Swedish racial biology -
then and now

Not very long ago Sweden was one of the strongholds of racial hygiene - both for biological and political application. As a matter of fact, it is only in Nazi Germany that more unwanted people have been sterilized by force, counting percentage of the population. The memory of this not so honourable part of Swedish history is gradually fading away. But the dream of improvement and changing of man lingers on. There have always been unwanted people - the question is just how to define them and what to do with them.

During a major part of the 20th century, until the end of the sixties actually, some people were defined as inferior to others. These people were so useless - biologically and socially - that they and their genes were not considered worth a future. As the old laws of sterilization, abortion and marriage were abolished in the sixties and the seventies, an estimated number of 20 000 had been sterilized more or less by force, from racial hygienic or genetic hygienic reasons, the latter being the new word to be used after the fall of the Third Reich. This does not sound very nice, but perhaps we should be grateful; it could have been worse.

Initiated by Carl von Linné

Carl von Linné, the famous Swedish biologist that introduced the sexual system, was the first person to divide people into biologically defined races. During the 19th century other celebrated Swedes took part in the foundation of racial biology - one of the attempts at scientific studying of the genetics of man in those days. They devoted themselves to the measuring of skulls and to genealogical research. Herman Lundborg, one of the leading biologists, examined the history of a hereditary diseases within a family from the west of Sweden. He then claimed that the poverty and social hardhip of the members of the family were due to several hundred years of >>degeneration<< - physically, economically, mentally and socially - caused by >>sick<< genes.

The slag of society

Lundborg and many of the intellectuals of that time worried about >>bad<< genes destroying the North European >>racial group<<. They believed that natural selection was out of order, mainly because of social changes. One of the >>culprits<< was claimed to be industrialism, giving jobs and influence to the broad mass, enabling more of society's unwanted people to survive. Lundborg and his colleagues called these people >>the slag of society<<: the poor and unemployed, single mothers, outcasts, anarchists, vagrants, homosexuals and mentally retarded people. They pointed out that birth-rates were declining more among the privileged than among the poor. This scenario was considered very scaring, since well-to-do and successful persons, such as the racial biologists themselves, were believed - statistically - to have been endowed with more genes for intelligence, energy and so forth, than economically and socially less favoured individuals.

What should be done then, in order to prevent degeneration of race and people? The racial biologists maintained that persons with >>good<< genes should be encouraged to have children, while those with >>not so good<< genes should be dissuaded or even prevented. There were, admittedly, no scentific evidence - so far not one human gene had been discovered - but there was support for the ideas in successful research of the improvement by breeding of herbs and animals. Experiments on cereals and cows seemed to work perfectly, resulting in the improvement of output figures. Why not try this on man as well?

In 1922 Swedish Parliament under Hjalmar Branting reached a consensus on founding the first stately racial biological institute in the world. Peasants and Social Democrats fought to change the laws in order to prevent unwanted people from having children.

Unwanted genes

In their book Kris i befolkningsfrågan (1934), Gunnar and Alva Myrdal recommended >>radical sourting out of individuals unfit for living<<. They emphasized economical motives for their proposals. Previously, such persons that were, for instance, classified as >>mentally deficient<< - a vague term implying some five to ten per cent of the population - could earn their living working as servants. In industrialized society, however, there was no more room for >>these unlucky deficient people<<, which had no longer a possibility of >>making an effort - though less paid than others - to morally defend their right to live<<.

The clamour for racial hygienic legislation was responded to. Between 1934 and 1941 several laws were passed permitting sterilization of persons carrying unwanted genes. Most of those who were sterilized were uneducated working class women. Many were adolescents or young adults. Some of them were certainly what we today would call mentally retarded. Apallingly many were, however, fairly ordinary youngsters from poor homes, where parents, for some reason or another, could not take care of their children.

One authentic and very typical case:

>>Astrid<< was one of seven children. Her mother, unmarried and unemployed, was forced to hand over Astrid to poor relief, and she was placed at the home of an elderly lady making her living out of taking care of >>society's children<<. After a few years she came to another home, where she was often beaten. This is how her life went on, Astrid becoming more and more aggressive and less talkative. She could not cope with school - partly owing to congenital dyslexia - and she ended up at a community home. At the age of 20 it was time for Astrid to >>enter society<<. But the headmaster at the community home, a doctor and the State demanded - via the supreme Medical Board - that first, Astrid should be sterilized. In their application they wrote that Astrid was considered to be >>cocky<<, >>coquettish<< and >>hysterical<<. Her reported qualities could, it was feared, be hereditary, and she should consequently be sterilized in order to avoid giving birth to a new generation of >>chronicle social welfare cases<<.

Blackmail and threats

The Medical Board approved of the operation. Since physical force was prohibitied, the school management and the doctor used blackmail to make Astrid consent to sterilization. If she did not approve of this >>little operation<<, they threatened her, she would face life incarceration. Thousands of healthy, intelligent persons were submitted to the same treatment as Astrid was. The >>medical<< arguments were, however, a little different according to what sex the individuals belonged to. Boys ready for sterilization were rather described as >>unreliable<<, >>dishonest<< and >>mischievous<<.

