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Ellen Key on patriotism and Great Swedes who wanted to kill Norwegians

Ellen Key portrait
Ellen Key reads aloud by the light of a kerosene lamp. (Painting by Hanna Pauli (1864-1940): The Friends, cropped)

"It is not only the nature, the memories and the constitution of their country that fire the flaming patriotism of the Norwegians: it is above all the country of the future that they love and adore."

"A union saved by war is preferable to a union dissolved" were ideas aired in some circles in Sweden in the 1890s. In the pamphlet Swedish or Greater Swedish patriotism? (1899), a compilation of four lectures from 1898 and 1899, the author and women's ideologist Ellen Key (1849-1926) attacked the Swedish authorities who wanted to preserve the union between Sweden and Norway at all costs.

It has often been said in Sweden that in the war with Norway, of which the Swedes in the 1890's have spoken and of which hints have been heard in connection with our increased military appropriations, the Swedes should not be content merely to maintain the status quo of the Union. They should carry out what was falsified in 1814, namely to make Norway a Swedish province! The idea of this crime is called in Sweden - patriotism! And it is considered compatible with Sweden's honour and Sweden's right!

This was the great Swedish patriotism, as Ellen called it. Six years after the publication of Ellen's pamphlet, i.e. in the same year that the Union was dissolved in 1905, the leader of the Social Democratic Youth League Zeth Höglund out even harder against the Great Swedes with its anti-militarist manifesto Drop your weapons! - Peace with Norway!in which he urged the soldiers to refuse to go to war and that "the weapons - if they were to be directed against anyone - should not be directed against the Norwegians." For this manifesto, Zeth Höglund was put on trial and sentenced to six months in prison.

Great Swedish patriotism lived on through those patriots who so loved Sweden's greatness and freedom that they were unwilling to acknowledge their own freedom to the Norwegians. Strange, thought Ellen.

It is strange to encounter again and again, in new forms, man's inability to bring coherence to his concepts of law, consistency to his love of freedom, impartiality to his judgments. There are few spiritual needs so undeveloped as that which I consider to be among the highest manifestations of both ethical and intellectual superiority, namely, to place every new experience of life, every new issue, every principle discussed, in its context with the concepts of freedom, justice and development, and to judge them only in this context. He who is really capable of this also recognizes the outrageousness of the violation of liberty and justice, even when it is done in order to combat opinions which he himself dislikes.

Ellen Key, born outside Västervik in Gladhammar parish, Södra Tjust härad in Småland, was one of the most influential writers of her time, remembered for her fight for women's rights and for her strong positions based on individualism, empiricism and humanism. She did not leave people unmoved, and even this exposition of patriotism received praise as well as criticism.

Ellen Key and Carl Milles
Ellen Key and the sculptor Carl Milles around 1915

Thank you for all the rich, beautiful and great things you have given to the people of Sweden, especially its young women.

Hildur Sandberg, a female physician in Lund to Ellen Key

Those who wanted to preserve the union between Sweden and Norway at all costs argued that Sweden simply would not survive outside the Union, that it was "a condition of life for our country". Similar claims can be heard from today's "Greater Europeans", i.e. that Sweden (or Britain) would not survive outside the EU. Ellen could not understand where such "bottomless pessimism about the vitality of our people" came from, and argued that "Even if our people were to perish after the dissolution of the Union, this would be better than our perpetuating it by a tremendous violation of rights, a great political crime against another people."

For a union between two peoples is a good one only so long as it ömse pages, is desired. If it ceases to be so, it becomes not only a non-good, it becomes an evil, a danger to life.

No state relations, "least of all those which have come into being in the manner of the union", are perpetual in nature, and their forms change with the development of mankind. Therefore Sweden had no right, Ellen argued, to deny the Norwegian people "those changes in the union agreement which correspond to the present development of the Norwegian people."

Norway is portrayed in the brochure as a country on the rise, inhabited by a culturally advanced people who had their own visions for their future - a people held back by the shackles of a defunct superpower. A great power stuck in the past, weighed down by outdated institutions.

I am not a peace fanatic. I consider self-defence, including defensive war, to be fully justified, and even attack, if it is to help a brother in need. But I consider that the national sentiment which advocates fratricidal war as an ultimate means of coercion over the free will of another people is culturally backward, is an expression of cruelty.

