Sweden and the Myth of Benevolent Socialism

David Dieteman

March 13, 2001

“I was walking through Gamla Stan, the Old Town in Stockholm, when it struck me that Sweden was the only country I’d ever been in with no visible crazy people. Where were the mutterers, the twitchers, the loony importunate?”

P.J. O’Rourke, Eat the Rich, Ch. 4

Sweden is the poster state for those who believe in the power of the government to solve all problems.

Frequently referred to as a “benevolent” socialist or social democratic state, to distinguish it from the run-of-the-mill socialist butcher shop, such as Cuba, China, North Korea, the USSR, and most of Africa, Latin and Central America, and Asia, Sweden is the Promised Land of the Left. Where the USSR was a departure from the genius of Karl Marx, Sweden shows the potential.

(As an aside, O’Rourke notes that the US ambassador to Sweden at the time of his visit was Thomas Siebert. He was Bill Clinton’s roommate at Georgetown. O’Rourke also notes that Mrs. Siebert is a friend of Hillary Clinton. Americans can stop wondering where the most intelligent and courageous female politician ever known finds inspiration for her collectivist dreams.)

As usual, the rosy picture painted by the Left could not be farther from the truth.

First, assume that everything the Left has to say about Sweden is true. This would only make Sweden the exception which proves the rule. In other words, even if Sweden were heaven on earth, this fails to answer the question of why Cuba, China, North Korea, the USSR, and most of Africa, Latin and Central America, and Asia are much more akin to Hell on earth.

Second, it must be noted that the touted stories of Swedish socialism, if not generally false, omit important facts.

For starters, unlike the godless state to which American leftists aspire, Lutheranism is the state-supported religion of Sweden. (Despite this fact, less than 10 percent of Swedes regularly attend church).

With respect to the claim that Swedish socialism shows the “success” of socialism, as O’Rourke notes, free trade reigned in Sweden from roughly 1846 until the Social Democrats were elected in 1932. After 1932, Sweden was helped by its neutrality in World War Two. Unlike Germany, Sweden’s major cities were not bombed flat. The Social Democrats, then, had a great deal of wealth produced by capitalism and undamaged by war to share as political spoils.

According to a Swiss federal government statistical comparison of Switzerland and Sweden, the percentage of Swedish unmarried pregnancies in 1996 was 54% percent — roughly equal to the black community in the United States. The reason for this high rate of unwed pregnancies is apparent in both cases, and it is not illegal drugs: the state gives incentives to unwed mothers in the form of social benefits, with predictable results. Why go through the hassle of getting married or staying married when a government check means that such a decision has no practical consequences for your life? Over the long-term, a 54% illegitimacy rate can only undermine Swedish society.

Worst of all, the Swedes have not always acted benevolently, as reported on page A1 of the August 29, 1997, Washington Post, 

From 1934 to 1974, 62,000 Swedes were sterilized as part of a national program grounded in the science of racial biology and carried out by officials who believed they were helping to build a progressive, enlightened welfare state…In some cases, couples judged to be inferior parents were sterilized, as were their children when they became teenagers.

Margot Wallstrom, the Swedish Minister of Health and Social Affairs, told the Post that “there was nothing secret about the sterilization program. It was carried out in the light of public debate at a time when Swedes believed they were creating a society that would be the envy of the world.” The Swedish Institute for Racial Biology, founded in 1922, was the first national institute of its kind. The Swedes were also the first to sterilize the mentally ill, beginning in 1934.

One woman, aged 72 at the time of the Post article, was sterilized “because she couldn’t read a blackboard because she did not have eyeglasses and was deemed to be retarded.”

The Post also reports that Dagens Nyheter, the Swedish newspaper which ran a multi-part documentary of the sterilization program, contended that the ruling party at the time — the Social Democrats — “accepted the policy as an essential part of their overall philosophy.” This claim is supported by the fact that, as noted above, the Social Democrats came to power in Sweden in 1932. In other words, they waited a mere two years before embarking on a program of eugenics. This would appear to make the eugenics program a high priority for the Social Democrats, as Dagens Nyheter contended.

The Irish Times of August 30, 1997, meanwhile, reports that “90 per cent of [those sterilizied] were women,” and that “the practice, which predated and outlived Nazi Germany, started as an attempt to weed out perceived genetic weaknesses, mental or physical defectsand ended as a method of social control.” According to Professor Gunnar Broberg, “Young girls were told they would be set free from [mental] homes and prisons u2018if we are allowed to make you calmer.’”

Interestingly, among the supporters of the sterilization program were Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, according to a 1991 Swedish radio documentary produced by Bosse Lindquist. Gunnar Myrdal was a socialist economist who shared the 1974 Nobel Prize for Economics with Friedrich Hayek. Gunnary Myrdal has also been praised as a “pioneer” in race relations.

