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The Scandinavian States: Reformed Eugenics Applied

Abstract and Keywords

This article deals with Scandinavian eugenics and issues of morality and history, guilt and rehabilitation and it also challenges the conventional conception of Scandinavian contemporary history. It discusses a number of studies that show links between eugenics and progressive social thought and also throws light on the political implications of this issue. The three Scandinavian countries—Denmark, Norway, and Sweden—share experiences that were important for the development of eugenic ideas and policies. This article mentions that the development of Mendelism and a growing understanding of the complexity of heredity marks different views about the potential of racial hygiene and for tensions within the community of eugenicists. Finally, it presents a discussion on Scandinavian eugenics that focuses on the way sterilization was used in the framework of the Social Democratic welfare states from the 1930s onward.

Keywords: Scandinavian, eugenics, social thought, Social Democratic welfare states, Mendelism

The end of the twentieth century saw an urgent need to confront historical injustices. There were many different reasons to examine the apparent success stories of Western democracies: exploitation and suppression of indigenous peoples; neglect of the Jewish suffering by Allied and neutral countries during the Holocaust; mistreatment behind the walls of asylums, workhouses, and charitable institutions. Another contentious issue was abuses made in the name of eugenics, especially in Scandinavia. The revelation in 1997 that widespread eugenic sterilization had taken place in Sweden and its neighboring countries generated worldwide attention. The international press, quick to make radical comparisons, reported “a 40-year Nazi-style campaign of forced sterilization” and Swedish laws that “could have come out of a Nazi text book.”1 Eventually, the story of the Swedish sterilization program became one of the restitution cases in which history in various countries was put on trial. In the Swedish case, a government commission was established, and in the end financial compensation was paid out to some 1,600 individuals sterilized against their will or under questionable circumstances.

There were two reasons for the turmoil in the 1990s about Scandinavian eugenics. Not only did this topic put important questions on the agenda about morality and history, guilt and rehabilitation, but it also challenged the conventional conception of Scandinavian contemporary history. According to the standard narrative Denmark, Norway, and Sweden constituted peaceful and egalitarian democracies. In all three countries, Social Democratic parties came to power in the (p. 364) interwar years and successively established stable welfare regimes. Their mix of state planning and market economy, as well as their schemes of universally distributed social rights, came to be known as “the Scandinavian model.”

The exposure of Scandinavian eugenics changed that account. And all the more so since the development of eugenics seemed to have evolved within the very welfare system that sought to protect and assist the poor and marginalized. This, however, might not come as a surprise for scholars familiar with the history of eugenics. A number of studies have shown the links between eugenics and progressive social thought. Due to its plasticity, eugenics could serve different political purposes and could be incorporated into different ideological contexts. The Scandinavian case, then, is the story of how eugenic polices were established within a democratic framework.

Historical research on Scandinavian eugenics is quite recent, probably due to the widespread and long-standing tendency to regard eugenics as something that “happened elsewhere.” Early works include essays on Norwegian eugenics by Nils Roll-Hansen and studies of the eugenics movement in Sweden (Gunnar Broberg and Mattias Tydén) and Denmark (Lene Koch).2 Eugenics and the Welfare State: Sterilization Policy in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland, edited by Broberg and Roll-Hansen and published in 1996, constitutes the first comparative study on Scandinavian eugenics including Finland. This book focused on the somewhat paradoxical fact that the democratic Nordic states were among the few nations that actually introduced sterilization laws in the 1930s. On the other hand, as Roll-Hansen put it, “a liberal democratic tradition [in Scandinavia] with emphasis on the rights on the individual provided for a moderate law and practice.”3

Far more critical conclusions were put forward in the wake of the media coverage of Scandinavian eugenics in 1997. In a special issue of Scandinavian Journal of History (1999), Peter Weingart stressed the similarities between Nazi German and Swedish sterilizations, as well as the reluctance in Scandinavia to abandon eugenic practices after World War II: “it took more than a generation to disturb the peace of mind of public consciousness and to uncover their own involvement in the aberrations of a dark era.”4 Dorothy Porter and Paul Weindling took a somewhat more cautious position, sketching the broader international network in which Scandinavian eugenics was a receiving as well as a contributing element.5

A strong interest has remained regarding the case of eugenic sterilization in the Scandinavian countries. This is no doubt partly due to the political implications of this issue: how eugenics corresponded with the Scandinavian welfare model has continued to be a highly disputed topic. Another reason is the existence of abundant and detailed sources, especially in Sweden. As a result of centralized administration from the very start, the files of more than 60,000 persons sterilized from 1935 to 1975 are still available at the archives of the Swedish National Board of Health. This has made a detailed investigation of the rise and fall of the Swedish sterilization program possible.6 Similarly comprehensive studies have been made concerning Denmark and Norway.7

(p. 365) Early Scandinavian Eugenics

The three Scandinavian countries—Denmark, Norway, and Sweden8—share experiences that were important for the development of eugenic ideas and policies. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they went through a rapid stage of modernization with growing industries, urbanization, and political democratization. Class tensions, poverty, and urban slums were increasing causes of concern. Lower birthrates and extensive emigration added to the image of population decline. These social and demographic transformations provided a breeding ground for racial thought and eugenics with a conservative and patriotic touch. Moreover, Nordic nationalism around 1900 fueled such ethnocentric myths as the notion of a “pure Nordic race.”