The brochure draws parallels with how Germany in Sönderjylland "tramples down the Danish nationality" and how Russia "crushes the constitution of Finland and puts its people under the rule of arbitrariness and lies."

We are upset about all this here in Sweden. And rightly so. But have we nothing closer to home to be upset about? Are we ourselves free from the demoralization of fact and state, which we attack in other nations?

The Swedish politicians who today are most upset about what politicians in far-away countries do and say, instead of focusing on the injustices and problems (sorry, "challenges") they themselves have created at home, thus seem to be the bearers of a Swedish statesmanlike tradition that is at least centuries old.

"Why do you see the splinter in your brother's eye but not the beam in your own eye?", as they say.

Ellen pointed out that any principled lover of freedom who wanted to enjoy freedom himself must also respect other people's aspirations for freedom, even if their aspirations were in the opposite direction from his own.

The lover of liberty, who has thought through his own principles, cannot lift a finger to put an external obstacle - whether legal or economic - in the way of an expression of opinion directed against himself, even if this were an insult. And still less can he do so against any idea, even one which he wishes to defeat with all the weapons of the spirit. If the lover of liberty has not this consistency of mind, it is only an inconsistent desire for oppression.

Gives not this basic respect for other people's freedoms and rights, grows hat.

Hate has grown at an alarming rate - the abstract, political hates. For in reality every contact between Swedes and Norwegians still shows that sympathy lives deep. While hatred between individuals cannot flourish, political hatred grows on both sides.

What would history's verdict on Sweden have been if Sweden had given in to hatred and gone to war with its "brother nation"? If Sweden had declared a Norwegian vote for independence illegal, sent in soldiers to arrest Norwegian government officials, docked the Swedish navy in Oslo, seized election ballots, and done everything in its power to kill the Norwegians' dream of the future.

Whatever answer you give to that question, it will never be more than a guess. But there is a not dissimilar story unfolding in Spain, where the Spanish government is using violence to prevent the people of Catalonia from voting on their independence. Instead of respecting the will of the Catalonians and, depending on the outcome of the elections, separating them in an honourable manner, the Spanish government chose violence. History will judge accordingly.

But if Greater Sweden (and Greater Spain) patriotism is evil, what is the task of the true patriot according to Ellen Key?

The patriotic task now incumbent on a nation which loves its people and humanity at the same time is to awaken the Swedes to the feeling that through the policy of the Norwegian hatred and the silence we are forfeiting our proud right to be praised as a prominent cultural people, a very free nation. True patriotism is not that which calls everything good, but that which strives with all its might to make everything better. And it is now necessary for true patriots to use all the clarity of their thought, all the warmth of their feeling, on the one hand to form correct concepts of the controversies which are agitating Sweden and Norway, and on the other hand to promote the great reformatory tasks which are still unresolved. With united forces, it will prove possible that, in the ongoing battle between spirit and strength, the spirit will be the victor even now.
[...] For generation after generation, century after century, the best joy of life has been to dream, under the burdens of the present, of the "land of the future", the land that no foot has yet trodden and perhaps none will!

A mere reverence for one's fathers and a love for one's homeland is not enough, according to Ellen. To also have our sights set on the "land of the future" and to work for future generations to be even better off than ourselves is, according to Ellen, the fuel for true patriotism. Norway is held up here as a model.

Postcards from the time of the dissolution of the Union
Postcards from the time of the vote.

Allowing people as individuals and together to "go their own way, make their own mistakes and achieve their own goals", but also to set worthy ideals for themselves which they then strive to realise with all their life's energy.

He who has no ideals withers spiritually, for where there is no development there comes first stagnation, then decline.

But being a patriot also means taking up the fight against injustice and inequality, and here Ellen speaks particularly to the youth:

The youth whose soul does not seethe with holy defiance against all oppression, in whatever form it may be; who does not lie awake in anguish at injustice; who cannot weep at lowliness; the youth in whose breast the blood does not throb with joy at the thought of taking part in the struggle against injustice and unfairness; who does not go out under the stars to dream dreams of leaving a bright spot behind him - such a youth may well die at any time, for it will never matter that he lived!

My libertarian future may look different from the future Ellen imagined over 100 years ago. But I share her hope about the future, and the conviction that the only way forward is to allow people to go their own way, make their own mistakes and achieve their own goals - in freedom.

We hope for the twentieth century, knowing that when the grass on our graves turns green in the last spring of the next century, the people of that time will still be dreaming of the land of the future!

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