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20th Century

The 20th century – a century of reforms






















  Photo: Leif Engberg/Scanpix

                                        On 3 September 1967, Sweden switched from driving on the left-hand

                                              side of the road to the right. The result was chaos in the streets.





The 20th Century


Late 19th-century Sweden was marked by the emergence of strong popular movements that included the free churches, the temperance and women’s movements, and above all the labour movement.

The labour movement, whose growth kept pace with industrialization in the late 19th century, was reformist in outlook after the turn of the 20th century.

The first Social Democrats entered government in 1917. Universal suffrage was introduced for men in 1909 and for women in 1921. Plans for a welfare state were drawn up during the 1930s after the Social Democrats rose to power, and put into effect after World War II.

The postwar era

During World War II, a coalition of Sweden’s four ‘democratic’ parties (excluding the Communists) formed the government. After the war ended, a purely Social Democratic government resumed office under Per Albin Hansson. Under Social Democratic leadership, but in close co-operation with the other democratic parties, a series of reforms were carried out in the 1940s and 1950s that together laid the foundations of the Swedish welfare state. At the same time, there were calls for a modernization of the 1809 constitution.

A new Instrument of Government was adopted in 1974, stating that all public power is derived from the people, who are to select the members of parliament in free elections. The monarch is still the head of state, but in name only. In 1979, an amendment to the order of succession gave male and female heirs an equal claim to the throne. Accordingly, Crown Princess Victoria is next in line to the throne, not her younger brother, Carl Philip.

Foreign policy

Since a short war against Norway in 1814 in conjunction with the creation of the union, Sweden has not been involved in any war. Since World War I, Sweden has pursued a policy of non-alignment in peacetime and neutrality in wartime, basing its security on a strong national defense. Nonetheless, Sweden joined the League of Nations in 1920 and the United Nations in 1946. The first UN operation involving Swedish troops took place in Suez in 1956. Since 1994, Sweden has also co-operated with Nato under the Partnership for Peace. Through these organisations, Sweden has been involved in numerous international peacekeeping missions.


Well-known figures in history


Saint Bridget (1303–73)
After being widowed, Bridget (Birgitta in Swedish) made her way to Rome, where she was to live the rest of her life. She undertook several pilgrimages, including to Jerusalem. Bridget was known for her ‘heavenly revelations’, visions and prophetic messages, which she relayed to popes and princes. Bridget was canonised in 1491 and since 2000 has been considered one of Europe’s patron saints.

Alfred Nobel (1833–96)
The inventor, chemist and benefactor received his first patent in 1863 for a method for handling nitroglycerin by mixing it with black powder and lighting the mixture with a fuse. Nobel went on to produce dynamite and other explosives. The Nobel Prizes were a bequest from Nobel for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace.

Dag Hammarskjöld (1905–61)
An economist and government official, Hammarskjöld was appointed UN secretary-general in 1953. He quickly became associated with the strategy of ‘quiet diplomacy’, which in 1955 resulted in the release of American prisoners of war in China. En route to a meeting during the Congo crisis, Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash in northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). The same year, he was posthumously awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.


Swedish Government

The economic crisis of the early 1970s broke the long hegemony of the Social Democrats. Since 1976, power has changed hands more often.

  • 1976 Non-socialist coalition government under the leadership of Centre Party chairman Thorbjörn Fälldin.

  • 1982 Social Democratic Party, with Olof Palme as prime minister.

  • The murder of Olof Palme on February 28, 1986, came as a shock to the Swedish people, who had been spared such political violence for almost 200 years. Palme’s successor as prime minister was Ingvar Carlsson.

  • 1991 Non-socialist coalition government, with Moderate Party leader Carl Bildt as prime minister.

  • 1994 A minority government led by Social Democrat Ingvar Carlsson. In 1996, Carlsson stepped down and was replaced by his finance minister, Göran Persson, who remained prime minister for 10 years.

  • 2006 The Moderate Party emerged as the main victor. Together with the Centre Party, the Liberal Party and the Christian Democrats, it formed a coalition government headed by Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.

  • 2010 Although the Moderate Party achieved its best election result yet, Reinfeldt had to retain his coalition partners to stay in office. For the first time in history, there were eight parties in the Riksdag, including an far-right party for the first time.

  • 2014 The Social Democrats and the Greens won the election and formed a minority coalition, led by Stefan Löfven.


Sweden and the EU presidency

Sweden joined the EU on January 1, 1995. In a national referendum in 2003, a majority of the country’s voters voted not to join the euro.

The government sees Sweden’s role in the EU as important for the country’s future. Sweden has held the EU presidency twice: 1 January – 30 June 2001, and 30 June – 31 December 2009.



More Swedish Historical Facts


The ship that surfaced after 300 years

The battleship Vasa was commissioned by King Gustav II Adolf in 1625. On August 10, 1628, the Vasa weighed anchor in Stockholm, but its maiden voyage ended in disaster. The Vasa sank after only 20 minutes. After a lengthy search, the ship was rediscovered in 1956 and salvaged in 1961. Today the Vasa, by far the best preserved example of ship construction and naval warfare of that era, can be seen at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm.

Mementos in stone

There are more than 2,500 rune stones in Sweden, with messages dating from the 5th century to the mid-12th century, making them the oldest preserved Swedish documents. Relatives often had stones erected in memory of a dead family member, many of them alongside roads, bridges or meeting places where they could be seen and read by many.

The Sámi in Sweden

The first document to mention the Sámi was written almost 2,000 years ago. Inland parts of upper Norrland are known to have been inhabited even longer, however – for close to 10,000 years. The Sámi have had to fight for their rights, and were recognised by the Riksdag as an indigenous people first in 1977. In 1993 the Sámi Parliament was established as both a democratically elected body and a national administrative authority. There are an estimated 20,000 Sámi in Sweden, about 2,500 of whom earn their living from reindeer husbandry.


Reference:  The Swedish Society, history of Sweden

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