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August Strindberg on six causes of Sweden's accidents through the ages

August Strindberg, 1902. Portrait by Herman Anderson, Stockholm.

"There were, are and will be six reasons for Sweden's accidents" begins an old inscription on the west wall of the Riddarholm Church in Stockholm, which is the burial church of the Swedish kings and Stockholm's only preserved medieval monastery church.

The inscription is in Latin, and the words are said to be taken from Historia Metropolitana by John Magnus (1488-1544), Sweden's last Catholic bishop. (Eriksson, Monica: "... but with learned men in Latin", Latin inscriptions in Stockholm)

This is the full inscription:

Sweden's accidents
From August Strindberg's history Swedish people

A more recent translation from Monica Eriksson's text reads like this:

Six have been, are and will be the causes of accidents in Sweden: self-interest. Cowardly hatred. Contempt for the law. Satisfaction for the common good. Mindless favouring of foreigners. Ingrained envy of fellow countrymen.

Of course, we can't know exactly how accurate the words were when they were written down hundreds of years ago. But do they have any relevance today? Have Sweden suffered any accidents in recent times that can be traced back to these causes?

In the first volume of his history Swedish people (1882) points August Strindberg (1849-1912) specifically singled out one of the six causes:

One of these incivilities attacks a fault which is at least specifically Swedish, the others belonging to humanity, and that is courtesy towards foreigners, which, however, was more prevalent among the upper classes, those who ran the country and usually proved more unpatriotic than those who worked the native peat.

So, "courtesy towards", "unwise favour to", or "thoughtless favouring of" foreigners would, according to Strindberg, be something of a Swedish speciality among the authorities. We don't know which foreigners the inscription refers to, but we do know that more than one of Sweden's rulers through the ages has favoured people from outside when they thought this would strengthen their power.

When the birds of prey settled on the mountain tops

Vilhelm Moberg mentions, for example, in the defence scripture Swedish aspiration (1941) on how during and after the Thirty Years' War, which lasted from 1618 to 1648, "numerous foreign nobles" poured into the country, aiming at the freedom of the Swedish peasantry.

In periods when foreign rulers ruled over Sweden, foreign bailiffs also made life hard for the Swedish commoners, although the domestic bailiffs were certainly not that much better all the time. One such king was Albrecht of Mecklenburg, which has been portrayed as particularly evil by later Swedish historians (which is not surprising, after all, it is the winner who writes the story).

About Albrekt of Mecklenburg in Carl Grimberg's The Wonderful Fates of the Swedish People
About Albrekt of Mecklenburg in Carl Grimbergs history The wonderful fates of the Swedish people. Diversity quotas have a long history in Sweden.

For many centuries the The Violence Gate also a recurring plague for the general public. This was the name given to the abuse of the sovereigns, domestic and foreign. hospitality. Hosting was a legal "obligation" that meant that the commoners in Sweden used to be forced to provide food and shelter to noblemen and their entourage when they were passing through the village and stopped at one's farm.

It took a heavy toll on the peasants' food and fodder supplies when these retinues raided the homes of the commoners without doing the right thing, and could bring the "host family" to the brink of ruin if it came to that. The farms along the travel routes suffered most, especially in wartime. Forced hostage-taking was prohibited by Alsnö statute 1280. Kings, Magnus Birgersson, is said to have been nicknamed "Ladulås" for that very reason.

According to the charter, they empty the peasants' barns but "they are never so rich that they shrink from visiting a poor man's house and taking food without paying, and eat in a little while what the poor man has long had to work for".

But an example of thoughtless favouritism towards foreigners that I read about in the history books probably takes the prize anyway, and might even have made August Strindberg himself lose his chin.

The example took place some time after the Swedish Empire, which came to an abrupt end on 30 November 1718 when King Charles XII was shot through the head in Fredrikshald, Norway.

The age of liberty and the Gustavian era had passed, and the Swedish commoners had long forgotten the misfortunes and financial impoverishment that followed in the wake of the great power ambitions of the rulers. For a long period of history, the Swedish commoners have been among the poorest peoples in Europe. But at this time the commoners were quite well off. The common people were no longer starving. Homes were no longer drafty and cold. Even the poorest had access to all the world's accumulated knowledge and a standard of living that past kings could only dream of. Sweden had become a rich country.