Eugenic ideas were introduced in the decades around 1900, mainly mirroring a transmission to Scandinavia from German, British, and American sources. Gradually alliances were formed around more specific eugenic programs, and pressure groups were established. As early as 1904 an “anthropological committee” (Den antropologiske Komite) was set up in Denmark, and in time it developed into a private eugenic society. A loosely organized “committee for racial hygiene” emerged in Norway in 1908, while Swedish academics in 1909 formed Svenska sällskapet för rashygien (the Swedish Society for Racial Hygiene), organizing public lectures and publishing popular books and booklets. More important from a scientific point of view was the founding of the Swedish Mendelska sällskapet (the Mendelian Society, 1910) and Norsk forening for arvelighetsforskning (the Norwegian Genetics Society, 1919). Primarily a platform for creating a network of Swedish geneticists, the Mendelian society also became important in spreading Scandinavian genetics internationally through its English-language journal Hereditas (1920–).9 While the Mendelian Society—and the journal—focused on basic genetic research the connection between science and wider social issues was also upheld. The leaders of the Society stated in 1918 that “more directly than most other sciences genetics is to the advantage of practical life. Plant breeding and animal breeding as well as applied race biology find their basic principles therein. Race biology has a fundamental importance for the many social undertakings that will be topical in the near future, and for which a critical, strictly scientific perspective is necessary.”10

Genetics and geneticists were only one of many sources for the growing interest in eugenics in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Scandinavia. The theme of degeneration was dealt with in fiction by novelists such as Herman Bang (1875–1912) in Denmark and August Strindberg (1849–1912) in Sweden. The menace of degeneration—and salvation through eugenics—was also apparent in physical anthropology, a discipline attracting archaeologists and anatomists as well as geneticists, and with a strong position in Scandinavia since the pioneering work by the Swede Anders Retzius (1796–1860), who invented the cephalic index in the mid-1800s. Mental health professionals made up another important pressure group. In Denmark the practice of eugenic sterilization was developed in close connection with the (p. 366) institutional treatment of the “feebleminded.” In Sweden the efforts to run a sterilization law through parliament were initiated by psychiatrist Alfred Petrén (1867–1964), a leader in the organization of the Swedish care of the mentally disabled.11

In the 1910s and 1920s, liberals and Social Democrats, as well as feminists, came to perceive eugenics as one of many paths to societal change and social reform. An early and possibly influential call for eugenics was made by Swedish feminist writer Ellen Key (1849–1926) in books such as Barnets århundrade (The Century of the Child, 1900), later published in Germany as well as in Great Britain, and Livslinjer (Lines of Life, 1903–1906). While Key stressed the importance of education and of dedicated and loving upbringing of children, at the same time she left the door open for state-controlled reproduction and even euthanasia.12 Key's focus on free love and motherhood points forward to what Atina Grossmann has called the “motherhood-eugenics consensus” in the sexual reform movement.13 In Scandinavia, too, sexual reformers, such as Norwegian-Swedish Elise Ottesen-Jensen (1886–1973), came to support the introduction of sterilization laws, partly in accordance with their eugenic aims, partly as a tool enabling women to control their reproduction.14

In sum eugenics—regarded as a social movement—became a platform for alliances where different aims could meet. This was by no means a phenomenon unique to Scandinavia.15 But the achievements of early-twentieth-century Scandinavian eugenics must be attributed to “the special character of the social and cultural conditions that existed in the Nordic countries in this period:”16 these were small, structurally centralized, and consensus-oriented societies where politics and science interacted in the development of social policies. Furthermore, and in contrast to countries with Catholic lobby groups, eugenics met no opposition from the Lutheran churches, which accepted reproductive control as long as it was for the purpose of the common good.17

Eugenicists Divided

The development of Mendelism and a growing understanding of the complexity of heredity made for different views about the potential of racial hygiene and for tensions within the community of eugenicists. In the 1910s the leading geneticist in Denmark, Wilhelm Johannsen (1857–1927), founder of concepts such as “gene,” “genotype,” and “phenotype,” strongly dissociated himself from the “dreamers and fanatics” of the contemporary eugenics movement.18 In Norway a sharp dividing line developed from the mid-1910s between the alarmist and hard-core version of eugenics, quite successively propagated by the pharmacist Jon Alfred Mjøen (1860–1939) and his supporters on one hand, and the “moderate” or outright critical position taken by medical and biological scientists such as Ragnar Vogt (1870–1943), Kristine Bonnevie (1872–1948), and Otto Lous Mohr (1886–1967) on the other.19

