Are the Swedes our most civilized people, or our most cynical? Their prosperous welfare state rests on a hair trigger between East and West
SWEDEN SITS ON THE FENCE
Are the Swedes our most civilized people, or our most cynical? Their prosperous welfare state rests on a hair trigger between East and West
STOCKHOLM.—A British tourist remarked here the other day, “I think I know now what we are always fighting for—we fight to make Sweden safe for democracy.”
Was that crack deserved? Are these people really a nation of self-centred cynics? Why did they continue to put Sweden first at a time when the whole free world reaffirmed its solidarity?
One evening on the rocks of Syd Koster, a little island off the west coast, I put these questions bluntly to a distinguished Swedish historian. His reply was surprising.
“We refuse to take sides in the battle of ideologies,” he answered, “because we have already found a solution of our own. Believe me, our way of life is the finest yet devised by human beings and we only serve mankind by trying to safeguard it at all costs.”
“Isn’t that rather a preposterous statement to make?” I exclaimed.
“Preposterous or not,” he said, “it’s the way 90% of all Swedes feel about it.”
“But what on earth makes you think your way of life is so much better than any other?”
The professor contemplated the horizon. “It’s difficult to explain. I would say it’s our relation to nature. We put nature above politics and all its various ‘isms.’ We try to conserve man’s original bond with earth, sun and water. After you have been here for a while you will understand what I mean.”
The more I saw of the Swedes, the more clearly I realized that this was indeed the key to their souls. Other countries
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had their nature lovers too, of course, hut here was an entire nation fervently devoted to the outdoors.
Most Swedes believe that this closeness to the elements gives them not only health and beauty but some sort of superior wisdom in running their affairs.
“Look at the world’s statesmen,” a Riksdag deputy who showed us around 1 lie parliament told us one day. “Most of tnern are sick and tired. England is run by a ‘¡ran of ailing men. So is Russia. Also remember some recent victims of high pressure: Zdhanov,
Lorrestal, Dimitrov. Then look at our king who at the age of 91 is the world’s oldest monarch.”
He paused for a moment, continued: “If you always keep in direct contact with nature you are bound to acquire a strong sense of the possible. You don’t fall into extremes or harbor any ¡'¡usions hut have enough discernment to apply the golden rule. That’s why S.veden’s Socialists managed to perform the neatest trick of the century: to give the masses freedom from want without destroying the freedom of enterprise.”
The deputy, not a Socialist, told us that 9f//( of all Swedish firms were still in private hands. They were subjected to fewer controls than businessmen in many a non-Socialist country. And yet the Government had succeeded in creating a social security system that accompanied all Swedes from the cradle to the grave.
“Each citizen is entitled to free education, free medical care and a substantial old-age pension after his 67th year,” the M.P. said proudly. “If a family is poor enough the state literally showers it with maternity benefits, children’s grants, rent subsidies, scholarships, fuel contributions and rebates on foodstuffs and clothing. You may meet a few people in this country who have too much but you will find even fewer who have too little.”
The state also watches that no Swede dies from overwork. Here are some samples of its solicitude: Three
thousand maid servants are being paid out of public funds to lend a hand to particularly busy housewives. In every hotel room a poster describes at length what duties the porter can he expected to fulfill for the 25r( service charge. “The porter will transport your luggage from the room to the lobby when you depart,” it says, “but he is not obliged to carry it from the lobby to a vehicle outside the building. If he renders such a service he is entitled to an extra tip.”
The West’s Strongest “Ally”
On walking through the parliament building we passed by a door carrying the inscription, “Commission for Holiday Selection.” That intrigued us and we asked our guide what people were doing in there.
“Oh, the Government recently discovered that we were working too much,” he explained casually. “You see we have only 16 holidays a year and the cabinet figured we ought to have 18. So it appointed a commission to choose two more annual days of rest, one secular and one religious.”
No wonder the Swedes wouldn’t fight in World War 11, wouldn’t join the Atlantic Pact. They want to preserve this welfare state even if it means again letting others do the fighting for the principles it is built on. That is merely “superior wisdom” in their eyes. What is more amazing,
however, is the ingenuousness with which they expect others to rush to their aid in case of emergency.
“Our policy is simple,” a Stockholm news executive told me over the lunch table. “If the Russians attack the West and leave us alone we are going to stay neutral. But if they invade our country we will fight and try to hold out until Allied reinforcements arrive.”
“And why do you figure the Western Powers will do for you what you aren’t willing to do for them?” I asked.
“Because we will he the strongest ally they are going to find in Europe,“ he replied without hesitation.
Yet the fact is that the Swedes are going out of their way to keep the Russian bear in good humor. They did not join the Atlantic Pact because he might have taken umbrage. They soft-pedal all reports about their growing military strength. They even feed him candy in form of ball bearings, tungsten, phosphorus, hydroturbines, power stations and geological research equipment.
rl hese goods are the same items with which the Swedes used to appease the Nazis during the war. But Hitler had to pay for them in cash whereas Stalin gets them on credit—the one billion crowns credit Sweden granted to the Soviet Union in 1946. A large quota of Swedish production also goes to Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary who have obtained loans for another half billion crowns from Stockholm.
World’s Record for Peace
“We didn’t suffer much from the war so we felt we had to do our share in rebuilding the ruins,” a Swedish Foreign Office trade expert explained to me almost apologetically.
According to Allied diplomats in Stockholm this motive was not the only one though. The Swedes also hope their little “Marshall Plan” for Iron Curtain countries will persuade Moscow of their usefulness as a neutral. Moreover they hope the plan will allow them to absorb the shock caused by any recession in the West. By supplying the markets the West neglects for political reasons the Swedes pile new profits on those made during World War I and II and preserve their interior stability.