Allmogens prosperity was the result of generations of hard work in the fields, in the deep forests, down in the dark mines, in the sooty factories and the growing cities. Their toil, good work ethic and savings had given them one of the highest living standards in the world, albeit in debt to the big banks. Sure, there was still poverty in Sweden - especially among the oldest who had worked all their lives only to find that it was not enough in the new age of the great power. But the general public had forgotten what it was like to be poor.

Sweden's rulers, too, had forgotten the hardships of the old great power and were at this time particularly power-crazed and "naive", as they humbly called themselves. The powers-that-be had notions that there were no limits to "their" claim to the fruits of the labour of the common people, and when they saw the newfound wealth of the workers, the dream of building a great Swedish power was once again awakened in the rulers. They wanted to stand out as the shining light of the world, as the pinnacle of human civilisation. And people all over the world did see that light far up north.

Sweden at this time appeared as the promised land of Canaan, where honey flowed freely and manna rained from heaven without anyone having to lift a finger. Such was the "image of Sweden", as they said in those days.

Not unexpectedly, countless foreigners poured into the kingdom, more than ever before. The authorities had many names to describe these foreigners. "Refugees", "unaccompanied minors", "new arrivals", "new Swedes", all sorts of words were used to avoid calling them "immigrants" or "foreigners" - words that were thought to have negative associations among Swedes. These foreigners had heard how "polite" the rulers in Sweden were towards foreigners. Sweden had never been an immigrant country in any real sense; on the contrary, it had been an emigrant country for a long time - and one reason for that emigration was precisely the power-hungry rulers.

But by this time, at least, the powers that be did a U-turn, and within a generation, immigration grew to one of the highest levels in Europe. Looking back on this time today, it was not at all surprising, as it is now common knowledge that human behaviour is overwhelmingly driven by self-interest and economic incentives. It was common knowledge even then, but for some reason the rulers of the time chose to ignore established knowledge.

But the rulers had a big problem. There was no housing for all these people pouring into the kingdom. Those of us who look back on history today can do so with wonder at how the rulers of the time could not foresee the problems that would arise. How did they think? There wasn't even enough housing for the Swedish commoners at the time, with Swedish youth being forced to stay with their parents for longer and longer instead of forming their own homes. How would they fit in all these foreigners?

The result was that foreigners were housed in all sorts of temporary accommodation, and a huge tax-subsidised industry grew up around getting these people under cover. They were housed in the old schools of the Commons, in makeshift barracks, even in huge ships anchored outside Sweden's cities. There was even talk of whole new cities being built for these people - and the Swedish commoners would finance the construction through taxes.

When these foreigners arrived in Sweden, they did what any human being would do and went to the cities where many of their compatriots already lived. This created problems for the common people in the parishes who received a large number of new guests in a short period of time, whom they were obliged by law to support. In the more densely populated southern part of the kingdom, this went so far that entire parishes would have gone bankrupt if it were not for the fact that the rest of the kingdom was forced to give some of its wealth to the worst affected parishes.

The fact that so many people from different cultures were squeezed together in the same places where there were no jobs or prospects, totally dependent on poverty support, created other problems as well. Problems that affected both the Swedish general public and the foreigners themselves. Crime and violence grew out of control. Contempt for the Swedish host society flourished and grew among the youth. Foreigners saw their children shooting each other to death in the streets. People blown up to death in the streets. The reality was far from the idyllic dream that brought foreigners to Sweden.

In order not to jeopardize its ambitions of great power, the central power in Stockholm needed a more even distribution of foreigners across the kingdom. To solve that problem, or "challenge" as they often called it at the time, they sent out a diktat to all parishes throughout the kingdom, declaring that the inhabitants of those parishes were obliged to provide a certain number of foreigners each year with shelter and food, and even to support them until they themselves could possibly make a living by honest work. But the history books tell us that the years and seasons came and went without many foreigners coming to work. It could take up to 8-9 years before even half of these foreigners had started to stand on their own feet. The result for the parishes was financial impoverishment.

