Author: Tony Griffiths
History without parochialism
South Australian historian Tony Griffiths follows Scandinavia's transformation from peasant societies to wealthy industrialised states, using the works of artists to illustrate his story.
This is how the former long-time Finnish ambassador to the United Nations, Mac Jakobson, has described the atmosphere in Scandinavia between the two World Wars: `Denmark feared Germany, Finland feared Russia, Norway feared nobody and Sweden was never able to decide who to fear most.'
While these stark images of threat may have since faded, Jakobson's remark aptly reflects the geopolitical realities that have shaped the history of Scandinavia. Tony Griffiths Scandinavia gives us an excellent opportunity to increase our understanding of these Nordic countries.
It is fairly rare to find a book that strives to cover parallel developments in the Scandinavian countries. It is even rarer to find an author who does this without the stodginess often found in textbooks. Indeed, Griffiths' book is eminently readable. There is an astonishing amount of information in its 200-odd pages, and yet the lively style makes page after page read like a good story.
Griffiths, a South Australian historian, outlines the earlier history of the Scandinavian countries: the Viking times, the Kalmar Union in 1397 when the region was united under one ruler, and the formation of Denmark-Norway and Sweden-Finland in the sixteenth century.
The main focus, however, is on the past two centuries, from the turbulent Napoleonic era, when Denmark lost Norway to Sweden and Finland became a grand duchy of Tsarist Russia, to the present. The book leaves us with the problems of the four sovereign and prosperous Scandinavian states, their reputation as `model welfare societies' now slightly tarnished, each attempting to deal in its own way with the economic and political uncertainties of Europe in the 1900s.
Griffiths' stated intentions are to analyse the relationship between cultural and political change by looking at Scandinavian artists and their works, and to provide an `outsider's view' of the history of the area without the all too common parochialism and regional bias of local historians. He has succeeded remarkably well on both counts. Launching into the nineteenth century, he weaves into his story the lives and works of many internationally known Scandinavian artists and intellectuals, with a few industrialists for good measure.
`What happened then?', the reader is inclined to ask after each brief encounter with Kierkegaard, Anderson, Ibsen, Munch, Grieg, Sibelius, Nobel, Bergman and other cultural identities. Through art and literature, Griffiths gives us insights into the Scandinavian society, its nationalism, religion, education and politics, but leaves enough unsaid to whet the reader's appetite.
Griffiths follows Scandinavia's transformation from peasant societies into wealthy, industrialised states of predominantly social democratic orientation, where the citizens are looked after `from cradle to grave', albeit at a great cost to those who can afford taxes. Indeed, many feel that they cannot, and leave their countries for tax haven abroad. In Sweden, the world-famous children's author Astrid (Pippi Longstocking) Lindgren had cause to cry out when she was misinformed by the tax authorities that she would have to pay 102 percent tax on her income. Film director Ingmar Bergman complained that `social democracy had created a rigidly conformist society administered by heavy-handed tax-collectors'.
The prosperity of Scandinavia, particularly that of Sweden, has been helped by the countries' strenuous efforts to remain outside international conflicts. Sweden, behind the buffer zone of other Scandinavia countries, has managed this best, enjoying uninterrupted peace since the early 1800s.
Sweden's neighbours haven't fared quite so well. Russia, not surprisingly, has always influenced Finland's foreign policy considerations. After her defeat by Russia in the second World War, Finland has pursued a policy of neutrality that takes into account the special relationship with her great neighbour. Norway's and Denmark's hopes of remaining neutral were finally demolished by Hitler's armies in 1940. Since 1949 both countries had belonged to NATO.
Neutrality in the First and Second World Wars did not prevent the Swedes from trading with the warring nations, a fact that gave them an opportunity to continue building their country's economy and to implement the policies of social reform ahead of their neighbours.
Prosperity, however, didn't come cheaply. Griffiths reserves his most barbed comments for Swedes who found their neutrality compromised by their concessions to Hitler in the quest for national survival. He writes that, after the war:
The collective weight of Swedish shame built up slowly - shame for not helping the Finns was replaced by shame for turning their backs on the Norwegians, for not standing up against the Germans, for sending some Balts to certain death - until shame and guilt seemed to be the natural state of the Swedish conscience. As the problem increased and sin became the national preoccupation, the social democratic state chose to expunge it by declaring old sins no longer sinful, and permissiveness blossomed into a form of pornographic expressiveness that achieved its apotheosis in Stockholm and Copenhagen, but not in Oslo and Helsinki, where the peasant puritanism of the Norwegians and the alcoholic athleticism of the Finns sublimated the guilty fixations of their neutral and collaborating neighbours.
In the tradition of Nordic cooperation, books on Scandinavia tend to concentrate on the many common values and goals shared by these nations. One would be hard-pressed to find a comment as poignant as this in any of them!
Griffiths doesn't forget, however, to rightly emphasise the willingness to work together of the Scandinavian monarchies, Sweden, Denmark and Norway, and the republic of Finland (and Iceland, which rates only a brief mention). Geopolitical realities of the Cold War made it impossible to form a Nordic defence alliance. Instead, Scandinavians have enjoyed relatively streamlined economic and social legislation, open borders and labour-markets, and cooperation in the Nordic Council for years.
It is ironic that, once again, Scandinavia is being swept into a new era by forces outside their borders. In the east, the Soviet Union is in turmoil, and it seem inevitable that other Scandinavian countries will follow Denmark's example and join the European Community by the end of this decade.
To what extent will Scandinavia retain its current identity when economic decisions are made in Brussels? How will Sweden and Finland reconcile the question of neutrality and non-alignment with their future membership? What effects will the changes in the Soviet Union have? These questions will provide Griffiths with ample material for a new chapter in the next edition of his book.
Only minor inaccuracies caught my eye: for example The Old Finns won fifty-nine seats in the 1907 election, not fifty-one; the 1938 industrial peace agreement in Sweden was made in Saltsjöbaden; the Nordic Council was established in 1952, not ten years later. While relatively insignificant, the errors are irritating. This entertaining and informative book, deserving more careful editing, is nevertheless highly recommended.