’s good. I’d also say the people are friendly, but they are everywhere in my (limited) experience. I’m shocked by the eugenics.


    • Yes, that it went on so long, when the rest of the world shed any vestige of it very quickly after WW2.


  8. […] via Made in Sweden, 25 Ideas that Created a Country, by Elisabeth Åsbrink, translated by the author —… […]


  9. […] Made in Sweden, 25 Ideas that Created a Country, by Elisabeth Åsbrink, translated by the author […]


  10. […] Made in Sweden, 25 Ideas that Created a Country, by Elisabeth Åsbrink, translated by the author […]


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