Stockholm, Sweden

Sweden is a Scandinavian country in northern Europe. With an area of about 174,000 square miles and a population of just over 9.5 million, it is one of the least densely populated countries in Europe; about 85% live in the capital, Stockholm, and other urban areas. Officially known as the Kingdom of Sweden, the country is a constitutional monarchy with a king, a parliament and a prime minister. It has a very high per-capita income and a high standard of living. The official language is Swedish, a Germanic language that is easily understood by Norwegians and Danes. English is a compulsory language taught in the schools, and as a result most Swedes speak excellent English.

The name “Sweden” means “kingdom of the Swedes,” but the etymology of Swede is not clear. During prehistoric times various Germanic tribes were in the area hunting and gathering; also, Goths left archeological traces in the second century A.D. (which explains the Gotland area and the city of Gothenberg) whose successors were the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, among others.

Before the 11th century, Swedes worshipped the Norse Aesir gods and maintained a religious center in Uppsala. The Swedish Viking Age began around the 8th century, with Swedish Vikings traveling mostly to Russia and Ukraine but also south as far as Baghdad. Everywhere they went they were described as being very tall, blond, healthy and strong. These Vikings, also known as Varangians, were the founders of Kievan Rus’ in modern-day Ukraine. Their travels and adventures are memorialized on runestones in Sweden and elsewhere.

At some point Sweden began to have kings that ruled more than one province—the first one is thought to have been Eric the Victorious in the late 10th century. In the 11th century Sweden adopted Christianity (Roman Catholicism) and outlawed worship of other deities. In general Swedish society was less structured than the feudal states common at the time, with most working their farms as free peasant farmers rather than serfs or slaves.

There were hard times. Sweden did experience plague; in the 14th century the Black Death struck, killing up to half of the population. At the end of that century Sweden, Norway and Denmark—all similarly devastated by the disease—decided that there was strength in numbers and formed the Kalmar Union, a series of alliances between monarchs of Norway, Denmark and Sweden (which at the time included Finland). There were indeed economic benefits, but the allies did not always get along. In 1520, after Christian II of Denmark had reconquered Sweden, he had a number of Swedish nobles killed in an incident that came to be known as the Stockholm Bloodbath. In 1521 the Swedes ousted the Danes once again and the Kalmar Union soon came to an end. On June 6, 1523 they made Gustav Vasa their king; June 6 remains an annual Swedish national holiday. One of the new king’s first official acts was to reject Catholicism and adopt the Protestant Reformation, specifically Lutheranism. Sweden became a force to be reckoned with during the 17th century, particularly distinguishing itself during the Thirty Years’ War when it took territories from Russia and Poland-Lithuania. Its continued forays into Poland-Lithuania are known in Poland to this day as “the Swedish Deluge.” But when Sweden tried to invade Russia in the early 18th century, they did not succeed; when they tried to invade Norway in 1716, the king was shot dead at a poorly defended fortress. It was the beginning of the end and by the late 19th century Sweden had lost most of its territories. There was poverty and famine and a great many Swedes emigrated, often to the American Midwest.

In modern times Sweden has become a much more peaceful country. It remained officially neutral during both World Wars; during World War II it openly made concessions to Nazi Germany while playing an important humanitarian role in rescuing Jews from Denmark and other parts of Europe. The Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg may have saved as many as 100,000 Hungarian Jews. In the postwar era Sweden has undergone the same economic challenges as the rest of the world but it has a strong manufacturing sector (especially cars, telecommunications technology and pharmaceuticals) and enjoys a high standard of living. Taxes are high, but the government provides a full array of social services—child care, healthcare, pensions, etc. Of course Sweden is home to the Nobel Prize, named for Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite. Its contributions to literature, cinema and music are legion. The country loves its sports, especially soccer and ice hockey.

Visitors to Stockholm will enjoy the surroundings—Stockholm is actually built on a series of fourteen islands connected with the Stockholm archipelago, so there are many water views. There is a well-known old town area, Gamla Stan (“old town”) with the Royal Palace, Stockholm Cathedral, intimate neighborhoods, traditional restaurants and the wonderful Museum of Medieval Stockholm, constructed around archeological findings unearthed during a construction project. Also highly recommended is the Vasa Museum, dedicated to the recently recovered and restored Vasa Ship, and Skansen, an archetypical open air museum. The city has universities and colleges, art galleries, theaters, parks and more than 1,000 restaurants. There is also an excellent public transportation system that can take visitors around the city and to nearby destinations.