Here in Sweden November 11th is not a memorial day, because we did not fight (at least not officially) in the two World Wars of the last century. But I have lived in other countries and have thereby learned the importance of the date for most Europeans and Americans. So they go from the joy of celebrating freedom on November 9 (see my previous post) to the remembrance of the fallen on November 11.
World War I: four years of military bloodshed followed by a lethal pandemic. The old order breaking down and a new is born. Three authoritarian empires shattered and the map of Europe redrawn. Seven to nine (depending on how you count) new independent states were born from the ruins. The old ideals discredited. What people considered “normalcy” could not be restored after November 11, 1918.
Sweden did not suffer warfare in those years. Instead we stumbled through in our usual way, bending like the reeds in the storm to survive. There was hunger, but no starvation; there was occasional unrest, but no serious violence in the streets; there was profound political change, but no revolution; the influenza pandemic killed many people, but society handled the crisis. Sweden has its WW2 myth, the collective story of a people steadfastly united in the face of mortal danger, but we have cultivated no such notions about the WW1 years. Instead, 1914-18 was a conflict-ridden time which attracted scant attention by later generations, perhaps because we have little to be overtly proud about.
But it was an important period: it saw the victory of parliamentary democracy. The liberals and the social democrats realized a program for constitutional reform which among other things entailed general and equal suffrage and the abolition of the royal executive prerogatives. The conservatives disapproved, but acquiesced because they saw no other option for the country — thereby being sidelined in national politics for many decades.
The militant nationalism that led to the carnage at Verdun and Somme never seems to have flourished here. Sweden was a poor country in those days: in the decades before the war 20% of the population had emigrated to the United States and other countries to escape the misery. At that time Chicago was the home of more Swedes than Gothenburg, our country’s second largest city.
So what memory should a Swede honor? I wish to keep in mind that our modern democracy is less than 100 years old. It was established through a protracted non-violent struggle by a Liberal+Socialdemocrat alliance, two movements sharing a belief in the equality and dignity of all individuals. And one reason why our democracy has been so stable may be that we have a tradition of peaceful evolution rather than forceful revolution. The conservatives were not coerced, even though they were reluctant to join the march. And therefore we were spared the lingering bitterness that marred the post-1918 political developments of so many other countries.