So, what are your resolutions for the new year? Drink less, eat more, go to bed earlier, forward this blog to some friends? These are all good resolutions, for sure, but they’re a bit modest.
Look at Sweden, which, after a night of heavy drinking, on 1 January 1922 resolved to do nothing less than create a new man. The new Swede was to be taller, stronger, more handsome, healthier and, yes, more sober! True to the old Swedish motto “wenn man was verbessern wollen tut, gründet man ein Institut“, the State Institute for Racial Biology was founded at the University of Uppsala one hundred years ago on that very day.
And it was about time. Because one hundred years ago, the Swedes were rather small and wizened people, which is why they were not very welcome when they went on vacation, whether in England, in France or down the Volga river. Very often, the Swedes had to cut the trip short after a few days, returning home with nothing but a ship full of souvenirs. A sad life.
Of course, it was not the Vikings’ fault that they looked like leprechauns. No, it was – like so many things – the fault of the Romans. They had built a European-African-Asian multicultural empire in which citizens from all corners of the Earth could move about, work, study and retire as they pleased. In the process, it so happened from time to time that citizens fell in love and mixed their genes, which, as Charles Darwin could explain better, leads to bigger, stronger, more attractive and more intelligent offspring. Barbarians not blessed by Roman civilization, such as the Germans, Scandinavians, Scots and Irish, on the other hand, had to fish in an increasingly muddy and incestuous gene pool.
But now for a big leap into the modern era. Science is subject to fashion trends. The current hype is digitalization, the foolishness of which I have already illustrated. (Based on a train journey to Sweden, coincidentally.) At the beginning of the 20th century, the hype was eugenics, a (pseudo) science that attempted to address social issues with biological methods.
One of the most important people in this context is Francis Galton, who coined the term eugenics in 1883. He was a cousin of Charles Darwin and impressed by the latter’s travels and theories. And who wouldn’t be? However, he was a bit impatient. Darwin could explain no matter how many times that natural selection happens over tens of thousands of years, that it is unplanned, and that observations of birds in the Galapagos islands cannot be applied to humans in Britain. Galton ignored all of this, thinking that he could develop the theory further, apply it to human beings, and that one or two generations would be enough to spice up the human race genetically, if only the “right people” would reproduce. With “right”, he meant white, rich, upper class. That goes without saying.
The idea became really popular. Eugenics societies were established all over the world, eugenics conferences were held, and eugenics laws were enacted, for example in the USA, Switzerland, Scandinavia and Canada. Because it quickly dawned on the eugenicists that it would take an awfully long time to get the “right” people to reproduce, they soon came up with the idea of preventing the “wrong” people from doing so. Violently. With forced sterilization and forced castration.
Two notable exceptions were the Soviet Union, which simply banned genes altogether, and the German Empire under the Kaiser. In Germany, too, eugenic ideas caught on quickly. But instead of state intervention, the free market was relied upon. Germans were encouraged to detect hereditary, disease-related, but also race-related undesirable characteristics (circumcision) in potential sexual partners on the first date. That’s why nude bathing became mandatory at public beaches. (The German abbreviation FKK stands for “frow away your klothes, komrade!”)
“Oh yes, let’s do the same,” the Swedish eugenicists were enthusiastic. They had long wanted to shed the image of the prudish Scandinavians anyway. Unfortunately, except for that one week in August, it was too cold in Sweden for nude swimming.
While eugenics programs were different in each country, I’ll stick to Sweden for now. Sweden’s is an interesting (or frightening) example because it was quite an extensive program, because it served as a model for Nazi Germany, and because it lasted until well after World War II. Moreover, Sweden is always considered to be quite liberal and easy-going and nice and relaxed; a stereotype that finally needs to be put to sleep.
The Swedish eugenics program is inextricably linked with the name of Herman Lundborg. He was a cliché Swede who believed in gnomes and elves and Aryans. Speaking of Aryans: Did I already tell you about my time in prison in Iran, where the Iranian judge apologized to me “because after all, we are both Aryans”? Many Iranians adhere to the theory that they are the real Aryans and the Germans are a small, underdeveloped brother nation. Yes, it brought exactly the same stupid look onto my face, and I was locked up in solitary confinement again. But I don’t want to digress; we were just about to make the acquaintance of Herman Lundborg, the Swedish chief eugenicist.
Like most eugenicists, Lundborg was subject to a fundamental error. Although he could have known better from the Romans, he thought that the Swedish population suffered not from too little, but from too much genetic variation.
Strangely enough, there is not a single eugenicist who does not believe that he himself belongs to the most superior race. I don’t know how that worked out at the international eugenics conventions. But then, I have always wondered the same whenever I read about international neo-Nazi meetings where Mongolian, Colombian and Mexican neo-Nazis get together with German neo-Nazis for a beer.
In any case, Lundborg kept babbling about the “exalted Nordic race” and the need to “prevent the degeneration of the Swedish people”. For him, the mingling of different races was a terrible evil. He had reserved a particular hatred for Finns, Sami, Lapps, Roma, Gypsies, Jews, Slavs, Blacks, Russians, Italians, Asians, Africans, Chinese, Arabs, Romanians, Albanians, Poles and Koreans, although – to his credit – he did not discriminate between North and South Koreans.
“Nice guy,” the Swedish parliament thought, and in 1922 appointed Lundborg as the first head of the just-established State Institute of Racial Biology. His methods, as was common among eugenicists, were measuring noses, measuring heads, taking blood samples, putting people in ridiculous costumes and photographing the undesirable ethnic groups with grim faces, while photographing the desirable ethnic groups in the best light. The books were richly illustrated and became best-selling coffee-table books. Pseudoscience can be very profitable, as homeopaths, astrologers and business consultants can attest to.
