By Anne-Roos Renkema

No country exists without its history. Or, perhaps equally as important, the specific way it deals with this history: its memory culture. These memory cultures tell us a lot about a specific society, as it tells us one important thing: how it chooses to deal with its past. Memory culture refers to all practices of memory and commemoration, as well as education about the past – and, especially, the darker pages of its history.

One such country is Sweden. Traditionally a militarily neutral country, its post-war memory culture was concerned with exactly that: its perceived neutrality, especially in Europe’s most traumatic experiences in the twentieth century. There has been a shift in Swedish memory culture since the late 1990s, with Swedish historians paying more attention to Sweden’s role in World War II, and its perceived lack of involvement in the conflict. The country now has its own institute for Holocaust commemoration, which uses the Holocaust as a starting point to discuss issues of tolerance, called ‘Forum för levande historia’ (Living History Forum).[1] Why has Swedish memory changed so drastically since the 1990s, so many years after World War II?

The memory of World War II in Sweden is linked to the concept of collective memory, a concept that gained academic popularity in the late 1980s but was coined by Maurice Halbswachs in the 1920s. Other important scholars in the field are Jan and Aleida Assmann and French historian Pierre Nora, who dubbed the 1990s ‘L’ère de commémoration’ for Europe.[2] The 1990s marked the beginning for a European memory, a clear ‘European universalism’ in terms of collective memory. Though previously more patriotic narratives regarding World War II existed, these were replaced by a European, universal narrative. We must understand the 1990s as an era of re-assessment of Europe, at the end of the Cold War and in the wake of large-scale enlargement of the European Union, as well as a troubled time regarding the Yugoslav Wars. Additionally, the European Union’s identity is that of a peace project, marking a period of peace since 1945. The idea that the European Union had safeguarded Europe for many years implies that the atrocities that preceded its foundation must be commemorated. Europe’s past is of great importance of our contemporary Europe. Many scholars have stretched the importance of Holocaust recognition and World War II memorial to becoming (more) European, such as Tony Judt, who called Holocaust recognition ‘our contemporary European entry ticket.’[3] Amidst the ‘era of commemoration’, Sweden became a member of the European Union in 1995. Upon entering in 1997, the Swedish prime minister Göran Persson initiated the ‘Living History’ project, which would later result in the Living History Forum. As such, we can understand the Living History Forum as a product of this 1990s European universalism.

Göran Persson
Göran Persson (Socialdemokraterna)

How does Sweden understand its role in World War II, if we understand it through the initiatives of the Living History Forum? It is, as with most historical matters, not an easy story. Sweden’s position during this period is somewhat ambiguous at times. Upon the declaration of war of the Allied forces in 1939, Sweden declared itself a neutral country, as it had been in the First World War. The country continued to make concessions to both the Third Reich and the Allied forces. Its concessions to the former consisted in  the export of Swedish iron ore to Germany, as well as the authorisation to use the Swedish railway system to transfer two million German soldiers through its territory and transport100,000 German railway carriages carrying arms.[4]

These facts were discussed by Maria-Pia Boëthius in 1991, who challenged the post-war Swedish idea that Sweden had been completely neutral. Boëthuis claimed that the German-Swedish connections during the war had been suppressed from Swedish collective memory, and that the Fall of the Berlin Wall had made a more critical self-evaluation possible. Historian Connie Mithander argues that Sweden exaggerated its guilt in the 1990s due to its wish to adapt to a culture of guilt and repentance that ‘permeates the European project of integration’.[5] In this sense, Sweden adapted its memory culture due to a kind of soft-power Europeanisation.

The Living History Forum runs projects that deal with education about World War II and Sweden’s role in it. One such project is the book Tell Ye You Children (‘Om detta må ni berätta’ in Swedish), which provides the reader with a comprehensive history of the Second World War. It was written by historians Stephane Bruchfeld and Paul A. Levine. The section on Sweden outlines the rise of ethnic nationalism in European countries, including Sweden, as well as the situation of Jews in Sweden. It pays attention to the ideas of racial biology in Sweden, that were prevalent throughout Europe, using quotes of prominent Swedes. These quotes show that there was a widespread idea of eugenic, and social (im)purity.[6] A lot of attention is paid to the (lack of) acceptance of Jewish refugees in Sweden[7], as well as the continued economic relations between Sweden and the Third Reich and the allowance of German troops to cross Sweden.[8] Additionally, attention is paid to Raoul Wallenberg and the White Buses operations.

Another understanding of Sweden’s interest in World War II is the idea of Sweden as a moral superpower, which was argued by Ann-Sofie Dahl. Such idea stems from Sweden’s pursuit of a ‘third way’ in the bipolar Cold War relations. Persson was hailed for entering ‘the world of the high politics of morality’[9] upon his Living History initiative. This links the concept of Sweden as a moral superpower to its increasing interest in its World War II history and its responsibility in it. It would be the ‘moral’ thing to do to pursue research into this specific period, and pay attention to it through education.

