The Origins of Swedish Multiculturalism

How Sweden became Multicultural
M. Eckehart
Helsingborg, Sweden: Logik Förlag, 2017

This brief (96 pages) study of the historical origins of Sweden’s multicultural policy was published ten years ago in Swedish, but has just now been made available to the English reading public. It is not a history of immigration to Sweden, which would require a much longer treatment, but of the spread and triumph of the multicultural idea. Massive extra-European immigration only happened afterwards, partly as a consequence of this shift in thinking.

In the early 1960s, when the story begins, the most significant minority ethnic groups in the country were of northern European stock: Finns were most numerous, followed by Estonians and the Sami, or Lapps, native to northern Sweden itself.

But following the end of World War II, others began arriving. In 1963–4, calls for restricting immigration began to be heard. This helped spark a series of debates in the press on the status of ethnic minorities in Sweden. It is generally agreed that the multicultural policy formally inaugurated in 1975 had its origin in these debates; but as the author of the present study points out, the background of the debaters and their motivations have seldom been inquired into.

Their initiator and most important contributor was David Schwarz (1928–2008), a Polish-born Jew who arrived in Sweden in 1950 for medical treatment related to typhus and tuberculosis he had contracted while a concentration camp inmate in Germany.

On October 21, 1964, Schwarz published “The Foreigner Problem in Sweden” in Dagens Nyheter, one of several Swedish dailies published by the Jewish-owned Bonnier Group, writing:

Before the Second World War Sweden was relatively restrictive with regards to allowing in refugees. The need for labor was not as great as it is today, and some professions feared foreign competition. But by the end of the war the government’s attitude changed, and over time 14,000 Jews and many others were transferred here from the German concentration camps. Simultaneously tens of thousands of Baltic refugees and several thousand stateless people fleeing the Russians came. Since then Sweden has continued to receive foreigners […] In other words Sweden got a large group of people, approximately 400,000, who were not born in the country.

Schwarz went on to argue that immigrant groups should face no pressure to assimilate; they should unconditionally be permitted to retain their cultural particularity. He recommended the appointment of a parliamentary inquiry with a view to formulating a culturally pluralist immigration and minority policy.

A week later, Schwarz’s fellow Jew Inga Goldfarb wrote in support of his position, asserting that Sweden had “a need for different cultural groups,” and that their presence would “give our life new content.” Such vague, unsupported statements would become typical of the debate.

The author of the present study counts seventeen distinct debates on immigration and minority policy in prominent Swedish newspapers and magazines between 1964 and 1968, consisting altogether of 118 articles. Schwarz personally wrote or co-wrote 37 of these, or 31% of the total. He also initiated no less than twelve of the debates; no one else initiated more than one.

Adding in other Jewish contributions, we find that this smallest of established minority groups in Sweden was responsible for 46 articles, or 39% of the total, despite constituting less than 1% of the country’s population. All Jewish contributors favored the multiculturalist position. The author has performed a valuable service in assembling this objective data, for discussion of the Jewish role in promoting multiculturalism in Sweden (as elsewhere) has often been dismissed as a “conspiracy theory.”

Ethnic Swedes contributed 19 articles to the debates, or 16% of the total, and were found on both sides. It may be significant, however, that the three Swedes who gave most support to the multiculturalist position co-wrote most of their articles with Jews.

Other groups contributed 38 articles (32%), and 15 articles are classed as “unknown” (e.g., unsigned editorials). Next to Jews, Estonians provided the strongest support for multiculturalism. Three Catholic immigrant contributors actually argued against the multicultural position.

If the passages quoted in Eckehard’s book are representative, the arguments deployed by the multiculturalists do not seem to have been very sophisticated. “Sterile homogeneity” was contrasted with “enrichment.” Increased immigration in the future was alleged to be “inevitable.” Schwartz claimed that Swedes’ abandonment of their ethnic interests domestically would somehow help them promote those same interests internationally. He portrayed cultural pluralism as a precondition for cooperation between groups and a key to avoiding conflict, although without explaining how assimilation could produce conflict and ignoring the social science data on the many costs of multiculturalism, including increased conflict, less willingness to contribute to public goods, etc.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at the poverty of such reasoning. It was never the goal of minority activists to bring Swedes the (dubious) benefits of a pluralistic society, but only for Swedish ethnic interests to give way to their own.

Schwarz was very clear about placing responsibility for good intercommunal relations exclusively with the Swedish majority, writing, e.g., “It is the host population’s responsibility to insure that insidious slander of foreigners (‘They’re taking our houses’, ‘they’re taking our jobs’ etc.) ceases.” — essentially proposing that empirical data on the effects of immigration on the labor market, ecological pressures and housing were off limits.

The most important representative of the assimilationist position was the ethnic Swede Michaёl Wächter, who wrote, e.g.:

Assimilation is not only a possibility but also the solution which in the long-run is the most conflict-free and therefore happiest for most people and society. In Swedish society the conditions for assimilation are extraordinarily good. In fact, that’s precisely what concerns some individuals who are captive to their ethnocentric ideas, and so they call for help to protect their own localized interests.