The Swedes value the safety of the community above all else. They conduct all their affairs on this principle and can get tough, even ruthless, in enforcing it. As a result their roads and air lanes are the safest in Europe; and their attitude goes a long way to explain why they also hold the world record for uninterrupted peace: 129 years.
When I rang up a friend on my arrival in Stockholm his wife answered, “I am sorry, but Gunnar is in jail.” (Gunnar was a highly respected publisher.)
“What on earth has he done?” I asked.
“Oh, he bumped our car into the rear of another vehicle,” the woman explained.
“And they put him in jail for that?”
I was astonished.
“They found 1% alcohol in his blood so they gave him three weeks. He’ll be out Friday. Why don’t you come and have lunch with us Saturday?”
She didn't seem too much upset about her husband’s mishap. As she told me, this sort of thing could happen to the best of Stockholmers and actually did happen every day. You go to a party in the evening and have three or four drinks. The next morning, on the way to your office, you have the bad luck to hit the fender of another fellow’s car. The police give
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you a blood test and find 1% firewater in your veins. The rest is automatic. You may be a prince, a millionaire, the reverend of St. Jacob’s Church himself —to jail you go. There are positively no fines in Swedish traffic law.
In the field of foreign relations this national craving for security sometimes takes quite unexpected forms. One midsummer night I was up on Skansen Hill, Stockholm’s lovely recreation park. The sky was still light, and the city at our feet was glittering in a rainbow of colors. Young couples were dancing gay folk dances to a violin and an accordion. As 1 watched a friend pointed out a blond husky fellow.
“You know who that is?” he whispered. “That’s Boris Svirin, a member of the Soviet trade delegation here.”
The young man was dancing with a pretty white - capped student and seemed to be carrying on a lively conversation with her.
“You mean Stalin’s envoys mix with the people here just like that?” I asked. “How many of them are there in the country?”
“Our trade pact with Russia gives her the right to keep 200 men here. Actually, I think there are fewer.”
“Well, aren’t you afraid that they go about spying?”
“They probably do, but I don’t think they will find out much. To tell you the truth, we rather like them to move around among the population. It makes them feel they don’t miss anything, and that’s good for our safety.”
Now a Robot Bombsight
Sweden plays a tight game: she tries to appease the Russians by co-operating and trading with them and, at same time, she uses the profits from that trade to build an impressive defense force against them. Last year alone she spent more than $300 millions for military purposes—an enormous amount for a country of 7 million inhabitants.
General Helge Jung, the Swedish chief of staff, makes no secret of the fact that he can put 600,000 trained men and four tank regiments into action at a moment’s notice. These troops are equipped by the Bofors armament works which produces some of the fanciest weapons in the world today, notably for defense against jet planes and guided missiles.
And a slim dark-haired daredevil called Bengt Nordenskiold is putting the Swedish Royal Air Force into shape. The scion of a family of seafarers and scientists he intends to live up to his symbolic surname, “Shield of the North.” He never flew a plane until he was 42, then graduated from flying school as the best student in his class. Today at 55 he commands an air fleet spearheaded by 1,000 first-line planes, many of them up-to-theminute jet fighters. His fleet also has an automatic robot bombsight believed to be unique.
The bombsight inventor, engineer Erik Wilkinson, told me: “All the
pilot has to do is to push a button which sets the robot in motion and then dive toward the target. As he comes out of his dive and is in perfect position the sight releases the bomb by itself. We have made amazingly successful experiments with the new device. It can hit tanks, ships and other front-line objective with almost 100% accuracy.”
To all this add the factor “X” of Sweden’s advanced atomic research. Her top-notch team of nuclear scientists has made “good progress” in the last two years and may upset the calculations of the world’s general
staffs one day. I was told, in particular, that Dr. Einar Ekelund, the team’s youngest member, is working right now on a new device liable to revolutionize atomic warfare.
For the time being, though, Sweden can only count on what she has. Even General Jung doesn’t claim that he could repel potential invaders. He merely would try to slow them down for 30 days while falling back into a special defense area where his troops could produce their own ammunition and jet planes in underground plants. In this redoubt, he believes, he could hold out for another 90 days, sufficient time for outside aid to arrive.
It is by no means sure that such aid would be forthcoming, as the Swedes seem to expect. When I questioned one of the highest Allied sources in Stockholm on this matter he was cautious.
“If Sweden is invaded as part of a general attack against the West,” he said, “she would probably receive immediate assistance. But in a less clear-cut case it must be kept in mind that no country is obliged to do more for Sweden than the United Nations as a whole decide.”
One evening I was invited to a party in one of those ultramodern districts on the islands of Stockholm. We noticed an unusual activity in the streets. Blond young people were running around in steel helmets, stretcher bearers carried limp bodies to Red Cross cars, matrons wearing gas masks emerged from basements. It was a scene I hadn’t witnessed since 1944 in London.
“What happened?” I asked my host who greeted us in blue overalls with smudges all over his face. “Can we do something?”
“No thanks,” he said, “it’s just our weekly air-raid drill. We’ve got a new instructor this month and he likes things realistic.”
My friend took his warden duties very seriously and told me that, hy the end of the year, every building in Stockholm would have its own shelter.
“Do you realize,” I said, “that you are the only people in Europe who are doing this? All the others have buried their stretchers and gas masks in the remotest corners of their homes.”
“We know,” he answered, “only don’t forget they’ve got allies. We haven’t.”
So the Swedes pay the price of isolationism by living in a state of permanent alert. Sweden First is a convenient slogan but it has one drawback: it might be adopted elsewhere too. ir
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