Saturday, December 1, 2012

On "A History of Scandinavia" by T. K. Derry **

I came to this book in an effort to get some basic history of Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. It was probably not the best book to start with. It's a primer all right, but it's for someone who already knows European history from the dawn of time to 1976 with some amount of precision. I found the last hundred pages or so much easier to read, but that's because I know my history slightly better from World War II on. I know, for example, who Hitler. But in some earlier chapters, the author has a penchant to drop names and events in, and one is left wonder who dat? what dat? In other words, there are quite a few assumptions about the reader's cultural knowledge, which makes me wonder who exactly the audience for a book such as this is? Someone reviewing Scandinavian history perhaps?

I did learn quite a few facts, however--more than I realized, I came to see, as I ran down some of the book's details in conversation with a friend. One of the most interesting little tidbits was one I can't find now in the book. It had to do with emigration to the United States from Norway in the late 1800s. Nearly 3 percent of the population left for the New World, but the most amazing statistic is the one I can't find--how many young adults left; as I recall, it was some kind of unbelievable share of the population, like one in three (that isn't the number, however--ugh!). I can't begin to imagine so many of my colleagues taking off for a new land.

The history of Scandinavia is a history much like that of the world's. It is a history of war, and in that sense, it is pretty boring. One battle after another after another. It's also disheartening. Why can't we just stop fighting each other? What exactly does all this killing accomplish? Perhaps, that amount of war does come as a bit of surprise, however, because the recent history of Scandinavia is much more benign--these peaceful people who simply enjoy hanging out.

The book starts with tales of where the Scandinavians derived. No one really knows. Some came up from the Black Sea area apparently, but there were also people already a long time in the area. The land itself apparently takes its name from a misspelling/mishearing from a Roman historian, which I found kind of funny.

I was hoping to learn more about the interaction between early Britain and Scandinavia--and that is here--but the density of the text prevented me from really soaking in the information. The Scandinavians moved around the northern part of Europe; they shared royal blood with some of the Brits.

Early Scandinavians, however, didn't have royals in the sense that we think of them today. The royal class was based on worthiness--not so much heredity--which meant that when a king died, there was a kind of struggle to define who would take the leader's place. With time this changed a bit.

We tend to really first think of Scandinavians around the time the Vikings enter the scene. These were a piratical people primarily, so there was not a big push to settle new lands.

It's not entirely by accident that Denmark took the lead in this regard. It's the most fertile of the countries; Sweden has just about 10 percent of its land available for farming, Norway just 3 percent. So the real food producers were in Denmark. Sweden would have to rely on forestry, Norway on fishing. Not until industrialization took hold would Sweden really begin to take the lead (it has incredible mining operations in the north).

Christianity entered the area. The kindgoms, only for a short hundred years or so, were united in the Middle Ages, but mostly they have been distinct through most of history. Denmark settled Norway and held on to that land till the early 1800s, though there was some amount of self-government in Norway. Iceland also was settled by the Danes (the Vikings, really) and remained part of Denmark until World War II. Finland, for much of its history, was part of Sweden.

A war in the nineteenth century switched things up. The result was that Russia took Finland into its own sphere. Sweden ended up with Norway. And Denmark got essentially very little.

Movement toward independence was actually sparked in many ways by prosperity. The better off people were, the more they wanted to separate from the mother nation.

The Scandinavians made the move toward the modern socialist-type states during the Depression years and have continued down this path since. The nations are some of the best educated (large segments of the population began attending universities earlier than in most nations), and some of the egalitarian (women gained the right to vote fairly early; taxation on wealth is fairly high). The nations sat out World War I; being at the edge of Europe, such was easily possible--and neutrality allowed them to make bundles of money selling goods to warring states. World War II would not be so kind. Sweden alone was able to remain neutral. Denmark was invaded by Germany, Norway also (though it had a Allied government in exile). Finland was invaded by Russia and then snuggled up to Germany in order to expel the Russians. Iceland became a staging ground for the Americans. But recovery from the war was quick, despite the great amount of damage done to most of the nations.

No comments: