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Sweden's 'dark legacy' draws crowds to museum

Paul O'Mahony · 9 Jan 2007, 18:33

Published: 09 Jan 2007 18:33 GMT+01:00

In 1922 Sweden became the first country in the world to establish a National Institute for Race Biology. The establishment of such an institute was supported by all major political parties.

Under the leadership of Herman Lundborg, the institute soon began gathering copious statistics and photographs to measure the racial make-up of 100,000 Swedes.

This first round of analysis was completed in 1926 and provided the basis of Lundborg's textbook for upper secondary schools entitled 'Swedish racial studies'.

But the grandfather of Swedish race biology gradually fell out of favour as his vision of Nordic supremacy and his emerging anti-Semitism grew increasingly untenable in the light of developments in Germany.

In 1936 he was replaced by Gunnar Dahlberg as head of the National Institute for Race Biology. He died in 1943.

In subsequent years the institute distanced itself from its racial profile, moving gradually into the emerging field of genetics. In the 1950s it was integrated into Uppsala University and eventually developed into what is now the university's genetics centre.

Herman Lundborg's name re-emerged in the 1990s in the controversy surrounding Sweden's forced sterilisation programme, which affected 63,000 people and continued until 1975.

His theories on the need to actively combat degenerate elements in Sweden's racial make-up were regarded as central to the creation of this shameful chapter in the country's history.

But it was not Lundborg who sought in Dalarna the roots of a dying breed. Rather it was a competitor by the name of Bertil Lundman, who had it on good authority that the last strains of the Aryan race were likely to be found in that region.

"Lundman had tried to gain employment at the National Institute for Race Biology but was not accepted," Maria Björkroth from the Museum of Dalarna told The Local.

When the museum discovered 11,000 photographs of local people in its archives, dating back to the 1930s, it decided to look into the matter, resulting in the current exhibition, "The dark legacy".

"The idea that you learn could about hereditary illnesses by measuring people's heads was very racial," said Björkroth.

Bertil Lundman employed photographers in the area to gather data on any interesting racial characteristics to be found in the villages of Dalarna.

He did not discover any traces of the Aryan race in Dalarna. On the contrary, he found that the area was composed of quite a mixture of races.

He did however develop a habit of measuring people with unusually prominent physical features, on the basis of which he would extrapolate wildly.

"In Dalarna he found the biggest heads in Europe. He also found the longest heads, the tallest people and the shortest people on the whole continent," said Björkroth.

Notions of racial hygiene, that the stock of the population could somehow be bettered as a result of such studies, were strong in the 1920s and early 1930s. As a result, Lundman could count on the assistance of organisations in the region.

"The Association of Heritage Societies supported him for approximately ten years. After World War II however this type of study was not considered politically correct," said Björkroth.

The exhibition takes a closer look at "The dark legacy" of race biology.

"A lot of racial ideas are still alive today, often at an unconscious level. But they are there when you penetrate the surface.

Story continues below…

"When, for example, people criticise newcomers to the country for not speaking good Swedish they are sometimes carrying on the idea that they are somehow better than these people," said Björkroth.

The exhibition began in mid-November and was due to end on Sunday. But the Museum of Dalarna has decided to continue the exhibition for another six weeks in response to continuing demand.

"Teachers bring their classes here because it fits in with the curriculum, when pupils are learning about the Holocaust and the eventual outcome of racial theories.

"It is also interesting for pupils to learn about people's faith in the authorities, how they accepted being measured in this way," said Björkroth.

Bertil Lundman continued his studies after the Second World War. In 1977 he published a book, The Races And Peoples Of Europe, classifying Europeans along racial lines. He died in 1993.

Paul O'Mahony (paul.omahony@thelocal.com)

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