History of Sweden (1945–1989)

History of Sweden (1945–1989)

This article covers the History of Sweden from the end of World War II to the late 1980s.


Sweden emerged unharmed by World War II. The Swedish non-alignment policy officially remained - Sweden rejected NATO membership but joined the United Nations and later EFTA. Tage Erlander (s) was Prime Minister from 1946 to 1969 - a period of exceptional economic and social prosperity, and generally low unemployment, but the housing situation posed problems as more and more people moved to the cities. Responding to the housing shortage, the government introduced miljonprogrammet ("the million program") - a national wave of suburban development with the aim of creating a million homes from 1965 to 1974. This period saw the beginning of large-scale immigration to a country that used to be one of the more ethnically homogeneous in the world. The first phase of immigration consisted of workers from southern Europe, who were actively wooed over by campaigns of advertisement and recruitment in their home countries, for instance Italy & Austria. In the 1970s and 1980s many refugees with families arrived from e.g. Chile, Kurdistan, Vietnam & Somalia, some of them with refugee status, others on the immigration quota. At the same time, the economy was entering less powerfully prosperous times: while Sweden continues to be a thoroughly industrialized nation with many businesses of cutting-edge innovation, especially in telephonics, energy management, chemicals, pharmaceutics & food industry, this growth both in production and complication is not generating a great amount of new employment in Sweden anymore, and therefore did not swallow the generations who have grown up since 1980.

On September 3, 1967, Sweden was the last country in continental Europe to introduce right-hand traffic. This was done on Dagen H, in spite of the negative result of a referendum in 1955.

Rise of the far left

From the mid-sixties there was a strong wave of radical leftism in Sweden, surfacing in sometimes heavily publicized events like the Båstad riots and the occupation of the student union building at Stockholm University - though never into actual fatalities in street fighting or domestic political terror acts like those in Western Germany and Italy in these years.

Solidarity and awareness became watchwords, at first in literary and student circles and in the socialist/syndicalist underground (and in time within many strata of society), then also in the media and the government. By the early seventies, people and government, led by Prime Minister Olof Palme (s), rose in protest against oppression and war in countries as distant as South Africa and Vietnam (at the end of 1972, Palme famously indicted the American shock bombings of Hanoi and compared them to Nazi war crimes such as the destructions of Lidice and Oradour; the USA responded by calling home her ambassador) [Leif Leifland, "Frostens år" (in Swedish) (1997), ISBN 91-648-0109-8] . The Swedish support for the ANC in and outside of South Africa and FNL and the Hanoi government in the Vietnam war were steady not only in words, popular support and help to enter the diplomatic arena, but also in economic (though not military) state subsidies. After Vietnam was reunited in 1975, for instance, Sweden supported the construction of a modern pulp plant at Bai Bang.

In 1973, journalists Jan Guillou and Peter Bratt exposed Informationsbyrån, a secret military intelligence register of communists and other people regarded as dangerous to national security; while the existence of such a thing, and in particular of its implied links to the Social Democratic party structure, was fiercely denied, the question continues to surface in a number of political scandals over the years, until it became the subject of serious historical discussion, a few state-issued retrospective white papers and political recant. Although some details are a bit hazy, this "internal spying" outside of the ordinary state intelligence services, is now considered an established fact.

The constitution was changed several times during this decade. In 1971 the Riksdag became unicameral. In 1974 the monarch lost all constitutional rights.

Environmentalism and nuclear power

The 1970s and '80s saw a rise in environmentalism - the ambiguous result of a referendum in 1980 advised government to phase out Swedish nuclear power by the year of 2010. The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 caused considerable radioactive fallout over Sweden. With only the Barsebäck nuclear power plant permanently closed, and ten out of twelve reactors still running (as of 2007), no one regards this schedule as realistic, and in the 2006 elections the liberal (fp) and the Moderate Party supported not only reversing the decision but building a few fresh nuclear plants. The Green Party was founded in 1981, entered the Riksdag in 1988 and supported Göran Persson's Social Democratic government from 1998 to 2006.

Right-wing intermission

The 1976 parliamentary elections brought a liberal/right-wing coalition to power after almost half a century of social democrat leadership, and Mr Palme gave way to Thorbjörn Fälldin (of the Centre Party, a former farmers/landowners party which had incorporated social liberal ideas as well as the burgeoning environmental debate). Over the next six years, four governments ruled and fell, composed by all or some of the parties that had won in 1976, and the questions of energy and of battling the economic recession came to the fore like never before. The fourth liberal government in these years, again with Fälldin at the helm, seemed somewhat baffled by these problems and had neither the support of a firm majority in the parliament, nor a clear mandate from the non-socialist part of the Swedish electorate. Predictably it came under fire both from the Social Democrats & trade unions, and from the Moderate Party, now heading in an increasingly Friedman-inspired and market liberal direction, and it was defeated in the elections of 1982, with Mr. Palme returning to the PM's seat.

