The Nordic nations tend to be table-toppers on global measures of equality, development, sustainability and liveability and, despite the impact of the financial crisis, these countries remain at the forefront of all that is forward-thinking and progressive. Nevertheless, despite a history of relative isolation, the world has come knocking at Scandinavia’s door in the shape of immigration and climate change, impacting the political order and posing serious questions for the region’s present and future.
Exacerbated by the financial crisis, when bailouts of several European nations raised questions in the media and parliament about whether Scandinavians were being made to pay for the sins of others, the relatively rapid influx of immigrants to formerly rather homogeneous Nordic societies has raised tensions in recent years.
Anti-immigration and far-right political parties have gained substantial portions of the popular vote and a polarisation of local opinion raises the question of whether the region’s famed tolerance was just a veneer. Much of the debate has been focused on the 2017 terrorist attack in Stockholm by a failed asylum seeker cited by politicians across the region as evidence of the need for tighter controls. On the other side, Anders Breivik’s 2011 massacre of Norwegian teenagers or Finland’s troubled history with guns could be seen as powerful evidence that local extremism is a bigger problem.
There has always been a divide between Scandinavia’s liberal cities and its more conservative countryside and settlement of refugees in largely rural areas has brought global issues to remote doorsteps. For some, particularly older generations, the perception of overwhelming immigration, combined with the sharp decline of churchgoing in recent decades and the technological development of modern society, has led to worries about the loss of traditional values and culture. How the Scandinavian countries manage these perceptions and this transition will be key in coming years.
Scandinavia is a model of sustainability, with high – 100% in the cases of Norway and Iceland – renewable electricity output, a firm and longstanding commitment to recycling, stringent environmental certifications and lots of investment in green technology. Winter heating bills add to the overall carbon footprint, but in general the region is an example for the world. Firm government commitments have pledged to make most of the Nordic nations carbon neutral within a few years.
Nevertheless, the rest of the world hasn’t done Scandinavia any favours. Dramatically changed weather patterns have already affected the region, which is experiencing much milder winters and a corresponding decrease in snow cover. The rapid warming of the polar region – some scientists predict that ice-free summers at the North Pole may come as early as 2030 – will have huge and potentially devastating effects on the Scandinavian ecosystem, impacting everything from fisheries to indigenous rights. The lessening of snow and ice cover means that more heat is absorbed rather than reflected by the earth's surface, exacerbating the rapid warming; the consequent thawing of layers of permafrost will release yet more trapped carbon into the atmosphere.
Reindeer herding in the north has already been severely affected. Rain in place of snow freezes on the ground, denying the animals access to the mosses and lichens that sustain them.
As members of the Arctic Council (www.arctic-council.org), which strives to protect the northern environment, the Nordic countries are intimately engaged with trying to find solutions. However, questions remain unanswered regarding the management of resources under the ice cap in Russian and Canadian territories, which threatens to delay serious action until it is too late.
The European Union
If the European Union is a house party, then festivities were badly soured by the economic crisis and immigration issue. Finns grumbled that they were paying for everyone else to get drunk, while Danes and Swedes wanted to tighten up their formerly liberal policies on those some perceived as gate-crashers. Then Britain left in a huff and those remaining have begun to feel that maybe the party isn’t so bad after all – it’s cold outside and there's a big bear lurking. Meanwhile, friendly neighbour Norway isn’t a party person but now wonders if its standing invitation to share the food and beer might be re-evaluated after the commotion of Britain’s exit. And Iceland? Still dithering by the doorbell, wondering if the party is worthwhile.
Best on Film
Wild Strawberries (1957) Ingmar Bergman's sensitivity comes to the fore in this masterpiece.
The Man without a Past (2002) Quirky Finnish brilliance from Aki Kaurismäki.
Dancer in the Dark (2000) Provocative director Lars von Trier and Björk combine in this melodramatic but masterful film.
The Bridge (2011) This excellent series takes place between Sweden and Denmark.
Let the Right One In (2008) Superb vampire romance in a northern town.
Sameblod (2016) A stark reminder of historic attitudes to the Sámi.
Best in Print
Njál's Saga (Anonymous; 13th century) Gloriously entertaining story of a bloody family feud in Iceland.
A Death in the Family (Karl Ove Knausgaard; 2009) The first of six searingly honest autobiographical novels.
Kalevala (Elias Lönnrot; 1849) Finland's national epic is a wonderful world of everything from sorcerer-shamans to saunas and home-brewing tips.
The Emperor's New Clothes (Hans Christian Andersen; 1837) One of Andersen's most famous tales still carries a powerful message.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson; 2005) The first book of the Swedish noir trilogy that captured the world.
Best in Music
Máttaráhku Askái (Ulla Pirttijärvi; 2002) Haunting title track from the yoik-inspired Sámi artist.
Ghost Love Score (Nightwish; 2004) Epic track from Finland's symphonic metal masters.
Cocoon (Björk; 2001) Among the Icelander's most intimate songs.
In the Hall of the Mountain King (Edvard Grieg; 1875) Brilliant soundtrack to Peer Gynt's troll scene.
The Final Countdown (Europe; 1986) You know you love it.
Best of ABBA (ABBA; 1975) It's impossible to pick a favourite.
Barbie Girl (Aqua; 1997) Denmark's all-time No 1.
From Vikings to social democrats, through wars and treaties and peace, Scandinavia has had an interesting ride. Innovation has been a constant theme, from longships ploughing furrows across the known world and beyond to wholesale religious change, from struggles for independence to post-war democracies that changed the very idea of what it meant to be a citizen of a nation-state. The sparsely populated Nordic lands have often punched well above their weight.
