History of Sweden

The Table of Content

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Fourteen thousand years ago the whole of the present country of Sweden was covered by a thick ice cap. As the ice slowly retreated, man came to Sweden and the first known human dwelling place, which has been found in southern Sweden, dates from around 12000 BC.

It is clear that from the period 8000 to 6000 BC the country as a whole began to be populated by peoples who lived by hunting and fishing and who used simple stone tools. Dwelling places and graves dating from the Stone Age, which is generally regarded as lasting until about 1800 BC, are being found in increasing numbers. Stone tools became more sophisticated during that period, which was succeeded in the Nordic region by the Bronze Age from 1800 to 500 BC.

This period gets its name from the bronze weapons and religious objects that characterize the archaeological discoveries dating from these centuries, even though stone tools continued to dominate everyday life. The Bronze Age is marked in the Nordic region, especially in Denmark but also in Sweden, by a high level of culture, as is shown, for example, by the artifacts found in graves.

After about 500 BC, such artifacts become more rare as iron began to be more generally used. During the Early Iron Age (500 BC–400 AD), the period of the great migrations (400–550) and the Vendel period (550–800) – so named because of the magnificent boat graves found at Vendel in the province of Uppland – the population of Sweden became a settle done and agriculture came to form the basis for the economy and for society.

The Viking Age and Early Christianity

The Viking Age, 800–1050, was characterized by a marked expansion, which in the case of Sweden was mainly directed eastward. Many Viking expeditions set off from Sweden with the mixed purpose of plunder and trade along the coasts of the Baltic Sea and the rivers which stretched deep into present-day Russia, where Swedish Vikings established trading stations and short-lived principalities, like that of Rurik at Novgorod. The Vikings active in the east traveled as far as the Black and Caspian Seas, where they developed trading links with the Byzantine Empire and the Arab dominions.

At the same time, Christianity first reached Sweden with the mission of Ansgar, who visited the country from the Carolingian Empire in the ninth century. However, it was not until the eleventh century that Sweden was Christianized. Even then the old pagan Nordic religion survived until far into the twelfth century, and Sweden did not obtain an archbishop of its own until 1164. Sweden’s expansion in the east continued during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries through the incorporation of Finland into the Swedish kingdom after several crusades.

The Founding of the Kingdom

The various provinces of Sweden, which had previously been independent entities, were absorbed around 1000 into a single unit whose center of gravity lay partly in Västergötland and Östergötland and partly in the provinces around Lake Mälaren, especially Uppland. From the middle of the twelfth century onward there was an intensive struggle for temporal power in this kingdom between the Sverker and Erik families, which held the crown alternately between 1160 and 1250. However, during this period the main administrative units were still the provinces, each of which had its own assembly (ting), lawmen and laws.

It was first during the latter part of the thirteenth century that the crown gained a greater measure of influence and was able, with the introduction of royal castles and provincial administration, to assert the authority of the central government and to impose laws and ordinances valid for the whole kingdom. In 1280 King Magnus Ladulås (1275–90) issued a statute which involved the establishment of a temporal nobility and the organization of society on the feudal model. A council containing representatives of the aristocracy and the church was set up to advise the king. In 1350, during the reign of Magnus Eriksson (1319–64), the various provincial law codes were superseded by a law code that was valid for the whole country.  

The Hansa Period

Trade increased during the fourteenth century, especially with the German towns that were grouped under the leadership of Lübeck in the Hanseatic League. For the following 200 years, until the middle of the sixteenth century, the Hansa dominated Sweden’s trade, and a large number of towns were founded in Sweden as a consequence of the lively commercial activity connected with the Hansa. Agriculture was and remained the basis for economic life and it too developed during these years through the introduction of the three-field system and improved tools. However, the Black Death, which reached Sweden in 1350, led to a long period of economic decline marked by a smaller population and many abandoned farms. The crisis did not really end until the late fifteenth century, at the same time as the production of iron in central Sweden began to play an increasingly important role in the country’s economy.

