The "folkhemmet" (people's home) gradually became a version of the Fascist "corporate State"
By John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.)
Sweden remained a fully functioning democracy throughout the 20th century so in that sense has never been Fascist. In important other ways, however, the Swedish system has much in common with Fascism.
Although it is a commonplace that Hitler got good co-operation from Sweden both before and during WW2, the idea that Sweden was itself in any sense Fascist must seem like one of the most absurd suggestions ever made. Has not Sweden been the great icon of the Democratic Left in the postwar period? It has indeed, though these days conservatives have better reasons for mentioning the Swedish experience than Leftists do. Nonetheless, little-recognized though it might be, there are substantial reasons for seeing interwar Sweden as Fascist. Like all Fascisms, however, Swedish Fascism had its own unique national characteristics and its most unusual characteristic was how slowly it developed, with much of its development taking place AFTER WW2 rather than before.
Some historical background about WW2 may be appropriate at this point:
"Sweden's role in the Second World War had its darker side. It continued exporting vital iron ore to the German armaments industry and allowed the Germans to transit troops, supplies and communications through the country.
Unlike Denmark, its southern occupied neighbor, which won the "Righteous Amongst Nations" award for saving nearly all its Jews, official Sweden played the role of a "bystander amongst nations", turning a blind eye to what was happening in Europe and looking after its own interests.
An exhibition on Sweden and the Holocaust, opening in Lund, not far from where Chavka Folman-Raban enjoyed her first weeks of freedom, aims to shed light on this darker side of Sweden's relationship to Nazism. The exhibition, accompanied by seminars and publication of new research, shows how Swedish industry benefited from the war and how Swedish scientific institutions were leaders in the fields of race biology and eugenic research.
The exhibition also shows how Nazi ideals found Swedish sympathizers and how Sweden limited freedom of speech, and introduced immigration laws which turned away asylum seekers from Germany, many of whom were later murdered in concentration camps.
The Lund project is one of a number to tackle the question of Sweden's relationship with racial ideologies. Another recent exhibition, in Dalarna, deals with Sweden being the first country in the world to establish a National Institute for Race Biology in the twenties.
The exhibition renewed the debate on local racism, anti-Semitism and historical programmes of forced sterilization and race strengthening. Other recent studies show how during the Second World War, pro-Nazi Swedes took part in German propaganda broadcasts and how Swedish priests and courts applied Nazi race rules to marriages between Swedes and Germans."
Hopefully, the idea of Sweden as being substantially Fascist seems a little less absurd already at this point.
I have set out at considerable length elsewhere the historical details which show that Fascism was nothing more than a particularly authoritarian and nationalist form of Leftism so we only have to ask here whether Sweden in the interwar years was nationalist, authoritarian and Leftist. And the answer to all three questions is undoubtedly: Yes.
And that answer does not depend on the various small explicitly Fascist and pro-Nazi movements that arose in Sweden in the 1930s. It flows from a look at the dominant political party in Sweden from 1932 on: The Social Democratic Party. The program and policy of the Social Democrats centred around transforming Sweden into a folkhemmet (Volksheimat in German). This became the dominant Swedish concept of Sweden in 1932 with the accession to power of the Social Democrats but was well in evidence before that. The concept is usually traced to a book, The State as a Live Form ( Staten som livsform ), written by Rudolf Kjellen in 1910. Like all versions of the word Volk it is not exactly translatable into English as Volk means both "people" and "race" even though there are separate words for people (Leute) and race (Rasse). So folkhemmet is probably best translated as "a home for the Swedish people". And this idea of what Sweden should be was what the Swedish Social Democratic Party preached. The concept is the core of the "Swedish model" and what it brought about was essentially just another version of the characteristic Fascist "corporate" or "collectivist" State. So, like Fascism generally, the Swedish model was seen as a Third Way between Communism and Capitalism.
The Swedish corporate State really got going only in 1938, however, with the Saltsjobaden Agreement between the unions and the employers. This agreement outlawed strikes and created a central wage-fixing system for the whole country.
And the ideology of the Social Democrats did originally include racial elements. The folkhemmet was seen as including only a racially defined folkgemenskap (Volksgemeinschaft, people's community) with members being only people belonging to den Svenska folkstammen (Volkstum, Swedish racial group) with minorities such as the Tornedal Finns being excluded.
And Sweden did have a charismatic leader, in the form of Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson from 1932 to 1946 -- which rather neatly brackets Hitler's years in power (1933 to 1945).
And it was at the initiative of the Social Democrats that Sweden's eugenic laws were set up, with "undesirables" being forcibly sterilized. Does that remind you of anyone?
