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The Great War and Its Consequences from a Swedish Perspective

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Swedish media reports of successive anniversaries of the end of the First World War usually provide general commentaries concerning the military struggles on the continent. The war is seen as having had a minor effect on the fate of Sweden itself. Several years ago, a historian from Lund University named Kim Salomon even hazarded the thesis that “World War I scarcely marks a significant moment in the history of Sweden,” given that the country remained neutral, and thus remained in the ‘viewers’ stand’.” The lack of a more wide-ranging discussion on the legacy of World War I in Sweden is somewhat alarming, particularly considering the fact that there is a wealth of Swedish historiography relating to the period of 1914–1918. Although Sweden remained neutral, the war was felt to a considerable degree. Shortages of supplies, numerous demonstrations, riots – all this laid the foundation for increased political activity in a society that wanted to democratize the system, improve civil rights, and socialize the economy. 1917 seemed to be the year when the radicalization reached its peak, but major changes arrived only with the end of the war in November 1918. There were the revolutionary events in Russia, which were later exploited in Germany in the ongoing political struggle to introduce democracy. The new order imposed in Europe by the Treaty of Versailles forced the Swedish government to come to terms with the situation that was produced and to engage with affairs on the continent to a greater degree.

The various anniversaries of the end of World War I are chiefly reported in the Swedish media with a general commentary on military struggles in the history of Europe. It could be that concentrating on these aspects of the war have caused it to be seen as an event that had little impact on Sweden as such. Several years ago a historian from Lund University, Kim Salomon, even ventured the opinion that “World War I scarcely marks a significant moment in the history of Sweden,” given that the country remained neutral, and thus remained in the “viewers’ stand” (Salomon 2008). Journalist and writer Niklas Ekdal, perhaps convinced that Swedes were poorly versed in the history of Europe, suggested that the issues of international policy of a century past could be viewed from a contemporary perspective. To help understand the genesis of the Great War, he compared the rivalry of the European powers at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the threats facing us in the early twenty-first century. To his mind, the present economic crisis would lead to economic nationalism and the closure of borders, and thus to serious political clashes and conflicts between states. According to Ekdal’s concept, the contemporary world with its several growing powers (apart from the United States, he lists China first) recalls the camps competing for political influence and raw materials in the late nineteenth century (Lagerfors 2008). Once again, Sweden was peripheral to the author’s deliberations.

Alongside these recollections of the Great War as a conflict that had no bearing on Sweden we also find a publication by the popular historian Peter Englund (known for his numerous books concentrating primarily on the history of Sweden in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries). His indepth work based on personal documents (journals, diaries, letters) entitled Stridens skönhet och sorg. Första världskriget i 212 korta kapitel [The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War] recreated the wartime reality from the point of view of ordinary soldiers from various countries and divisions, as well as a surgeon, a nurse, a bureaucrat, a German student, and an aristocrat. The author wove his own reflections on war into the narrative, which is punctuated more generously by the futility of armed conflicts than the “beauty and the sorrow” contained in the title. He attacks the blind nationalism in these conflicts and the obduracy of the politicians, who used propaganda to justify what could have been avoided. Englund states: “While there are undoubtedly conflicting interests involved, none of the problems is so insoluble as to make war necessary, and they are certainly not sufficiently acute as to make war unavoidable. This war became unavoidable at the point when people considered it unavoidable. When causes are vague and goals uncertain, however, it becomes necessary to fall back on the bloated and honeyed words of propaganda” (p. 14). He later adds that: “faced with the dark energies released by war they can only look on, dumbfounded and questioning; they stand apart from the nationalist rhetoric that has created the war and the wild hopes the war has created” (p. 29). Reviewers wrote that it was “a fascinating read about the real lives of real people at a moment when faith in the ongoing progress of civilization began to collapse” (Kälvemark 2008). The universal antiwar oratory is replicated by Lotta Lotass’ novel Red Sky (Den röda himlen, Albert Bonniers, 2008), which describes the daily lives of foot soldiers in the trenches (Bergqvist 2008).

