The history of Sweden

Last updated: 23 6 2021

About Sweden – an orientation about Swedish society.

This text is about Swedish history. It describes how Sweden developed from a poor peasant society into a welfare state.

It also describes how the Swedish people wanted to change society and began to pressure politicians to create a fairer society. You will also learn how Swedish workers fought for better working conditions as the Swedish labour movement began to take shape.

A brief summary of Sweden's history

In the 17th century, Sweden was much bigger than it is today. The country had a large army that had conquered a lot of territory in war. The Swedish king, Karl XII, wanted Sweden to grow even bigger. He therefore wanted to defeat Russia. But in 1709, the Swedish army lost a decisive battle against the Russians near the town of Poltava in present-day Ukraine. After that defeat, Sweden was no longer a great power in Europe. Sweden was involved in many wars during its history, but since 1815, the country has been at peace.

  • Questions to think about

    Before you read about it in the text above, did you know that Sweden had been in several wars during the 17th century?

    In the past, the king had the supreme power in Sweden. Who is in charge in Sweden today? Do you think the king has any political power in Sweden today?

A peasant family in the 19th century standing next to an oxcart filled with hay.

Photo: Ödeshög Local History Archive

In the 19th century, Sweden was a poor peasant society. Around the middle of the 19th century, Swedish farmers had several bad harvests in a row. There was not enough food for everyone, and people went hungry. This made many people choose to leave Sweden in order to find a better life. Between 1850 and 1914, when the first world war began, around one million Swedes emigrated to the United States – that was more than a fifth of the entire Swedish population. But those who could not afford to emigrate remained in Sweden.

Around the same time, many people felt that the Church of Sweden had too much power and that it was old-fashioned and unjust in sticking to old ideas and values. There were also people who thought the king had too much power. In the 19th century, almost all power - in society as well as in the family - was held by men. Those who did not accept that would sometimes be excluded by their friends and family.

The Church of Sweden has had an influence on many things, including on some of the laws in Sweden. Many habits and traditions come from the church.

At the end of the 19th century, more and more industries were being established in Sweden, particularly in the major cities of Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö. Industrial workers were often paid low wages and had to work long days. They were unhappy with their conditions and got into conflict with the owners of the companies. The workers wanted to change their situation, but this was difficult. The owners of the companies had a lot of money and a lot of power. But there were many workers, and they thought that if they joined together they would also be strong. So they organised themselves, starting associations and political parties, and in that way they were able to begin changing the conditions for workers.

In the early 20th century, Sweden's exchange with other countries began to increase. Trade with other countries grew, and people were able to travel between countries without a passport.

People seated by machines in a mechanical workshop in the 19th century.

Photo: Örebro County Museum

  • Questions to think about

    In 150 years Sweden has developed from a poor agriculture-based country into a rich industrial one. Can you see any similarities with the country or countries where you lived previously?

Two world wars

There were two major wars during the first half of the 20th century. Both wars began in Europe, but countries from the rest of the world also became involved. For that reason, they are known as world wars.

The first world war started in 1914. Many European countries fought in the war. After four years, in 1918, the war ended and peace was restored. But by then 20, million people had died.

Sweden was not involved in the first world war, but it still affected the country. There were food shortages during the war. Many people were unhappy with their conditions and there was unrest and rioting in many places around the country, particularly in the cities. Many thought that Sweden's workers were going to stage a revolution, but the politicians found themselves forced to listen to the people and then decided to make major changes. In 1919, the Riksdag decided that a working day could not be more than eight hours long, and in that same year, women got the right to vote in Riksdag elections.

Between the wars, 1919–1939

In the 1920s, conditions improved for many Swedes. People wanted to influence society and began to fight for improvements together, such as for better housing. Many people lived in cold and neglected flats, and they began to demand that landlords take better care of them. It was also at this time that many folk high schools and adult educational associations were established. These were schools that anyone could attend. As a result, more people got an education – not just those who had the opportunity to go to university colleges and universities and could afford it. People in general saw that they could influence their own development as well as the development of the country, and this strengthened democracy in Sweden.

Things were going well in many countries in the 1920s, not just in Sweden. The economic outlook improved in large parts of the world, and many good things happened. New medicines were developed, people could listen to radio broadcasts, and it was possible to make a telephone call from the US to Europe. Many politicians and scientists worked to make the world a better place.

But some scientists thought that people could be divided into races, and that some people were better than others. These scientists were known as racial biologists. Some people agreed with them, but many others understood that such ideas would lead to racism and discrimination. In Sweden, it was Jews, Sami and Roma people in particular who became victims of the racism and discrimination that followed from racial biology.

In 1922, an institute of racial biology was founded in Sweden. The institute's task was to find the causes of crime, alcoholism, mental problems and other things, which were regarded as problems for Swedish society. In 1934, a law was passed which said that not everyone would be allowed to have children. Thousands of people were forcibly sterilised, which means they were operated on against their will to prevent them from ever having children. Today, the institute of racial biology no longer exists, and in 1976, sterilisation of people became forbidden in Sweden.

Adults seated around various tables in a classroom during and adult education lesson in the early 20th century.

