How Sweden Became a Symbol

Moises Saman/Magnum Photos

Young refugees baking Christmas cookies with Swedish volunteers at a transit center for unaccompanied asylum seekers in Malmö, Sweden, 2015

For an event at which the main attraction was the presence of not one but two heirs to European thrones, the security at Stockholm’s Fotografiska museum was distinctly low-key. Distinctly Swedish, you might say.

And when the royalty swept into the room, the conversation barely wavered. One Swedish woman wondered aloud if she should say anything special to Prince William, visiting from Britain. “No, just be yourself,” her colleague replied. In this land of equality, even future kings and queens of other countries are treated with polite equanimity. Indeed, the only gushing came from Prince William himself, taking the stage to thank his hosts, Crown Princess Victoria and Prince Daniel, and explaining that he and his wife came to discover the “magic Swedish ingredients.”

“We wanted to find out what it was about Sweden that gave you such an enviable reputation in the world: design, the creative industries, high-tech manufacturing, social justice, popular culture,” Prince William said, sending a palpable shiver of satisfaction through the two hundred assorted representatives of Sweden’s cultural scene. “The list could go on,” he added.

It certainly could, but not necessarily in the same vein. Because that enviable reputation—brilliantly cultivated since the end of 1945, when neutral Sweden realized it had some work to do on its international image—now faces a brazen challenger.

Depending on which news media you consume and which Facebook groups you belong to, your image of Sweden may be quite different from Prince William’s. If you follow Breitbart or Fox News in the US, or the Mail Online or the Daily Express in the UK, your Sweden will be a place where criminal gangs have seized control of the suburbs, rape is out of control, and politicians refuse to acknowledge that the problems are caused by immigrants, preferring to sacrifice their nation on the altar of political correctness.

Perhaps you will have read that Sweden has banned outdoor Christmas lights for religious reasons (it hasn’t); or that one of the country’s biggest shopping malls is a no-go zone for police (it isn’t); or that it’s no longer safe to go jogging after dark without an armed police escort (the local police inspector responded that “not much happens here, but people are affected by what is happening elsewhere in the world and can feel unsafe when it’s dark”). This alternative narrative about Sweden reached a peak of publicity in February 2017 when President Trump spoke at a rally in Florida about his plans to implement stricter immigration rules in the US.

“You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden,” he said. “Sweden. Who would believe this? Sweden. They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible.”

The president was referring to a documentary he had seen on Fox the previous evening that argued that Sweden was covering up its immigration-related problems. Among other apparent signs of collapse, the film highlighted an “absolute surge in gun violence.” According to the latest figures, the homicide rate in the country is about one per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to nearly five per 100,000 inhabitants in the United States. Two Swedish police officers who were interviewed in the film later said that the filmmaker had taken their statements “out of context” and completely misrepresented their views.

Shortly afterward, the British nationalist politician-turned-radio host Nigel Farage backed up the US president’s words by declaring on his drive-time show that the southern Swedish city of Malmö is “now the rape capital of Europe and, some argue, perhaps it is the rape capital of the world.” In fact, since 2012 the rate of reported rapes (per 100,000 of population) in Malmö has been below the Swedish national average.

This extraordinary focus on Sweden isn’t really an attack on the country itself. It is about using Sweden as a weapon in a far wider clash of values. The “Good Sweden” reputation is built on the qualities listed by Prince William and is amplified globally by brands such as Ikea, H&M, Volvo, and Spotify. At its core is a set of progressive principles—equality, secularism, openness, and transparency—that make the country an outlier in international surveys and a thorn in the side of those who oppose the ideals of Scandinavian social democracy.

When the march of progressivism seemed inexorable, Sweden was happy to play poster child and humbly let uninformed outsiders label the place a social paradise. Now that the spread of progressive values around the world is facing its stiffest test in decades, Sweden finds itself on the front line. And for the traditionalists seeking to reverse the liberal trend, to show that Sweden—Sweden—is failing offers an effective way to shortcut the argument.


The difficulty with that approach is that Sweden is obviously not failing. To be precise, Sweden is the fifth “least-failing” state in the world, according to the Fragile States Index compiled by The Fund for Peace, a Washington-based think tank.

There is a social precept in Scandinavia called Jantelagen, the law of Jante, which is said to restrain outward displays of success or excessive individualism. It is a reminder that you are no better than your neighbor. This may place an obligation of modesty on Swedes, but for Sweden itself different rules evidently apply. In ranking after ranking, whether the metric is social justice, democracy, press freedom, gender equality, rule of law, innovation, or sustainable development, the country consistently places in the top ten, and often in the top three. In 2016, Forbes magazine declared Sweden to be the number one place in the world for business in 2017, and the country is the world’s most generous provider of overseas development assistance (as a percentage of gross national income).