Perhaps the only classic of academic work in recent years that broaches the subject of World War I (not counting the standard monographs on military history) is a book by Lina Sturfelt, a historian from Lund University, whose work entitled The Flash of a Flame: World War I in the Swedish Imagination (Eldens återsken. Första världskriget i svensk föreställningsvärld, Sekel Bokförlag/Isell Jinert, 2008) analyzed the image of World War I in the pages of Swedish weeklies published in 1914–1935. The articles from this epoch described the war as senseless carnage, but also as a kind of courtly saga, a holy sacrifice, a jolly picnic, or a necessary and elemental cataclysm. These images were paired with the opposing, almost unvarying depiction of Sweden’s role as a country that was perhaps somewhat indifferent, profithungry, cowardly, and effeminate, but above all, an isolated idyll and moral stronghold defending civilization from the chaos and barbarity of Europe (Första världskrigets återsken, 2008). This work was continued in the research by Sofi Qvanström on the presence of the I World War in the Swedish literature (Qvarnström 2009).

The lack of a wider discussion on the legacy of World War I from a Swedish perspective is somewhat alarming, particularly considering the fact that there is a wealth of Swedish historiography relating to 1914–1918 which proves that the period marked a watershed moment for the country (Zetterberg 1994). There is also no doubt that the events in Europe influenced development of the situation in Sweden (Andræ 1998).

As we know, during the First World War, Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries remained neutral. They took no part in the fighting, nor were they attacked by aggressors. Swedes became acquainted with the cruelties of the war only through correspondents from the battlefield and prisoners of war (mostly invalids or those seriously injured), whose exchange between the warring parties was organized by the Swedish authorities. Few Swedes volunteered to join the ranks of the various armies (Gyllenhaal & Westberg 2004). After one hundred years of peace, Swedes viewed war as unnatural. A philosopher from Lund, Hans Larsson, regarded militarism as a manifestation of man’s bestiality and barbarity. He rued the support for the war that came from Germany’s intellectual elite – to his mind it was a politically and culturally irrational phenomenon that disrupted the social order and testified to a crisis of the human personality. Larsson promoted the principle of compromise and negotiating positions at all costs, becoming a precursor of the Swedish policy of non-engagement and practicing activities of a humanitarian nature during times of armed conflict (Piotrowska 2006).

Although Sweden was not officially on either side, it did have to respond to changing conditions and the actions of the European powers. Swedish society, on the other hand, had its deeply rooted sympathies, which most certainly lay with the Central Powers, as a result of strong economic, cultural, and political ties with the Germans. Tage Erlander, who was the long-time premier of Sweden after World War II, was a secondary school student and then attended Lund University during World War I. He recalled that his father – the owner of a shop that sold blueberries – had traded with Germans during the war, and was fascinated by them. He saw them as the most efficient nation in the world, known for being industrious and frugal. He also admired the sense of community he saw as quite characteristically German (Erlander 1972, 47–48). On seeking the origins of this fascination, we might add that there was an equally deep-rooted aversion toward Russia. Any enemy of Russia was a friend. The Swedes were fascinated by the German military successes on the Eastern front in 1914. In general, the majority of Swedes, regardless of their origins and status, nursed a contempt for the states of the Triple Entente and an admiration for Germany. Recalling her childhood, family home and the attitudes of the Swedish peasants, the famous children’s writer Astrid Lindgren wrote succinctly: “Most supported the Germans and believed they would win” (Lindgren 1992, 57).

The social mood was in tune with government policy. Up until 1917 the government of Hjalmar Hammarskjöld favored the Germans: it used diplomatic methods to keep Great Britain, Italy, and Romania from joining the war, it did not recognize the Entente states’ naval blockade of Germany, and it supplied Germany with grain, animal fodder, and petroleum (Carlgren 1962). In fact, the Swedes reaped large profits by trading with both sides. They imported goods from Great Britain and France and then exported them to Germany at a high profit (Kersten 1973, 333–334; Norborg, 1993, 258–259). However, the blockade applied by Great Britain and the resultant supplies crisis of 1917 complicated the domestic situation and led to Hammarskjöld’s dismissal. Swedish policy changed, increasingly favoring the Entente, particularly after Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare, and after the “Luxburg Affair,” wherein it was revealed that a German MP had used the Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs to pass on information concerning shipping maneuvers on the Atlantic. Hammarskjöld’s successor, the moderately conservative Karl Swartz, was incapable of dealing with the growing crisis. Hunger riots broke out, during which shops were plundered; there were clashes with the police. The February Revolution in Russia further radicalized the social mood. In 1917, when the socialists planned the First of May March, they hung posters that read “May 3rd in Blood.” Many passers-by decided it was better to stay at home on the third of May, fearing a revolution could break out, as had occurred in Russia. The message, however, was more of a general reflection on the events in Europe – and the fact that the May First demonstration was being held once again with the world war raging in the background (Erlander 1972, 50).

