Sweden’s prehistory begins in the Allerød warm period c. 12,000 BC with Late Palaeolithic reindeer-hunting camps of the Bromme culture at the edge of the ice in what is now the country’s southernmost province. This period was characterized by small bands of hunter-gatherer-fishers using flint technology.
Farming and animal husbandry, along with monumental burial, polished flint axes and decorated pottery, arrived from the Continent with the Funnel-beaker Culture in c. 4,000 BC. Sweden’s southern third was part of the stock-keeping and agricultural Nordic Bronze Age Culture’s area, most of it being peripheral to the culture’s Danish centre. The period began in c. 1,700 BC with the start of bronze imports from Europe. Copper mining was never tried locally during this period, and Scandinavia has no tin deposits, so all metal had to be imported. It was largely cast into local designs on arrival.
The Nordic Bronze Age was entirely pre-urban, with people living in hamlets and on farmsteads with single-story wooden long-houses.
In the absence of any Roman occupation, Sweden’s Iron Age is reckoned up to the introduction of stone architecture and monastic orders about 1100. Much of the period is proto-historical, that is, there are written sources but most are of low credibility. The scraps of written matter are either much later than the period in question, written in distant areas, or, while local and coeval, extremely brief.
The climate took a turn for the worse, forcing farmers to keep cattle indoors over the winters, leading to an annual build-up of manure that could now for the first time be used systematically for soil improvement.
A Roman attempt to move the Imperial border forward from the Rhine to the Elbe was aborted in AD 9 when Germans under Roman-trained leadership defeated the legions of Varus by ambush in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. About this time, there was a major shift in the material culture of Scandinavia, reflecting increased contact with the Romans.
Starting in the 2nd century, much of southern Sweden’s agricultural land was parcelled up with low stone walls. They divided the land into permanent infields and meadows for winter fodder on one side of the wall, and wooded outland where the cattle was grazed on the other side. This principle of landscape organization survived into the 19th century. The Roman Period also saw the first large-scale expansion of agricultural settlement up the Baltic coast of the country’s northern two thirds.
Sweden enters proto-history with the Germania of Tacitus in AD 98. Whether any of the brief information he reports about this distant barbaric area was well-founded is uncertain, but he does mention tribal names that correspond to the Swedes (Suiones) and the Sami (Fenni) of later centuries. As for literacy in Sweden itself, the runic script was invented among the south Scandinavian elite in the 2nd century, but all that has come down to the present from the Roman Period is curt inscriptions on artefacts, mainly of male names, demonstrating that the people of south Scandinavia spoke Proto-Norse at the time, a language ancestral to Swedish and other North Germanic languages.
Viking and Middle ages
The Swedish Viking Age lasted roughly between the eighth and eleventh centuries. During this period, it is believed that the Swedes expanded from eastern Sweden and incorporated the Geats to the south. It’s believed that Swedish vikings and Gutar mainly travelled east and south, going to Finland, the Baltic countries, Russia, the Mediterranean and further as far as Baghdad. Their routes passed the rivers of Russia down south to Constantinople (Byzantine Empire) (present-day Istanbul, Turkey) on which they did numerous raids. The Byzantine Emperor Theophilos noticed their great skills in war, and invited them to serve as his personal bodyguard, known as the varangian guard. The Swedish vikings, called “Rus” are also believed to be the founding fathers of Russia. The adventures of these Swedish Vikings are commemorated on many runestones in Sweden, such as the Greece Runestones and the Varangian Runestones. There was also considerable participation in expeditions westwards, which are commorated on stones such as the England Runestones. The last major Swedish Viking expedition appears to have been the ill-fated expedition of Ingvar the Far-Travelled to Serkland, the region south-east of the Caspian Sea. Its members are commemorated on the Ingvar Runestones, none of which mentions any survivor. What happened to the crew is unknown, but it is believed that they died of sickness.
It is not known when and how the kingdom of Sweden was born, but the list of Swedish monarchs is drawn from the first kings who ruled Svealand (Sweden) and Götaland (Gothia) as one with Erik the Victorious. Sweden and Gothia were two separate nations long before that. It is not known how long they existed, Beowulf described semi-legendary Swedish-Geatish wars in the 6th century.