So, what does this study of Swedish memory culture tell us about Sweden? It is too easy to understand the Swedish memory culture and the Living History Forum as merely a product of soft-power Europeanisation or its status as a moral superpower. We must understand memory culture as a fluid concept, which consists of many narratives, and that is subject to influences from external sources. The complexity of memory is endless, but also endlessly fascinating –  and important.

[2] Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning, Cultural Memory Studies: An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook (Walter de Gruyter, 2010). 117.
[3] Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1935 (London, 2007), 803
[4] Conny Mithander, “From the Holocaust to the Gulag: The Crimes of Nazism and Communism in Swedish Post-89 Memory Politics,” European Studies, no. 30 (January 1, 2013): 177. 180
[5] Mithander. 182.                                               
[6] Stephane Bruchfeld and Paul A Levine, Tell Ye Your Children… (Stockholm: Living History Forum, 2012). 51-69                                                 
[7] ‘By the start of the war, a mere 3,000 Jewish refugees had been allowed into Sweden; fewer than, for instance, had been granted entry into the much smaller Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.’, Bruchfeld and Levine, 59
[8] ‘The Swedish Government resisted abandoning its policy of neutrality, but reluctantly let the Wehrmacht’s Engelbrecht division transit from occupied Norway across Swedish territory to Finland. Some Swedes were unhappy with the Government’s reluctance, preferring more active participation on the German side.’, Bruchfeld and Levine 62
[9] Uffe Østergård (2005) ‘Denmark and the New International Politics of Morality and Remembrance’ as quoted in Christopher S. Browning, Branding Nordicity: Models, Identity and the Decline of Exceptionalism. Cooperation and Conflict 42(1): 27–51, 2007.

Featured picture credit: Waiting for the dying of the night, by Lonni Besançon.

This article was written as part of a series; it is based on a paper written by the author within the framework of the Euroculture Intensive Programme, held in Krakow in June 2018. To read more about the IP 2018 and its theme “Where is Europe?”, click here.

Main sources used for the article:
“About Us – With the Holocaust as a Starting Point.” Forum för levande historia. Accessed May 21, 2018.
Browning, Christopher S. Branding Nordicity: Models, Identity and the Decline of Exceptionalism. Cooperation and Conflict 42(1): 27–51, 2007.
Bruchfeld, Stephane, and Paul A Levine. Tell Ye Your Children… Stockholm: Living History Forum, 2012.
Dahl, Ann-Sofie. “Sweden: Once a Moral Superpower, Always a Moral Superpower?” International Journal 61, no. 4 (2006): 895–908.
Edgren, Henrik. Looking at the Onlookers and Bystanders, n.d.
Erll, Astrid, and Ansgar Nünning. Cultural Memory Studies: An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook. Walter de Gruyter, 2010.
Koblik, Steven. “No Truck with Himmler”. The Politics of Rescue and the Swedish Red Cross Mission, March-May 1945.” Scandia: Tidskrift För Historisk Forskning 51, no. 1 (2008).
Lange, Anders, Heléne Lööw, Stéphane Bruchfeld, and Ebba Hedlund. Utsatthet För Etniskt Och Politiskt Relaterat Våld m m, Spridning Av Rasistisk Och Antirasistisk Propaganda Samt Attityder till Demokratin m m Bland Skolelever. Stockholm: Centrum för invandringsforskning (CEIFO), 1997.
Mithander, Conny. “From the Holocaust to the Gulag: The Crimes of Nazism and Communism in Swedish Post-89 Memory Politics.” European Studies, no. 30 (January 1, 2013): 177.
——, John Sundholm, and Adrian Velicu. European Cultural Memory Post-89. Rodopi, 2013.
Østergård, Uffe (1998) ‘The Nordic Countries: Centuries of Conflict and the Transition to Cooperation’, Romanian Journal of International Affairs 4: 20–63.
Pakier, Małgorzata, and Bo Stråth. A European Memory?: Contested Histories and Politics of Remembrance. Berghahn Books, 2012.
Rothe, Anne. “Second World War and Holocaust Commemoration in Sweden,” Master Thesis Lund University, 2015.
Selling, Jan. “Between History and Politics: The Swedish Living History Project as Discursive Formation.” Scandinavian Journal of History 36, no. 5 (December 1, 2011): 555–69.
Sierp, Aline. History, Memory, and Trans-European Identity: Unifying Divisions. Routledge, 2014.
Stenius, Henrik, Mirja Österberg, and Johan Östling. Nordic Narratives of the Second World War: National Historiographies Revisited. Lund, UNITED STATES: Nordic Academic Press, 2011.
Wolfrum, Edgar, and Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, eds. European Commemoration: Locating World War I. Ifa Edition Culture and Foreign Policy. Stuttgart: ifa, 2016.

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