Shortages of supplies (there was insufficient milk, butter, and potatoes; coal shipments from Germany were cut back), numerous demonstrations, riots – all this made Swedish society take a new interest in politics. There was social pressure to democratize the system, to increase civil rights and to socialize the economy (Klockare 1981, 171–175). In early June 1917, 30,000 demonstrators were only kept from entering the seat of the Riksdag through the intervention of Social Democratic Party leader Hjalmar Branting, who pacified the incensed crowd. In October 1917 there were parliamentary elections in which the Conservatives were defeated. These resulted in the formation of a new government under history professor and liberal Nils Edén. The Social Democrats also entered the cabinet, having begun to grow into the country’s most important political force. The bulk of power now shifted from the headquarters of King Gustaf V to the parliament. The monarch now consulted with the government before making any political decisions and never went against the government, so thereafter very seldom had more than a symbolic function (Norborg 1993, 100). The triumph of the parliamentarycabinet system, however, was not the end of the internal political changes.

The new government strove to reach an agreement with the allies to receive much needed help for the economy. After long negotiations this was achieved in the spring of 1918, in part due to the strong contacts between Branting’s Social Democrats and their ideological partners in France, Belgium, and Great Britain. Supplies came in exchange for providing the allies with access to half of the Swedish merchant fleet. On balance, Sweden came out of the vicissitudes of wartime at an economic profit. One historian has even called the country a “neutral victor” (Koblik 1972). At any rate, the social mood had improved. Yet the postulate to democratize was everpresent in public debate and, as historian Ivar Andersson has claimed, this was not because of the successes of radical parties in the elections: “Views on the issue themselves had been radicalized.” This was sparked by trading scandals, which undermined those who treated money as a measure of man’s intellectual and moral values, and consequently, negated the effects of the property qualification in the parliamentary elections (Andersson 1967, 320–321). The decisive factor, however, was the general wave of European radicalism. This appeared to peak in 1917, but it was only with the end of the war in November 1918 that the “democratic breakthrough” occurred.

The revolution in Germany, the collapse of the imperial army and the downfall of Emperor Wilhelm II turned out to be of capital importance for Sweden’s future. These events caused conservative circles to worry a great deal about a local revolution. When the Germans requested a truce, the Bishop of Karlstad, Johan Alfred Eklund, declared that his political world was collapsing (Erlander 1972, 49). A capitulatory mood was tangible among right-wing politicians. The Social Democrats, on the other hand, sought to use these favorable circumstances to achieve their ends, starting with universal suffrage.

Ernst Wigforss, later the long-term Minister of Finance in the social-democratic governments of the inter-war period, recalled the last months of 1918 as “the most emotional period that his generation experienced.” He had in mind the legal changes to the constitution that compelled the privileged who held power to consent to introducing general elections. Wigforss stressed that this was not entirely of their free will, as it was done under the pressure of the revolutionary events in Europe, which echoed through Sweden itself (Wigforss 1951, 94). Nonetheless, Branting was committed to staying the legal course and bringing about change through the existing legal system. A social democratic expert in international policy named Östen Undén predicted on 11 November that the defeat of Germany would render the Swedish right wing “docile” (Wigforss 1951, 95). News from Russia only enhanced the danger of the situation and made the specter of Bolshevism loom large (Palmstierna 1953, 223). The leading extreme conservative Ernst Hederstierna spoke openly of his fear of a revolution, which could have provoked the right-wing’s obstinate refusal to change the constitution. Hugo Hamilton, one of the leading liberal parliamentarians, noted a meeting in the seat of the First Chamber with Hederstierna and another conservative, Otto Silfverschiöld, on 2 December 1918: “It is characteristic of the present situation that two such conservatives were utterly cognizant of the fact that any kind of compromise was impossible and that the right wing had no choice but to capitulate” (Hamilton 1956, 343). Social Democratic activist Torsten Nothin wrote in his memoirs of a “revolution of the fall of 1918,” stating that “although there was no open revolt, the mood was revolutionary,” adding that it was said at the time that “nobody prepares a revolution, it comes all on its own” (Nothin 1955, 14).