During the early stages of the Scandinavian Viking Age, Ystad in Scania and Paviken on Gotland, in present-day Sweden, were flourishing trade centers. Remains of what is believed to have been a large market have been found in Ystad dating from 600–700 AD. In Paviken, an important center of trade in the Baltic region during the ninth and tenth century, remains have been found of a large Viking Age harbour with shipbuilding yards and handicraft industries. Between 800 and 1000, trade brought an abundance of silver to Gotland and according to some scholars, the Gotlanders of this era hoarded more silver than the rest of the population of Scandinavia combined.
St. Ansgar introduced Christianity in 829, but the new religion did not begin to fully replace paganism until the twelfth century. During the 11th century, Christianity became the most prevalent religion, and from the year 1050 Sweden is counted as a Christian nation. The period between 1100 and 1400 was characterized by internal power struggles and competition among the Nordic kingdoms. Swedish kings also began to expand the Swedish-controlled territory in Finland, creating conflicts with the Rus which now no longer had any connection with Sweden.
In the 14th century, Sweden was struck by the Black Death (bubonic plague). During this period the Swedish cities also began to acquire greater rights and were strongly influenced by German merchants of the Hanseatic League, active especially at Visby. In 1319, Sweden and Norway were united under King Magnus Eriksson and in 1397 Queen Margaret I of Denmark effected the personal union of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark through the Kalmar Union. However, Margaret’s successors, whose rule was also centred in Denmark, were unable to control the Swedish nobility. Real power was held for long periods by regents (notably those of the Sture family) chosen by the Swedish parliament. King Christian II of Denmark, who asserted his claim to Sweden by force of arms, ordered a massacre in 1520 of Swedish nobles at Stockholm. This came to be known as the “Stockholm blood bath” and stirred the Swedish nobility to new resistance and, on 6 June (now Sweden’s national holiday) in 1523, they made Gustav Vasa their king. This is sometimes considered as the foundation of modern Sweden. Shortly afterwards he rejected Catholicism and led Sweden into the Protestant Reformation. Gustav Vasa is considered to be Sweden’s “Father of the Nation”.
During the 17th century Sweden emerged as a European Great Power. Before the emergence of the Swedish Empire, Sweden was a very poor, scarcely populated, barely known of country in northern Europe with no significant power or reputation what so ever. It was suddenly brought up to be one of Europes leading nations by the genius Axel Oxenstierna and the present king Gustavus Adolphus, thanks to territories seized from Russia and Poland-Lithuania but also greatly thanks to his involvement in the Thirty Years’ War, which also made Sweden the continental leader of protestantism until the Empire’s collapse in 1721.
Gustav Adolphus warfare against The Holy Roman Empire had a high cost of the lives of a third of all the Holy Roman population, and it took the position of The Holy Roman Empire as the mightiest country in Europe with Spain taking it’s place. Sweden managed to conquer approximately 50 percent of the Holy Roman states. The plan of Gustav Adolphus was to become the new Holy Roman Emperor over a united Scandinavia and the Holy Roman states, however after his death in 1632 at the Battle of Lützen the adversities were increasingly frequent. After the Battle of Nördlingen the faith for Sweden amongst the Swedish controlled German states was severely injured, and these provinces excluded themselves from Swedish power one by one, leaving Sweden with only a couple of northern German provinces namely Swedish Pomerania, Bremen-Verden and Wismar.
In the middle of the 17th century Sweden was the third largest country in Europe by land area, only superseded by Russia and Spain. Sweden reached its largest territorial extent during this time under the rule of Charles X (1622–1660) after the treaty of Roskilde in 1658. The foundation of Sweden’s success during this period is credited to Gustav I’s major changes on the Swedish economy in the mid-1500s, and his introduction of Protestantism. The 17th century saw Sweden engaged in many wars, for example with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with both sides competing for territories of today’s Baltic states, with the disastrous Battle of Kircholm being one of the highlights.
