Author: Tony Griffiths
There are not many overall or general surveys of Scandinavian history available in English, i.e. books that within the same covers deal with the history of all Scandinavian (incl. Finland) countries. There is, of course, T.K. Derry's book published in 1973 and F.O. Scott's book Scandinavia (1975) - the latter one providing a presentation of modern Scandinavia, albeit with a competent analysis of the historical background. An essential piece of work is also A Historical Geography of Scandinavia (1981) by the distinguished British scholar W.R. Mead. Thus, there is evidently a need for general surveys which account for all the Nordic Countries.
What distinguishes this book, written by the Australian professor of history Tony Griffiths, from most of the previous ones, is above all its ambition to give an account for the cultural history as well, in addition to the political and economic developments. This is done - as Griffiths himself puts it - "by looking at the works of imaginative artists as touchstones of their societies". Griffiths deals mainly with the history of the past two centuries. The first chapter presents the geographical and climatological circumstances, as well as some relevant and basic historic facts prior to the turn of the 19th century. Nearly a third of the book is devoted to the post-WW II-period. It is therefore also an informative introduction to the present-day Scandinavian societies, which Griffith, referring to a book by his compatriot Colin Simpson (1967) calls "the Civilised Circle".
The ambition by Griffiths, to give an account for the cultural history as well in a general historical survey, is praiseworthy and worth following. I wish that similar surveys in Scandinavian languages also had this ambition. The task is not an easy one. One is faced with the problematic task of sketching the general cultural development within a necessarily limited amount of space. Griffiths has chosen to highlight some central, and internationally well-known characters within literature, art music etc. He has in this way been able to pursue his arguments by referring to certain facts and phenomena which are - at least to some extent - familiar to some of his readers.
Griffiths' method works excellently as regards for example, a figure like Grundtvig. Grundtvig is indeed, a helpful character if one wishes to shed some light on societal development in the 19th century Denmark. However, the task becomes considerably more complicated and difficult with figures like, for instance, Kierkegaard. In Keirkegaard's case, Griffiths certainly runs the risk of trivializing the Danish philosopher.
The selection of issues that are raised and the way in which major problems within the field of historical research are presented can, of course, always be subject to discussion when one deals with a general survey-type work like this. Naturally it requires some time before the latest revaluation and new interpretations in modern research are included into overall surveys. There is, for example, hardly any account of the intensive research of the last few years concerning Finland's status within the Russian empire. Here the traditional picture is still predominant.
Griffiths rightly emphasizes the extent to which the Scandinavian countries with their highly developed economies are dependent upon the development of the rest of the world. However, according to my view his presentation of the oil crisis of 1973 as a turning point in history is a bit of an exaggeration. The oil crisis is hardly comparable to the consequences of Alexanders and Napoleons meeting in Tilsit. Considering how little space Griffiths has been able to devote to Iceland, one might question his reasons for dealing with the British-Icelandic "cod-war" so thoroughly. Having said this I must admit that issues regarding fishing business are main features of modern Icelandic history (especially apparent in the recent talks concerning European integration).
This book is not a problem oriented survey centered on the main issues of historical research, but rather a narrative history based on an "easy to read"-ambition. Griffiths refers, with apparent enthusiasm, to the statement made by the French historian Marc Bloc, that "understanding the living is the master quality of the historian". Griffiths has done both research and travelling in Scandinavia and thus experienced various milieus. And it is quite clear that he has enjoyed the experience, something which is reflected upon his writing. The reader will certainly not get bored in his company. His narrative style offers quite a few witty ideas and humorous remarks. In his depiction of the language battle in Norway, for example, he points out that the official policy makers were told by the Norwegian translator of My Fair Lady that it was Eliza Doolittle and not Henry Higgins who set the linguistic norms in Norway.
The book is concluded with a bibliography (about 130 books in English) and an index. The selection of the bibliography seems a bit random. Examples of books that I feel ought to have been included are the above-mentioned book by Mead, Finland in the XXth Century (1979) by the outstanding Finland expert David Kirby and the Dictionary of Scandinavian History Ed. Byron J. Nordstrom (1986).
The editing and technical design (uneven right margin, at places uncomplete lines, a few misspellings) is not of the highest quality. The cover of the book is apparently meant to give associations to themes presented in the book: trolls and doll's house (Ibsen), dynamite (Nobel), matches (Kreuger), cars (Volvo & Saab) etc. The idea in itself is a splendid one, although the artistic design hardly does justice to Griffiths' entertaining presentation.