(p. 367) In Sweden key actors in genetics and medical research initially took up a much less critical attitude toward the value of eugenics than their Norwegian counterparts. Herman Nilsson-Ehle (1873–1949), who introduced and developed Mendelian genetics in Swedish plant breeding and held the first Swedish chair in genetics (1917–1938), wrote popular articles and lectured on the importance of “race biology and race hygiene.”20 Even more important was the influential position taken by physician Herman Lundborg (1868–1943), an early leader in Swedish eugenics. Conservative, racist, and anti-feminist, Lundborg wrote extensively on the threats of degeneration, immigration, and moral decay. At the same time, his scientific work, in which he was able to trace the inheritance of myclonus epilepsy according to Mendelian laws (1913), gave him a respected position, nationally and internationally. From 1916 Lundborg received personal funding from the state budget to conduct “race biological investigations” and in 1922 he was appointed as the first director of Statens institut för rasbiologi (the State Institute for Race Biology) in Uppsala. In this position Lundborg continued the anthropological tradition of racial research, initiating wide-ranging studies, including the measurement of hundreds of thousands of individuals describing the “racial character” of the Swedes, of the Sami minority in the Swedish north, and investigating the consequences of “miscegenation.” Links were established especially to the German scientific community, and among the visitors and lecturers at the State Institute were geneticists and race ideologists such as Hans F. Günther, Eugen Fischer, and Fritz Lenz.21

It was not until the early 1930s that the previously unthreatened position of the Swedish eugenic movement—and of Lundborg personally—began to change. Lundborg's scientific profile, his nationalism, and his pro-German attitude made him increasingly controversial. The simplistic messages spread by proponents of Swedish eugenics were questioned by a new generation of medical and biological researchers. Among them was Gunnar Dahlberg (1893–1956), who was to become Lundborg's successor at the Institute for Race Biology in 1936. As director, Dahlberg picked up his Anglo-American contacts and turned the Institute away from its anthropological focus and German connections.22

As Nils Roll-Hansen stresses, the critical attitude toward the popular eugenics movement by medical and biological professionals was “a rejection of what was seen as excesses and unscientific attitudes and not a rejection of the basic ideas of eugenics.”23 There were different views among geneticists about the efficiency of eugenic measures such as sterilization, but at the same time experts such as Bonnevie, Vogt, and Dahlberg maintained that science as such—including human genetics—had an essential role in building a better society. In spite of his attacks on the eugenics movement, Wilhelm Johannsen accepted membership in the Permanent International Commission on Eugenics in 1923, and the following year he entered the Danish commission planning sterilization and castration laws.24 In Sweden one of the architects of the sterilization program, zoologist and geneticist Nils von Hofsten (1881–1967), expressed caution about expectations of “race improvement.” In his standard book on genetics, published in 1919, he stated that “in many cases even the most radical program of racial hygiene cannot wipe out an unfavorable (p. 368) quality in man, and it has less potential to check its spreading than most people, ignorant of the Mendelian laws, believe.”25 Nevertheless, von Hofsten—like many of his contemporary colleagues—was in favor of eugenic policies and contributed to their realization in interwar Scandinavia.

The backing of “sound” eugenic policies by Scandinavian geneticists and other scientists followed three lines of argumentation. Negative eugenics, it was declared, could at least have some impact, especially concerning the number of the “mentally retarded.” Second, and irrespective of the effect on the population as a whole, negative eugenics could be important in individual cases in which it could be assumed that an “inferior” child would be born. Third, measures such as sterilization, segregation, and marriage restrictions were defensible socially, morally, and economically: the target groups for eugenics—“mental defectives” in particular—were described as unsuitable parents and a burden to society.26 A final and unstated motive could be added. Participation in the consolidation of the modern Scandinavian states brought prestige and financial resources to the field of genetics.

Eugenic Policies

Much of the present-day discussion on Scandinavian eugenics focuses on the way sterilization was used in the framework of the Social Democratic welfare states from the 1930s onward. Eugenic polices, however, began in another political context some ten to twenty years earlier. Eugenic thinking inspired early-twentieth-century liberal social reformers when discussing increased state intervention in the fields of poor relief, care of alcohol abusers, or prevention of vagrancy. The first laws clearly to be influenced by eugenics were the marriage act reforms carried out in all the Scandinavian countries in the 1910s and 1920s. Legislation was developed in close transnational cooperation with the explicit aim of producing corresponding Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish marriage acts. In all three countries, the medical profession was involved in their preparation. Medical impediments to marry were confirmed by law throughout Scandinavia in the years 1915–1922. Sweden, however, went furthest by not only including restrictions for persons closely related or mentally ill, but also for the “feebleminded,” and for carriers of venereal diseases or inborn epilepsy.27

