Posted by: nordicnoir | June 22, 2010

Nordic Noir and the Scandinavian Population Crisis

The Origins of Nordic Noir Part III:

Nordic Noir and the Scandinavian Population Crisis


Spoiler Alerts:

Major plot elements of Stieg Larsson’s novels and Arnaldur Idridason’s

Jar City are discussed here, as well as a brief mention of a

minor plot element from Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s Last Rituals.


The Mystery… 

            In 1982, Alva Myrdal (1902-1986) won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on nuclear disarmament.  This followed on a long, successful career as a leading politician whose work included the development of Swedish welfare policies that promoted the well-being of families and working women.

            Also in 1982 her son, Jan Myrdal, released a scathing autobiographical ‘novel’ (Barndom, or Childhood) detailing awful upbringing.[1]

            Alva Myrdal’s name was further tarnished in 1997 when the journalist Maciej Zaremba exposed the darkness at the core of her book from 1934 Kris i befolkningsfrågan (Crisis in the Population Question)—which she co-authored with her husband.[2]  It is widely recognized as the founding document of the Swedish welfare state.

            So what was it about Alva Myrdal?

…The History

            Rightly or wrongly, she was accused of having been an unaffectionate, largely absent mother who sacrificed her children’s well-being even as she pursued her ambitious career campaigning for the benefit of families and working mothers.  But there is another story here too—one I think relates to ‘Nordic noir’ and Sweden’s darkest fears about its dwindling population in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. 

            By way of angling into this thorny issue, read the following excerpt from an interview with a woman who experienced the downside of the Myrdals’ social engineering philosophy—which contained recommendations (that became laws) for dealing with Sweden’s population problem. 

         And try, if you can, not to think of Stieg Larsson’s character Lisbeth Salander here.

Astrid is the daughter of an alcoholic shoemaker who did not take care of his children.  Her mother had died when Astrid was three years old.  A maternal aunt took Astrid and her siblings to presumptive foster parents…[The situation failed] and this led to a transfer to a new foster family where conditions were even worse.  Another foster child enticed Astrid into stealing, and the authorities placed the ten-year-old girl in a private school home for feeble-minded girls…[She received no affection there.] Astrid responded to that by becoming ‘mean.’  One summer when she was 19…she fled. Lonely in the big city of Stockholm after having seen only the walls of an asylum for so many years, she did not know what to do.  Two men brought her home and let her sleep at their place ‘but they didn’t do anything to me!’ After that night she returned to the asylum where the matron accused Astrid of having been sexually exploited.  They wanted to have her sterilized and sent her to a doctor who persuaded her to sign an application to be sterilized.  She was told that she could leave the asylum if she was sterilized…The matron gave Astrid three oranges and paid for a taxi to take her to the hospital….She remembers this time only in fragments, but she found it so terrifying that she has refused ever since to go to a gynaecologist…’ [At the hospital] she ‘became hysterical.’… ‘they probably calmed me down with some tranquilizer…It was like that in those days—if it became too noisy they could just give you an injection.’ [3]

            More than 60,000 sterilizations were performed in Sweden between 1935 and 1975.  More than 20,000 were, in some sense, ‘forced’ (coerced with the promise of freedom from an asylum etc.).[4] Ekerwald quotes one of the more damaging parts of the Myrdals’ book as follows:

In those cases where legal competence cannot be denied…doctors and social authorities ought actively to persuade the person …to be subjected to voluntary sterilization.  If it turns out that such pressure is ineffective…then a sharpening of the law ought to be considered, giving the authorities of the society the right to sterilize even against their will persons with legal competence. (Crisis, p. 260).[5]

            While even today, castration is a legal option in the case of sex-offenders, Sweden’s former sterilization policy registers today as heavy-handed, unjust, and cruel.

The Myrdals’ Reasoning: A Dwindling Population

            The funny thing about the Myrdals’ endorsement of voluntary and involuntary sterilization is that it arose in the 1930’s, when it was clear that Sweden’s population was shrinking.  It seems counterintuitive. 

         Indeed, the other welfare programs laid out by the Myrdals (and particularly the reforms that Alva endorsed on behalf of working women) aimed to encourage Swedes to have more children.  Being generally educated and savvy about the use of contraceptives, Swedes in the early 20th century rightly saw that larger families were correspondingly poorer—often miserably so.  Having few (or no) children in this newly industrialized society meant a far better standard of living, better health, and greater happiness. 