And Sweden has been essentially a socialist one-party State since 1932, with the socialists being out of power for brief interludes only. But what exactly the folkhemmet should consist of evolved and developed only very slowly and gradually. Change in Sweden is glacial even in the hands of Leftists so the fundamentally paternalist folkhemmet took many years to develop a sweeping dominance of Swedish life. Bit by bit taxes were raised, business was regulated and taken over and welfare programs were expanded. It was not in fact until the early 1990s that the whole edifice came crashing down. So the concept of a fatherly government was there from the beginning, the one-party State was there and a quiet conviction of Swedish superiority and unique wisdom was also there.
Like all Fascist ideologies, however, folkhemmet had its own unique national character. Sweden experienced nothing remotely like the huge interwar disruptions that took place in Germany and Italy -- for the excellent reason that Sweden stayed out of WW1. So Swedish nationalism was much calmer and less excitable. Which led to it being neither strident nor expansionist. Swedes felt perfectly comfortable with the burgeoning wealth being produced by their own country and so felt no need for foreign adventures or huge and sudden changes. It should perhaps be noted, however, that there is nothing intrinsic to the Swedish character that is opposed to foreign adventures. That should be obvious both from the Viking age and the perambulations around Europe of Gustavus Adolphus in the 17th century.
One thing that was NOT greatly different, however, was that the power of the Swedish Social Democratic party was founded on its popularity and was achieved by constitutional rather than revolutionary means. Mussolini and Hitler too were very popular and achieved power legally rather than via revolution. Mussolini's famous march on Rome was only superficially revolutionary. The King of Italy and the army approved of him because of his pragmatic policies so did not oppose the march and he was promptly thereafter appointed Prime Minister according to Italy's established democratic forms. Mussolini did not even take part in the march, in fact. It was just good Italian opera. And Hitler's path to power was via democratic elections. See here for a fuller consideration of that. Unlike Mussolini and Hitler, however, the Swedish party had no hesitation in renewing its mandate by way of regular and properly conducted elections. And, like the Franco regime in Spain, it kept out of WW2 and thus stayed in power much longer than the Hitler and Mussolini regimes.
So the Swedish folkhemmet State was welfarist, nationalist, paternalist and essentially all-powerful. Because it used its power very sparingly and cautiously, however, and respected civil liberties, it was undoubtedly the mildest of the Fascist States. Fascism varied greatly from country to country (to take a rather striking example, Sir Oswald Mosley initially used to expel from the British Union of Fascists anyone who made antisemitic remarks!) and the distinguishing feature of the Swedish version was undoubtedly that it was the least authoritarian. And after the war the Swedish Social Democrats did as all Leftists did and abandoned overt nationalism -- though a sense of Swedish superiority undoubtedly continued and discreetly made itself apparent from time to time.
What would American conservatives say of a country that NOT ONLY has an extensive system of government-paid vouchers for private schooling but also has an extensive system of government-paid vouchers for private hospitalization? And what if the same country had ALREADY made big cutbacks in the size of government? A dream for the distant future? Not quite. That country does already exist. It is Sweden. Probably because the mainstream media turn a blind eye to it, most people seem totally unaware that Sweden is moving steadily AWAY FROM the "Swedish model". In the early 90s, the Swedish government was spending nearly three quarters of the national income. That is now down to about half.
Sweden still has a long way to go of course. After their big economic meltdown in the early 90's (huge unemployment and welfare benefits that could no longer be paid for) they undertook an exemplary program of privatizations and made big cuts to both taxes and welfare benefits but there are still huge disincentives to work in Sweden. Incomes are kept pretty uniform regardless of what you do -- meaning that there is little incentive either to improve one's skills or to work hard -- and the sickness benefit side of the welfare system is still a huge racket. People on sickness benefits no longer get a higher income than they would by working but the benefits are still close to wages and access to the system is very easy. So huge numbers of Swedes have declared themselves too ill to work.
As a consequence, average Swedish incomes have fallen well behind American standards -- as indexed by the most objective criterion we have: GDP per capita. When purchasing power is taken into account, the picture is even worse. A cup of coffee, for instance, is likely to cost you three times as much in Sweden as in the USA. Individual Swedes do however manage their money well so there is little visible sign in Sweden of their lower incomes. Visible poverty in any modern society mainly reflects bad decisions rather than lack of income. Money now buys options rather than survival.
So Leftists who advocate high taxes and pervasive welfare need to be told that the country that went furthest in that direction hit a rock years ago and has been paddling in reverse ever since.
All the above is of course a very sweeping and simplified treatment of a large subject but those wishing to read further could start with a vastly more detailed treatment of Swedish economic and political history over the last 200 years here (PDF).
