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Eight books that tell hidden stories from Sweden’s history – The Local Sweden

Learn about lesser known chapters of Swedish history with these eight fascinating books (in English). Photo: Radu Marcusu/Unsplash

Beyond lengthy tomes about great leaders, epic battles, eras and epochs, and so forth, there are countless excellent and unexpected non-fiction books that offer insight into Swedish history. Here are eight books that have either been written in or translated into English that even the most history-shy reader could enjoy.

1. The world of Cajsa Andersdotter: A close-up view of Sweden in the 18th and 19th century, by Bengt Hällgren, published 2017

Big publishing houses tend to publish “sexy” books that appeal to the masses. This doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for books like The World of Cajsa Andersdotter, which details the lives and fates of several generations of a poor Swedish family from 1760 to 1910. Independently published, the book seems to fly under the radar to some extent, but customer reviews are unanimous in praise of Brent Hällgren’s research and writing.

While many history books focus on the great and the good, Hällgren’s book is a stark reminder of what life was like for the average Swede. In the preface, Hällgren writes that the book “illustrates how poverty, starvation, disease, and helplessness dominated the life of ordinary people”. Naturally, the book is especially popular with individuals seeking to get a better sense of what life was like for their Swedish ancestors.


Stockholm’s City Linrary. File photo: Jann Lipka/imagebank.sweden.se

2. Culture Unbound: Americanization and Everyday Life in Sweden, by Tom O’Dell, published 1997

While the introduction to Culture Unbound begins with the cliché, “Sweden is the most Americanized country in the world”, the book presents an informed and nuanced evaluation of the reality behind this notion. Despite leaning to the scholarly side, the book is still a readable examination of the perceptions and realities of “Americanization” in Sweden, beginning in the mid-18th century.

Each chapter considers a different theme, including – of course – Sweden’s era of mass emigration, during which the country lost 20 percent its population, and how it shaped ideas of both Sweden and United States. Another chapter focuses on how American cars in Sweden “from the Swedish upper classes in the twenties to the working classes in the fifties and sixties” illuminates “the history of class distinctions, aesthetic values, and social contestations in the Swedish context…”.

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3. With the Lapps in the High Mountains: A Woman among the Sami, 1907–1908, by Emilie Demant Hatt, published 2013 (originally published in Sami and Danish in 1913)

Traditionally a nomadic people whose livelihood depended on reindeer, the Sami have been living in the Arctic areas of Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia for thousands of years. Though they and their unique and important culture are now recognized by governments and ethnologists, this hasn’t always been the case. When Danish artist and writer Emilie Demant Hatt wrote about her year living among the Sami in Swedish Lapland in the early 20th century, she articulated the oppression they had long endured.

“From ancient times down to quite recently he’s been an object of taxation; no one was his friend, no one advised or helped when he was squeezed”, she writes. “The priests wiped out his old religion in a hard and unsympathetic manner. The authorities pressed him for taxes; the government made laws and regulations that restricted his freedom. The farmers fleeced him and killed him and his reindeer.”

But while grim realities are evident in the book, it is more a celebration of the history and culture of the Sami people, as well as of the beauty of Swedish Lapland, as experienced by the author more than a century ago.

OPINION: ‘Why is what happened to the Sami in Sweden not common knowledge?’

4. Codebreakers: Arne Beurling and the Swedish Crypto Program During World War II, by Bengt Beckman, published 2002 (originally published in Swedish in 1996)

Britain’s code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, which at its height consisted of around 10,000 personnel, has been the subject of numerous books, films and television series. By comparison, scant attention has been paid to Arne Beurling, a Swedish mathematician who in 1940 deciphered the code of the German Geheimschreiber (G-Schreiber) communications device, by himself and using only pencil and paper, in just two weeks.

“With the cracking of the German code, Swedish military intelligence suddenly had access to German plans at the highest level of security clearance”, the foreword to Codebreakers explains. “The most stunning pieces of information decoded by Sweden were plans for Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union”.

Written by Bengt Beckman, who was also a mathematician and a member of Swedish intelligence, the book is a fascinating look at Beurling, his incredible accomplishment, and the impact it had on the war.

