Introduction to History of Sweden

About 12,000 B.C., Sweden began to emerge from the last Ice Age. As the ice sheet that had covered northeastern Europe gradually receded, Sweden became habitable.

Important dates in Sweden
c. 6000 B.C.The first settlers came to Sweden.
c. A.D. 800's to 1000'sSwedish Vikings attacked other countries, traded, and colonized.
829Christianity was introduced into Sweden.
1397Sweden, Denmark, and Norway were united in the Union of Kalmar.
1523Gustavus Vasa was elected king, and Sweden became independent.
c. 1540Lutheranism became Sweden's official religion.
1630-1632Gustavus Adolphus won victories for Sweden in the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648).
1709Swedish power declined after the Battle of Poltava.
1809Sweden lost Finland to Russia. A new constitution was adopted.
1814Sweden gained Norway from Denmark.
1867Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist, patented dynamite.
1867-1886Many Swedes immigrated to the United States due to harsh economic conditions in Sweden.
1905Norway dissolved its union with Sweden.
1914-1918Sweden was neutral in World War I.
1939-1945Sweden remained neutral in World War II.
1960Sweden helped form the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).
1975Sweden adopted a new constitution that greatly reduced the power of the king.
1986Prime Minister Olof Palme was killed by an assassin.
1995Sweden left EFTA and joined the European Union (EU).
2000Sweden separated church and state, ending the status of Lutheranism as the country's official religion.

Early History

Around 6000 B.C., primitive tribes of hunters and fishermen moved into what is now southern Sweden. About 3000 B.C. agriculture was introduced. Sweden's Bronze Age, which began about 1500 B.C., lasted until about 500 B.C., when iron came into use.

During its Iron Age, Sweden was divided among a number of tribes. The strongest of these people were the seafaring Svear, who occupied the region around Lake Mälaren. About 500 A.D., they established the first Swedish kingdom. By the beginning of the Viking period, the Svear were the nominal rulers of most of the inhabited area of Sweden. (The Swedish name of the country, “Sverige,” means the kingdom of the Svear.)

Age of the Vikings

From about 800 to 1050, the Scandinavian peoples roamed the seas as traders and adventurers. The forays and voyages of the Swedish Vikings were mainly directed eastward. They occupied the southern coast of the Baltic Sea, and in Russia they developed a powerful state with its capital at Kiev. The Vikings controlled the river routes to the Black Sea and Constantinople, and conducted trade with the Greeks and the Arabs.

During the Viking period, English and German missionaries visited Sweden. The first Christian church was founded by Saint Ansgar in 829. The struggle between Christianity and paganism lasted some 300 years, Christianity was firmly established at the end of the Viking era.

The Later Middle Ages

At the beginning of this period, Sweden was exclusively a Baltic country. It did not include the southern part of the Scandinavian peninsula, which was held by the Danes. Despite wars between rival houses for the Swedish throne, lasting more than 100 years in the 12th and 13th centuries, the kingdom became more firmly established. Finland was incorporated into the kingdom beginning in the 12th century. In the late 12th or early 13th century, the capital city of Stockholm was founded. Also during the 13th century, the laws of the various Swedish provinces were codified. A century later, a national code was written, based on the provincial laws. It laid down the respective powers of the king, his council of nobles, and the people.

Sweden established commercial ties with the trading cities of western Europe through the Hanseatic League. The town of Visby on the island of Gotland became one of the main trade centers of the League. By the end of the 14th century, north German cities began to monopolize Baltic trading. In 1397 the Scandinavian countries (Sweden, Norway, and Denmark) formed the Union of Kalmar, a kingdom united under one monarch to combat the growing strength of the Germans. However, Swedish resentment rose over Danish domination of the union, and there followed a century of strife between Sweden and Denmark and within Sweden itself.

In 1434 Engelbrekt Engelbrektsson, a mine owner, led an uprising against the union and gained a popular following. In 1435 he called an assembly, the first riksdag (parliament), which included representatives of the peasantry. Engelbrekt was murdered in 1436, but uprisings continued. However, independence was not won until the successful revolt of 1521–23, led by Gustavus Eriksson Vasa.

Stability and Power

Gustavus Vasa was elected to the throne by the Riksdag in 1523 at the age of 27. During his long reign, he restored internal order, cut Sweden's ties to the Roman Catholic church, beginning the change of the state's religion to Lutheranism. He also strengthened state finances by transferring the church's vast holdings to the monarchy and ended the Hanseatic League's monopoly over Swedish trade. At his death in 1560, Sweden had become a power in Europe. The reigns of Gustavus Vasa's sons encompassed more than a half century. They pursued an aggressive foreign policy, warring with Denmark, Poland, and Russia, and conquering Estonia.

Sweden: Wars in the late 1500's.Sweden: Wars in the late 1500's. This map shows the territory Sweden gained during a series of wars fought from the late 1500's to the late 1600's. Sweden won territories on both sides of the Baltic Sea, as well as some areas in what are now Germany and Poland. For a time, Sweden was one of the greatest powers of Europe.

