Painting of King Gustav Adolf in the Historical Museum of Strasbourg, Photo: George Wood/Radio Sweden

The silence about Sweden's imperial past

With the exception of the peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, Sweden has not been at war for nearly 200 years. But before that, this country had a strong military tradition, and was a major power during the 17th century European wars between the Protestants and the Catholics.

But one researcher says the museums here are curiously silent about this imperialistic period in Swedish history.

 Outside the great hilltop fortress of Haut Königsborg in Alsace in France, there’s a plaque noting that it was destroyed in the 17th century by the Swedes, but with no other information. In the historical museum in nearby Strasbourg there’s a portrait of Sweden’s King Gustav Adolf, or Gustavus Adolphus, also with little comment on why he should be considered important hundreds of miles away from Sweden’s modern borders.

But back during the Thirty Years War in the first half of the 17th century, the Lion of the North, as the Swedish monarch was known, led the armies of the Protestants against the Catholics, until he fell in 1632 on a German battlefield.

Back then Sweden was a northern European imperial power, possessing Finland, most of the current Baltic Republics, a chunk of Norway, and even Pomerania on the Baltic coast of what is Germany and Poland today. But, according to Uppsala University researcher Per Widén, schools and museums in Sweden today project a very different picture of this country’s past, based on its modern image as a small, neutral, peaceful country.

Per Widén says schools and museum here focus on social and cultural history, daily life. "In in doing so," he says, "they choose to not raise issues like why the Swedish state went to war, and why they wanted to expand the borders of the realm?"

In his study of the historical collections of the state museums, Per Widén says even the language used is illustrative. Instead of talking about The Swedish Empire, museums here use the less imperialist expression The Great Power Period, and instead of describing the conflicts of the times, they tend to look more at everyday life.

"What they focus on," he says, "is the individual soldier, his wife at home, and hunger and other hardships for both those at home and those in the army. There’s no analysis, just maps that show how the borders changed. They say that wars started, but with little explanation why. They don’t show war as a result of political and human decisions, instead it is portrayed as one of the many disasters that humans suffer, blindly and unpredictably."

One of the museums Per Widén has studied is the Wasa Museum, which houses the great warship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628. He says the museum has chosen to distance itself from the uncomfortable truth that the Wasa was intended to be a tool for Swedish military dominance in the Baltic Sea.

"What is emphasized with the Wasa is cultural history," he says, "the wreck as a time capsule, its re-discovery and salvaging in the 1950’s, the Wasa as an object, but not the Wasa as an instrument of war."

"Instead of using the ship in an analysis of 17th century Swedish political and military strategy," Per Widén says, "the Wasa is portrayed as an example of Swedish technological development, even if this particular example was a failure."

Something else that is missing, he says, is how the loss of Finland and the end of the empire was dealt with in the early 19th century.

"It’s difficult to deal with the loss of an empire," Per Widén says. "We can see the problems experienced by Britain and Austria. Perhaps Sweden’s approach, he says, was necessary to recreate the national state."

Now this silence is part of a tradition, but Per Widén says, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be brought up and discussed.

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