This period also saw the Deluge—the Swedish invasion of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. After more than half a century of almost constant warfare, the Swedish economy had deteriorated. It would become the lifetime task of Charles’ son, Charles XI (1655-1697), to rebuild the economy and refit the army. His legacy to his son, the coming ruler of Sweden Charles XII, was one of the finest arsenals in the world, a large standing army and a great fleet. Sweden’s largest threat at this time, Russia, had a larger army but was far behind in both equipment and training.
After the Battle of Narva in 1700, one of the first battles of the Great Northern War, the Russian army was so severely decimated that Sweden had an open chance to invade Russia. However, Charles did not pursue the Russian army—instead turning against Poland-Lithuania and defeating the Polish king Augustus II and his Saxon allies at the Battle of Kliszow in 1702. This gave the Russian Tsar time to rebuild and modernize his army. After the success of invading Poland Charles decided to make an invasion attempt of Russia which ended in a decisive Russian victory at the Battle of Poltava in 1709. After a long march exposed to cossack raids, the Russian Tsar Peter the Great’s scorched-earth techniques and the cold Russian climate, the Swedes stood weakened with a shattered morale, and enormously outnumbered against the Russian army at Poltava. The defeat meant the beginning of the end for the Swedish empire.
Charles XII attempted to invade Norway 1716; however, he was shot dead at Fredriksten fortress in 1718. The Swedes weren’t militarily defeated at Fredriksten, but the whole structure and organization of the Norwegian campaign fell apart with the King’s death and the army withdrew. Forced to cede large areas of land in the Treaty of Nystad in 1721, Sweden also lost its place as an empire and as the dominant state on the Baltic Sea. With Sweden’s lost influence, Russia emerged as an empire and became one of Europe’s dominant nations.
In the 18th century, Sweden did not have enough resources to maintain its territories outside Scandinavia and most of them were lost, culminating with the 1809 loss of eastern Sweden to Russia which became the semi-autonomous Duchy of Finland in Imperial Russia.
After Denmark-Norway was defeated in the Napoleonic Wars, Norway was ceded to the king of Sweden on 14 January 1814 in exchange for northern German provinces, at the Treaty of Kiel. The Norwegian attempts to keep their status as a sovereign state were rejected by the Swedish king, Charles XIII. He launched a military campaign against Norway on July 27, 1814, ending in the Convention of Moss, which forced Norway into a personal union with Sweden under the Swedish crown, which was not dissolved until 1905. The 1814 campaign was the last war in which Sweden participated as a combatant.
The 18th and 19th centuries saw a significant population increase, which the writer Esaias Tegnér in 1833 famously attributed to “the peace, the (smallpox) vaccine, and the potatoes”. Between 1750 and 1850, the population in Sweden doubled. According to some scholars, mass emigration to America became the only way to prevent famine and rebellion; over 1 percent of the population emigrated annually during the 1880s. Nevertheless, Sweden remained poor, retaining a nearly entirely agricultural economy even as Denmark and Western European countries began to industrialize. Many looked towards America for a better life during this time. It is believed that between 1850 and 1910 more than one million Swedes moved to the United States. In the early 20th century, more Swedes lived in Chicago than in Gothenburg (Sweden’s second largest city). Most Swedish immigrants moved to the Midwestern United States, with a large population in Minnesota. Some Swedes moved to Delaware. Some also moved to Canada and others in smaller numbers to Argentina.
Despite the slow rate of industrialization into the 19th century, many important changes were taking place in the agrarian economy due to innovations and the large population growth. These innovations included government-sponsored programs of enclosure, aggressive exploitation of agricultural lands, and the introduction of new crops such as the potato. Due also to the fact that the Swedish peasantry had never been enserfed as elsewhere in Europe, the Swedish farming culture began to take on a critical role in the Swedish political process, which has continued through modern times with modern Agrarian party (now called the Centre Party). Between 1870 and 1914, Sweden began developing the industrialized economy that exists today.
Strong grassroots movements sprung up in Sweden during the latter half of the nineteenth century (trade unions, temperance groups, and independent religious groups), creating a strong foundation of democratic principles. In 1889 The Swedish Social Democratic Party was founded. These movements precipitated Sweden’s migration into a modern parliamentary democracy, achieved by the time of World War I. As the Industrial Revolution progressed during the twentieth century, people gradually began moving into cities to work in factories, and became involved in socialist unions. A socialist revolution was avoided in 1917, following the re-introduction of parliamentarism, and the country was democratized.