In 1630 Gustavus Adolphus intervened at a critical phase in the Thirty Years' War on behalf of the Protestant cause. A brilliant military leader, he won several victories before he was killed at the battle of Lützen, 1632. The affairs of state were carried on by his able chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, during the minority of Queen Christina. In these years, the colony of New Sweden was founded in North America (1638). Sweden gained territory in northern Germany in 1648 by the Peace of Westphalia, ending the Thirty Years' War, and entered the last half of the 17th century as the dominant power in northern Europe. In 1658 it forced Denmark to cede its provinces on the Swedish mainland.

Sweden's small population and limited economic resources shortened its period of ascendancy. Under Charles XI (1660–97), an absolute monarchy had developed, with the power of the council and the Riksdag severely restricted. Charles XII (1697–1718) continued in the autocratic tradition. In the Great Northern War, which broke out in 1700, the 18-year-old king brilliantly repulsed a powerful coalition of enemies. His invasion of Russia, however, ended in his defeat at Poltava in 1709, and when the final peace treaty was signed in 1721, Sweden had lost its East Baltic and German possessions. The long war drained the country of its resources and ended its status as a great power.

Democracy, Neutrality, and Socialism

The nation gradually recovered its balance. During the “Era of Liberty,” which followed, royal absolutism was curtailed by a constitution that transferred power from the monarch to the Riksdag. Economic conditions improved with the introduction of new manufacturing enterprises and the refinement of agricultural and mining techniques. Literature and natural science flourished.

In an attempt to restore Sweden's power, Gustavus III, who ascended the throne in 1771, reasserted the authority of the king. He was assassinated by a group of disgruntled nobles. His son, Gustavus IV Adolphus, lost Finland to Russia in 1809 and was deposed. That year a new constitution was drawn up. In 1810 the Riksdag chose Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, a French marshal, to be heir to the childless Charles XIII (1809–18).

Charles John, as Bernadotte was renamed, soon became the real ruler of Sweden. After a policy dispute with Napoleon, the French emperor, Charles John enlisted Sweden in a coalition of European nations against him. After successful military campaigns against Denmark and Norway (1813–14), Charles John achieved the union of Norway and Sweden, which lasted until 1905. This was also the last time that Sweden's army was engaged in battle. In 1818 Charles John, as Charles XIV John, began a 26-year reign and established the Bernadotte dynasty.

The remainder of the 19th century was a time of social change, industrialization, and peace. The old Riksdag, made up of the old social classes—nobles, clergy, burghers, and peasants—was abolished in 1865 and replaced by a two-chamber elected legislature. All males who met certain qualifications were eligible to vote. Iron and steel industries were modernized, wood and pulp industries were developed. Construction of railroads throughout the country helped centralize industrial production in urban areas, which attracted more people to cities. The needs of the growing population outstripped the available resources, however, and some 1.2 million Swedes emigrated to the United States between 1850 and 1930.

Early in the 20th century, democracy made further strides in Sweden when the suffrage was expanded, 1907–09. (Universal suffrage was achieved in 1921.) In 1907 the democratic Gustaf V came to the throne, beginning the longest and one of the most popular reigns in Swedish history (1907–50).

With the growth of the working class following industrialization, a labor movement was established. Supported by the labor movement, the Social Democratic party, which had been founded in 1899, steadily increased in importance. In 1920 the Social Democrats came to power for the first time and began laying the foundation for Sweden's welfare state. Joint enterprises between the state and private industrialists were established in certain areas of the economy. Voluntary consumer and producer cooperatives were organized on a large scale. During the 1930's and 1940's, far-reaching pension, health insurance, and other social programs were enacted.

Sweden was neutral during both World Wars. After World War II, it joined the United Nations, but continued its policy of neutrality in the struggles between the Communist and anti-Communist blocs during the Cold War. Close cooperation between Scandinavian countries was promoted by formation of the Nordic Council in 1952.

By the last half of the 20th century, government programs providing cradle-to-grave security were well established. A new constitution, effective in 1975, was promulgated, reducing the monarchy to a symbolic role and extending the franchise to 18-year-olds. In elections held in 1976, the Social Democratic party was defeated and replaced by a non-Socialist coalition, ending more than four decades of Socialist rule. Economic decline and policy differences between coalition members led to the collapse of the coalition, and in 1982 the Socialists were returned to power. In 1986 the Socialist leader, Olof Palme, was assassinated. The Socialists were defeated in the elections of 1991 but returned to power in the elections of 1994. In 1995 Sweden became a member of the European Union.

Also in 1995, the Lutheran Church of Sweden agreed to a government move to separate church and state. The church agreed to phase out by 2000 from its position as Sweden's official church. Lutheranism had been the country's official religion since the 14th century. But the government recognized that the Swedish population had come to include many people from other countries who practiced other faiths. In 1998 elections, the Social Democratic Party won more seats in parliament than any other party. However, it did not win a majority and needed the support of other parties in order to govern. Elections in 2002 returned the Social Democrats and their political allies to power. In 2003, Sweden's voters rejected a proposal to replace their nation's currency, the krona, with the euro, a currency used by most of the other countries of the European Union. In 2006 elections, a center-right union of political parties led by the Moderate Party won control of parliament.