During the 1980s there were several incidents of foreign, probably Soviet, submarines violating the Swedish territorial borders. In late 1981 the Soviet submarine U 137 ran ashore inside a restricted zone off the Karlskrona naval base, and became headline news. Though the particular fact was kept secret at the time, nuclear activity, probably from missile warheads was detected on board and reported to PM Fälldin while the vessel was still stuck in the firth. The incident marked a turning-point both in Soviet-Swedish relations and in the discussion in Sweden about defence, the Soviet Union and ultimately the place of Sweden in the arena of the Cold War (see article on Baltic submarine intrusions and submarine hunting in the 1980s.

wedish neutrality in the Cold War

During the Cold War, Sweden maintained a dual approach, publicly the strict neutrality policy was forcefully maintained, but unofficially strong ties were kept with the U.S. and it was hoped that the U.S. would use conventional and nuclear weapons to strike at Soviet staging areas in the occupied Baltic states in case of a Soviet attack on Sweden. Over time and due to the official neutrality dogma, fewer and fewer Swedish military officials were aware of the military cooperation with the west, making such cooperation in the event of war increasingly difficult. At the same time Swedish defensive planning was completely based on help from abroad in the event of war. The fact that it was not permissible to mention this eventuality aloud eventually led to the Swedish armed forces becoming highly misbalanced. For example, a strong ability to defend against an amphibious invasion was maintained, while an ability to strike at inland staging areas was almost completely absent. [ [http://www.foi.se/FOI/templates/Page____537.aspx "Livlös livlina till väst" Framsyn 2004, Nr. 1] (The Swedish Defence Research Agency’s bi-monthly publication)]

In the early 1960’s U.S. nuclear submarines armed with mid-range nuclear missiles of type Polaris A-1 were deployed outside the Swedish west coast. Range and safety considerations made this a good area from which to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike on Moscow. The submarines had to be very close to the Swedish coast to hit their intended targets though. As a consequence of this, in 1960, the same year that the submarines were first deployed, the U.S. provided Sweden with a military security guarantee. The U.S. promised to provide military force in aid of Sweden in case of Soviet aggression. Knowledge of this guarantee was by the Swedish governments kept from the Swedish public until 1994, when a Swedish research commission found evidence for it.

As part of the military cooperation the U.S. provided much help in the development of the Saab 37 Viggen, as a strong Swedish air force was seen as necessary to keep Soviet anti-submarine aircraft from operating in the missile launch area. In return Swedish scientists at the Royal Institute of Technology made considerable contributions to enhancing the targeting performance of the Polaris missiles. [ [http://www.foi.se/FOI/templates/Page____3941.aspx "Hemliga atomubåtar gav Sverige säkerhetsgaranti" Framsyn 2005, Nr. 1] (The Swedish Defence Research Agency’s bi-monthly publication))]

U.S. submarines and other naval vessels "frequently" and "regularly" secretly operated in the territorial waters of neutral Sweden, including in Stockholm harbor, as part of an elaborate psychological warfare operation whose target was the Swedish people. The Swedish people and government were led to believe that the vessels were Soviet. U.S. operations were likely conducted by the National Underwater Reconnaissance Office (NURO) and British submarines also participated. Operations included coordinating with the secret NATO "stay-behind" network deployed in Sweden. The campaign was successful in totalling changing the psychology of the Swedish people: the Swedish population was convinced of the "present danger" posed by the desired enemy, the Soviet Union, and was thus prepared for war against it. Also, since the Swedish government continued to release "enemy" submarines, large parts of the Swedish population turned against their government's concilliatory attitute and adopted more "hard-line" attitudes. [Publication of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, Parallel History Project on Cooperative Security, by Ola Tunander, Research Professor at International Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO), http://www.php.isn.ethz.ch/publications/areastudies/documents/subinc/Tunander2.pdf , article highlighting portions of author's book, "The Secret War Against Sweden--US and British Submarine Deception in the 1980s" (London: Frank Cass 2004)]

Assassination of Olof Palme

On February 28, 1986, Prime Minister Olof Palme was murdered as he was walking the streets of Stockholm with his wife. The crime came as a shock to most Swedes, and is sometimes referred to as a national trauma - an event by which Sweden "lost her innocence”, especially since the assassin remains unidentified to this day (though some would regard the murder as "solved from a police point of view"; the main suspect Christer Pettersson was sentenced but later acquitted). Palme was replaced by his deputy Ingvar Carlsson.

Culture and mass media

Cultural influence from the United Kingdom and the United States has been obvious since the war. Imported and indigenous subcultures rose, with the rockabilly-inspired raggare and anarchist progg cultures as notable examples. (Before the world wars, Swedish culture was more inspired by Germany). Swedish film and music achieved international fame with names like Ingmar Bergman, Sven Nykvist, Lasse Hallström, Birgit Nilsson, ABBA, Entombed, Roxette, Denniz Pop and Max Martin. Currently, Sweden is the only non-English-speaking country in the world with a net export of music. Most Swedes are today proficient in English, a great deal of Swedish-produced popular music has originally English lyrics, and English language branding is very common.

The sexual revolution, together with sexual content in mass media (notably films 491 and I Am Curious (Yellow), together with the broad entry of women in many lanes of professional life (including the priesthood) in the 1960s and 1970s provoked a moralist counter-movement including the Christian Democratic party, but this trend has had scant political success.

Radio and television early became widespread in Sweden, but government struggled to keep the monopoly of licence-funded Sveriges television until the late 1980s, as satellite and cable TV became popular, and the commercial channel TV4 was permitted to broadcast terrestrially.

See also culture of Sweden.


Sweden has produced many world famous athletes during this period, among them boxer Ingemar Johansson, alpine skier Ingemar Stenmark, tennis players Björn Borg, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg, ice hockey players Börje Salming, Kent Nilsson, Mats Sundin, Peter Forsberg and football players Glenn Hysén, Thomas Brolin,Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Sweden has hosted several high-profile sports events, for instance equestrian events of the 1956 Summer Olympics and the 1958 FIFA World Cup.

Events in Swedish post-war history

*Norrmalmstorg robbery

Foreign and global events with great impact on Sweden

*Chernobyl disaster
*Dissolution of the Soviet union
*2004 Indian Ocean earthquake


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