When Race Was the Word on Everyone’s Lips

A hundred years ago: colonialism is at its peak. Science is stronger than ever, biology and medicine are being renewed by the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws and genetics. Industrialism and communications get the capital to grow and create a more mobile population with increased urbanisation as a result. Problems also result. Mobility on so many levels is seen as creating moral concerns and demands for better order and control. People are nervous and the young population is fleeing poor Sweden for America. The progress brings with it degeneration – the worm in the apple is eating out the whole interior. Ninety years ago, just after the First World War, The National Institute for Eugenics opens its doors in Uppsala. It’s not a big place, but stately and thus impressive, and with hopes to expand. Parliament had given the institution the mandate to conduct research and to educate – science’s main purposes. The decision had been unanimous, but the prelude quite long, including proposals for a Nobel Institute for race research. (It would have been quite something!) Eugenics had status at the turn of the century. It was considered a useful and promising innovation. Yes, just that the last word was, of course, not used. After fifty eventful years, forty years ago, the previously instituted laws on sterilisation were struck off – eugenics’ greatest practical contribution. The question had been raised by the young senator, Olof Palme, who at that time can be said to have claimed the individual’s right to choose. The National Institute for Racial HygieneIn the original it says ”Racial Hygiene”. Do you mean ”Racial Biology” or, as I have translated it, ”Eugenics”?In the original it says ”Racial Hygiene”. Do you mean ”Racial Biology” or, as I have translated it, ”Eugenics”? had been absorbed into the Faculty of Medicine at Uppsala University under the name of The Institute of Medical Genetics – a name change that coincided with the international rebaptism. The word eugenics sounded increasingly bad. As for now, fifteen years ago in 1997, the news broke about the Swedish sterilisation policy: ”Worse than Nazi Germany”, according to Dagens Nyheter (DN). The world’s press turned against Sweden, the model country, the welfare state, for what it had allowed to happen during the long period of Social Democrat government. The debate lasts to this day and is likely to continue.

The National Institute for Eugenics’ strongman and first head was Herman Lundborg – a physician trained in Uppsala and Lund. His research on an inherited, very severe muscle epilepsy localised to Listerlandet in Blekinge, won immediate praise for its combination of clinical description, social historical documentation and Mendelian heredity. (More recently, it has been noted that what Lundborg identified as one disease was in fact several, so his findings do not hold today). Still, this myoclonic epilepsy came to be his model for Swedish eugenics. Lundborg said that the pattern was not only unique to Listerlandet, but to the whole country, which could suffer if marriage patterns, reproduction, immigration and the individual were not controlled. The war intervened and research had to wait; but later, as I said, the way was clear for race research. That parliament focused on race had its reasons: race was the word on many people’s lips; it was modern. Sweden had a strong tradition in the area. Linnaeus had already in 1735 divided the human species into four ”varieties” according to the continents. Anders Retzius, a hundred years later, introduced the so-called ‘skull index’ and here was now an eminent scientist, Lundborg, who otherwise threatened to disappear from the country. Science would benefit, and this was science, which also promised financial gain because it would create a healthier nation, empty the increasingly filled mental hospitals and maybe even create a moral restoration. The mapping of natural resources had proved to be a way forward for industry, but what was more important than human material? Last but not least: one had to defend the Swedish tribe, which was threatened both from without and from within. Race was an organising concept. In short, the nation needed order and the strong guidance of experts with ideals on which everyone could agree. A hygiene police who cleaned up an old, drab society was also needed by humanity. The word hygiene was the buzzword of the time; they talked about personal hygiene, but also about mental hygiene and food hygiene. Eugenics could be reconciled with the general ideology of progress, nationalism, and history. Answers to how bad things would get were missing, of course. Did many ask afterwards if anyone said no? The answer is: no. But the Eugenics Institute did not have very much money. Its treasury was poor, and it came to suffer from a constant lack of resources, as well as a lack of confidence. Lundborg was a poor diplomatic and institutional leader. Half a dozen employees would get paid, along with the director, to drive around in communities and measure Swedish characteristics, photograph them, fill in cards, make charts and draw conclusions. These efforts were not enough. The result was some striking folio publications of the Swedish people as a whole, and of the Sami. Lundborg wandered away to the mountains of Lapland, and was for a long time too far away from the day-to-day operations. To Java were sent fifty copies of the mammoth work The Racial Characters of the Swedish Nation. And for what reason, one may ask. Tensions within the workforce, and the contacts at the top, became worse. Instead of the initial, more or less explicit promises of saving the nation, a fiasco loomed. The results were non-existent, incomplete or unusable. Either the institute would be closed down on Lundborg’s retirement in 1935, or it would have to make a fresh start with a new programme and a different kind of leader.

