Sweden has a dramatic history whose earliest events – from geological uprisings to widespread religious conversions – can still be seen shaping the country today. Most people have at least a passing familiarity with stories of the Vikings and the Norse gods, but there are equally vivid tales of intrigue and drama throughout Sweden's development, in both the political and the royal spheres. Learning a little about the events that shaped the country's history will only add to a visitor's experience of it today.
The First Arrivals
In the grip of the last ice age Sweden was an inhospitable place, but perhaps less so than Siberia, where the first hunter-gatherers originated 10,000 to 6000 years ago. As the ice retreated, tribes from central Europe migrated into the south of Sweden, and ancestors of the Sami people hunted wild reindeer into the northern regions.
Between 1800 BC and 500 BC, Bronze Age cultures blossomed. Huge Bronze Age burial mounds, such as Kiviksgraven in Österlen, suggest that powerful chieftains had control over spiritual and temporal matters.
After 500 BC, the Iron Age brought about technological advances, demonstrated by archaeological finds of agricultural tools, graves and primitive furnaces, but as the climate worsened again, the downturn in agriculture coincided with the arrival of the Svea – powerful tribes who ended up settling much of Sweden. By AD 600, the Svea people of the Mälaren valley (just west of Stockholm) had gained supremacy, and their kingdom, Svea Rike, gave the country of Sweden its name: Sverige.
Vikings & Christians
Scandinavia’s greatest impact on world history probably occurred during the Viking Age, when hardy pagan Norsemen set sail for other shores. The Swedish Vikings were more inclined towards trade than their Norwegian or Danish counterparts, but their reputation as fearsome warriors was fully justified. At home it was the height of paganism; Viking leaders claimed descent from Freyr, ‘God of the World’, and celebrations at Uppsala involved human sacrifices.
The Vikings sailed a new type of boat that was fast and highly manoeuvrable but sturdy enough for ocean crossings. Initial hit-and-run raids along the European coast were followed by major military expeditions, settlement and trade. The well-travelled Vikings settled part of the Slavic heartland, giving it the name ‘Rus,’ and ventured as far as Newfoundland, Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) and Baghdad, setting up trade with the Byzantine Empire.
Christianity only took hold when Sweden’s first Christian king, Olof Skötkonung (c 968–1020), was baptised. By 1160, King Erik Jedvarsson (Sweden’s patron saint, St Erik) had virtually destroyed the last remnants of paganism.
Rise of the Swedish State
By the 13th century, royal power disintegrated over succession squabbles between the Erik and Sverker families, with medieval statesman Birger Jarl (1210–66) rising to fill the gap.
His son, King Magnus Ladulås (1240–90), granted numerous privileges to the Church and the nobility, including freedom from taxation. At the same time, he forbade the aristocracy from living off the peasantry when moving from estate to estate.
After deposing Magnus' eldest son, Birger (1280–1321), for fratricide, the nobility looked to Norway for their next ruler, choosing the infant grandson of King Haakon V. When Haakon died without leaving a male heir, the kingdoms of Norway and Sweden were united (1319).
The increasingly wealthy Church began to show its might in the 13th and 14th centuries, commissioning monumental buildings such as the Domkyrka (Cathedral) in Linköping (founded 1250) and Scandinavia’s largest Gothic cathedral in Uppsala (founded 1285).
However, in 1350 the rise of state and church endured a horrific setback when the Black Death swept through the country, carrying off around a third of the Swedish population.
The Birth & Death of a Union
The Black Death created a shortage of candidates for the throne. In 1364, the nobles installed Albrecht of Mecklenburg as their ruler but balked at his attempts to wield his own power. Their revolt was aided by Danish regent Margareta, and the resulting Union of Kalmar (1397) united Denmark, Norway and Sweden under one crown.
Erik of Pomerania, Margareta’s nephew, held that crown until 1439, his rule marred by a constant struggle against the Hanseatic League – a group of well-organised merchants who established walled trading towns in Germany and maintained a strong presence in the young city of Stockholm.
Out of the chaos following Erik's deposition, Sten Sture the Elder (1440–1503) eventually emerged as ‘Guardian of Sweden’ in 1470, going on to fight and defeat an army of unionist Danes at the Battle of Brunkeberg (1471) in Stockholm.
In a move of retaliation that sounded the union’s death knell, Christian II of Denmark invaded Sweden and killed the regent Sten Sture the Younger (1493–1520), adding a massacre in Stockholm’s Gamla Stan to his list of accomplishments.
The Vasa Dynasty
The brutal ‘Stockholm Bloodbath’ sparked off an insurrection in 1520 under the leadership of the young nobleman Gustav Ericsson Vasa (1496–1560). Having failed to raise enough support, Gustav was fleeing for the Norwegian border when two exhausted skiers caught him up to tell him that the people had changed their minds. This legendary ski journey is celebrated every year in the Vasaloppet race between Sälen and Mora.
Gustav I ruled from 1523 to 1560, leaving behind a powerful, centralised nation state. He introduced the Reformation to Sweden and passed the power on to his descendants though the 1544 parliament act that made the monarchy hereditary.
After Gustav Vasa’s death in 1560, bitter rivalry broke out among his sons. His eldest child, Erik XIV (1533–77), held the throne for eight years in a state of not-unjustified paranoia. After committing a trio of injudicious murders at Uppsala Slott, Erik was deposed by his half-brother Johan III (1537–92) and dispatched to the afterlife via poisoned pea soup at Örbyhus Slott.
The last of the male Vasa rulers, 17-year-old Gustav II Adolf (1594–1632), proved to be a military genius, recapturing southern parts of the country from Denmark and consolidating Sweden’s control over the eastern Baltic. He was killed in battle on 6 November 1632, a day remembered for centuries in Sweden as a moment of national trauma.