The Nordic area around 1450

In the mid-fifteenth century Sweden included the southwestern parts of Finland. Lappmarken (Lapland) had not yet been colonized and in fact lay outside the country’s borders. The eastern border with Russia had been settled in 1323.

The Kalmar Union

In 1389, through inheritance and family ties, the crowns of Denmark, Norway and Sweden were united under the rule of the Danish Queen Margareta. In 1397, the “Kalmar Union” was concluded under her leadership. It involved an undertaking that the three Scandinavian countries should have one and the same monarch. In fact, however, the whole union period, 1397–1521, was marked by conflict between the central government, represented by the monarch, on the one hand, and the high nobility along with intermittently rebellious burghers and peasants, on the other. These conflicts, which became interwoven with efforts to maintain Sweden’s national unity and the economic interests it shared with the Hansa, culminated in the “Stockholm Bloodbath” in 1520, when eighty of the leading men in Sweden were executed at the instigation of the Danish union king, Kristian II. This event provoked a rebellion, which in 1521 led to the deposition of Kristian II and the seizure of power by a Swedish nobleman, Gustav Vasa, who was elected king of Sweden in 1523.

The Vasa Period

The foundations of the Swedish national state were laid during the reign of Gustav Vasa (1523–60). The church was turned into a national institution, its estates were confiscated by the crown and the Protestant Reformation was introduced in several stages. At the same time the administration was reorganized along German lines, and power was concentrated in the hands of the king. The position of the crown was strengthened further in 1544 when a hereditary monarchy was introduced. Before that time the country had been an elective monarchy, and the aristocracy had been able to assert itself every time the throne fell vacant. The efforts of the higher nobility to re-establish the power of the council during the reigns of Erik  XIV (1560–68), Johan III (1568–92) and Sigismund (1592–99) failed in the long run. During the reigns of Karl IX (1599–1611) and Gustav II Adolf – or Gustavus Adolphus – (1611–32), the crown was able to maintain and strengthen its position.

After the death of Gustav II Adolf at the Battle of Lützen in 1632, the higher nobility succeeded in introducing a new constitution, the 1634 Form of Government, which created a number of central administrative bodies and placed effective power in their hands. However, this constitution only applied during periods when the monarch was a minor – first in the case of Queen Kristina and then in that of Karl XI – and lost all relevance in 1680 when Karl XI repossessed crown land which had previously been transferred to the nobility. This move definitively turned the nobility into a bureaucratic class obedient to the king’s will in everything.

Foreign Policy

Since the dissolution of the union with Denmark and Norway, Swedish foreign policy had aimed at gaining domination of the Baltic Sea, and this led from the 1560s onward to repeated wars with Denmark. After Sweden intervened in 1630 with great success in the Thirty Years’ War on the side of the German Protestants and Gustav II Adolf had become one of Europe’s leading monarchs, Sweden defeated Denmark in the two wars of 1643–45 and 1657–58. These victories led to the incorporation into Sweden of the previously Danish provinces of Skåne, Halland, Blekinge and Gotland and of the previously Norwegian provinces of Bohuslän, Jämtland and Härjedalen.

Finland, as well as a number of provinces in northern Germany and the present-day Baltic republics, also belonged to Sweden, and after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and the Peace of Roskilde with Denmark in 1658, Sweden was a great power in northern Europe. The country even founded a short-lived colony in what is now Delaware in North America. However, Sweden was, except for some small iron works and the copper mine at Falun, a purely agrarian country based on a natural economy, and lacked the resources to maintain its position as a great power in the long run. After its defeat in the Great Northern War (1700–21) against the combined forces of Denmark, Poland and Russia, Sweden lost most of its provinces on the other side of the Baltic Sea and was reduced to largely the same frontiers as present-day Sweden and Finland.

