This is my fourth talk out four at the New York Times journey in the Baltic Sea 3-17 September 2017 ( Please find attached to my essay a PowerPoint presentation with maps and pictures mostly taken from Wikipedia.

René Nyberg – 13th September 2017

New York Times Journeys

“Scandinavia” can mean many things. It has a geographic dimension. It refers to a language group. It raises images of clean lines, prosperity and progress. Most connotations are well deserved; a few exaggerated or mystifying. But take any international ranking from doing business to quality of education and you will usually find the five Nordic nations among the top ten.

Yes, I said the Nordics. This is more than Scandinavia, because, strictly speaking, the historical and cultural region of Scandinavia covers only the monarchies of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The Nordic region includes the republics of Finland and Iceland. When you take an SAS (Scandinavian Airlines System) flight, the stewardess will inform the passengers that announcements will now follow in one of the Scandinavian languages. Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish are mutually intelligible and form a dialect continuum. Swedish remains the second official language of Finland and Danish is still taught in Icelandic schools, which tells you about the reach of the Scandinavian languages, although variations in fluency in both Finland and Iceland vary. The Nordic Council, an inter-parliamentary forum formed in 1952, today employs interpreters so that an Icelandic or Finnish deputy, if he or she so wishes, may speak in his or her native tongue – an option still unimaginable in the 1960s.

Thanks to the Hanseatic League the lingua franca of the Baltic Sea in the Middle Ages was Low German (Plattdeutsch). In keeping with this arrangement, German became the common tongue of Northern Europe and the Baltic rim until last century. It took Hitler and WW II to end thousand years of German cultural presence east of the Oder River. Today English is the preferred transactional language in the region. Russian is still widely understood in the Baltics and Poland, all members of the European Union and NATO today. The highest levels of fluency in English outside the English-speaking world are to be found in the Nordic countries and the Netherlands.

The linguistic and cultural affinity of the five Nordic nations remains important. Icelandic is basically the language of the Vikings, that is, Old Norse or proto-Scandinavian. School children in Iceland have little trouble reading thousand-year-old Sagas in the original. The thriving literature of Iceland, a country of only 350,000 inhabitants, is proud of its ancient roots.

Swedish is Finland’s second official language and the native tongue of a culturally vibrant and well-to-do six percent of its population. The number of people who consider themselves bilingual in Swedish and Finnish, that is, fluently speak and write both languages, is far larger.

As long as we are talking about Scandinavian cultures, we should not forget the Åland Islands, that autonomous province of Finland located between mainland Finland and Sweden. The Ålanders are keen to point out that their islands are permanently de-militarized and indeed, the history of Åland is the history of naval predominance of the Baltic Sea. In 1856, the victors in the Crimean War – Britain and France – forced the Russian Empire to accept the de-militarization of Åland. This status was cemented in a treaty negotiated under the auspices of the League of Nations in 1921. Notably, Ålanders, unlike all other parts of Finland, have Swedish as their sole official language. As Finland’s only purely Swedish-language province, all correspondence of Finnish government authorities must be in Swedish. Åland, with just 25,000 inhabitants, is the most prosperous part of Finland.

Nordic history is complicated. During the 15th century, the three kingdoms Denmark, Norway, and Sweden formed a personal union, the Kalmar Union, led from Copenhagen. It lasted over a century, even with rebellious Swedes regularly venting their anger on their Danish bailiffs. Present-day Finland was an integral part of Sweden. Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland were ruled by Norway. The final breakup of the Kalmar Union came in 1525 when Gustavus Wasa ascended to the Swedish throne, but the current Scandinavian borders came later. The southwestern coast of present-day Sweden was Danish territory until the mid-17th century – and you can still hear it in the dialect. The building of the almost ten-mile-long Öresund Bridge in 2000 from Copenhagen to Malmö has drawn Denmark and Sweden physically closer than ever. An 11mile (18 km) immersed road-rail tunnel under the Fehmarnbelt, will connect Denmark and Germany in the mid-2020s.

