Sweden in the 1930s: a “shithole country”

Submitted by AWL on 11 September, 2019 - 8:54 Author: Barrie Hardy
urban poor

“It’ll be a pleasure to leave this impoverished shithole of a country behind,” says the main character Harry Kvist in the Stockholm Trilogy of historical crime novels by Martin Holmen.

Sweden is now reckoned one of the top ten of countries in the world for quality of life, but eighty years ago much of the population lived in abject poverty.

Holmen’s three novels — Clinch, Out For The Count and Slugger — paint a grim picture of the life of the urban poor in 1930s Stockholm. Most of them suffer flea bites, their bedsheets doused in strong vinegar to keep the pests away.

Summer months bring massive lice infestation in the slums. Street urchins collect rats tales and turn them in for a reward from the city council. Unemployed men earn their bounty by shooting stray dogs. A street child’s idea of a treat is to buy five Ore worth of pastry scraps from the neighbourhood bakers.

Retired boxer, ex con, debt collector and all round thug, Harry Kvist is the anti-hero par excellence of these novels. He has a liking for rent boys, cheap cigars and violence.

Severe physical damage would ensue should anyone get on the wrong side of him. On the plus side he hates scabs, coppers, pimps and Nazis.

The market for Scandinavia noir fiction is somewhat overcrowded, but it pays to pick out the quality from the run of the mill. Several Swedish writers have given us stories with a distinctly leftist narrative.

Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo set the bar high in the 1960s with their Martin Beck novels, which showed that all was not well beneath the surface of Sweden’s supposed social-democratic paradise. Henning Mankell dealt with social inequality and injustice in Sweden mainly through his Wallander books, while making donations to charitable organisations in Africa and spending a lot of his time there.

In 1986 the Social-Democrat premier Olaf Palme was assassinated as he walked unguarded through the centre of Stockholm, then regarded as an ultra-safe city. This still unsolved murder pointed investigative journalists in the direction of the ever present Swedish far right and their alleged links with elements of the secret state.

The late Stieg Larsson, a dedicated anti fascist who regarded himself as a Trotskyist, did much research into extreme right and racist organisations, in particular the Sweden Democrats. In Larsson’s time, the Sweden Democrats were a small neo-Nazi outfit. They have since “reinvented” themselves as a right-wing “populist” party. In last year’s general election they came third, with a 12% vote share.

Larsson became famous for his international best selling Millennium trilogy, which focused on rogue elements in SAPO, the Swedish Security Service. His novels move the action along at a cracking pace, and their heroic protagonist Lisbeth Salander is very sympathetically drawn, though some of her feats of combat tend to stretch the reader’s credulity.

The same cannot be said for Harry Kvist. In him, Holmen has established an openly gay leading character who has done time for acts of gross indecency and GBH. Kvist falls foul of the anti-gay laws in the inter-war years before same-sex activity was legalised in Sweden in 1944. Britain would wait a further 23 years for such a legal reform.

Holmen evokes Sweden in the 1930s well. The Swedish police swagger around in their greatcoats, the pommels and sides of their sabres keeping the Stockholm underclass in check.

We get fascinating details like the fate of Sweden’s last state executioner, Albert Dalman, who was run over by a tram. (Sweden’s last execution was in 1910, more than five decades before Britain’s). We also learn of a sexual scandal involving the septuagenarian reactionary monarch Gustaf V, which was covered up at the time.

Each of the three novels end with varying degrees of disappointment for Kvist. In the final one he doesn’t make in to the ship which is going to take him to America. Which brings us back to Kvist’s designation of Sweden as a shithole country.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Sweden experienced emigration to the USA on a colossal scale, with around 25% of the population making the Atlantic crossing. A similar proportion went from Norway in this period.

A succession of crop failures, famines and rural poverty in general were the major causes for this, along with a general dislike of the Swedish aristocracy, which still wielded considerable political and economic power. The haemorrhaging of people was held to be so serious that the government set up a special commission to investigate the problem in 1907.

Industrialisation and a general rise in wage levels significantly reduced emigration in the inter war years, and Swedish neutrality during both world wars also aided economic growth.

Serious industrial conflicts had broken out in the 1930s, most notably during the saw mill strike in the Adalen district, during which five protesters were shot dead by the army. The mass protests which followed this encouraged the state to tone down its repression and buy off an increasingly militant working class with social welfare concessions instead.

Trump would like to see more migration to the USA from Scandinavia and none at all from Central America or the Caribbean. Yet Norway and Sweden have not been subject to countless invasions by the US marines over the years nor suffered ruthless exploitation by American agro-business corporations. Swedes enjoy universal health care and substantial social welfare benefits which most American workers can only dream of. They are not inclined to migrate.

Most of the major waves of migration to America in the past were the result of dire economic circumstances, such as the Irish famine, anti-Jewish pogroms in Tsarist Russia — or the “involuntary migration’ of millions of Africans on board slave ships.

In 1850s America the Native American Party emerged as the main party opposing the Democrats. It was anti-Catholic, xenophobic and hostile to Irish immigration. Its members were commonly and appropriately dubbed the Know Nothings.

In Trump and his followers we see to the modern reincarnation of the party of prejudice and ignorance!

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