Brief historical note on the Fascist "corporate State":
Mussolini's economic system (his "corporate State") was a version of syndicalism -- having workers, bosses and the party allegedly united in several big happy families -- and syndicalism is precisely what had been recommended in the then recent (1891) "radical" encyclical De rerum novarum of Pope Leo XIII. So that helped enormously to reconcile Mussolini to the church. Economically, Fascism was more Papal than capitalist (though in the Papal version of syndicalism the church naturally had a bigger role).
Syndicalism was of course a far-Leftist idea (with Sorel as a major prophet) long before it was a Papal one but the Holy Father presented a much more humanized and practical version of it and thus seems in the end to have been more influential than his Leftist rivals. Mussolini was of course acutely aware of both streams of syndicalist thinking and it was a great convenience to him to be able to present himself as both a modern Leftist and as a supporter of the church.
Some interesting comments from Gates of Vienna:
Marcos Cantera Carlomagno in 1995 published a PhD thesis at Lund University describing a series of letters sent by Per Albin Hansson, leader of the Social Democrats and Prime Minister between 1932 and 1946, who worked for the establishment of “Folkhemmet,” the People’s Home, as the Swedish welfare state model became known as. Hansson was a dear pen pal with Italy’s Fascist leader Mussolini and praised the corporate, Fascist system where the entire economy and each individual were intimately tied to and subordinate to the state. Hansson was positively disposed to Fascism and saw his welfare state as a related concept. After mentioning his work in a local newspaper, Carlomagno was called by his supervisor who stated in anger that his scholarship would be cut off. Carlomagno’s work was totally ignored by the entire media and political establishment in Sweden when it appeared in the 1990s.
Why did this information meet with such repression? Because the power of the political and cultural establishment is not based on reasoned discussion but on shaming opponents and branding them as evil with words loaded with emotions and taboo. Terms such as “racist”, “Fascist”, and “Nazi” automatically shut down any rational discussion of a subject. The irony is that a similar strategy was employed with great success by.....the Nazis.
Adolf Hitler described how to use “spiritual terror” to intimidate and silence opponents, a technique he learned from watching the Socialists and the Social Democrats. He understood “the infamous spiritual terror which this movement exerts, particularly on the bourgeoisie, which is neither morally nor mentally equal to such attacks; at a given sign it unleashes a veritable barrage of lies and slanders against whatever adversary seems most dangerous, until the nerves of the attacked persons break down and, just to have peace again, they sacrifice the hated individual… Conversely, they praise every weakling on the opposing side, sometimes cautiously, sometimes loudly, depending on the real or supposed quality of his intelligence.”
In 2006, the newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported that following recommendations from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, priests in the Swedish Church applied German race laws from 1937 onwards. According to Lund University’s Professor Anders Jarlert, who led the research, any Swede who wanted to marry an Aryan German was forced to sign an affirmation stating that none of the German’s grandparents were Jewish. History Professor Stig Ekman told DN that Sweden’s culture of silence and secrecy is one reason why this is appearing only now, generations later. In 1937, the Swedish government was controlled by the Social Democrats, yet despite this evidence that they applied Nazi race laws, party members still get away with denouncing critics of their immigration policies as neo-Nazis, racists or Fascists.
In the book The New Totalitarians, the British historian Roland Huntford in the early 1970s pointed out that Socialist professor Gunnar Myrdal and his wife Alva, both highly influential ideologists in developing the Swedish welfare state, had intimate connections with the German academic world during the Nazi age. Gunnar Myrdal served as both a member of parliament and later as a government minister for the Social Democrats during this period. According to Huntford: “The professor was then a Nazi sympathizer, publicly describing Nazism as the movement of youth and the movement of the future. In Myrdal’s defence, it must be pointed out that, whatever his other propensities, Hitler did have advanced ideas on social welfare, and that the social ideology of the German Nazis and the Swedish Social Democrats had much in common. Until the mid 1930s, Nazism had considerable attractions for those who favoured a benevolent and authoritarian state.”
Gunnar and Alva Myrdal promoted the idea of positive eugenics and forced sterilization programs against those with “weak genes.” This started in Sweden even before Nazi Germany, and it continued longer.
The Nazis called themselves national Socialists, and they took the Socialist component of their ideology quite seriously. They never nationalized all assets of production as the Communists did. They left nominal ownership in private hands, but production was in reality controlled by the state. The Nazis were thus to the left, economically, compared to many of the labor parties in Western Europe today. As Adolf Hitler stated in 1927: “We are Socialists, enemies, mortal enemies of the present capitalist economic system with its exploitation of the economically weak, with its injustice in wages, with its immoral evaluation of individuals according to wealth and money instead of responsibility and achievement, and we are determined under all circumstances to abolish this system!”