The “hereditary enemies” Denmark and Sweden vied for supremacy in Scandinavia for centuries. No opportunity was let slip by to find common cause against the neighbor in constantly shifting alliances. All this ended with the Napoleonic wars and Denmark’s loss of Norway. Napoleon’s former Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, the crown prince and future king of Sweden turned the Swedish arms against France and its ally Denmark and occupied Norway, which was united in a personal union with Sweden in 1814. The union lasted almost a century until a peaceful breakup in 1905. Norway was Sweden’s compensation for the loss of Finland that in 1809 had been conquered by Russia. Alexander I transformed Finland into an autonomous Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire guaranteeing the Swedish laws, the Lutheran faith and the Swedish language. Finnish came later.

It is not difficult in “wonderful Copenhagen” to become convinced that elegant Denmark is the senior of the traditional Danish and Swedish monarchies. Danish literature, arts, and architecture embody a deep European tradition and closeness to the German cultural world. Danes will invariably point out that all of those imposing castles and mansions of Scania in Southern Sweden were built during the Danish period.

And indeed, one of Scandinavia’s oldest cathedrals, the Cathedral of Lund in Scania, dates from the 11th century. It was built as the seat of the archdiocese of Scandinavia. Pope Francis visited the Lund Cathedral in 2016 to mark the fifth centennial of the Reformation. As a naval power and a nation of merchants, Denmark devoted centuries to a losing battle for predominance in Scandinavia against its upstart neighbor Sweden.

The Swedish narratives begin with Sweden’s emergence as a great power during the reign of the grandson of Gustavus Wasa, the warrior king Gustavus Adolphus II In 1630, Gustavus Adolphus embarked with his formidable army on the island of Usedom, in Peenemünde on the Pomeranian coast to change the course of the Thirty Years’ War demarcating the line between the Protestants and the Papists. That line endures to this day. Three centuries later, Hitler launched his V-1 and V-2 missiles from this same fishing village.

The death of Gustavus Adolphus on November 6, 1632 in Lützen is an important day of remembrance. Every year, the Swedish and Finnish ambassadors from Berlin, accompanied by their military attaches, pay homage at the battlefield memorial to the “Snow King” and then attend a Lutheran service at the nearby chapel. November 6th is also observed in Finland as the day of Swedish culture.

To quote the Count of Mirabeau, a leader of the early years of the French Revolution: “Prussia is not a country with an army, but an army with a country.” And in some respects, Sweden was a small-Prussia. There is something unmistakably similar to Sweden that was backed up by a superior system of administration and taxation. But despite its geographical size and its mineral resources, especially its copper mines, Sweden’s population base was too small and its great power status lasted merely a century. Peter the Great’s victory in 1709 over Charles XII in Poltava marked the end of Sweden’s might, although rivalries with both Russia and Denmark continued until the Napoleonic wars.


Scandinavian mass emigration to North America started in Norway. More than 800 000 Norwegians, one-third of the population immigrated, most of them to the United States. Only Ireland contributed a larger percentage of its population to the United States than Norway Sweden being the third largest source of emigrants in relation to its population. Denmark had a consistently low rate of emigration, while Iceland had a late start but soon reached levels comparable to Norway. The case of Finland was peculiar. The emigration to America started later and was concentrated to the Western parts of the country. The emigration from Eastern Finland was mainly directed to St. Petersburg and with the revolution most of the Finns who had found work in the Neva metropolis returned to Finland.

In these changed circumstances, political Scandinavism emerged in the mid-19th century. It paralleled the 19th century unification movements of Germany and Italy, in that Scandinavia was seen as a unified region – or even a single nation – with a common ethnic, linguistic, political, and cultural heritage. Unlike Germany and Italy, however, the state-building of a united Scandinavia never materialized.