In effect, the political struggle ended in a compromise, though public opinion took the forecast constitution change as a loss for the right wing, who were succumbing to the fear of revolution (Klockare, 1981, 166). According to the above-cited Nothin, it was the resolutions of November 1918 that made the danger of a revolution subside. Apparently King Gustaf V was even prepared to flee abroad at a moment’s notice, were the situation to get out of hand. At any rate, he was shaken by the news from Germany, and he was frightened of the import of Bolshevism. It is known that he mediated conversations between the political parties in order to reach an agreement (Nothin 1955, 15–18; Klockare, 1981, 165; Franzén, 1985, 326). He was certainly concerned by the threat of a general strike (Franzén, 1985, 345). By the same token, there were Social Democrats who did not believe that things would come to a revolution. Gustav Möller, for example, confessed that the Social Democratic Party was merely using scare tactics when it threatened to stop at nothing, as the actions taken by Branting and his colleagues were aiming to reach a compromise (Leche-Löfgren 1941, 162). Historians agree, however, that a revolutionary mood reigned in Sweden in 1917, while by the fall of 1918 the threat of revolution did not truly exist (Franzén 1986, 362–366).

The reform of the new suffrage law drew on for three years. In May 1919 there were general elections for the lower chamber of parliament. In the upper house – the Landsting – an indirect election system was meant to be in effect. First, communal elections were held, then local government institutions were meant to send their representatives to parliament. Through this reform the Social Democratic Party became the most powerful, both in the lower chamber and in the upper Riksdag. The more radical social democrats pushed for a one-chamber parliament, a republic, and a workers’ council system, but the party leadership did not agree to any of these. The young social democrats – including Zeth Höglund and the later long-time premier of Sweden, Per Albin Hansson – even demanded a dictatorship of the proletariat (Cornell 1998, 116–117). Branting publicly declared that he wanted a democracy, not a dictatorship (Franzén, 1985, 325). The leading democrat, Erik Palmstierna, joyfully recorded the political events of the last weeks of 1918 in his journal: “The Swedish nation has a personality after all! Quiet and unceremonious, almost indifferent, but under great pressure it has accomplished a great thing and made a true achievement. Now no one speaks of constitutional reform, and yet this was a feat that will build a foundation for a new epoch in our inner lives. [...] We can feel a great, cultured sense of admiration in our nation when it so swiftly and calmly solves problems that lead to bloody conflicts in other nations!” (Palmstierna 1953, 267). The democratic breakthrough in Sweden did, in fact, take place without any serious socio-political shock waves.

Among the changes were social reforms, which included employer-paid accident insurance at work and the eight-hour work day. The first social democratic government was instituted in 1920, headed by Hjalmar Branting, who created the first Ministry of Social Aid, introduced a progressive income tax, increased the tax burden on large corporations, and decreased the period of military service. In 1926 the Social Democrats were voted out, only to regain power a few years later, and have dominated the Swedish political scene for decades. In 1921 women received the right to vote (we should recall that as late as 1918 a leader of the conservative party, Arvid Lindman, explained to the Riksdag that a woman’s place was in the home, and not in the state’s political life, and that this was to the advantage of both women and the country [Franzén 1986, 354]). The very same year saw the abolition of capital punishment (a prisoner was executed for the last time in 1910 with the swipe of an ax). In 1922 there was a prohibition referendum, but its supporters were overruled. Alcohol production and consumption remained legal, though some restrictions were introduced under the Dr. Ivan Bratt System, i.e. the rationing and control of alcohol consumption.

The results of the Great War and the changes in the political map of Europe left the Swedes with new economic and political challenges in the international arena. The end of the war brought Sweden a relief of sorts, as the German blockade of the country was lifted, and the allies ended the blockade of the Baltic. Historians point out that the economic problems in the blockade years encouraged Scandinavian countries to cooperate on a more regional basis (Piotrowski 2006, 121), but the key trading partners remained Germany and Great Britain. This is why Stockholm eagerly awaited a peace treaty. Only after its signing were trade restrictions with Germany to be annulled.