When sterilization laws were introduced in Denmark (1929, 1935), Norway (1934), and Sweden (1934, 1941), the political context had changed both nationally and internationally. Social Democracy had entered the political scene in Scandinavia and large-scale social reforms were being planned. In Germany the National Socialists came to power and gradually turned the country into a “racial state,” including “the law for the prevention of genetically diseased offspring,” which sanctioned compulsory sterilization (1933). Scandinavian proponents of eugenics now (p. 369) had to perform a delicate balancing act. They wanted to dissociate Scandinavian policies from the blatant racism and eugenic “excesses” in Germany. At the same time, however, they were advocating national sterilization programs that resembled the Nazi-German equivalent, and which furthermore were used by Nazi authorities to show that Germany was not alone in using eugenic sterilization.28 In Norway medical doctor Karl Evang (1902–1981) condemned German racism in his Rasepolitikk og reaksjon (Race Politics and Reaction, 1934). Yet Evang was soon to be director of the national public health service and as such was deeply involved in the administration of the Norwegian sterilization law.29 In Sweden the parliamentary commission responsible for rewriting the 1934 sterilization act tried to distinguish between Swedish and Nazi German eugenics: “To admit sterilization without consent to the extent of the German law would probably be inconsistent with the Swedish conception of justice.”30 In the end, however, the commission recommended an expanded law in which the target group for sterilization was enlarged to include the “socially” as well as the genetically unfit. While Karl Evang had to flee the country after the German occupation of Norway in 1940, Gunnar Dahlberg in neutral Sweden used his position as director of the State Institute for Race Biology to criticize Nazi race politics and anti-Semitism. Still, although skeptical about what he considered exaggerated belief in the prospects of eugenics, Dahlberg was loyal to, and supported, the Swedish legislation on sterilization.31

A distinguishing feature in Scandinavian eugenic policies up to the 1940s is their sociopolitical component. Eugenics, and sterilization in particular, was discussed and supported by influential social policy theorists such as Karl Kristian Steincke (1880–1963) in Denmark in the 1920s, and Alva Myrdal (1902–1986) and Gunnar Myrdal (1898–1987) in Sweden in the 1930s. The sterilization laws were also aimed at persons belonging to the “social problem group” and whose “antisocial behavior” was only loosely regarded as genetically determined. Moreover, sterilizations were initiated not only in mental hospitals and institutions for the mentally disabled, but also by local-level social workers. Accordingly, some historians suggest that the Scandinavian social reforms of the 1930s and 1940s were closely tied to eugenic legislation—the former would hardly have been so ambitious without the latter. Eugenics, in other words, was a necessary counterbalance to a social policy that was to the advantage of all citizens—even the “unfit.” Social Democratic welfarism consequently is said to explain the Scandinavian attraction to eugenics.32

This interpretation, however, has been contested. Since there was general support for eugenics in the interwar period, and the Scandinavian sterilization laws were decided upon in broad political consensus, sterilization polices most probably would have developed irrespective of the governments in office. Further more, and notwithstanding some Social Democrats' strong support for racial hygiene, eugenics and sterilization were comparatively marginal issues in the wider context of social policy debates and reforms. This is especially true in the postwar era, when the Scandinavian states moved meaningfully toward universal social rights. In fact, the realization of the “Scandinavian model” in the 1950s and 1960s was simultaneous with the phasing out of eugenics. In sum, this latter approach recognizes the social (p. 370) policy dimension of Scandinavian eugenics, but relates it to the paternalistic mentality shaped by early-twentieth-century poor relief systems as much as to the welfare discourse and social engineering of the 1930s and 1940s.33

To explain the high numbers of Scandinavian sterilizations, historians have also studied the ways in which sterilization became a tool in local-level medical practice and social administration. In Sweden sterilization was used extensively, and sometimes ruthlessly, at some mental institutions and by some regional poor-law boards, backed up by the National Board of Health. This, however, can hardly be ascribed to the “Scandinavian model” or the welfare reforms but should rather be attributed to the values and intentions of bureaucrats and local-level medical practitioners and social welfare officers.34

Eugenic sterilization was implemented mainly from the 1930s to the 1950s, a period in which altogether some 35,500 individuals seem to have been sterilized in Scandinavia for eugenic and/or social reasons.35 The great majority was women, and it can be argued that the history of sterilization was part of a broader control of women's sexuality.36 In hindsight, and according to today's values, much of the implementation of the Scandinavian laws up to the 1950s may indeed be labeled a practice of compulsory sterilization. On paper, however, the laws were based on voluntariness, and free will was said to be respected, since operations “without consent” (still not mandatory), following third-party applications, were possible only in cases of “severe mental deficiency” or “legal incompetence.”37 In Sweden the great majority of sterilization was formally voluntary and followed from a personal application from the patient. However, sterilizations could still be carried out under pressure, for example as a precondition for discharge from a mental institution, from a home for the “feebleminded,” or for permission to get a “eugenic” abortion.38 In practice a system of deception developed, sanctioned by the Swedish National Board of Health. In instructions published in 1947, the Board advised doctors and other professionals involved to ignore, as long as possible, any refusals or protests from persons considered to be “legally incompetent:”

As a rule, the best way to treat such patients would seem to be to consider it more or less self-evident that the operation is to be performed once the Board has given permission; should they ask outright, however, it must not be kept from them, of course, that it will not be carried out by force.39