The acid test of idealistic Scandinavism was Bismarck’s Prussia that in two wars forced Denmark to relinquish its southern province of Schleswig-Holstein. There is a famous bonmot about the Schleswig-Holstein question attributed to Britain’s Prime Minister Lord Palmerston: “Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business: the Prince Consort, who is dead; a German professor, who has gone mad; and I, who have forgotten all about it.” In hindsight, though, it all looks rather simple. Bismarck consolidated Prussia’s predominance in Germany with the help of small, and later bigger, victorious wars.

Denmark largely faced its southern neighbor alone. Sweden did deploy troops to Denmark in the 1848-49 war, but never engaged the aggressor despite popular support in Sweden. This marked a turning point in many ways. It was a harbinger of the threats of the coming world wars. It also convinced Denmark about the futility of military resistance. Denmark surrendered after the German attack in April 1940. Resistance came through effectively ignoring the German occupants with an attitude dubbed “the cold shoulder.”

Although Bismarck humiliated Denmark, the closeness of the Scandinavian monarchies was genuine. The cultural exchange was constant and Scandinavian literature, music and fine arts flourished. The Scandinavian monetary union, established in 1873, lasted until the beginning of WW I. It was inspired by the Latin monetary union of 1865 and the equivalent German arrangement after German unification. The monetary union was one of the few tangible results of the Scandinavian political movement of the 19th century. In joining the union Sweden changed the name of its currency from riksdaler to krona (crown), which remains the name of all Scandinavian currencies till this day. Even Iceland’s national currency is a krona. Finland is the only Nordic country that adopted the euro.

Norway has always looked west to the sea for its livelihood. It was Christianized early, centuries before Finland. Since the middle ages Norway was united with Denmark in a personal union before an attempt to independence ended in a personal union with Sweden in 1814. The union with Sweden brought with it emancipation from Danish cultural influence, an upswing in literature and music supported by formidable growth in shipping and commerce. One of the issues that led to the end of the union was Norway’s demand of its own consular representation. It reflected the pressing needs of a seafarer nation whose merchant fleet had become among the world’s largest. During WW II, over a thousand Norwegian merchantmen sailed under the British ensign.

Despite cultural sympathies – especially Sweden and Germany – all Scandinavian countries remained neutral during WW I. Iceland was a Danish province until it regained sovereignty in 1918. It then remained part of the Kingdom of Denmark until 1944. Finland was an autonomous part of the Russian empire until its independence in 1917.

Sweden, which successfully maintained its neutrality throughout World War II, was the only Scandinavian country spared the ravages of war. The war started with Stalin’s attack on Finland in November 1939. Even left alone, the Finnish Army weathered the winter assault. Sweden declared itself non-belligerent and provided considerable material help for Finland. In April 1940, Hitler occupied Denmark and Norway and the British landed in Iceland, to be later replaced by the Americans.

The occupation of Norway was brutal compared to the German presence in Denmark, probably the most benign of all war-time occupations. Unlike the Norwegian King and Norwegian Government, who fled to Britain, the Danish King and Government never left Copenhagen. More Danes and Norwegians were killed in action as volunteers of the Waffen SS on the Ostfront than died resisting the Germans. The rancor was corresponding.

Sweden succeeded in its difficult balancing act providing Germany with iron ore and ball bearings, but otherwise kept the Germans at a distance.

Finland joined Germany in 1941 in an effort to regain its lost territories. While Finland survived the war and was never occupied, it was forced to toe the Soviet line until it cautiously embarked on a policy of neutrality in the mid-1950s.

Norway, Denmark, and Iceland joined NATO as founding members in 1949 after a Swedish proposal of a Scandinavian Defense Union had been turned down by Oslo and Copenhagen. For Norway in particular, the Atlantic orientation seemed the only viable solution to its security.