There the rulers had another big problem. There were no thriving industries where you could pick up a shovel or sledgehammer and be at work the next day, nor were there many entrepreneurs willing to pay for all this labour that the authorities insisted Sweden needed. Not only had the state and trade unions made the threshold into work very high, but the Swedish commons had also become an educated people with specialised and often high-tech jobs that required both years of diligent study and a good command of the Swedish language. It was simply very difficult for foreigners to make themselves employable and earn their own living, and most ended up relying on state subsidies.

In order to afford this great power, the rulers found all sorts of creative ways to collect more taxes from the Swedish commoners, just like during the previous great power. At this time, the state had become much more adept at collecting taxes, but they had especially become better at hiding the taxes to make it much harder for the commoners to know how much they were paying in taxes. The myriad taxes that already existed were raised. Not too much so that it was too noticeable, but just a modest increase. Better a modest increase on a hundred taxes than a big increase on one tax. The powers that be knew their stuff.

The commoners were also burdened with entirely new taxes to finance the sovereign's dreams of a Swedish superpower. According to the sources, there was even talk of introducing a special transport tax where Swedish workers had to pay taxes for every kilometer one travelled on the roads.

An old news that I found in the sources, which aroused wonder throughout the kingdom, comes from Nacka parish in Svartlösa härad, Södermanland. The leaders of the parish had taken the dictates of the central government at their word. They were to provide shelter and food for the foreigners ordered to the parish by the central government, whatever the cost.

Nacka Chapel 1894
1894: Nacka's old chapel by the Nacka stream. It was built in 1697 and taken out of use in 1892. The chapel was demolished in 1902. Photo: the National Heritage Board (no copyright)

To afford this, the parishioners were taxed, and with the money raised by the state's monopoly on violence, the parish leaders began to buy up almshouses around the parish for enormous sums. In less than two years, 94 allotments were bought at a cost of SEK 305 million, an enormous sum in the money of that time. With the commoners' own money, thousands of crowns for each tax-paying parishioner, the parish rulers competed with the parish's own commoners, who tried to buy themselves a home with their hard-earned money.

The sources testify to a particularly sensational case in which the Nacka parish authorities bought three homes for almost SEK 14 million for one and the same man because his three wives would each have a home. Sweden may have been very progressive at the time, but this case still raised eyebrows across the kingdom.

This time came to be known in the history books as Values time. It was a time that brought many misfortunes to the Swedish people. They were denied the fruits of their labour. They were denied a dignified old age. They were denied the right to live free and safe in the land of their birth. The very existence of their ancient culture and history was denied. The common people were robbed and beaten, girls and women were defiled and in some tragic cases people were even murdered - precisely because they were and looked like Swedes. The old laws of domestic peace and women's freedom were no longer respected in the empire, while the "value base" had been elevated to divine law by those in power. This law was not to be questioned, no matter what the consequences were in reality.

These circumstances, together with all the thoughtless favouring of foreigners that took place during this time, made the common people grumble all over the kingdom - as they had done many times before in Sweden's history when those in power made their political ambitions an end in themselves. Even among the commoners who sympathised with the rulers, discontent was rife, for they too saw how money was lacking everywhere in the state apparatus.

Not that the Swedish public disliked foreigners; on the contrary, Swedes distinguished themselves in the world for their openness, generosity and curiosity about other cultures. The dissatisfaction was based entirely on the injustice experienced by the general public. They simply wanted "right will be right". They wanted Sweden to continue to be built on foundation of freedom - the foundation that took Sweden from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the richest.

And you know what the old Swedish proverb says about injustice?

The one who sows injustice,
will reap hatred and revenge

The proverb is taken from the Swedish dictionary from 1865, and in this proverb we should find the main reason for most (if not all) of the ommogereations throughout Sweden's long history. Nothing corrodes the foundations of society more than injustice, and the hatred that follows. History shows that you simply can't count on a good harvest when you sow injustice. It is even a danger to society, if we are to believe Ellen Key (1849-1926):

Every injustice is a danger to society - it is this truth to which our Swedish upper class is increasingly blind in domestic affairs, while it is still reasonably clear in the longer term.

