Eugenics. The Darker Side of Sweden.

Jul, 2019

In August of 1904, the University of Lund gave its first summer lecture. The topic was whether or not the Germanic tribes had originated in Skåne, the southernmost province of Sweden, where Lund had been founded about 990, the university itself dating back to the 1600s. Open to the public, the lecture drew students and burghers both.

That summer, at Skåne estates, agricultural workers had gone on strike. Skåne was known for its fertile soil, the quality of its wheat considered superior and therefore much in demand abroad. In the late 1800s, after the less expensive American wheat began to crowd the markets, many Skåne estates had switched from wheat to sugar beets, painting the landscape, in the words of August Strindberg, “not yellow but an unpleasant copper green.” Now, with the strikes, the entire beet harvest was at risk.

The newspapers had reported on the arrival of Galicians, men and women from Eastern Europe, hired to replace the striking Swedish agricultural workers. “About the time when the service in the Maria church came to an end, an unusual group of travelers could be seen disembarking the Helsingborg steamer,” wrote Arbetet, a newspaper published by the Social Democrats. “Short in stature, with stony faces, heavy bundles on their backs, the strangers stepped ashore, hurried on by men with cudgels. Galicians for the beet fields, bedraggled, impassive but with darting eyes, looking for directions like a herd of cattle, they represented the very lowest class of workers, asking no more than a few potatoes a day.”

Still, on the day of the lecture, the town of Lund seemed as idyllic as ever, the streets narrow and cobbled, the walls of the old houses half-timbered, or made of willow twigs and clay. Rusty springs squeaked when a horse-drawn wagon rumbled past, the tar on top of the wooden fences bubbled from the midday heat, and gossip mirrors flashed, mounted outside the windows at such an angle that the house inhabitants could watch all passers-by, while they themselves remained unseen.

The lecture was held at Akademiska föreningen, a large red-brick building, no more than fifty years old, but resembling a medieval castle, with pinnacles and embattled towers, dreamed up by an architect who greatly admired the past. In the lecture hall, all seats were taken.

After the audience sang the national anthem, Professor Axel Koch, a noted linguist, took the podium. Like most scientists, he believed that Germanic tribes had inhabited Skåne during the Stone Age. He noted that it was also commonly held that a new migration had taken place during the Bronze Age, when burial customs changed, and people began to burn their dead.

Here, however, his reasoning took an unexpected turn. The custom of burning had been slow to take hold. “A change brought on by a mass invasion would have been sudden and profound. Such, for example, was the case in England, where there is a distinct difference between Celtic and Anglo-Saxon graves. In Sweden we continue to find unburned remains not just in graves from the Stone Age but also in those from the Bronze Age, which leads us to believe that the change in burial customs was not caused by a new people displacing the old but rather by a growing contact with the outside world through travel and trade.”

Throughout the afternoon, culling from archeology, history, and linguistics, Koch argued his case. He referred to Gustaf Retzius, an anthropologist, who four years earlier had published Crania Suecica Antiqua, which dealt with the form of the Swedish skull. Most skulls dug from ancient Swedish graves were so-called long skulls, associated with a tall, blond, and blue-eyed race, physical attributes shared by many of those who filled the lecture hall that day. Short skulls, of which only a limited number was said to have been found, were thought to belong to a darker, inferior race of hunters and gatherers, possibly the ancestors of the Sami and the Finns. Between 1897 and 1898, Retzius and his team had also measured the skulls of 45,000 Swedish conscripts, concluding that 87% were long skulls, 75% were blond, and close to 67% had light-colored eyes, all characteristics of the Germanic race.

“Therefore,” Koch concluded, “we have reason to believe that we are the proud descendants of the same people who inhabited these parts 4,000 years ago. Unlike the rest of Europe, our habitat has, in a measure, remained intact. The Romans called it Scandinavia, a term we encounter in many tales of migration, where it appears to refer specifically to the southernmost tip of Sweden, the land we now call Skåne.”

That fall, as the beet harvest began, the Galicians knelt in the fields, rows and rows of them, their backs bent, the fog so thick that they could barely see each other, the sound of breathing the sole reassurance that they were not alone. Day after day, week after week, their fingers numb from the cold, they strained and pulled, the clay-laden soil sucking back the beets before it released them, the horses heaving as the wagon wheels sank even deeper into the mud. Meanwhile, blacklisted for daring to strike, Swedish workers were evicted, entire families, all of whom were tied to the farms and the estates where they labored in return for housing and rations of potatoes and grain and milk. The constable’s coach was a common sight, accompanied by policemen on horseback. So far, violence had not erupted, but no one knew what might happen next. Strikes among industrial workers were not unheard of, but this was different, affecting the livestock too, with alarming reports about cows not being milked, slaughtered as the last resort.

The strike was eventually called off, but in the years to come, Galicians would return, not as strike breakers but as guest workers for the harvest. Gustaf Retzius continued his measurings, reasserting the superiority of the Germanic race, warning against what was called an “unchecked mixture of blood.” In among the charts and statistics crept the belief that the descendants of the Germanic race were “natural aristocrats,” that the difference in race also corresponded to a difference in worth.

“We must never forget that the greatest opulence a country possesses is its own people, provided they are of a good stock,” wrote Herman Lundborg, another race hygienist, in 1921. “We Swedes are, in this respect, fortunately situated. We should therefore not shun any sacrifice, to cherish and augment the biological inheritance, which a generous nature has bestowed on us. It is inadvisable to feel too secure in the belief that this vigorous source is inexhaustible. It can decrease, or even wholly disappear, if we do not understand how to economize sufficiently.” In 1922 Lundborg became the head of the Swedish Institute for Racial Biology, the first of its kind to be run by a national government, with the underlying notion that the Mendelian laws must also apply to man, and that we should breed people the same way we breed animals and plants, sterilizing those unlikely to improve the species. The institute continued to exist until 1958, when it was cleansed of eugenics and renamed.

But that day in Lund, as the people left the lecture hall, few seemed concerned by what they just had heard. In attic rooms, overlooking chimneys and green copper roofs, students loosened their collars, drank icy punsch, debated Nietzsche and the Vienna Moderne. In bourgeoise homes, somber with potted ficuses and heavy oak, soft hands stroked downy cheeks, as women read night-time stories to their children and checked under the beds for trolls. Across town, at the Grand Hotel, the only four-story building in Lund, patres familias patted each other’s backs and circled the smörgåsbord, the parquet floor creaking under their weight, while in the kitchen the cooks put the finishing touches to the turtle soup and the Goose á la Normande.

For such is the nature of science run amok. It walks among us, cloaks itself in respectability, steps into the gutter as we pass. But then it shows its face.


Photograph of Gustaf Retzius and a Sami man (1905).




by Birgitta Hjalmarson

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