Scandinavian and German policies of sterilization clearly were rooted in a common eugenic discourse that had developed within a network of international scientific cooperation from the late nineteenth century onward. Yet the dissociation from Nazi German race politics by many Scandinavians involved in eugenics was not entirely a question of double standards. The German sterilization act, for instance, made sterilization mandatory for certain categories of people defined as carriers of hereditarily determined conditions. The German law also was the starting point for an extensive program of enforced sterilization, which led to operations on hundreds of thousands of Germans up to the outbreak of the war in 1939. The Scandinavian sterilization laws, on the other hand, did not allow for the use of (p. 371) physical force.40 The most important difference however, between the German and Scandinavian cases, relates to the wider context of eugenics. Only in Nazi Germany did racial hygiene become a cornerstone in national politics. Only in Germany did the sterilization law prove to be “a first step on the road to murder,” to quote Diane Paul, while the corresponding Scandinavian legislation “never [was] linked to a broader program of racial discrimination and extermination.”41

The Postwar Period

The breakdown of the Nazi terror-regime in 1945 and the revelations of its horrifying atrocities made the need to bracket Nazi eugenics even more important. Speaking on national radio in 1946, Nils von Hofsten—now the Swedish expert on “genetic hygiene” at the National Board of Health—dismissed any similarities between Swedish eugenics and German “race doctrines.” According to von Hofsten, the German version was dangerous not only because of its terrible consequences, but also because it caused distrust of “real race science:” “Our Sterilization Act is very different from the one the Germans had. In essential respects its principles are entirely the opposite.”42 This failure to make parallels to the Nazi German case, or at least to learn from it, meant that there was no break with eugenic practices in the immediate postwar years. In fact, eugenic sterilization reached its climax in the period 1943–1949 in Sweden, 1944–1950 in Denmark, and 1948–1950 in Norway.43

The use of sterilization in Scandinavia changed, however, from the mid-1950s. Operations motivated by eugenics and/or concerns about “anti-social behavior” declined, as did sterilizations of the “feebleminded.” The figures for Sweden dropped from the peak 1,034 sterilizations of “feebleminded” in 1944 to 101 in 1959. Similar changes took place in Denmark and Norway. Collective concerns were gradually replaced by individual problems as the motive for sterilization. These “medical” sterilizations, as they were typically labeled, were usually the outcome of negotiated agreements at the local level rather than the coercion characterizing the 1930s and 1940s. From the 1960s, sterilization was also increasingly used as voluntary birth control, especially in Denmark and Norway.44

It is important to note that these changes took place without any revision of the laws. Thus the total number of recorded sterilizations during the period of formal eugenic laws (such as the often referred to 63,000 Swedish operations 1935–1975) does not tell us much about eugenic practices. In fact, current historical studies in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden indicate that the use of sterilization in the latter half of the twentieth century comes close to that of many other western countries. As Paul Weindling argues: “What was done legally in Sweden was probably done as a matter of medical discretion in other contexts.”45

The turnaround of Scandinavian sterilization practices in the 1950s cannot be explained by the exposure of Nazi German atrocities. Neither did it follow from a (p. 372) radically different attitude toward sterilization among key actors in genetic science or the medical bureaucracy. Instead, the fall of eugenic sterilization seems to be connected to a general transformation of the relation between individual and state, together with a shift in attitude in the postwar period toward the rights of people with learning difficulties. Among medical professionals in Sweden there was an increasing sense of unease in the 1960s over sterilization . Letters from women sterilized in the 1940s and early 1950s were beginning to show up frequently at the National Board of Health: “You have ruined our lives forever,” two sisters wrote in 1966. “You are the ones that destroyed me,” a woman claimed in 1968. Accordingly, the board adopted a more cautious position in its handling of applications for sterilization. At the local level the hesitation to use sterilization grew at institutions and hospitals.46 Increasingly, eugenic or socially motivated sterilization proved to be an outdated method—ethically as well as scientifically. The eugenic acts were abolished and replaced by sterilization laws based on voluntary consent in Denmark in 1967 and 1973, in Sweden in 1975, and in Norway in 1977.

In parallel with the decline in eugenic sterilization, the discourse on race changed in the postwar period. For years the anthropological concept of man and the discussion of “race differences” survived in textbooks. As sociology moved forward at Scandinavian universities, however, biological determinism was challenged. Geneticists, too, adopted a less reductionist view and stressed the complex interplay between heredity and the environment. This movement away from an older paradigm had more to do with changed values than with changes in scientific knowledge. The anti-racist scientists who, in the 1930s and early 1940s, represented one of many approaches, became dominant after World War II.47 Gunnar Myrdal wrote in 1944 that “the social definition and not the biological facts actually determines the status of an individual and his place in interracial relations”:48 he became involved in the preparation of the UNESCO statement on race in the early 1950s. So too did Gunnar Dahlberg, who also contributed to the UNESCO campaign against racism.49

