Social Democracy’s Nordic Roots: Scandinavia in History
W 2019


Scandinavia is well known as having been a progressive force in the twentieth and twenty-first century in matters related to economic equality, political democracy, gender equality and compassion towards displaced refugees.  A central question of this SDG is as follows: Is Scandinavian social democracy a model for our times or not? Is it a product of Scandinavia’s unique set of historical circumstances and hence not applicable to the rest of the developed world?


In the first nine weeks we will survey Scandinavia’s history from the Vikings forward to our own times. We will analyze the roots of Scandinavian social democracy and the issue of “Scandinavian exceptionalism.” We will study Scandinavian nations’ battles for independence (from other nations and each other) and contributions to modern European culture.


Each of last five sessions will focus on contemporary life in one of the five nations of the North (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland). Each session will be split between discussion of the core book readings and discussion of the assigned nation’s 20th and 21st century history, emphasizing politics, economic life, and roles in the international community. The coordinator will provide a template for these sessions with a list of suggested topics for discussion.


Weekly Topics



Part I: Survey of Scandinavian History (Nine weeks)


Week 1: Early Scandinavia and Viking Society (Butler, ch. 1; optional, Ferguson, ch. 1)


Week 2: Christianity and Medieval Scandinavia (Butler, ch. 2; optional, Ferguson, ch. 2))


Week 3: Monarchs, nobles and peasants (Butler, ch. 3)


Week 4: Gustavus Vasa and Sweden’s rise (Butler, ch. 4)


Week 5: The Reformation and Religious Wars (Butler, ch. 5; optional, Ferguson, ch. 3)


Week 6: The Age of Absolutism (Butler, ch. 6; optional, Ferguson, ch. 5)


Week 7: The Enlightenment (Butler, ch. 7; optional A Royal Affair, 2012 film; Ferguson, ch. 7)


Week 8: Joining the Continental System (Butler, ch. 8; optional, Ferguson, pp. 70-80)


Week 9: Scandinavia in the Twentieth Century (Butler, ch. 9; Lakey, intro, ch. 1, 2, 5; optional, Ferguson, ch.11)


Part II: Contemporary History and Life in the Individual Nations (Five Weeks)


Week 10: Contemporary Life and Culture: Denmark (Booth, Introduction and ch. 1)


Week 11: Contemporary Life and Culture: Iceland (Booth, ch. 2)


Week 12: Contemporary Life and Culture: Norway (Booth, ch. 3; optional Ferguson ch. 15)


Week 13: Contemporary Life and Culture: Finland (Booth, ch. 4)


Week 14: Contemporary Life and Culture: Sweden (Booth, ch. 5 and epilogue; optional, Ferguson, ch. 14)


Scandinavia bibliography


Core books:

Butler, Ewan. Scandinavia: A History. (New Word City, 2016)

Booth, Michael. The Almost Nearly Perfect People. (Picador, 2014)


Additional bibliography:


Ferguson, Robert. Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North. (Overlook Press, 2017),

Especially good on World War II in Scandinavia, chapter 11.


Haywood, John, The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings. (Penguin, 1995)


Kent, Neil. The Sami Peoples of the North: A Social and Cultural History. (Hurst, 2014)


North, Michael. The Baltic: A History. Translated by Kenneth Kronenberg. (Harvard University Press, 2015)


Sejersted, Francis. The Age of Social Democracy: Norway and Sweden in the Twentieth Century. (Princeton University Press, 2011)



Sources on 19th and 20th century history


Jesperson, Knud J. V., A History of Denmark. 2d edition (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), especially chapters 4 and 7.


Kent, Neil. A Concise History of Sweden. (Cambridge University Press, 2008), chapters 8-10.


Kirby, David. A Concise History of Finland. (Cambridge University Press, 2006), chapters 5-8.


Yilek, John A., History of Norway (Wasteland Press, 2015), chapters 6-8.


General contemporary overviews on Scandinavian nations:


CIA World Factbook has general information about each nation. E.g.,


Each nation’s official website has information on a large range of topics. E.g.,


Wikipedia is a treasure trove of information. E.g.,



Worthwhile historical fiction (in no particular order):


Moberg, Vilhelm. The Emigrants, volume 1 (1949)

A classic based on historical research on nineteenth century social history. Made into a film by Jan Troell staring Liv Ullman and Max von Sydow, may be  hard to find.


Laxness, Halldor. Independent People  (Vintage Books, 1946) A Nobel Prize winning account of the struggles of an Icelandic sheep crofter, late nineteenth century through World War I.


Lagerlöf, Selma. The Saga of Gösta Berling. (1891, Penguin Classics, 2009). Nobel Prize winning and much loved novel set in “traditional” rural Sweden.


Unset, Sigrid, Kristin Lavransdotter, 1920-1922. Nobel Prize winning novel set in medieval Norway.


Fredriksson, Marianne. Hanna’s Daughters, 1994. Three generations of Swedish women, whose lives span the twentieth century.



Worthwhile films on historical themes or topics (in no particular order):


A Royal Affair, 2012, starring Mads Mikkelson and Alicia Vikander. Based on Danish history of the 1790s and the rise (and demise) of Johann Friedrich Streunse. (Amazon Video)


Sami Blood 2016, experiences of a young Sami woman at a state boarding school and her struggles for acceptance in Swedish society. (Amazon Video)


1864, eight part 2014 Danish TV series, on the war between Denmark and Prussia over control of Schlesvig-Holstein. (Available to stream on Mhz Choice)


Flame and Citron (2008). On the Danish resistance to Nazi rule during World War II. (Amazon Video)


The Heavy Water War (2015). Norwegian TV mini-series on the successful effort of Norwegian resistance forces to bomb the plant vital to Nazi efforts to produce an atomic bomb. Available to stream on Mhz Choice)


Simon and the Oaks, 2011. Swedish film (based on novel by Marianne Fredriksson) set during World War II in Sweden and dealing in part with problems faced by Jews in Sweden during the war. (Amazon Prime)


22nd July, 2018. Insightful account of the 2011 attack and massacre in Oslo and Utoya.