To demonstrate that this extraordinarily successful nation is “failing”, then, detractors must either lie or focus exclusively on the problem areas, stripping away all background and big picture. In any country of ten million people or more, there are bound to be enough problems to maintain a steady flow of stories that make the place look bad. And because, generally speaking, people don’t know that much about Sweden, they have no way of assessing the credibility of information that they receive about the country. The Sweden they see says more about their own beliefs than about the country itself.

This phenomenon is not new. Indeed, Trump is not the first American president to malign Sweden for the sake of scoring domestic political points. In 1960, President Eisenhower gave a speech to fellow Republicans in which he used Sweden as an example of the failure of socialism. “This country has a tremendous record for socialistic operation… and the record shows that their rate of suicide has gone up almost unbelievably,” said the president. “Now, they have more than twice our rate. Drunkenness has gone up. Lack of ambition is discernible on all sides.”

In fact, the rate of suicide had fallen since the introduction of socialist policies. Two years later, on a trip to Sweden, Eisenhower graciously apologized for the statement, but the notion that Sweden has a high suicide rate is still alive almost six decades later.

Today, when social media dominates the distribution of news, the Bad Sweden narrative is potent. It is shocking because it is the opposite of the utopia story. It is visually arresting in its contrast with the stereotypical aesthetics of Sweden. It is scary, and therefore effective, because if it could happen in Sweden, imagine what could happen here (wherever your “here” is). Add in a dash of schadenfreude and you have a resilient and fecund meme.

News reports coming out of the country in the first weeks of 2018 will have added fuel to this narrative. Gangland shootings and a surge in the use of hand grenades have alarmed the public, and in a recent parliamentary debate, political leaders, eyeing this year’s election, competed to impress upon voters how tough they will be on crime.

“We’re going to continue to combat the forming of a parallel society. Today, we need rules to be tightened, increasing control to cut out economic criminality,” Prime Minister Stefan Löfven told Sweden’s parliament, the Riksdag, last month.

The largest opposition party, the traditionally conservative Moderates, demanded stronger legislation to fight crime: “The state should take back control. This is not a negotiation,” said their leader, Ulf Kristersson.

And after the leader of the far-right Sweden Democrats, Jimmie Akesson, said he was “declaring war on serious organized crime,” and suggested sending in the military to support the police, the prime minister kept up the tough talk. “Putting the military in wouldn’t be my first measure, but I am prepared to do what is needed to ensure that organized crime is eliminated,” he said.

Here in Sweden, these comments are heard as part of a running national debate that is still dominated by the vast challenge of integrating, or ejecting, the 163,000 asylum seekers who arrived here in 2015. People understand that the more centrist conservative opposition parties are trying to win back supporters from the hard-line Sweden Democrats, and that the prime minister will say what he needs to say in order not to lose law-and-order voters. Swedes will have also heard other party leaders express optimism that the country’s integration problems can be solved, concern about the establishment of religious schools, fear about the growth of a new benefits-dependent social class, and fury at the negative language being used in the debate itself. And they know that this is just one aspect of what’s going on in this country, where economic growth is well ahead of the European average.


Internationally, though, the news gets distilled into the shocking message that crime is swamping Sweden as “teens roam the streets with rifles” and “the army may be called in to halt a gang surge in immigrant areas.” When it comes to news, the truth is proportional to the context. A lack of context doesn’t make a story false, but it greatly reduces the truth of it.

So what is it like in Sweden at the moment? The way to paint a picture of any country is not with broad brush strokes, but dot by dot, where every dot is one among millions of complementary and contradictory stories. Only in the nuance can any nation be truly understood. And the longer I live here, the more nuanced Sweden seems to become.

There are plenty of ways to get a sense of the detail from afar, to understand that the place is neither the heaven nor the hell of international news reports. But it is unrealistic to expect anyone but the most committed observer to rummage around in the databases of Sweden’s respected statistics agency or to follow the country’s full daily news flow.

As long as Sweden remains an outlier in its social values, committed to its vision of an egalitarian, open, and tolerant society, it will continue to serve as a country-sized Rorschach test, in which outsiders find their own ideals or biases vividly embodied. That might be inconvenient, but it is the price this pioneering country must pay for breaking the law of Jante.

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