Yet Wächter may have made some unnecessary compromises: e.g., accepting Schwarz’s contention that responsibility for intergroup relations lies with the Swedes: “There should not be demands for the minorities to assimilate. The demand should be for society to create more opportunities for assimilation.”

Eckehart notes that “the argument that foreign minorities would let themselves be assimilated, and that such an assimilation was practically possible, was brought up on repeated occasions by the assimilationists and was one of the primary reasons they lost the debate.” This may have been plausible in regard to the northern European minorities of that time, especially given their small numbers; today, over 30% of Sweden’s population is of foreign origin, and the largest groups include Syrians, Iraqis and Somalis.

Public discussion of immigration and minority issues was accompanied by increased political activity in the same area, with an average of thirty relevant bills being introduced into the Swedish legislature each year between 1965 and 1968. By comparison, the period 1945–60 had seen an average of three bills per year.

A review of the positions taken by the various political parties in the 1960s offers some surprises. The Right Wing Party [Högerpartiet] was the most active in proposing bills related to immigration. In August 1968, the party adopted the first political program that proposed extensive support for ethnic minorities in Sweden. This party subsequently changed its name to the “Moderate Party.”

The Social Democrats—with the crucial exception of rising star Olof Palme—were at first more skeptical of the new trend than one might expect. David Schwarz once related that, shortly before initiating the first newspaper debate, he had asked the Social Democratic Foreign Minister Torsten Nilsson at a public meeting how the government sought to solve the minority problem; Nilsson had said simply: “They’ll have to become Swedes or move somewhere else.”

Hans Hagness, a Social Democratic legislator, made the following statement in parliament on December 9, 1966:

It is of course in the interests of the employers to increase cheap labor and keep wages down and this has been the motivation that has been supported by the bourgeois newspapers. They’ve also organized sob stories about deportations and how bad we should feel for them. But one cannot build a policy on sob stories featured in liberal newspapers; instead we are obliged to pursue a conscious policy in the interests of the average worker.

In short, the Swedish left still thought in terms of social class.

In 1966, David Schwarz obtained a meeting with Social Democratic Prime Minister Tage Erlander through the latter’s speechwriter Olle Svenning. Svenning later recalled:

The old PM agreed to meet and brought his considerably younger assistant Olof Palme. [Schwarz] explained how important multiculturalism was, that Sweden already was a nation of immigrants and how the demands for linguistic and religious tolerance were growing strong. Palme, having been raised in a multicultural and multilingual environment, understood what David was talking about.

The following year Palme, now Minister of Education, announced his endorsement of multiculturalism in a speech at the Stockholm Jewish Center amid praise for Israel and the aspirations of Zionists. Yet this same man was so hostile to any display of Swedish patriotism that he expressed distaste for Sweden’s innocent Flag Day celebrations! Two years later, Palme succeeded Erlander as Sweden’s Prime Minister.

Another crucial landmark on the road to Swedish multiculturalism came in 1967 when the Swedish Trade Union Confederation reversed its opposition. Yet the reasons for this momentous change of heart remain obscure; historian Thomas Gür has written:

In literature dealing with Swedish immigration policy I have not found any accounts detailing the background and motives for [the Trade Union Confederation’s] stance on the matter. Nor is there any explanation in works dealing with [the Confederation’s] history.

As elsewhere in the West, the Swedish left was shifting its thinking from a class-based model of society to one centered on race and ethnicity. We have certainly seen the material interests of union members sacrificed to ethno-pluralist ideology elsewhere as well: notably America’s AFL-CIO.

The final result of the debates and political activity of the period 1964–68 was the appointment by the Swedish parliament of the Immigrant Investigation, with the task of studying the status of immigrants and minorities in Sweden. This body’s recommendations were released in 1974, and coincided almost perfectly with the arguments of David Schwarz and other multiculturalists.

The Immigration Investigation’s recommendations became the basis for government bill 1975:26 which formally declared that “Sweden was no longer a nation dominated by Swedish culture, but a culturally pluralist society where different minority cultures were going to be allowed to thrive.” The bill was unanimously passed by the Swedish parliament in 1975. It had only been eleven years since David Schwarz published his first essay.

As Eckehart points out, the dynamic which led to the rapid triumphal march of multiculturalism in Sweden is perfectly expressed in this observation by ethnologist Frank Salter:

Minorities have an advantage in ethnic competition in being more mobilized than majorities. Mobilization is the willingness to make sacrifices for a cause, for example, by donating money, time and work. Even a small group with limited resources can exercise disproportionate influence when its members are highly mobilized and its opponents, though superior in numbers, are indifferent.

The curse of Democratic states in our time has proven to be not the “tyranny of the majority” predicted by Alexis de Tocqueville, but a “tyranny of the minorities”—of highly motivated and politically activist minorities over naïve and complacent native majorities.

As the author observes, nearly all political changes produce winners and losers. In the shift from an assimilationist to a multicultural policy, non-Swedes living in Sweden gained a victory for themselves by persuading the native Swedish population to cede sovereignty over the only geographic area in the world solely dedicated to the Swedish people and Swedish culture.

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