Gustav II Adolf’s daughter Kristina was still a child in 1632, and her regent continued her father’s warlike policies. In 1654 Kristina abdicated in favour of her cousin Karl X Gustav, ending the Vasa dynasty.
Rise & Fall of the Swedish Empire
The zenith and collapse of the Swedish empire happened remarkably quickly. During Karl XI’s reign, successful battles were waged against Denmark and Norway, the latter resulting in the seizure of Bohuslän, Härjedalen and Jämtland, and the empire reached its maximum size when Sweden established a short-lived American colony in what is now Delaware.
Inheritor of this huge and increasingly sophisticated country was 15-year-old King Karl XII (1681–1718), an overenthusiastic military adventurer who spent almost all of his reign at war. Karl XII cost Sweden its Latvian, Estonian and Polish territory, with the Swedish coast sustaining damaging attacks from Russia, and he perished by a mystery sniper's hand in 1718.
The Age of Liberty
In the 18th century, intellectual enlightenment streaked ahead and Sweden produced some celebrated writers, philosophers and scientists. Anders Celsius gave his name to the temperature scale, Carl Scheele discovered chlorine and Carl von Linné (Linnaeus) was the great botanist who developed theories about plant reproduction.
Gustav III (1746–92) was a popular and sophisticated king who granted freedom of worship and was surprisingly successful in the maritime battle in the Gulf of Finland against Russia in 1790. Still, his costly foreign policy earned him enemies in the aristocracy and led to his assassination.
The rule of his son Gustav IV Adolf (1778–1837), forced to abdicate after getting drawn into the Napoleonic Wars and permanently losing Finland (one-third of Sweden’s territory) to Russia, ended unrestricted royal power with the 1809 constitution.
More or less out of the blue, Napoleon’s marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte (1763–1844) was invited by a nobleman, Baron Mörner, to take the Swedish throne – which he did, along with the name Karl Johan. Judiciously changing sides, he led Sweden, allied with Britain, Prussia and Russia, against France and Denmark.
Emigration & Industrialisation
Industry arrived late in Sweden (during the second half of the 19th century), but when it did come it eventually transformed the country from one of Western Europe’s poorest to one of its richest.
Significant Swedish inventions, including dynamite (Alfred Nobel) and the safety match (patented by Johan Edvard Lundstrom), coupled with efficient steel-making and timber exports and a thriving textiles industry, added to a growing economy and the rise of a new middle class.
Coupled with discontent in the countryside and exacerbated by famine early in the process, industrialisation led to enormous social changes – from mass emigration to the rapid growth of labour and social movements such as unionisation.
Sweden (Not) at War
Sweden declared itself neutral in 1912, and remained so throughout the bloodshed of WWI. Swedish neutrality during WWII was ambiguous: letting German troops march through to occupy Norway and selling iron ore to both warring sides certainly tarnished Sweden’s image, leading to a crisis of conscience at home as well as international criticism.
On the other hand, Sweden was a haven for refugees from Finland, Norway, Denmark and the Baltic states; downed Allied air crew who escaped the Gestapo; and many thousands of Jews who escaped persecution and death.
Beyond the Wars
After WWII and throughout the 1950s and ’60s, the Social Democrats continued with the creation of folkhemmet (the welfare state). The idea of a socially conscious society with financial security for all began with the coalition of 1936 between the Social Democrats and the Farmers’ Party and introduced unemployment benefits, child care, paid holidays and much more. The standard of living for ordinary Swedes rose rapidly, with poverty virtually eradicated.
Sweden began to take an active (peaceful) role in world affairs in the second half of the 20th century, offering asylum to those fleeing from political oppression worldwide. Prime Minister Olof Palme (1927–86) was deeply involved in questions of democracy, disarmament and the developing world when he was assassinated on the streets of Stockholm in 1986.
In the last 30 years, Sweden has become an affluent country with a strong economy and one of the most comprehensive welfare systems in the world – though its systems are being tested by massive immigration. The country suffered greatly from economic recession and unemployment in the early ’90s, and its export-led economy continues to be vulnerable to global economic depression. Cuts have had to be made to the welfare state over the last two decades, and many Swedes feel that the country's immigration policies add to the strain. They argue that the dramatic increase in population renders the existing welfare system unsustainable – a view that has led to increased racial tension and more frequent demonstrations and counter-protests.
On the international front, Sweden opted to join the EU in 1995 by a very narrow margin and, while nonaligned militarily, Sweden’s troops continue to take part in numerous NATO peacekeeping missions.
The Social Democrats, who held a majority of the government (and therefore shaped national policy, most notably the famous 'cradle to grave' welfare state) for most of the past 85 years, have begun to see their influence wane. The first big blow came in 2006, when the long-entrenched party lost its leadership position in the Swedish parliament. The centre-right Alliance Party (made up of four centre-right parties – the Moderates, the Liberals, the Christian Democrats and the Centre Party) won the election, with Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt campaigning on a ‘work first’ platform. Reinfeldt's government lowered tax rates and trimmed certain benefits, hoping to jump-start the economy and reduce unemployment.
The 2010 election saw the Social Democrats’ worst result since 1921: they won only slightly more than 30% of the seats in parliament. The Alliance Party won again (173 of the 349 seats), meaning Reinfeldt continued as prime minister. Unemployment remained high, though, and by 2012 the Social Democrats had regained some favour. In the September 2014 general election, Reinfeldt failed to secure a third term as prime minister; instead, Social Democrat leader Stefan Löfven stepped in, leading a coalition government with the Green Party.
In that election's most startling result, the far-right nationalist Sweden Democrats doubled their proportion of the vote, becoming the third-largest party in parliament. This caused immediate friction as the other parties were unwilling to work with the Sweden Democrats.