Race, race hygiene, and eugenics became gradually more contentious concepts. Danish encyclopedias were the first to replace an older terminology with words such as “population” and “hereditary” hygiene in the late 1940s. Derogatory expressions and references to “inferior” human beings were discouraged, although Nazi German eugenics was ignored rather than openly challenged.50 In 1959 the Swedish Institute for Race Biology was absorbed into Uppsala University and became the Department of Medical Genetics. The new director, Jan-Arvid Böök (1915–1995), declared as one of the goals of the reformed institution: “A total dissociation from the older ‘race-hygienic’ approach and a shift to medical genetics—that is, the importance of genes for diseases and health.”51

The decline of eugenic sterilization and the change of vocabulary do not mean that the idea of eugenics totally disappeared. The aims of contemporary applied genetics no doubt correspond with one of the core goals of traditional eugenics: the promotion of health by means of genetic selection. Furthermore, the use of procedures such as genetic counseling and prenatal testing are probably less voluntary than officially stated. For instance: by advising parents in “risk groups,” or simply by (p. 373) offering genetic tests, medical expertise influences individual behavior. In both Denmark and Sweden, prenatal diagnosis (PND) has became standard procedure for women over 35. Today this practice is presented as a voluntary choice in the interest of the parent and child. In fact, however, prenatal diagnosis was introduced in the 1970s—in all the Scandinavian countries—after careful cost-benefit analysis of PND compared to the care of handicapped children.52

The distance between history and current genetic practices also seems shorter if we consider the multiple aspirations of yesterday's eugenics, some probably regarded as agreeable today. Eugenics was a broad concept and a stage where different ambitions met. It was early described as a movement for the common good, with the problematic potential to fuel paternalistic values and to justify repressive policies. At the same time, however, eugenicists and their allies could emphasize the interests of the individual—the right of children to grow up sound and healthy, for women to be able to control their reproduction. Thus the mixed motives and complex practices of twentieth-century Scandinavian sterilization policies seem worrisome in more than one way. They certainly reveal a history where good intentions and abuses blended. They also reveal, as Lene Koch notes, that “the differences between past and present might be smaller than we would like to believe.”53

Further Reading

Broberg, Gunnar. Statlig rasforskning: En historik över Rasbiologiska institutet (Lund: Lund University Press, 1995).Find this resource:

    Broberg, Gunnar, and Mattias Tydén. Oönskade i folkhemmet: Rashygien och sterilisering i Sverige (Stockholm: Gidlunds, 1991).Find this resource:

      Broberg, Gunnar, and Nils Roll-Hansen, eds. Eugenics and the Welfare State: Sterilization Policy in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1996).Find this resource:

        Haave, Per. Sterilisering av tatere 1934–1977: En historisk undersøkelse av lov og praksis (Oslo: Norges forskningsråd, 2000).Find this resource:

          Koch, Lene. Racehygiejne i Danmark 1920–56 (København: Gyldendal, 1996).Find this resource:

            Koch, Lene. Tvangssterilisation i Danmark 1929–67 (København: Gyldendal, 2000).Find this resource:

              Runcis, Maija. Steriliseringar i folkhemmet (Stockholm: Ordfront, 1998).Find this resource:

                Scandinavian Journal of History 24, no. 2 (1999) [Special Issue: Eugenics in Scandinavia].Find this resource:

                  Tunlid, Anna. Ärftlighetsforskningens gränser: Individer och institutioner i framväxten av svensk genetik (Lund: Lund University Press, 2004).Find this resource:

                    Tydén, Mattias. Från politik till praktik: De svenska steriliseringslagarna 1935–1975, 2nd ed. (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2002).Find this resource:


                      (1.) “Swedish Newspaper Details Sterilizations,” Washington Post, August 25, 1997; “Time for Austria to Face Facts,” The Guardian, September 3, 1997.

                      (2.) Nils Roll-Hansen, “Eugenics before World War II: The Case of Norway,” History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 2, no. 2 (1980): 269–298; Roll-Hansen, “Geneticists and the Eugenics Movement in Scandinavia,” British Journal for the History of Science 22, no. 3 (1989): 335–346; Gunnar Broberg and Mattias Tydén, Oönskade i folkhemmet: Rashygien och sterilisering i Sverige (Stockholm: Gidlunds, 1991); Lene Koch, Racehygiejne i Danmark 1920–56 (København: Gyldendal, 1996).

                      (3.) Gunnar Broberg and Nils Roll-Hansen, eds., Eugenics and the Welfare State: Sterilization Policy in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1996). Quote from Roll-Hansen, “Conclusion: Scandinavian Eugenics in the International Context,” in Broberg et al., Eugenics and the Welfare State, 267.

                      (4.) Peter Weingart, “Science and Political Culture: Eugenics in Comparative Perspective,” Scandinavian Journal of History 24, no. 2 (1999): 176. Weingart's comparisons of Sweden and Germany were later criticized in Nils Roll-Hansen, “Eugenic Practice and Genetic Science in Scandinavia and Germany,” Scandinavian Journal of History 26, no. 1 (2001): 75–82.