The new leader was the Social Democrat, Gunnar Dahlberg – Lundborg’s absolute opposite and enemy, an intellectual, an elitist social commentator with good contacts with Gunnar Myrdal and Herbert Tingsten. Dahlberg’s line was what is usually called reform eugenics (as opposed to mainline eugenics), thus taking a more medical than anthropological approach, which favoured less a large biological utopia and believed more in engineering without the crudest race rhetoric; it was about the same as that which Myrdal advocated in Crisis in the Population Question (1934). There was no new name, but there was less and less use of the term racial hygiene. As director of the Eugenics Institute, Dahlberg rejected the concept of ‘race’ in a variety of technology-oriented essays. This is obviously too quick a history of a theme that developed in ever more malignant forms. The history’s continuation becomes even more scant, partly because the documentation during Dahlberg’s time was not nearly as rich as under the keen collector, Lundborg. But there are not only plenty of footnotes, but also headlines to this story. Take for example, Bertil Lundman, associate professor of eugenics in Uppsala, who would draw ridicule towards Uppsala University through his, to say the least, peculiar opinions and for his university-troubling course literature. Uppsala University, thanks to him and the Eugenics Institute, came under fire while the ‘Lunda Anatomists’ perhaps escaped, like the ethnologists, archaeologists, geographers, and theologians who each had their share of the blame when writing about people’s dispositions, handling the skulls and bones, invoking cultural boundaries and positioning themselves against the people who were thought to have murdered Jesus. Yet, if Lundborg’s period constituted fifteen unsuccessful years for eugenics, why is so much attention given to it? Of course, the tracks cross with Nazism, and its effects, real or potential, must cause grave concern. But above all, because the institute was state-sanctioned, and that it worked in the name of science. The state’s support admittedly became more and more half-hearted, but it was still there. At the turn of the 1900s, eugenics’ methodology answered to scientific criteria. It devoted itself largely to a numerical fetishism, with lots of tables developed with various measuring instruments; they had a rhetorical value. Decision-makers did not understand that much, and the only thing they could do was nod in the affirmative. You can say that scientists, in anticipation of a clear theory and a clear picture, devoted themselves to a sort of ‘descriptionalism’ that was typical of the time, as well as the mapping and documentation. Any collection ought, sooner or later, to be put to use. (But, that said, who could use The Racial Characters of the Swedish Nation?)

Eugenics was perceived as a science in at least two senses: partly as a specialisation and thus as modern, and partly as a response to the old dream of a comprehensive science that combined several disciplines. I quote from Nordisk familjebok, ‘The Owl’ volume 32, printed almost exactly when parliament decided to establish the Eugenics Institute, to be formulated by public school inspector, Sune Scheele: ”That science is divided into specific disciplines without a common collaboration is a deficiency and is contrary to science’s own nature, should not be overlooked. […] At any time, there are two directions regarding scientific work, on the one hand specialisation, on the other hand the generalisation that increasingly seeks to widen perspective and move closer to a unified explanation of the world.” These general claims gave eugenics its utopian potential. Lundborg had a professor’s status and spoke with the scientific authority of the University City. At Scandinavian natural science meetings, there were sessions for eugenics, which admittedly were never very widespread. Quite a number of Swedish scientists devoted themselves in some way to eugenics. In a report at the end of the 1920s intended for a eugenics publication, Lundborg listed the inner circle of Swedish eugenics. He counted both round and thin, included famous names and excluded those that, for various reasons, he did not like, but there were at least fourteen he accepted. A lot or a little? His thought was in any case that it was only the beginning of the racially pure – solid brown Not really sure what this is meant to mean.Not really sure what this is meant to mean.– state. How did it go? The institute got another leadership. What happened next in Swedish science during World War II has not really been investigated. Popular notions of Nordic blonde honesty, and foreign, swarthy villainy were realised by the tribulation of the time, and legitimated by the Eugenics Institute’s propaganda publications. Samis, Jews and Roma with centuries-old histories in Sweden had reason to feel threatened. Peace meant no abandonment of race research, or its racist and Nazi deserters. Physicist Erik Walles, on the other hand, became persona non grata for his attacks on jazz (Jazz Attack, 1946). Public-health specialist, Åke Berglund, did not get his thesis approved by the Karolinska Institute; but medic, Gösta Häggquist, who supported Nazi policies, was the respected president of The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. During the technology-hysterical Cold War, criticism of science was directed against nuclear weapons and the Soviet science of genetics and Lysenkoism, and not against the popular Swedish eugenics, and least of all against Dahlberg’s reformed version. Dahlberg and Gunnar Myrdal, participated in UNESCO’s Statement on Race (1950), which involved a rejection of the concept of race, but judging by what was written in the fifties’ and sixties’ textbooks and media, the tone only changed slowly.

The question of sterilisation has to be mentioned, but it is not best tackled through the Eugenics Institute; more important players were the parliament and medical board. It is about important questions: society’s or the individual’s rights – but also about responsibility, freedom and coercion, and the role of the expert. There was abuse of power against the weak in society: the unwanted, the prison inmates, would be sterilised. Of those who underwent surgery, more than ninety percent were women, despite the fact that the surgery was harder on them than on men. However, the process need not be described as ”forced sterilisation” to be contemptible. The law never allowed ‘coercion’, and any intervention would be voluntary. Is this just playing with words? No, but it is a reason to really find out what was meant by ‘coercion’ and ‘voluntary’. Voluntary action often turns out to have been conditional – the surgery was allowed in exchange for getting an abortion or to be let out of a health care institution. The perception that the sterilisation policy was racist must also problematised. The first law in 1934 experimented with two indications: eugenic and medical; the other of 1941 introduced a third: social – the latter was stronger, and in its formulation absolutely racist. These are bad enough, but with time eugenic and social indications were invoked far less than medical ones. The policy of sterilisation shows racial biology as total science that plays on a keyboard of statistics, genetics, medicine, and various social sciences. ‘The expert’ is a necessary figure that one must both trust and question – a god in a room that is too often lacking transparent windows and doors for access. His input ??determines actions, and this is not something we should accept today. Much has been written about Swedish eugenics and sterilisation policies: it can be perceived as a necessary settlement with history – a masochistic wrestling with our inflated Swedishness, a finger pointing to the past, a warning bell for where contemporary life takes us. The debate is worst when historiography assumes the character of a court; it is best when it makes us reflect on our own time.

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