During the Napoleonic Wars, Finland was finally surrendered to Russia and Sweden’s last possessions in northern Germany were also lost. As compensation for these losses, the French marshal Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, who had been elected heir to the Swedish throne in 1810, succeeded in obtaining Norway, which was forced into a union with Sweden in 1814. This union was peacefully dissolved in 1905 after many internal disputes. Since the short war fought against Norway in 1814 in connection with the creation of the union, Sweden has not been involved in any war.

Since World War I, Sweden has also pursued a foreign policy of non-alignment in peacetime and neutrality in wartime, basing its security on a strong national defense. Nonetheless, Sweden joined the League of Nations in 1920 and the United Nations in 1946. Within the framework of these organizations, it has taken part in numerous international peacekeeping missions.  

The Swedish Baltic Empire 1658-1721

During the period 1658–1721 Sweden was a great power in northern Europe. After its defeat in the Great Northern War of 1700–21, Sweden lost its provinces to the south and east of the Gulf of Finland, as well as all its possessions in Germany, except for a small part of Pomerania.

In the 1990s, the end of the Cold War and of the political division of Europe created new perspectives for Sweden’s foreign and security policy, and new opportunities for Sweden to participate in the process of West European integration. Sweden therefore applied for full membership of the European Community (EC) in 1991, and became a member of the European Union (EU) in 1995 following a 1994 referendum. Today, military non-alignment remains the basis of Swedish security policy, but the threats to Sweden’s national security have been redefined, which has paved the way for closer cooperation with other countries in this policy field.

Absolutism and the Age of Liberty

After the death of the warrior king Karl XII in 1718 and Sweden’s defeat in the Great Northern War, the Swedish Parliament (Riksdag) and council were strong enough to introduce a new constitution which abolished royal absolutism and placed power in the hands of Parliament. During the “Age of Liberty” (1719–72) Sweden developed a form of parliamentary government, which meant that the party that was dominant in Parliament appointed the government (the council), which in turn was responsible before Parliament. However, Gustav III (1771–92) reduced the power of Parliament through a bloodless coup in 1772 and later, in 1789, he reintroduced absolutism.

In other respects, eighteenth-century Sweden was characterized by rapid cultural development, which partly occurred in close contact with France. Overseas trade, which also developed at a rapid pace during the eighteenth century, was hard hit by the Napoleonic Wars, which led to general stagnation and economic crisis in Sweden during the early nineteenth century. Even during the latter part of the century, despite the construction of railways and the emergence of the sawmill industry, Sweden was still a poor country, in which 90 percent of the people earned their livelihood from agriculture. One consequence of this situation was emigration, mainly to North America, which in relative terms was very substantial. From the mid-19th century to 1930, about 1.5 million Swedes emigrated, out of a population that totaled only 3.5 million in 1850 and slightly more than 6 million in 1930. Industry did not begin to grow until the 1890s, though it then developed very rapidly between 1900 and 1930 and transformed Sweden into one of Europe’s leading industrial nations after World War II.

Processes of Democratization

Domestic politics were marked by calm and peaceful development after Gustav IV Adolf (1792–1809) was deposed by a coup d’état in 1809. A new constitution characterized by the separation of powers on Montesquieu’s model was introduced. Shortly afterwards, the French marshal Jean Baptiste Bernadotte was elected heir to the Swedish throne. He became king in 1818 as Karl XIV Johan (1818–44). His conservative policies put their mark on his reign, but nevertheless a liberal opposition began to make its presence felt. In 1842, compulsory education and elementary schools were introduced. The reigns of his son and grandson, Oscar I (1844–59) and Karl XV (1859–72), witnessed a liberal breakthrough. This included the abolition of the guild system in 1846, the adoption of free trade in the 1850s and 1860s, and finally the introduction of local self-government in 1862 and the reform of Parliament in 1866. This last reform involved the abolition of the old Parliament of four estates, which had existed since the fifteenth century, and its replacement by a bicameral Parliament, which survived until the introduction of a unicameral system in 1971.