                      (5.) Dorothy Porter, “Eugenics and the Sterilization Debate in Sweden and Britain before World War II,” Scandinavian Journal of History 24, no. 2 (1999): 145–62; Paul Weindling, “International Eugenics: Swedish Sterilizations in Context,” Scandinavian Journal of History 24, no. 2 (1999): 179–197.

                      (6.) Maija Runcis, Steriliseringar i folkhemmet (Stockholm: Ordfront, 1998); Mattias Tydén, Från politik till praktik: De svenska steriliseringslagarna 1935–1975, 2nd ed. (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2002).

                      (7.) Lene Koch, Tvangssterilisation i Danmark 1929–67 (København: Gyldendal, 2000); Per Haave, Sterilisering av tatere 1934–1977: En historisk undersøkelse av lov og praksis (Oslo: Norges forskningsråd, 2000). Unlike in Sweden, so-called medical sterilizations were not regulated by law in Denmark and Norway, and thus were not registered in the same way.

                      (8.) In this article the term “Scandinavia” is used in a strict sense, whereas “the Nordic countries” refers to Finland and Iceland as well as Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.

                      (9.) Nils Roll-Hansen, “Den norske debatten om rasehygiene,” Historisk Tidsskrift 59, no. 3 (1980): 261; Koch, Racehygiejne i Danmark, 44; Gunnar Broberg and Mattias Tydén, “Eugenics in Sweden: Efficient Care,” in Broberg et al., Eugenics and the Welfare State, 83–84.

                      (10.) Quoted in Anna Tunlid, Ärftlighetsforskningens gränser: Individer och institutioner i framväxten av svensk genetik (Lund: Lund University, 2004), 106.

                      (11.) Bent Sigurd Hansen, “Something Rotten in the State of Denmark: Eugenics and the Ascent of the Welfare State,” in Broberg et al., Eugenics and the Welfare State, 9–76; Koch, Racehygiejne i Danmark; Broberg and Tydén, Oönskade i folkhemmet.

                      (12.) On Key and social Darwinism, see Mike Hawkins, Social Darwinism in European and American Thought 1860–1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 265–269. Key on euthanasia: Ellen Key, Lifslinjer, 6 vols. (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1903–1906), 2: 326, cf. 324, 521–522.

                      (13.) Atina Grossmann, Reforming Sex: The German Movement for Birth Control and Abortion Reform (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 15.

                      (14.) Tydén, Från politik till praktik, 535–546.

                      (15.) Michael Freeden, “Eugenics and Ideology,” The Historical Journal 26, no. 4 (1983): 959–962.

                      (16.) Roll-Hansen, “Conclusion,” 268.

                      (17.) Ibid., 268–269.

                      (18.) Johannsen in 1917 quoted in Hansen, “Something Rotten in the State of Denmark,” 23.

                      (19.) Nils Roll-Hansen, “Norwegian Eugenics: Sterilization as Social Reform,” in Broberg et al., Eugenics and the Welfare State, 157–161, 163–167.

                      (20.) On Nilsson-Ehle and eugenics: Tunlid, Ärftlighetsforskningens gränser, 130–142, 218–224.

                      (21.) On Lundborg: Broberg and Tydén, Oönskade i folkhemmet; Broberg and Tydén, “Eugenics in Sweden.”

                      (22.) Broberg and Tydén, Oönskade i folkhemmet; Broberg and Tydén, “Eugenics in Sweden.”

                      (23.) Roll-Hansen, “Norwegian Eugenics,” 167.

                      (24.) Hansen, “Something Rotten in the State of Denmark,” 25–26.

                      (25.) Nils von Hofsten, Ärftlighetslära (Stockholm: Norstedts, 1919), 494.

                      (26.) For similar argumentation in the international community of eugenicists, see Diane B. Paul, The Politics of Heredity: Essays on Eugenics, Biomedicine, and the Nature-Nurture Debate (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998), chaps. 6 and 7.

                      (27.) On the Scandinavian marriage laws and eugenics, see Kari Melby, Anu Pylkkänen, Bente Rosenbeck, and Christina Carlsson Wetterberg, Inte ett ord om kärlek: Äktenskap och politik i Norden ca 1850–1930 (Göteborg: Makadam, 2006), chap. 4; Mattias Tydén, “Medicinska äktenskapshinder. Om rashygienens etablering i svensk politik under 1910-talet,” in Marika Hedin, Urban Lundberg, Jens Rydström, and Mattias Tydén, Staten som vän eller fiende? Individ och samhälle i svenskt 1900-tal (Stockholm: Institute for Futures Studies, 2007), 99–132.

                      (28.) On foreign sterilization laws in German propaganda, see Robert N. Proctor, Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 96–97.

                      (29.) Roll-Hansen, “Norwegian Eugenics,” 174.

                      (30.) Cited from the 1936 report on sterilization by the Swedish Commission on Population, quoted in Broberg and Tydén, “Eugenics in Sweden,” 114–115.

                      (31.) Broberg and Tydén, “Eugenics in Sweden,” 92–94, 105–107.