Photo: stadslexikon.helsingborg.se

  • Questions to think about

    Large groups of people were discriminated against in Sweden and Europe in the 1920s. Can you see any similarities with other discrimination that has gone on in other parts of the world?

In 1929, there was a stock market crash in New York, in the US. The value of stocks fell quickly, and many people lost a lot of money. Companies went bankrupt, and many people became unemployed and were forced to sell their homes. This influenced the economy of the whole world, and in the early 1930s, there was an economic crisis with high unemployment in Europe as well. Many people became poor and worried about their future.

In Germany, the Nazis came to power in 1933. The Nazis believed that some people, such as Jews, Roma people and homosexuals, were not of the same worth or dignity as other people. The leader of the Nazis, Adolf Hitler, said that the Jews were dangerous and damaging to Germany. Many Germans had become poorer and were hoping that better times would return. Many believed in Hitler and his Nazi party, and more and more people began to hate the Jews. Hatred of Jews is known as anti-Semitism. The Nazis took away Jews' and Roma people's civil rights, and many of them were imprisoned and murdered.

The economic crisis struck Sweden as well. A third of all of Sweden's workers were unemployed at this time. Many of them wanted changes, and after the 1932 election they began to see them. The Social Democratic Workers' Party (Socialdemokratiska arbetarpartiet) emerged from the election as the biggest party in the Riksdag, and together with another party, the Farmers' League (Bondeförbundet), they began to change many things. One such change was unemployment insurance, which meant that workers could continue to receive money from the state even if they lost their jobs. Other changes included everyone's right to holidays and that everyone should get a better pension. A pension is a payment you receive every month when you become old and stop working.

The idea behind many of these changes was that those who had money should help those who did not have as much money. They did so by paying higher taxes. The politicians then distributed the tax money to groups in society who needed them more. The politicians said they wanted to create a society that was fair and equal. This society was even given its own name: Folkhemmet, or the People's Home. But not everyone was welcome in the Folkhemmet. Certain groups of people, such as Sami and Roma people, did not enjoy the same rights and conditions as other Swedes.

  • Questions to think about

    Did you know that there were ethnic groups in Sweden who have not always had same rights as everyone else? Why was that, do you think?

But the political changes were successful in many ways, and things improved for Sweden. Many of the changes were possible because different groups in society negotiated with each other and reached agreements on things that were good for Sweden. One famous negotiation took place in 1938, when two big organisations met in Saltsjöbaden, southeast of Stockholm, to negotiate workers' salaries. The organisations were the workers' trade union, Landsorganisationen i Sverige (LO), and Svenska Arbetsgivareföreningen (SAF), the Swedish Employers' Association. They decided during the negotiation on how they would collaborate and agree on workers' salaries in the future. This collaboration between employers and employees became known as "the Swedish model" and has been very important for the development of the Swedish economy. The Swedish model meant that things improved for people with lower salaries and that the differences in wealth between different groups in society grew smaller.

The second world war, 1939–1945

The second world war began in 1939. What started it was Nazi Germany's attack on Poland, but soon other countries had been drawn into the war. On one side were Nazi Germany, Japan and Italy. On the other were the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, the United States and many other nations.

Things got even worse for the Jews during the war. The Nazis rounded them up and took them to large camps where many of them were murdered. These camps are known as concentration camps. Six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis during the second world war in what has become known as the Holocaust. Roma people and Poles were also victims of genocide. Nazi Germany also murdered thousands of other people, including people with functional impairments, political opponents and homosexuals.

Sweden did not fight in the second world war. The Swedish government did not want Sweden to be drawn into the war, and during the early part of it, Sweden agreed to do many things that Nazi Germany demanded. Among these was stopping German Jews who were trying to flee to Sweden. But Sweden also helped Nazi Germany's enemies during the war. Sweden also helped its neighbour, Finland, for instance, by inviting 70,000 Finnish children who could not stay with their families to come and live with Swedish families.

The postwar period

The second world war ended in 1945. Nazi Germany lost the war, but in a way, everyone was the loser. Many cities had been bombed into ruins, and between 50 and 60 million people had died.

After the second world war, everyone agreed that no one wanted a third world war. Countries began to work together in order to avoid new wars. This collaboration continues today and is known as the United Nations (UN). The UN works to promote peace and security in the world and to defend and improve human rights. In 1948, the member states of the UN voted to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Almost all of the world's nations are members of the UN.

Because Sweden had not been in the war, Swedish companies were able to begin producing and selling their products and services very soon after the war. Many countries wanted to buy products and services from Sweden, and Swedish companies made large profits. Unemployment was very low at this time. Sweden became a rich country, and the government carried out many policy changes. All citizens were given the right to medical care. People who worked became entitled to four weeks of paid holidays a year. Women who were at home with children were paid money by the state, and childcare expanded so that women were given greater opportunities to work. The state took on the responsibility of ensuring that the population did not fall into poverty and that their health and housing were good, among other things. Poverty declined and Sweden developed into what is usually called a welfare state.

  • Questions to think about

    There are many things in Sweden today that improve people's lives, but it has not always been that way. People have fought for the changes. What changes would you like to see?

    Can you give an example of something that people have fought for in the country or countries where you lived previously?