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.

The Vikings

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As belief in Valhalla’s free bar and the end-of-days vision of Ragnarök were superseded by heavenly harps and the Last Judgement, so the Vikings blended gradually into what came afterwards.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.