                      (32.) For example Koch, Racehygiejne i Danmark; Koch, Tvangssterilisation i Danmark; Runcis, Steriliseringar i folkhemmet; Alberto Spektorowski and Elisabet Mizrachi, “Eugenics and the Welfare State in Sweden: The Politics of Social Margins and the Idea of a Productive Society,” Journal of Contemporary History 39, no. 3 (2004): 333–352.

                      (33.) Tydén, Från politik till praktik; Per Haave, “Tvangssterilisering i Norge,” in Hilda Rømer Christensen, Urban Lundberg and Klaus Petersen, Frihed, lighed og tryghed: Velfærdspolitik i Norden (Århus: Jysk Selskab for Historie, 2001); Niels Finn Christiansen, “Racehygiejne og socialpolitik,” Bibliotek for læger 193, no. 3 (2001): 199–209.

                      (34.) Esp. Tydén, Från politik till praktik; also Haave, “Tvangssterilisering i Norge.

                      (35.) Denmark 1929–1960: ca. 11,000, Norway 1934–1960: ca. 7,000, Sweden 1935–1960: ca. 17,500. These figures, which exclude so-called medical operations, roughly reflect the different size of population in the respective country. However, they are still a matter of interpretation, since operations often were performed with mixed motives and in a twilight zone of voluntariness, pressure, and compulsion. Thus, they should for instance not to be read as the total number of involuntary sterilizations in Scandinavia. Cf. Roll-Hansen, “Conclusion,” 263.

                      (36.) For a gender analysis of the Swedish history of sterilization, see Runcis, Steriliseringar i folkhemmet.

                      (37.) The formal grounds for sterilization without consent varied between the three countries.

                      (38.) According to the 1936 Swedish abortion law, an abortion performed on “eugenic indication,” with the woman being the carrier of the “defected” genes, should be combined with a sterilization.

                      (39.) Quoted in Broberg and Tydén, “Eugenics in Sweden,” 116. The different ways Swedish sterilization laws opened up for involuntary sterilization are dealt with extensively in Tydén, Från politik till praktik, esp. chaps. 4–6.

                      (40.) The closest parallel to German practices concerns the Norwegian Sterilization Act of 1942. Based on compulsion, this law was introduced by the Quisling Nazi puppet regime and remained in force until May 1945. The number of sterilizations of mental patients rose sharply, but the total number of operations according to the law—ca. 500—most likely was a disappointment to the local Nazi authorities. See Per Haave, “Sterilization under the Swastika: The Case of Norway,” International Journal of Mental Health 36, no. 1 (2007): 45–57.

                      (41.) Diane B. Paul, Controlling Human Heredity: 1869 to the Present (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1995), 90.

                      (42.) Nils von Hofsten on Swedish national public radio, March 7, 1946. Quoted in Broberg and Tydén, Oönskade i folkhemmet, 162.

                      (43.) Broberg and Tydén, “Eugenics in Sweden,” 109–110; Koch, Tvangssterilisation i Danmark, 136–137; Haave, Sterilisering av tatere, 157.

                      (44.) Broberg and Tydén, ‘Eugenics in Sweden,’ 113; Tydén, Från politik till praktik, 70–72; Koch, Tvangssterilisation i Danmark, 207–208 and chap. 13; Haave, “Tvangssterilisering i Norge,” 142–143.

                      (45.) Weindling, “International Eugenics,” 196.

                      (46.) Quotations from Tydén, Från politik till praktik, 12.

                      (47.) Elazar Barkan, The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States Between the Worlds Wars (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 341–346; Nils Roll-Hansen, “Eugenics in Scandinavia after 1945: Change of Values and Growth in Knowledge,” Scandinavian Journal of History 24, no. 2 (1999): 207–208.

                      (48.) Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, 2 vols. (New York: Harpers & Brothers Publishers, 1944), 1: 115.

                      (49.) Broberg and Tydén, “Eugenics in Sweden,” 130; Gunnar Dahlberg, ed., Raser och folk (Stockholm: Svenska UNESCO-rådet, 1955).

                      (50.) Lene Koch, “Past Futures: On the Conceptual History of Eugenics,” Technology Analysis and Strategic Management 18, no. 3–4 (2006): 339–340.

                      (51.) Quoted in Gunnar Broberg, Statlig rasforskning: En historik över Rasbiologiska institutet (Lund: Lund University Press, 1995), 81.

                      (52.) Lene Koch, “The Meaning of Eugenics: Reflections of Genetic Knowledge in the Past and Present,” Science in Context 13, no. 3 (2004): 326–327; Christian Munthe, The Moral Roots of Prenatal Diagnosis: Ethical Aspects of the Early Introduction and Presentation of Prenatal Diagnosis in Sweden (Göteborg: Centre for Research Ethics, 1996); Mattias Tydén, “Staten och våra gener,” in Torbjörn Lundqvist ed., Den kreativa staten: Framtidspolitiska tendenser (Stockholm: Institute for Futures Studies, 2006).

                      (53.) Lene Koch, “Eugenic Sterilisation in Scandinavia,” The European Legacy 11, no. 3 (2006): 308.