The Swedish institute was considered a pioneer by peers around the world. Foreign researchers came to Sweden to “learn” the trade, including Hans Günther from Germany, who later shaped Nazi racial ideology. Following the example of the Swedish institute, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics was founded in Germany in 1927 and soon provided the pseudo-scientific underpinnings of Nazi racial policy.
I have to say a few general words about the relationship between Sweden and Nazi Germany, including during World War II, here: Sweden had no problem with the Nazis. But they didn’t want to ally themselves either. Sweden just wanted to sell iron ore, and war is pretty good if you are in the iron ore business. When Germany invaded neighboring Denmark and Norway, and later the Soviet Union, Sweden allowed German troops to move through its territory. German money was very welcome, refugees from Germany not so much. After the German defeat became apparent in 1943, Sweden allowed the Allies to fly over its territory to bomb Germany, provided that the Swedish iron ore trains were not hit. This approach was called “neutrality”. (Switzerland is turning green with envy upon reading all of this.) In November 1945, a mere 6 months after the end of the war, Sweden declared war on the Third Reich, just to be on the right side of history. In return, IKEA received the concession to rebuild German homes.
Lundborg, however, was too recognizably a Nazi sympathizer. He was fired in 1935 and had two children with a “genetically inferior” Sami woman he had met on his expeditions. Now, that doesn’t really surprise anyone, does it? It’s like those Christians who are most vocal against homosexuality. They always cheat on their wives with under-aged boys. Or like the leader of a German nationalist, xenophobic and homophobic party who lives in Switzerland, in a lesbian partnership with a woman from Sri Lanka. Or like the Serbian national hero Novak Djokovic, who pays no taxes in Serbia. The louder people preach, the less they adhere to their own sermon. (An exception is the author of this blog, who really practices the modest lifestyle he keeps advocating.)
But that was not the end of the Institute of Racial Biology. Quite the contrary, in 1935 the ball got really rolling. Up to then, they had only researched and published. Now, the theory was to be put into practice. In 1935 and 1941, the Swedish Parliament passed two laws on forced sterilization.
At first, “mentally ill” people were rendered infertile, then the “mentally deficient,” the “mentally disturbed”, people with psychological issues and people with physical malformations. Racism was not an official reason, but when Swedish doctors, all of whom belonged to the white, urban upper class, are asked to assess the mental state of possibly non-fluent Swedish-speaking nomads who had never been to school, you can see the problem. A problem inherent to many eugenics programs. In North America, intelligence tests were sometimes administered only in English, so Italian or Chinese immigrants naturally scored lower.
In 1941, the Swedish sterilization program was expanded to include social indicators. Now, behavior that was considered antisocial, such as alcoholism, could lead to sterilization. But of course only for the vodka alcoholic hanging out in the park, not the red wine alcoholic in his mansion. “Sexual debauchery” led to forced sterilization for some young women, for which visits to dance halls with changing dance partners were sufficient. Orphans were sterilized before they were released from the orphanage. Women seeking abortions often had to consent to sterilization. As late as the 1960s, a woman was accused of “undesirable social behavior” because she had joined a motorcycle gang; she was sterilized, too. And, of course, the unemployed, unmarried mothers, vagrants and, disproportionately, members of ethnic minorities.
As Gilbert Keith Chesterton, one of the few intellectuals of the 1920s who was critical of eugenics, wrote: “Every gloomy-looking vagabond, every taciturn laborer, every eccentric country hick can thus be effortlessly consigned to institutions built for dangerous lunatics.”
In the end, it was always about the reproduction of the white upper class, who didn’t even notice their racism and classism. Most people, and especially those moving only in circles similar to their own, are all too quick to take themselves as the benchmark. And thus, reading or arithmetic become the yardstick of intelligence, although from the point of view of those being judged, the scientists would be too stupid to milk a cow or find their way out of a deep forest. Especially in capitalism, work and consumption become the norm, although those who escape this social pressure paradoxically cause the least harm to the environment, the planet and thus humanity.
But which people are more useful or useless, that is not even a legitimate consideration. Not to pose the question of a person’s usefulness, that is the essence of human dignity! And that’s why it was a bit stupid of me to begin this article by making a distinction between attractive and unattractive people. (Which deprives me of the punch line that Swedes only became more attractive as immigration increased.) But it can’t hurt if even I learn something from my own writing.
Forced sterilization in Sweden, by the way, continued until 1975. In Finland until 1979. In Switzerland until 1985. In Peru, where the program took on genocidal proportions, until 2000. And in the Czech Republic until 2012.
But since then, the methods of eugenics have become more modern, such as prenatal and pre-implantation diagnostics. Population policy is coyly hidden in tax or welfare law, like child-related tax deductions that benefit rich parents more than poor parents. Or restrictions on welfare beyond a certain number of children. Or letting the old and weak die, so as not to impede the economy. And now you know in which tradition Sweden’s Covid policy sees itself.
Sorry, this episode wasn’t as funny as I normally try to be. But not every topic is suited for humor. Just be thankful that I stopped before we even got to the Nazis.
But in February 1922, I will be back again, as funny, fresh and funky as ever. With history from Lithuania. Or Egypt. Or Poland. Or Rome. Or Turkey. Or The Hague. Or Latvia. Or Japan. Uff, every month, it’s such a tough decision! – And remember: If more people support this blog, I can write more than one episode of this educational series per month.
- All articles of the series “One Hundred Years Ago …”.
- More history.
- More stories from Sweden.
- In the (otherwise very funny) novel “The Hundred-Year-Old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared”, the protagonist is sterilized by Herman Lundborg personally.