Scandinavia emerged from the war impoverished and ravaged. Only Sweden retained a formidable capital base capable of supporting modern machine-building and metal fabrication needed for globally competitive automotive and aviation industries. Denmark profited from its thriving agricultural base, but Iceland and Norway only had their fishing industry to rely on.

Finland was dirt-poor. It had lost ten percent of its territory and evacuated half a million people from territories ceded to Russia. It suffered 90,000 men killed and 150,000 men wounded in military action.

Finland also had to pay heavy war reparations to the Soviet Union, which forced the country to invest in new industries. The investments transformed Finland’s economy and showed the way for further industrialization. Finland was the only Nordic country not to receive aid under the Marshall Plan. While American loans were forthcoming, Soviet pressure prevented Finland from accepting the Marshall deal.

Scandinavia and the Nordics quickly found their rightful place in Europe. The Swedish model of a welfare state became the Nordic model. Norway profited greatly from NATO infrastructure funds. Iceland benefited from a presence of the US Air Force base in Keflavik.

All Nordic countries joined the emerging European integration process, first as members of the British lead EFTA (European Free Trade Association) and later the Common Market, the European Economic Community (EEC), the European Union. Denmark joined the EEC along with Britain in 1973. Finland and Sweden became EU members in 1994. Norway signed twice an agreement to join the European Community in 1972 and 1994, but the recommendation of the Norwegian Government was turned down both times by referendum. In 1971 production from the first Norwegian oil field in the North Sea started — and the rest is history.

Despite negotiating on EU membership, Iceland has never taken further steps in that direction. Like Norway, it remains a member of EFTA and the European Economic Area (EEA). This guarantees access to the Common Market paying into the system but without having a voice in Brussels decision-making.

Finland’s participation in the Western European integration process was a matter of survival. The last train carrying reparations goods crossed the border to the Soviet Union in September 1952, a month after the Helsinki Summer Olympics had closed. Trade with Moscow was profitable. Finland delivered finished goods and brought energy and raw materials. On average, trade with the Soviet Union accounted about fifteen per cent of Finland’s exports. The bulk of the exports went to the West, with Sweden, West Germany, and Britain being Finland’s largest trading partners. Joining EFTA as an associate member in 1962 and signing a free-trade agreement with the EEC in 1973 were political decisions for Finland that required astute diplomacy with Moscow. Moscow’s political influence was considerable, but as a market economy and a parliamentary democracy, Helsinki had a superior political and social system that it fully exploited.  Finland remained the Soviet Union’s largest Western trading partner until the 1970s, when it was overtaken by West Germany. In a way, the signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975 at the summit of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) was the crowning achievement for Finland. You could say that Finland lost the war, but won the peace.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union remains the single most dramatic change since the end of the Cold War. The withdrawal of the Red Army from East Germany and return of independence to the Baltic States changed the dynamics of the Scandinavian environment militarily, politically, and economically. As an example, I would mention that, during the Soviet era, flights to and from Sweden and Finland to Central Europe and beyond could not take the short-cut via the airspace of the Baltic States, Belarus or Ukraine.

Unlike elsewhere in Europe, Russian borders with Norway and Finland did not change. The Finnish border is 800 miles (1,300 km) long and remains the longest European border of Russia. The Norwegian border is 110 miles (180 km) and ends at the Barents Sea.

The enlargement of the European Union was a natural consequence of these radically changed circumstances. For Sweden, EU membership was a question of economic necessity. For Finland, becoming a member of the EU was a homecoming with important security implications. The enlargement of NATO first to Poland and other Central European countries and later to encompass also Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania has enhanced stability in the Baltic Sea region.

Finland and Sweden joined from the beginning NATO’s Partnership for Peace Program and participated in NATO-led operations in the Balkans and Afghanistan. The armies of both countries fully adhere to NATO standards, although neither Sweden nor Finland contemplates applying for membership. While this might seem paradoxical, it has an internal logic that makes sense. But we’ll save that for my next talk. +++