Sweden in the 20th century

Last updated: 21 8 2018

Image Boken om Sverige
This material is from the book About Sweden.

Democracy is introduced

At the beginning of the 20th century, people were still moving from the countryside to the cities. The number of farmers grew smaller as the number of factory workers grew. More people wanted the right to vote in elections. In 1907, all men over the age of 24 were given the right to vote. Only in 1919 did the Riksdag extend that right to women as well as men. At the end of the 19th century, workers joined together to form trade unions in order to try to improve conditions for workers and increase their wages. Sometimes they were successful. To protest against unfair working conditions, workers sometimes went on strike, refusing to work. In 1909 there was a general strike in which 300,000 workers stopped working. This was a significant event for the development of labour laws and democracy.

The First World War and the interwar period

When the First World War broke out in 1914, the Nordic countries signed an agreement that they would remain neutral, not taking sides in the conflict. The First World War lasted until 1918.

In 1922 the world's first institute of racial biology was founded in Sweden. The institute's task was to study the differences between people, and it was named the State Institute for Racial Biology. The institute was involved in promoting the passage of a law on sterilisation in 1934. Thousands of people who were considered of lesser worth were sterilised against their will. As Nazism grew stronger in Germany, racial biology faced increasing criticism. The idea that people were of different worth depending on their origins became widespread from the interwar years and had horrific political and humanitarian consequences in many parts of Europe.

In 1931, the Great Depression arrived in Sweden. The Depression began with a stock market crash in New York in the USA in 1929 and then spread around the world. This led to unemployment, strikes and demonstrations. During this period, people in Sweden gained improved unemployment insurance and the right to holidays. Pensioners gained improved pensions.

In the 1930s, the situation improved for women and children. Women who had children received healthcare and more money. This was because, the Swedish Government wanted people to have more children. Women no longer needed to pay when they gave birth in hospital. The State also built child healthcare centres and better homes for families with children. Employers were no longer allowed to fire pregnant women.

Agreement between employers and employees

Major changes also occurred in the labour market. From the early 20th century until the 1930s, it had been common for employers and employees to argue about wages, working hours and workplace conditions. In 1938, the workers' trade union confederation, LO, and the Swedish employers' association, SAF, agreed on a model of cooperation in order to reach agreement in future. This agreement became known as the Saltsjöbaden Agreement. Cooperation between employers and employees has been very important in the development of the Swedish economy.

The Second World War

The Second World War began in 1939. During the war, Hitler and the Nazis killed over five million Jews and hundreds of thousands of Roma, communists, homosexuals and people with disabilities. When the Second World War began, Sweden drew up an agreement that the country would be neutral and not take a side in the conflict. Sweden helped refugees from Denmark, Norway and the Baltic states. Sweden accepted 7,500 Danish Jews, who would otherwise have been sent to Germany.

Sweden was criticised during as well as after the Second World War for not having acted as a neutral country, e.g. by allowing the Nazis to transport soldiers and weapons through Sweden.

Following the Second World War, many countries came together to form the United Nations (UN) in order to prevent a new world war.

Europe after the Second World War

After the Second World War, Europe was divided in two, Eastern Europe and Western Europe. Eastern Europe came under communist rule and the Soviet Union was in charge of most decision-making.

Western European countries and the US joined to form NATO, a military alliance for the defence of Western Europe against communism. In response, the Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe formed the Warsaw Pact for their own defence. The climate of conflict and tension that followed became known as the Cold War.

In 1961 the Berlin Wall was built in Germany to prevent people from leaving East Germany, which was a communist dictatorship during the Cold War and whose inhabitants were not allowed to leave the country.Before the Berlin Wall had been built, many people fled from East Berlin to West Berlin. The Berlin Wall is a symbol of the division of Europe during the Cold War. This division remained until 1989, when the Berlin Wall was also torn down. That event has become known as the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

The Berlin Wall  Photo: Colourbox

Sweden from 1960 to 2000

In the 1960s, Sweden's economy improved. Childcare, healthcare and care of the elderly was expanded. Employees gained the right to four weeks' holiday. Sweden became a modern country that could provide its citizens with a good life. There was security and opportunities to get foot, housing and work. This security is normally called the Swedish welfare state. In 1974, a new constitution decreed that all public power comes from the people. The king was still the country's head of state, but all political work would be conducted by the Government and the Riksdag.

Carl XVI Gustaf was the first Swedish king to ascend to the throne following the introduction of the new constitution. In 1980, the law was also changed so that a woman could succeed to the throne. This means that Princess Victoria is the heir to the throne instead of her younger brother, Prince Carl Philip.

In 1979 the price of oil was raised. It was the countries in Opec (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) that made this decision. When oil became more expensive there was a financial crisis among the countries in the west.

In 1986, the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was murdered. The murderer is still unknown.

The beginning of the 1990s was a troubled time in Europe. Sweden suffered from a banking and monetary crisis. Many people lost their jobs. Many businesses disappeared. The public finances became worse.

In 1994, the Swedish people voted in a referendum to join the European Union (EU).

In 2003 Sweden's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Anna Lindh, was murdered. Her murderer was sentenced to life imprisonment.

In the 21st century, several financial crises have had a major impact on the global economy.

Around 2000 the so-called dotcom bubble burst, leading to the bankruptcy of many businesses involved with the growing internet and information technology in general. The bubble was a result of extreme speculation, and when it burst the stockmarket crashed.

In 2008, a financial crisis was caused by an overvalued and over-leveraged housing market in the USA. The financial crisis has led to several countries coming close to bankruptcy (Iceland, Greece, Spain) and the effects are still being felt (2017).

2010 was marked by a debt crisis in Europe, which continues even today (2017). This has led to higher expenditure than revenue in several EU countries, and the crisis has spread to a number of countries in Europe.