5. War Diaries, 1939–1945, by Astrid Lindgren, published 2016 (originally published in Swedish in 2015)

Today, Astrid Lindgren is the well-known Swedish author of beloved books like the Pippi Longstocking tales. But during the Second World War, she was an unknown writer working as a secretary in Stockholm. In 1939, prompted by the outbreak of the war, she began keeping a diary “charged with sorrow and dread”, according to the Astrid Lindgren Company, “in which she writes about daily life in Stockholm, what’s going on in the world and about Sweden’s actions”.

By the time the war ended in 1945, she had filled 17 diaries with her thoughts, experiences and related press clippings. After the war, they were tucked away in a wicker laundry basket in her Stockholm apartment, where they went undiscovered until 2013.

Far from mundane, they chronicled her time as a postal censor, a highly secretive job that required her to read military and private mail going in and out of Sweden and redact sensitive or classified information. As her daughter noted in the foreword, however, “the restrictions did not prevent her from copying out, or quoting sections of, the more interesting letters in her diary…”. The diaries also document the origins and evolution of Pippi Longstocking, which would propel her to prominence when the first book was published in 1945.

Join The Local Sweden’s Book Club to discuss this book with other readers

6. Courage and Grief: Women and Sweden’s Thirty Years’ War, by Mary Elizabeth Ailes, published 2018

Between 1618 and 1648, most of the major powers in Europe were engaged in a war that eventually claimed around 20 percent of the European population. Sweden’s involvement began in 1630, when King Gustav II Adolf led his army into the Holy Roman Empire. By the end of the conflict, “Sweden had emerged as one of the victorious kingdoms”, historian Dr. Mary Elizabeth Ailes explains in Courage and Grief. “This achievement enhanced the kingdom’s international status” and “cemented the Swedish kingdom’s reputation as one of the era’s great military powers.”

But Courage and Grief is not simply another book about this well-documented and analyzed aspect of Swedish history. Rather, it expertly examines an aspect of the history that has been largely ignored: the role of women in the war, and its impact on their lives. It is an important addition to the historical record, not least because, as Ailes notes, “without women’s involvement both on the battlefield and on the home front, the Swedish Crown would not have achieved its military success”.

7. Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers, and Themselves, by Matthew Sweet, published 2018

Though it may at first glance seem to have little to do with Swedish history, Operation Chaos tells the surprising history of around 800 American Vietnam War deserters who in the late 1960s found sanctuary in Sweden, “the only non-Communist country in Europe that offered asylum to those who refused to fight”, author Matthew Sweet explains.

Sweet recounts this interesting and at times bizarre aspect of modern Swedish history featuring – among other things – principles marred by paranoia and disillusionment, a controversial political organization that “proved a thorn in the side of the Swedish political establishment”, and a group Sweet describes as “an apocalyptic cult that believed in the satanic nature of the Queen of England, the prime minister of Sweden and the Beatles…”.

8. Karin Bergöö Larsson and the Emergence of Swedish Design, by Marge Thorell, published 2018

Long before Ikea, spouses Carl Larsson and Karin Bergöö Larsson literally and figuratively wrote the book that defined modern Swedish interior design. Artist and interior designer Karin was the mastermind behind their beautiful cottage, Lilla Hyttnäs, in Sundborn, Sweden. Carl captured their day-to-day life at Lilla Hyttnäs in a series of stunning watercolor paintings during the late 1800s that formed the basis of his 1899 book Ett Hem (A Home). The book was a bestseller, inspiring Scandinavians, Germans and Americans in particular to imitate the then-radically modern and eclectic Arts and Crafts style reflected in the paintings of the home.

This influence has been long-reaching, as noted in the foreword to Karin Bergöö Larsson and the Emergence of Swedish Design: “Global retail powerhouse Ikea cites Karin Larsson as one of founder Ingvar Kamprad’s guiding lights of inspiration, and as the ease of Swedish lifestyle spread globally with the company, so has interest in the origins of the Ikea style”.

Though Karin Bergöö Larsson’s legacy has long lived in the shadow of her husband’s, author Marge Thorell’s book remedies this, and provides insight into a more bohemian and unconventional side of Swedish history than is usually seen.  

Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.

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