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Christmas reopens sore of 'Swedish history angst'

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Christmas reopens sore of 'Swedish history angst'
The cast of SVT programme "The Hedenhös children invent Christmas" which has prompted a bout of national introspection, the author argues. Foto: Henrik Montgomery/TT
17:17 CET+01:00
As Christmas approaches and Swedes engage in a bout of uncharacteristic tradition, historian and liberal commentator David Lindén argues that a "history anxiety" rears up to stifle public debate about the country's less liberal and tolerant literary past.

Christmas is coming and thus one of few times of the year when Swedes follow historical tradition. During Christmas more Swedes than usual attend church and it is also one of the few occasions when most Swedes skip modern cuisine for the traditional Swedish julbord, which contains old-fashioned treats such as pigs' feet in jelly and various sorts of pickled herring. As a Swedish food historian has pointed out: the julbord tradition is a tie with those who came before and those who will come after and is a tradition shared by most Swedes, young and old.

December is however also the month where the society displays a great deal of what could be called “Swedish history anxiety”. This is related to the use of historical traditions and the fact that in the public sphere there appears to be a perceived need to please everyone. So around Christmas time you tend to read in Swedish newspapers that some well-meaning politician has decided to skip or change one or other Christmas tradition in fear of causing offence to a real or perhaps imagined constituency.

This year it was the turn of a publishing house to prove itself cowed in the face of Swedish history. In a tradition dating back to 1960, Swedish national broadcaster Sveriges Television (SVT) has shown an advent calendar (julkalender) programme for children and this year is set to be a remake of the Swedish 1950s cartoon "Barna Hedenhös" which tells the story of a fictitious Swedish stone age family of the same name. 

The original graphic novels, which were written and illustrated by the Swedish artist Bertil Almqvist between 1948 and 1971, could be classified as one of Sweden's most popular cartoons of their era. As a result many parents and grandparents have grown up reading them and publishers Bonnier Carlsen saw an opportunity to cash in on the remake to be broadcast daily on SVT during December, and decided to reprint the original books. Although with one exemption that in a tragic way illustrates the Swedish anxiety when it comes to its history.

The books were written in an era different from today, noticeable in that the characters are portrayed in a way that could be called traditional and prejudiced. The father in the Hedenhös family hunts with the son, the mother prepares the food and the daughter plays with dolls. Like most children’s books they use stereotypes; while at the same time being an excellent piece of literature. Also by modern standards the books that are about how the family discovers other parts of the world can be called rather racist. Thus there was one book in particular that is about how the family discovers America ("Barna Hedenhös upptäcker Amerika") that was deemed to be so unsuitable that Bonnier Carlsen withdrew it from publication.

According to most readers the book could be called rather old-fashioned since it conveys typical 1950s Swedish prejudices about Native Americans - referred as redskins and generally described as some sort of primitive noble savages. In other words, their description does not fit the historical truth but it is a graphic novel meant for children and written roughly six decades ago. Therefore the book could not be called racist since there is no malicious intent and by first accepting it and then withdrawing it from reprint Bonnier Carlsen has played into the hands of the real racists.

It is a perfect example of the Swedish habit of not being able to face up to its own history. First Bonnier Carlsen thought it was okay to republish all the books and then they changed their minds when they encountered a few, although vocal, protests. But instead of mounting a defence for publishing all the books and, perhaps, include a preface where they explained that they reflect historical views and in accordance with a suggestion by the director of the SVT advent calender programme, they choose to withdraw the most criticised one and stated that the book was “unsuitable”.

By doing so they choose to decline to prompt a much-needed discussion about the fact that views change over the course of history. Instead they embarked upon a path of self-censorship that could lead to further investigation of “unsuitable literature” in regards to fiction written for adults. A far-fetched but still logical conclusion of their line of reasoning could be to decline to reprint Swedish literary classics, such as the writer August Strindberg as he can be seen as misogynistic, or the poet Gustaf Fröding who very much enjoyed the pleasure of prostitutes.

Finally and most regrettably, two of the most serious consequences of this episode is that ammunition has been given to those who claim that the Swedish public debate is filled with politically correct censorship, and that one of Sweden's oldest and most revered publishing houses has drastically underrated the ability of Swedish parents to read books to their children while also explaining the content.

David Lindén is a PhD student in history at King's College London and is currently a political commentator for Borås Tidning (BT). Previously he was a visiting scholar at University of North Carolina. Follow him on Twitter here.

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