Unfortunately, sterilizations are just the tip of the iceberg. As the Irish Times and Agence-France Presse reported on April 7, 1998, a Swedish Television documentary reveals that Sweden lobotomized perhaps 4500 “undesirables,” in some cases without the consent of their families: 

Some 500 lobotomies were conducted on patients who were not from mental hospitals…including a seven-year-old boy in Umea in northern Sweden in 1949. Diagnosed as “mentally retarded, hyperactive”, he died during surgery.”…One man featured in the documentary, who was lobotomised in 1963, is now 67 and has no concept of time, still believing that his children are small. In part, the benevolent socialist government of Sweden hoped to discover whether “lobotomies could cure alcoholics and criminals.”

Sweden also “forced hundreds of u2018mentally deficient’ Swedes to let their teeth rot after being force-fed candy in dental experiments.”

The allegedly “benevolent” Swedish social democrats, then, behaved very like the Nazis.

Sweden, however, is not alone in hiding its past. As the Irish Times also reports,

Since the Swedish revelations, other apparently “clean” countries have found similar skeletons in their cupboards. Both Norway and Denmark had similar policies. And this week a Swiss history professor, Hans Ulrich Jost, said Swiss doctors sterilized mentally-handicapped patients (again most of them women) against their will under a law passed in 1928. “Even Hitler requested a copy of the law from the canton and from the government in Berne as a basis for Nazi Germany’s own racist laws.”

The Washington Post claims that similar programs existed in Austria and Belgium, and the Telegraph (UK) recently reported that Norway sanctioned the physical and sexual abuse of children of occupying German soldiers born to Norwegian women.

As reported in the Telegraph, victims have spoken out about the savage treatment meted out to them by the Norwegian government and by ordinary citizens during the postwar years for the crime of being Tyskerbarna or “German bastards”. Many were locked away in orphanages or mental asylums for years — where they were subjected to sexual abuse — or had the “Germanness” beaten out of them by their Norwegian foster parents.

One girl, Tove Laila, was taken at the age of one by the SS to her German grandparents in the east German city of Eberswalde in 1942 after her father was killed in action. Mrs Laila, now aged 59, remembers: “It was the happiest period in my life.”

Alas, her happiness was not to last:

In 1947, under an agreement reached by the Allies and the Norwegian government, Mrs Laila was returned to her Norwegian mother where she was an unwelcome guest. Aged only six and speaking no Norwegian, she was beaten daily by her stepfather whenever she uttered a word of German. He later regularly sexually abused her. 

The Norwegian attorney handling compensation claims against the government, Randi Hagen Spydevold, stated that “No attempt was made by the Norwegian authorities to check what kind of family Mrs Laila was being sent to. She suffered years of abuse because nobody was interested in her well-being.” Mrs. Spydevold also stated that the Norwegian defense ministry and the CIA tested the effects of LSD on the children of German soldiers.

Predictably, the Norwegian government is fighting the compensation claims:

Norway’s Social Democrat health minister, Tor Toenne, said: “They had an especially difficult childhood, but the misdeeds against these children were lapses. It is difficult to reconstruct what happened to them after so many years.”

Right. Contrast this to the recent outrage over the claim that Swiss banks were holding money which was identifiable as having been stolen by the Nazis from Holocaust victims. Despite the fact that some of the victims in question had their property confiscated perhaps five to ten years before the Norwegian abuses began, these events took place at roughly the same time. Perhaps the Swiss just keep better records than the Norwegians.

Thankfully, the Norwegian victims are demanding justice:

The survivors are adamant, however, that the government should address one of the most shameful chapters in Norway’s history. Gerd Fleischer, a 58-year-old Oslo charity organizer and the daughter of a German soldier and a Norwegian woman, said: “The terminology used to describe us was as bad as the Nazis in its contempt for mankind. I grew up as a second-class person in hell. As a civilized nation, Norway must finally apologize and bring all the facts to light.”

Europe and the rest of the world indeed ought to face facts and admit their hypocrisy where eugenics and human rights are concerned.

Europe and the rest of the world should also give up their search for a magical socialist solution to the material conditions of human existence.

As Ludwig von Mises writes in The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, it is capitalism — based upon individual liberty and private property — which has materially advanced human life from mud huts and horrific infant mortality rates to the comfort in which much of the world lives today.

It is also in capitalist nations — where the right to liberty and the right to property are protected — where men and women have been comparatively free from the eugenic nightmares of other nations. Although prisoners and “mental deficients” were sterilized in the United States, such programs never reached the levels they reached in Sweden, let alone in Germany under the National Socialists.

Mr. Dieteman is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

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