Nineteenth-century Sweden was also marked by the emergence of strong popular movements that included the free churches, the temperance and women’s movements and above all the labor movement. The latter, whose growth kept pace with industrialization in the late nineteenth century, was reformist in outlook after the turn of the twentieth century. The first Social Democrats entered the government as early as 1917. Universal suffrage was introduced for men in 1909 and for women in 1921.The latter year also marked the final breakthrough of the principle of parliamentary government. Plans for a welfare state were laid during the 1930s after the Social Democrats had become the governing party. It proved possible to put these plans into effect in all essentials after World War II.

The Post-War Era – Modernization Under Social Democratic Leadership

During World War II, a coalition government of Sweden’s four  “democratic” parties (excluding the Communists) was formed. After the war ended, a purely Social Democratic government resumed office under Per Albin Hansson. On Hansson’s death in 1946, Tage Erlander became prime minister and held this post without interruption until 1969, when Olof Palme succeeded him until 1976. Under Social Democratic leadership, but in close cooperation with the other democratic parties, a number of reforms were carried out in the 1940s and 1950s that together laid the foundations of the Swedish welfare state.

Simultaneously, demands for a modernization of the 1809 constitution were also made. After lengthy discussions and investigations, a new Instrument of Government was adopted in 1974. This enshrines the principle that all public power is derived from the people, who are to select the members of Parliament in free elections. Parliament alone is to pass laws and is entitled to levy taxes. The government is appointed by and responsible to Parliament. The king is still the head of state, but his functions are reduced to purely ceremonial ones. Gustaf VI Adolf, who came to the throne in 1950, was succeeded on his death in 1973 by Carl XVI Gustaf, the first Swedish king to “reign” in accordance with the new constitution. In 1980, an amendment in the order of succession introduced an equal right of inheritance to the crown for men and women. Princess Victoria thus became the heir to the throne, instead of her younger brother Carl Philip.

Economic Crisis and New Governments

The international economic crisis precipitated by the dramatic hikes in oil prices in1973 boosted unemployment in Sweden,  as else where. The expansion of industry that had taken place at a very rapid rate during the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the swift growth in production had, by the early 1970s, brought about a steady and steep rise in living standards in Sweden. From the mid-1970s this improvement in standards slowed. Toward the end of the1980s it ceased entirely.

The economic crisis led to the resignation of the Social Democratic government after the 1976 parliamentary elections and the formation of a non-socialist coalition government under the leadership of Center Party chairman Thorbjörn Fälldin. However, conflicts concerning the continued expansion of nuclear power prompted several government reshuffles. In the 1982 parliamentary elections, employment and the budget deficit were among the focal issues of debate. The elections resulted in a victory for the Social Democratic Party, which thereafter formed a government with Olof Palme as prime minister. By means of a devaluation and various other vigorous measures, the new government succeeded in improving Sweden’s economic situation. The sharp upturns in the international business cycle in 1983 and subsequent years enabled Sweden to balance its national budget once more. The government utilized this for a massive expansion of the public sector.

The murder of Olof Palme on February 28, 1986 came as a shock to the Swedish people, who had been spared this kind of political violence for nearly 200 years. Palme’s successor as prime minister was Ingvar Carlsson, who in all essentials continued Palme’s policies.

The rapid growth in output that had previously characterized the Swedish economy ended in the 1980s. At the end of the decade and in the early 1990s, it gave way to a fall in industrial production and balance of payments deficits. At the same time, the earlier expansion of the public sector imposed heavy demands on the economy. A swift rise in unemployment contributed further to massive budget deficits and a rapidly swelling national debt. Discontent with the Social Democratic government grew ever stronger. The 1991parliamentary elections resulted in its resignation and replacement by a non-socialist coalition government, with Moderate Party leader Carl Bildt as prime minister. Despite all its efforts to encourage enterprise and carry out major savings in the public sector, this new government did not succeed in lowering unemployment or the rapidly growing budget deficit and national debt.

The Social Democrats Back in Power

The parliamentary elections of 1994 put the Social Democrats back in power. They formed a minority government with Ingvar Carlsson as prime minister. In March1996 Mr. Carlsson stepped down as prime minister for personal reasons and was replaced in this position by his finance minister, Göran Persson.