           But officials foresaw an aging population and all the problems associated with a diminishing workforce. To encourage births, Alva Myrdal sought to make child rearing more attractive.  Swedish women, she proposed, would need better health care, adequate maternity leave, safeguards against job loss due to childbearing, education for the children, day care…etc. 

            But these reforms were expensive, and they led to thinking about the sort of people the welfare state could and could not afford to support. 

Who’s In, and Who’s Out

            The Myrdals’ philosophy from the 1930’s and early ‘40’s generally targeted ‘feeble minded’ individuals in order to stave off the financial burden of caring for ‘inferior’ citizens.  But these inferior citizens were not only the mentally handicapped. As Spektorowki and Misrachi note, “In practice, individuals who were targeted for sterilization displayed various forms of social misbehavior, and were therefore marked by the state as unable to take care of their children.”[6]

           Thus, it included alcoholics and vagabonds (gypsies) and anyone else deemed ‘asocial’. In practice though, the target group was mainly (90%) women: “Liberated sexual behavior, untidiness or sloppiness and negligent childcare were all attributed primarily to women.”[7] If the welfare state was to succeed (and if, then, Sweden’s population ceased to decline), the Myrdals thought, it would have to weed out those who might weigh down society. 

             But the Myrdals were not proponents of racial hygiene in the same manner as the German Nazis.[8]  Ekerwald quotes an important passage from the Myrdals’ book in which they distinguish between their own social programs and that of Germany’s “unreliable, speculatively biological, cheap and shallow ‘wisdom’ in social questions.”[9]  The Myrdals also denounced the notorious academics in Uppsala who sought to keep Jews out of Sweden during the ‘30’s. 

            This 40 year policy went largely unnoticed until 1997, likely because the so-called ‘feeble-minded’ felt embarrassed or ashamed.[10]  I also suspect they suffered an utter loss of faith in any and all authorities.

Astrid…the Inspiration for Lisbeth Salander’s Past?

          I hinted above that I saw some connection between Astrid’s memories of forced sterilization and the fictional case of Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander.  Hear me out…

1. Lisbeth Salander is the daughter of a prostitute married to a domestic brute

2. Her mother is maimed and subsequently absent from her life

(3). She attempts to kill her father (a wholly unique plot feature, yes)…

4. …and consequently she is hastily labeled non compis mentis (feeble-minded)

5. She is forcibly removed to an asylum…

6. …where she has terrifying experiences with doctors (namely Dr. Teleborian)

7. She is placed in foster care, but flees

8. She is even accused of hanging out with strange, older men

9. The authorities pretty much ‘accuse’ her of ‘having been sexually exploited,’ though this is far from certain[11]

10. Eventually, she proves she has her wits

           In short, the story of Lisbeth Salander, like Astrid’s, is about the terrifying power of the state to deprive an individual of one’s most basic rights.

           The debate surrounding Swedish forced sterilization often turns to whether or not the welfare state inherently leads to such abuses of individual rights.[12]  Yet forced sterilization has occurred in the U.S., Canada, Japan, China, Switzerland…the list could go on.[13]  And though Larsson’s books seem inspired by this issue, in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest the court trial is a symbol of a democratic judicial system doing its work (if barely).[14] 

The Peculiar ‘Noir’ of Dwindling Populations:

Arnaldur Indridason’s Jar City…

            The Scandinavian population crisis and government attempts to manage its dwindling ‘human capital’ shows up as well, for instance, in Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason.  This novel touches on the Icelandic government’s attempt (and that of medical science in general) to study and codify the country’s uniquely small, isolated genetic history (having only about 320,000 people).  While these activities might help screen out devastating inherited diseases, Indridason suggests they can also subject the citizenry to a degrading, dehumanizing scrutiny.

            The doctors involved are portrayed as cold, even robotic. One doctor—clearly meant to be of dubious character—speaks in passing of his lack of desire to have children; it seems this fact is shorthand for ‘self-centered.’ Further, when the inspector’s own daughter, a cruel and petty drug addict, becomes pregnant, Indridason clearly evokes sympathy with the daughter’s life-affirming choice to keep the baby.  Though abortion is broadly legalized in Iceland, little mention is made of possible birth defects (one can almost hear the young Alva Myrdal groan here).