Our view of the Vikings is often heavily conditioned by accounts written by terrified monks of the plundering of their monasteries by fierce dragonship-borne warriors from across the sea. In fact, though the Norse sagas bear out the fact that they were partial to a bit of sacking and skull-crushing, the portrait of these fascinating Scandinavians is a more complex one.
Developing marvellous seafaring skills, the Vikings, whose era is normally considered to have begun in the late 8th century, became inveterate traders whose influence – and, sometimes, pillaging – eventually extended across much of Europe. Often voyaging on their own account or for local warlords rather than for any ruler, they explored, settled, fought, farmed and mixed with locals right across northern Europe, through the whole Mediterranean, well into modern-day Russia and across the Atlantic, establishing Iceland and reaching America.
As belief in Valhalla’s free bar and the end-of-days vision of Ragnarök were superseded by heavenly harps and the Last Judgement, so the Vikings blended gradually into what came afterwards. The best example is the defeat of Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, in England in 1066. It’s often cited as the end of the Viking Age, yet victorious King Harold's forebears were Viking royalty, and the Norman conquerors who defeated him at Hastings shortly thereafter took their name from 'Norsemen' and were descended from Vikings who had settled in northwest France.
Danish & Swedish Dominance
For around 600 years from the early 13th to the early 19th centuries, Scandinavia was dominated by the kingdoms of Sweden and Denmark, who signed treaties, broke them, fought as allies and enemies, conquered territory across northern Europe and lost it again. Finland basically became a Swedish possession and was a frequent venue for Sweden's territorial squabbles with Novgorod (Russia), which ended up taking control of Finland after heavily defeating Sweden in 1809. Norway was a junior partner to Sweden, then Denmark, then Sweden again. Iceland fell under Danish control, with Danish merchants establishing a legal monopoly on Iceland’s resources that lasted nearly 200 years.
During the second quarter of the 16th century, the Reformation swept through Scandinavia and Lutheran Protestantism was adopted by royal decrees and force. Catholicism, which had taken over from the Norse gods some five centuries earlier, almost ceased to exist in the region.
By the end of the 19th century, independence movements in Finland, Norway and Iceland were strong and by 1920 all three were autonomous. The Nordic nations as we know them today were in place.
World War II
The Nordic nations all had a different experience of the Second World War. The first to be attacked was Finland, whose heroic but ultimately unsuccessful harsh winter struggle against Soviet invasion began in November 1939. A few months later, in April 1940, Germany occupied Denmark without a struggle and simultaneously invaded Norway, which finally succumbed after bitter fighting from Norwegian and other Allied troops.
Iceland, in a royal union with Denmark, remained free but army-less and soon accepted British, then American troops to prevent this strategically placed North Atlantic island from falling under German control. Meanwhile, Sweden had declared itself neutral and remained so – more or less – throughout the war.
Finland, forced to cede territory to the Soviets and ignored by the other Allies, now looked to Germany for help and soon was at war with Russia again as the Germans launched their doomed invasion. They reclaimed their lands but Russia bounced back in 1944. Finland had to cede them more territory and then drive the Germans out. As the Wehrmacht retreated across northern Finland and Norway, they destroyed everything in their path, leaving large parts of Lapland devastated. When peace came, the Danes and Norwegians – whose resistance throughout the war had cost them many lives – celebrated the end of occupation with gusto, Sweden dusted itself down slightly sheepishly, Iceland grabbed full independence and the luckless Finns were left without a big chunk of territory and forced to pay reparations to the Allies.
The Social Democratic Years
After the war it was time to rebuild and there was a chance for the Nordic countries to ask themselves what sort of country they wanted to construct. Governments across the region began laying the foundations for social democratic states in which high taxes and a socially responsible citizenry would be recompensed with lifelong medical care, free education, fair working conditions, excellent infrastructure, comfortable pensions and generous welfare payments for parents and the unemployed.
These nations became standard-bearers for equality and tolerance and overall wealth increased rapidly, leaving the privations of the war years to memory. Women achieved significant representation at all levels of society and forward-thinking in policy was much in evidence.
Though the political consensus for the social democratic model of government has waned in recent decades – taxes have fallen and some benefits have been sheared away – in general Scandinavians are still very well looked after by the state and inequality here is low.
- 12,000–9000 BC
In the wake of the receding glaciers of the last Ice Age, the reinhabiting of Scandinavia begins.
- 4000 BC
Agriculture begins in Denmark and southern Sweden.
- 793 AD
The first recorded sacking of an English monastery marks the beginning of the Age of the Vikings.
Norse settlers begin to take up residence in Iceland.
Christianity takes over the region, with Finland the last to be evangelised.
The Kalmar Union joins much of Scandinavia together under the direction of a common monarch.
The Reformation sweeps across Scandinavia, establishing Lutheran Protestantism as the totally dominant religion.
Norway finally regains independence, followed by Finland (1917) and Iceland (1918, 1944).
Finland is invaded by the Soviet Union, and Denmark and Norway by Germany.
Beer is legalised in Iceland.
Finland and Sweden join what is now the EU. Denmark had already joined in 1973.
The Øresund Bridge is completed, physically linking Sweden (and hence Norway and Finland) to Denmark and the rest of northern Europe.
Sidebar: Orkney & Shetland
The Scottish archipelagos of Orkney and Shetland belonged to Norway until 1472 and still feel culturally quite Scandinavian.
Sidebar: Democratic Royals
Despite all this social democracy, Norway, Sweden and Denmark all have monarchs. Their royal families are, however, generally known for their grounded attitudes.
Sidebar: Horned Helmets
The Vikings, unfortunately, never wore horned helmets as far as we know. They did, however, swill copious amounts of mead.
Sidebar: The Swedish Empire
Famously neutral Sweden was once a potent fighting force; at its 17th-century apogee, the empire covered most of Scandinavia and much of the other side of the Baltic.