The first task of the Social Democratic government was to redress the balance of public finances. This was achieved through a combination of tax increases and spending cuts, which had repercussions on some of Sweden’s social welfare systems. Meanwhile the government was intent on curbing inflation and creating scope for reducing Sweden’s heavy national debt.

Public finances gradually improved over the next few years. But the cutbacks in the social welfare system were painful and caused widespread discontent among the governing party’s traditional voters. In the 1998 election, the Social Democrats received their weakest support since the1930s, winning only 36.4 percent of votes compared to 45.3 percent four years earlier. Despite this setback, Göran Persson stayed on as prime minister, with parliamentary support from the Left Party and from the small Green Party.

Sweden Enters the Twenty-first Century

As the twenty-first century began, the Swedish economy was again in balance. The central government budget showed surpluses, inflation was low, growth was good and unemployment was falling. This was partly a result of the government’s economic policies, but the Swedish economy was meanwhile benefiting from a vigorous cyclical recovery throughout the Western world.

In the 2002 election, the government was given a renewed mandate. With continued support from the Left Party and Greens, the Social Democrats – who had won 39.8 percent of the vote this time –managed to stay in power. Göran Persson’s era as prime minister ended with the 2006 election, at which the Moderate Party were the main victors. Together with the Center Party, the Liberal Party and the Christian Democrats, they were able to form a coalition government, headed by Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Moderate Party leader. One of the coalition’s main policy arguments was that reduced taxes could generate more jobs.

Another focal point at the beginning of the new century was Sweden’s cooperation with the EU. When Sweden took over the EU presidency during the first half of 2001, this gave the government the chance to play a more prominent part in Europe. In this role, Sweden – which was regarded as one of the most EU-skeptical members of the union – mainly pursued the issues of the EU’s eastward enlargement and transparency in a successful way. However, during the final June 2001 EU summit in Göteborg (Gothenburg), Sweden’s political successes were upstaged by popular demonstrations that deteriorated into riots.

The autumn 2003 referendum on membership in the currency union also showed that EU skepticism was still widespread in Sweden. A clear majority of the population voted against replacing the Swedish krona with the euro. The final stage of the referendum campaign was nevertheless completely overshadowed by a new shock for the Swedish people. Less than a week before the referendum the country’s foreign minister, Anna Lindh, was assassinated at a department store in central Stockholm.

Sweden’s role in the EU in particular, but also Swedish skepticism towards the union, have been identified by the centre-right coalition government which came to power in 2006 as important issues for the country’s future.

Sweden's Monarchs since 1523:

House of Vasa:
Gustav Vasa (regent 1521) 1523-1560
Erik XIV 1560-1568
Johan III 1568-1592
Sigismund 1592-1599
Karl IX (regent 1599) 1604-1611
Gustav II Adolf 1611-1632
Kristina (regency 1632-44) 1644-1654

House of the Palatinate:
Karl X Gustav 1654-1660
Karl XI (regency 1660-72) 1672-1697
Karl XII 1697-1718
Ulrika Eleonora 1719-1720

House of Hesse:
Fredrik I 1720-1751

House of Holstein-Gottorp:
Adolf Fredrik 1751-1771
Gustav III 1771-1792
Gustav IV Adolf (regency 1792-96) 1796-1809
Karl XIII 1809-1818

House of Bernadotte:
Karl XIV Johan 1818-1844
Oscar I 1844-1859
Karl XV 1859-1872
Oscar II 1872-1907
Gustaf V 1907-1950
Gustaf VI Adolf 1950-1973
Carl XVI Gustaf 1973

Department of Political Science, Stockholm University, Statsvetenskapliga institutionen, Stockholmsuniversitet,

The Museum of National Antiquities, Historiska museet,

National Heritage Board, Riksantikvarieämbetet,  http://www.raa.se/cms/en/our_mission.html

The Swedish Royal Court, Sveriges kungahus,

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