Sweden remained officially neutral during World War I and World War II, although its neutrality during World War II has been vigorously debated. Sweden was under German influence for most of the war, as ties to the rest of the world were cut off through blockades. The Swedish government felt that it was in no position to openly contest Germany, and therefore collaborated with Hitler. Swedish volunteers in Nazi SS units were among the first to invade the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. Sweden also supplied steel and machined parts to Germany throughout the war. Toward the end of the war however, when the defeat of Germany seemed imminent, Sweden began to play a role in humanitarian efforts and many refugees, among them many Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe, were saved partly because of the Swedish involvement in rescue missions at the internment camps and partly because Sweden served as a haven for refugees, primarily from the Nordic countries and the Baltic states. Nevertheless, internal and external critics have argued that Sweden could have done more to resist the Nazi war effort, even if risking occupation.
Sweden publicly claimed to be a neutral country and the image was forcefully maintained, but unofficially Sweden’s leadership had strong ties with the United States. In the early 1960s Sweden and the United States agreed to deploy nuclear submarines off the Swedish west coast. In the same year Sweden made a defense pact with the United States. Knowledge of this alliance was kept secret from the Swedish public until 1994.
Following the war, Sweden took advantage of an intact industrial base, social stability and its natural resources to expand its industry to supply the rebuilding of Europe. Sweden was part of the Marshall Plan and participated in the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). During most of the post-war era, the country was governed by the Swedish Social Democratic Party (in Swedish: Socialdemokraterna). Social democrats imposed corporatist policies: favoring big capitalist corporations and big unions, especially Swedish Trade Union Confederation, affiliated with Social Democrats. The amount of bureaucrats rose from normal levels in the 1960s to very high levels by 1980s. Sweden was open to trade and pursued internationally competitive manufacturing sector. Growth was good until 1970s.
Sweden, like countries around the globe, entered a period of economic decline and upheaval, following the oil embargoes of 1973-74 and 1978-79. In the 1980s pillars of Swedish industry were massively restructured. Shipbuilding was discontinued, wood pulp was integrated into modernized paper production, the steel industry was concentrated and specialized, and mechanical engineering was robotized.
Between 1970 and 1990 the overall tax burden rose by over ten percentage points and the growth was very low compared to most other countries in Western Europe. The marginal income tax for workers reached over 80%. Eventually government spent over half of the country’s gross domestic product. Sweden steadily declined from its perennial top five GDP per capita ranking. Since the late 1970s, Sweden’s economic policies were increasingly questioned by economists and Ministry of Finance officials.
Carl XVI Gustaf has been Sweden’s king and head of state since 1973.
A bursting real estate bubble caused by inadequate controls on lending combined with an international recession and a policy switch from anti-unemployment policies to anti-inflationary policies resulted in a fiscal crisis in the early 1990s. Sweden’s GDP declined by around 5%. In 1992, there was a run on the currency, the central bank briefly jacking up interest to 500% in an unsuccessful effort to defend the currency’s fixed exchange rate. Total employment fell by almost 10% during the crisis. The response of the government was to cut spending and institute a multitude of reforms to improve Sweden’s competitiveness, among them reducing the welfare state and privatizing public services and goods. Much of the political establishment promoted EU membership, and the Swedish referendum passed by 52-48% in favour of joining the EU on 13 November 1994. Sweden joined the European Union on 1 January 1995.
During the Cold War, Europe’s non-aligned Western countries, except the Republic of Ireland, had considered membership unwise, as the EU predecessor, the European Community, had been strongly associated with NATO countries. Following the end of the Cold War, however, Sweden, Austria and Finland joined, though in Sweden’s case without adopting the Euro. Sweden remains non-aligned militarily, although it participates in some joint military exercises with NATO and some other countries, in addition to extensive cooperation with other European countries in the area of defence technology and defence industry. Among others, Swedish companies export weapons that are used by the American military in Iraq. Sweden also has a long history of participating in international military operations, including most recently, Afghanistan, where Swedish troops are under NATO command, and in EU sponsored peacekeeping operations in UN protectorate Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Cyprus.