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Why do we celebrate National Day in Sweden? And is there perhaps another reason to celebrate instead?
National Day is officially celebrated to commemorate the day Gustav Vasa was elected King of Sweden in 1523, and the 1809 form of government.
Värend and Möre herds in Småland, the starting point of the rebellion, became, according to the author Fabian Månsson (1872-1938) "so devastated, ravaged, despoiled and pinned down that it took two hundred years before they were restored to their pre-feud state", as Vilhelm Moberg writes in My Swedish History. Gustav Vasa's thousands of German mercenaries marched through Småland with fire, plunder, pillage, rape and torture as their weapons.
Later historians, such as Lars-Olof Larsson in the book Dackeland, has pointed out that Moberg probably went a bit overboard when he described Gustav Vasa's merciless rampage in Småland, but we can at least be sure that Småland's commoners had to endure a lot.
But fortunately, you can still celebrate National Day and eat strawberry cake even if you dislike the centrally controlled nation-state's presumption and the oppression it has wrought on the Swedish people throughout the ages. The nation state, the oppressor state, is not the same as the nation.
A nation state is a state that is built around a nation. That is, the nation existed before the state. As Klaus Bernpaintner recently wrote at the Swedish Mises Institute:
Nation is a matter of culture. There are some explanations of the word nation in SAOB. Here are two:
"(1) the people of a country; with particular reference to the commonality of descent, language, culture n.d., in part.
(2) an assembly of the inhabitants of a region or province"
Culture is thus a matter of nation. But also about local geographical descent. An explanatory example of the latter from 1793 reads
"Gälbgjutare-Lärlingen Harald Rosenberg (is) til Nationen Dalkarl."
There has been a diversity of nations within Sweden's current borders, which together make up all of Sweden's indigenous peoples. The Goths, the Scots, the Smålanders, the Dalkarls, the Jämtlanders, the Sami, and others, have all seen their nations incorporated into the nation-state of Sweden, often after long and bloody battles. Sweden is the result of a "long and painful birth", as Vilhelm Moberg described it.
Today in the conquered areas, many survivors still identify with their regional and original nations, especially the Sami who were the last to be incorporated into centrally planned Swedishness. But many also see themselves as part of the larger Swedish nation through the common culture we share.
Historically, the nation is a natural extension of the family and the lineage. From the family, the lineage grew through intermarriage with other families. As Vilhelm Moberg later writes in My Swedish History, the families joined together to form tribes and tribal confederations, "from which developed even larger units, the folklands or landska, which became politically independent powers. [...] When the light of history begins to fall on the land and the people in the 7th or 8th century AD, the Swedish Landskapsbund had defeated the Goths and incorporated their land into its own. [...] Out of the union of the Swedes and the Goths arose a kingdom, the Kingdom of Svea. But several centuries passed before the kingdom became a nation state in the modern sense."
What, or rather who, can you celebrate on a day like this if you don't want to celebrate old dead tyrants like Gustav Vasa?
I myself have given some extra thought today to my grandparents who helped build this country. They didn't rip their bodies out prematurely in the woods because they wanted to contribute to some nation-building effort. They didn't have a choice there. They did it because they wanted to create a better future for their children and grandchildren. For that I am eternally grateful to them.
In the introduction to My Swedish History, Moberg writes about the wonder that was aroused after only a short walk through the history of the Swedish people, a wonder "that has since grown in strength". He writes:
"How has this people, whom I seek to follow through the ages, been able to survive all the evils that have befallen it, all the wars it has endured, all the disasters that have occurred, the plagues and famines that have recurred almost regularly, all the distress, all the oppression, all the hardships - how has it been able to survive all this?"
Our ancestors have not only conquered the Swedish primeval forest for cultivation, but have also defended their freedom and rights against royal enmity, oppressive rule, and state autocracy in a tough and bitter struggle. Those who built this country got nothing for free.
The urge to rule oneself, the love of freedom, has always been strong among the common people of Sweden, according to Moberg, who spent years researching our history. This urge to rule oneself is also central to the idea of nationhood, which, unlike Gustav Vasa's nation-state, is based on regional and local self-determination.
I think that the ordinary person's daily striving for a better life is worthy of at least one day of celebration every year, even if it means that the tyrant Gustav Vasa has to take a step back. Sure, you can talk about nations, but when it comes down to it, we all meet as individuals in our shared reality, and it is as individuals that we strive for a better life. The nation, the community based on a shared culture, language and history, is there somewhere in the background and is not much noticed except when people are threatened from outside. When danger threatens, however, the existence of a strong national community can be absolutely vital. Alone you can do nothing.
What then is the "Swedish" that is worth defending and striving for? According to Moberg, it is Swedish nature, his origins, his habitat and the soil of his childhood that shaped him. "But it is also something else and more," he says in a speech on Swedish Flag Day in Gävle on 6 June 1944:
"There is peace and security for life and limb in a peaceful country, where children are born free of free parents. It is a land where even the smallest backwoods children can have the opportunity to test their strength to the limit. It is a country where everyone can grow and develop according to their own individuality, where everyone can be different from everyone else and have different opinions from everyone else - and still retain both their freedom and their lives. For me, this is what Sweden is all about. The inalienable. This is what I am thinking about today - on the day of our flag."
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