"The battle of the Elms"

8:15 min

Today,  forty years ago, Kungsträdgården - a park in central Stockholm - woke up after a dramatic night. A political decision to chop down 13 big elm-trees in the park, to make way for an underground-station, had run into strong public opposition. It all came to a head on the night between the 11th and the 12th of May 1971.

"The battle of the Elm trees" has gone down in Swedish history as a turning point when the political establishment realised it had to take public opinion into account.

"The chainsaws have started, and now the situation is getting really serious here," Swedish Radio News's reporter told the listeners, "the police is hitting out, I just saw a police horse fall over, and now the constables are hitting frantically with the riding-whips".

The pictures from that night are dramatic, police on horses whipping demonstrators, hitting with batons, dragging them by their clothes, dogs barking, people screaming, and in the midst of it all, the sound of the chain saws.

Eie Herlitz was one of the initiators of Alternativ Stad, "Alternative City", a movement which started in the late sixties - a reaction against commercialism and the development of a city that they though did more to accommodate cars and offices than people.

"I remember the police surrounding the trees and the workers came with big chainsaws and when i heard the first engine I was angry." 

For years, town officials had ordered the tearing down of old houses in central Stockholm, in a fight against poverty, rats and disease. A new, light, modern and well-functioning city was to be built in its place. But in the end of the 60-ies, beginning of seventies, the optimistic belief in a brighter future that had characterised the economic boom of the post-war-period Sweden, was beginning to give way to a merging green movement and the left wing protest - young people who wanted to be involved and make a difference.

The plans to tear down the elm trees were discovered by accident by an architect student who was visiting a former class mate at the town's planning department. He saw to it that the activists at Alternativ Stad got a copy of the plan, plus the three alternative plans, which did not involve the cutting down of any trees, but had been hushed down by the politicians. All four plans were posted next to the old tea-house under the elm trees, where they caught the attention not only of students, but also well-to-do old ladies and people who had lived in Stockholm for generations.

A wave of protest and demonstrations started, with all kinds of people getting involved. Even the national bard Evert Taube was against the tree felling, so much so he wrote a letter to the king, pleading for the Elms to be saved.

But the politicians were not convinced. Too much had already been invested in plan A for them to even consider a plan B, and anyway, they did not think the protestors represented a broad opinion. But they were wrong.

When a date was set to tear the trees down, on the 13th of May, the protesters did not trust it. They put out spies standing watch in Kungsträdgården and outside police stations.

In the end, it was a wife of a policeman who called Alternativ Stad and said "my husband has been called out on duty tonight", and so they knew. A phone chain was set in motion, each person would call six people, who would in turn call another six people - telling everybody: get yourself down to Kungsträdgården.

Actor Johannes Brost was among those on the list. Radio Sweden asked him what he remembers of the evening.

"I remember the dogs, they bit me and i had to go to hospital. But what i remeber most of all was the town's love, to save itself."

When the chainsaws started, there was a surge among the protesters, who pushed away the fence surrounding the trees, they sat down, with their arms hooked together tightly together, making a seated chain around the trees. Police on horses moved in, the chainsaws keep revving. It was chaos.

Suddenly some of the protestors managed to climb the trees, and not long after that police saw that there was no sensible way to disburse the protesters.

Much has been said about the impact of the "battle of the elm trees". This was the first time in Swedish history that the police were not able to support a political decision that had been made, but were forced to withdraw.