In Sweden, racial hygiene of pure racist reasons remained - to a relatively great extent - idle talk. An exception was the issue of the gypsies and the so-called vagrants, a term including tramps, vagabonds and free-thinkers, which were subject to both sterilization and downright threats of purge. Proposals of >>final solutions<< were given, even in socialist publications, such as the pamphlets of Verdandi. As the laws were finally abolished in 1974 approximately 16 000 persons had been sterilized by means of different degrees of force or blackmail.

Winked at the Third Reich

What might be considered the most remarkable thing about Swedish sterilization campaigns was not that they existed. Rather we were lucky that German fortune of war ceased; if not, the German victors would have found racial hygienic resources ready to use. No, the most surprising thing is that Swedish zeal to sterilize individuals did not flag as German racial hygiene activities became known after the war. In Sweden the number of sterilizations reached its peak a few years after the end of the war, and did not abate until the sixties.

There has not been a real settlement with the period of sterilization. The National Institute of Racial Biology was never discontinued, but had its name changed into The Institution of Medical Genetics and was assimilated into Uppsala University in 1959. In Sweden the strange assumptions behind the racial biological campaign were propably never seriously compromised. Since Swedish racial biologists put the stress on elimination of unwanted qualities rather than race, they could blink at the Third Reich ideas. Maybe, the progress of genetics was what proved what far-sighted researchers had known all the time - that separate qualities cannot be erased by sterilization. The most probable thing is that most human qualities are influenced both by inheritance and environment in a complicated interplay.

Hunting for genes

This does not imply that the dream of improvement of human beings is out of date. The fact is rather that the dream has reached a more realistic stage. Scientists all over the world are on their way to breaking the genetic code of man. Some diseases and qualities have been traced down to their respective genes, but so far not one single gene positively connected to mental capacity has been found.

Many teams of researchers are searching for genetic connections behind homosexuality, alcoholism, criminality and intelligence - i.e. much the same parts of human behaviour as racial hygienists are trying to find. Sooner or later a scientist will most certainly find a strong genetical bond. Many experts, such as the tumour biologist Georg Klein, believe that in this case there will be an exception confirming the rule. The psyche of man is to complex to be governed by simple genetic bonds. Others, like a respected German geneticist, Benno Müller-Hill, expect that at least one gene, governing an important human ability - such as the ability to cope with stress - will be found during the next few years. When this happens, we will once again be confronted with dangerous possibilities.

Racial biology of today

Racial hygienic ideas have never disappeared, not even among respected people in the world of science and research. In the spring of 1995 the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet published a full-page article by a Swedish geneticist, Marianne Rasmussen, presented by the essay editor of SvD, Anders Björnsson. He wrote that SvD will explain terms of racism and biology. Björnsson is happy that his readers >>will be able to read about this experienced geneticist's descriptions of some central conceptions which the debate has been concentrated on<<. In order to give Rasmusson's full-page article extra scientific legitimacy, she is presented - with a photo - as a member of the Swedish Scientific Academy.

In her article Rasmusson presents one racial biological idea after another. The writer claims to >>explaining the real significance of the terms<< and therefore avoids disclosing the scientific dispute behind this emotionally charged subject. Implicitly she suggests that intelligence and personality are governed by genes and that black people are less intelligent than white people are. Further she presents research claiming that the genes of well-educated and >>promising<< persons are more valuable than others. Using cold racial hygienic rhetoric, she writes that support to >>promising young people<< could >>interrupt deterioration of the gene pool<<. She also hints that she is worried about the fact that well-educated whites have fewer children than uneducated blacks. According to the logic of Rasmusson, the most interesting genes come - statistically - from the whites. She gives a picture of how well-educated people are being pushed into the background by the mass carrying the less >>valuable<< genes. The political message in Rasmusson's article is that >>promising whites<< must stand up for their gene pool.

The Bell Curve

Parts of her ideas Rasmusson bases on the research done by two American Right extremist scientists. In their best-seller The Bell Curve they try to prove that poor black and white Americans are poor because of bad genes, which make them less intelligent. Scientific evidence behind these statements is very vague. As a matter of fact the analyses cited are full of measuring mistakes and other scientific deficiencies. Other circumstances, which could affect the economic status of the persons investigated - such as social group, ethnical belonging, rich or poor homes - are ignored. If these factors were taken into account the differences would be levelled out.

Rasmusson also states that racism and xenophobia are natural parts of our genes, since in the life conditions of early man, they probably had a >>positive survival value<<. Her statements are of course not based on scientific evidence. Ancient animal bones and arrow-heads cannot be connected with possible racism.


Supposed scientific statements of this kind, which are in fact based on social or cultural prejudice, will not come true just by being pronounced by a member of the Scientific Academy. So far, it is merely a minority of geneticists and natural scientists which bring up the ideas, but we must always be observant of these undercurrents. Otherwise they might turn up in unwatched moments, and maybe once again do a great deal of harm.

Bosse Lindqvist

Editorial group