Ellen Key in Swedish or Greater Swedish patriotism?

Drunk on their imagined goodness and blinded by their dreams of great power, Sweden's rulers saw only hatred growing among the common people. They did not see the injustice they themselves had sown, and fertilized, with the hard-earned pennies of the common people. They did not want to see that they had set group against group. According to these rulers, no groups even existed within the centrally planned community of the state, and everyone in the whole world would be prepared for a place in this community as long as they made it to Sweden. This was the basis on which the new "humanitarian" superpower was to be built.

But what happened to the dreams of the great powers of the founding era?

Well, the dreams of those in power came to an end - when the money and patience of the common man ran out. For a long time, many years, the Commons had been grumbling quietly about the problems they saw emerging. Here and there voices were raised, but these few "rebellious" subjects were called all sorts of terrible things by the authorities for having the audacity to speak out freely. For that was precisely how the rulers saw the Swedish commoners, now as before in Sweden's history, as subjects and a mere source of state revenue.

The particularly outspoken subjects even experienced how the lackeys of power took advantage of their ability to provide for themselves and their families. People were fired, driven out of the public eye, forced to repent and beg forgiveness from the authorities - because they had blasphemed against the divine values. But the years passed, and eventually the problems became so obvious that the little people no longer cared about the invective and threats hurled by the authorities and their loyal followers.

The general public realised that the price of silence was too high. Not only their wallets and such worldly things were at stake, but also their lives, their freedom and the future of their children. This was noticed by the powers that be, and they became very frightened as they sat there perched in their high towers. For if there was one thing that the rulers of this time desired more than their dreams of greatness, it was to retain power. Perhaps they had absorbed Magda Bergqvist von Mirbach's (1889-1976) poem A word of advice to my son, if I had any:

Don't learn much from a book,
my son, but well of other things.
A wind vane, swinging around,
for example, is very wise.

Therefore, always seek to resemble it,
turn your cloak after the wind!
Then you rush with great leaps,
against the pinnacles of power, young friend!

My sources don't tell me any more about how the story ended, but if we are lucky, a future historian may take on the task of continuing where this story leaves off.

But the Swedish allmogen, it is still alive with all certainty, and I do not know their history wrong, I have a feeling that they did not accept other than that right will be right.

More information about the inscription

Here is the full inscription in Latin:


The Swedish People by August Strindberg
The Swedish People by August Strindberg, 1882 edition with elegant sleeve decoration by Carl Larsson
I stumbled across the text in the first volume of August Strindberg's history Swedish people published in 1882 in two parts. Strindberg gives this translation (same text as in the picture above):

These are the causes of Sweden's misfortunes: pride, neglect of the common good, self-interest, unwise favour to foreigners, and obstinate envy of natives.

The text in Riddarholm Church is said to have been discovered and recorded by a parish priest in connection with a repair of the church. He says that "when the church was whitewashed in 1713, it was found under the hwalfwet with the old monk's style and red ferg on the sielfwa hwalf wall".

When the church was restored at the beginning of the 20th century, the inscription could not be found, but a new one was made in the place indicated by the scribe (Marcusson, Olof and Norberg, Dag: Med lärde på latin, Stockholm, 1967.). Nowadays the text is supposed to be on the west wall of the nave, where it was moved from one of the vaults during the restoration of the church (Eriksson, Monica: "... men med lärde män på latin", Latinska inskrifter i Stockholm).

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One thought on “August Strindberg om sex orsaker till Sveriges olyckor genom tiderna

  1. Ann says:

    Dear Daniel! It took me a while to realise that half the text is about real time - here and now!!! Was a bit perplexed at first, but then I burst out laughing in relief. How clever to clarify our absurd present in this way, and that nothing is new under the sun when it comes to Men of Power. Many thanks for doing such a mastodon job with Project Allmogen.

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