            Similarly, two rape victims in this novel choose to keep their resultant babies.  When Inspector Erlendur, interviews one woman’s sister, he asks how her sister (the rape victim) reacted.  She responds succinctly: “Very sensibly, I thought.  She decided straightaway to be happy about the child despite the circumstances, and she genuinely loved Audur” (p. 64).  Another rape victim also keeps her baby and raises a beloved son, though in her case she wanted to keep the rape secret from her husband. 

            Yet Indridason adds a few tragic twists to these stories. In both cases, despite these supposedly life-affirming choices, everything ends badly.  The rapist had carried a rare genetic disease that was passed on to the two children.  One dies, the other passes it to his own daughter, who also dies.  He later kills himself. 

            So the novel at once portrays a deep longing to preserve and nourish (Icelandic) life at all costs while also struggling with some troubling consequences.  On the whole, Indridason hints that the Icelandic gene pool is just too small for its own good.

…and a Minor Scene in Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s Last Rituals


            Sometimes, the population crisis may lurk in the background. Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s Last Rituals contains a minor scene in which a 15-year-old boy has gotten his 15-year-old girlfriend pregnant.  Though all the parents are horrified and disappointed in their exceedingly young children for making a ‘mistake,’ abortion never once comes up as an option, despite the fact that abortion is broadly legalized in Iceland.  Sigurdardóttir’s quietly pro-life stance here can hardly be unaffected by the cultural implications of Iceland’s tiny population.


            This feature of ‘Nordic noir’ doesn’t only relate to the claustrophobia of living in a small country, of knowing everyone in your small town; nor is it merely about the melancholy expanse of an under-populated countryside.  It also has to do with the rather bleak notion of possible cultural extinction, and the attempt by state and individual, for better and for worse, to do something about it.

[1] Her daughters also published memoirs after her death; Kaj Fölster and Sisela Bok presented more positive views of their childhood, but their work still indicates a troubled family history.

[2] While her husband was widely perceived as an egomaniacal ‘genius’ (also blamed for their children’s poor upbringing) the most troublesome views regarding sterilization are mainly attributed to Alva.

[3] Astrid’s story was told on Swedish radio journalist Bosse Lindquist in the 1980’s.  The transcribed excerpt that I’ve laid out here comes from Hedvig Ekerwald’s “The Modernist Manifesto of Alva and Gunnar Myrdal: Modernization of Sweden in the Thirties and the Question of Sterilization,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Spring, 2001), pp. 539-561.  See especially pp. 539-40.  The bracketed comments in the excerpt are mine.

[4] See p. 541 in Ekerwald.

[5] This quote is taken from Ekerwald p. 546.

[6] Alberto Spektorowski and Elisabet Misrachi. “Eugenics and the Welfare State in Sweden: The Politics of Social Margins and the Idea of a Productive Society.”  Journal of Contemporary History, V. 39, no. 3 (Jul, 2004), pp. 333-352.  See p. 348.

[7] Spektorowki and Misrachi, p. 349 (drawing on the work of historian Maija Runcis).

[8] The precise relation between Swedish sterilization laws and German eugenics remains a contentious issue.  But Spektorowki and Misrachi say, defending Sweden, that “…the Nazis worked to preserve a racial community, whereas the Swedish social democrats aimed at a productive welfare community” (p. 351).

[9] Ekerwald p. 547 (Ekerwald quotes from Crisis in the Population Question p. 87-8).

[10] Ekerwald notes this shame on p. 539.

[11] Most of these details are found on pp. 173-76 of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (American edition: Vintage, New York).

[12] Maciej Zaremba maintains that forced sterilization, in Sweden, was a direct result of the project of the welfare state—turning the issue into a direct attack on social democracy.  I take it more as a potential threat to any population under any form of government (since it has clearly happened under many forms of government), though the Swedish welfare state certainly put its peculiar stamp on this instance of it.

[13] For more info, start with Wikipedia:

[14] However, unlike the more straightforward case of Astrid, Lisbeth Salander gets away with the theft of millions of dollars.  One wonders (among other things) whether she would have relinquished that money in subsequent novels.



  1. […] the assassination of their prime minister in 1986. I’ve done a post on the circuitous road to the social welfare state with some thoughts on how it possibly informed Scandinavian authors. One of the more popular posts […]

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