Above all, however, Sweden’s new strategic position after World War I is the major subject of study. Russia was practically pushed out of the Baltic Sea, while Germany was sufficiently weakened to abandon its vision of order for the region. In December 1918 the states of the Entente suggested that Sweden maintain stability in the Baltic region itself. The government in Stockholm was to stand at the forefront of a block of new, smaller states, notably Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and to prevent chaos in Northern Europe through integration. For Erik Palmstierna, such a special role for Sweden in the Baltic region initially seemed “unnatural” (Palmstierna 1953, 259). These first signals from the capitals of the victorious European powers indicated that Sweden was standing before dilemmas which demanded unprecedented decisions in foreign policy.

The restitution of the old countries of Central-Eastern Europe and the creation of new ones was observed with interest, but there seemed no reason to meddle in their affairs. The civil war in Finland, however, was the subject of keen attention. Many Swedish volunteers took the side of the “Whites” in this Finnish war for independence. The hope was that Finland would survive as an independent state, strengthening Sweden’s strategic position in the long run. Poland’s bid for independence was seen in a similar light. The creation of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, on the other hand, were viewed with skepticism. Swedish politicians could be heard commenting that Russia would soon reclaim these territories (Larsson 1996, 42–44).

There was also resistance to the projects of the victorious states to carve up German territory and impose severe reparations on the Germans. Hjalmar Branting saw imperial Germany as a threat to European peace, but a democratic Germany, where power had been seized by the social democrats, was ideologically close to him. This is why he appealed to the allied powers not to obstruct “Germany’s first steps as a free nation” (Franzén 1985, 322). Small wonder, then, that he criticized the Treaty of Versailles. Stockholm was particularly critical of the final settlement of the German borders. The Swedes believed that giving Poland Pomerania and Silesia would only provoke conflict between the nations, aggravating any existing animosity between Poles and Germans. Poland’s excessive ambitions were seen as a festering evil. For the Swedes, this meant ending the war without a real peace settlement, as a new arena was created to continue old conflicts and start new ones. They were not only concerned about Germany, but also about the civil war in Ireland, the Italian/Croatian struggle for Fiume, and other border issues in Central Europe.

Ultimately Sweden recognized the new political order in Europe and entered the League of Nations (Gihl 1951, 393–404; Agrell 2000, 15–20). At the same time, it criticized the decision and actions of the League and the Western powers, which it saw as unwarranted or unjust. On the one hand, the ideas, associated with the League, of acting to avoid war and a general disarmament plan fitted the mandates of the social democrats. On the other, however, the League’s methods were often viewed with distrust. Swedes were most pained by the Council of the League of Nations’ 1921 resolution to award the Åland Islands to Finland. Their Swedish population wanted to join Sweden on the basis of national self-determination, but the Western states saw international policy concerns as more important. There was no desire to weaken this small neighbor of Russia, which was still in the process of bolstering its statehood (the shift in Swedish public opinion leading to the final acceptance of this decision was honored in the person of Branting, who was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922).

Moreover, membership of the League created further dilemmas, as it required active participation in organizational affairs, and participation in discussions on problems often more remote than those that Stockholm was used to. The question kept on arising: Does participation in the League of Nations mean abandoning neutrality, and even if it does not, what are the limits of neutrality in a system of collective security?

As such, the end of the Great War was an important historical moment for Sweden, in terms of both domestic and foreign policy. The battles between the European powers left their mark on this country. The revolutionary events in Russia, and then in Germany, were exploited in an ongoing political struggle to introduce democracy. The new post-Versailles order in Europe forced the Swedish government to come to terms with the new situation and join in with the Continent’s affairs to a larger degree. It is another matter that – as local observers confess – the years 1914–1918 have slowly vanished from the Swedish “cultural memory” and, if anything, it is World War Two that is most vividly remembered.


Paweł Jaworski. Researcher and instructor at the History Institute of the University of Wrocław. His research interests include the history of Poland and the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the history of Scandinavia and Polish-Scandinavian relations, the history of Central-Eastern Europe, and Czechoslovakia in particular, and the history of diplomacy and international relations. He has written Independent Poland and Scandinavia 1918–1939, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego, Wrocław 2001 and Dreamers and Opportunists: Polish-Swedish Relations from 1939–1945, Wydawnictwo IPN, Warsaw 2009.

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