The Vikings -- Although documented by little other than legend, the Viking age (roughly A.D. 700-1000) is the Swedish epoch that has most captured the attention of the world. Before this period, Sweden had been relatively isolated, although travelers from the south brought some artifacts from different civilizations.
The base of Viking power at the time was the coastal regions around and to the north of what is now Stockholm. Either as plunderers, merchants, or slave traders -- perhaps a combination of all three -- Swedish Vikings maintained contact with the East, both Russia and Constantinople, and with parts of western Europe, including Britain and Ireland. Swedish Vikings joined their brother Vikings in Norway and Denmark in pillaging, trading with, or conquering parts of Ireland and the British Isles, their favorite targets.
Christianity & the Middle Ages -- With the aid of missions sent from Britain and northern Germany, Christianity gradually made headway, having been introduced in 829 by St. Anskar, a Frankish missionary. It did not become widespread, however, until the 11th century. In 1008, Olaf Skottkonung, the ruler of a powerful kingdom in northern Sweden, converted to Christianity, but later in the century, the religion experienced hardships, with civil wars and a pagan reaction against the converting missionaries.
Ruling from 1130 to 1156, King Sverker united the lands of Svear and Gotar, which later became the heart of modern Sweden. A strong centralized government developed under this king.
Christianity finally became almost universally accepted under Eric IX, who ruled until 1160. He led a crusade to Finland and later became the patron saint of Sweden. By 1164, his son, Charles VII, had founded the first archbishopric at Uppsala. The increasing influence of this new religion led to the death of the Viking slave trade, and many Vikings turned to agriculture as the basis of their economy. A landowning aristocracy eventually arose.
Sweden's ties with the Hanseatic ports of Germany grew stronger, and trade with other Baltic ports flourished at the city of Visby, on the island of Gotland. Sweden traded in copper, pelts, iron, and butter, among other products.
Sweden's greatest medieval statesman was Birger Jarl, who ruled from 1248 to 1266; during his reign, he abolished serfdom and founded Stockholm. When his son, Magnus Laduläs, became king in 1275, he granted extensive power to the Catholic Church and founded a hereditary aristocracy.
An Intra-Nordic Union -- Magnus VII of Norway (1316-74) was only 3 years old when he was elected to the Swedish throne, but his election signaled a recognition of the benefits of increased cooperation within the Nordic world. During his reign, there emerged distinct social classes, including the aristocracy; the Catholic clergy (which owned more than 20% of the land); peasant farmers and laborers; and a commercial class of landowners, foresters, mine owners, and merchants. The fortunes and power of this last group were based on trade links with a well-organized handful of trading cities (the Hanseatic League) scattered throughout Germany and along the Baltic coastline. As trade increased, these cities (especially Visby, on the island of Gotland) and their residents flourished, and the power of the Hanseatic League grew.
In 1350, the Black Death arrived in Sweden, decimating the population. This proved to be the greatest catastrophe experienced by the Western world up to that time. Imported from Asia, after wreaking havoc in China and Turkistan, it is thought to have spread to Sweden through trade with Britain. The plague seriously hindered Sweden's development, although the country didn't suffer as much as nations such as England.
In 1389, the Swedish aristocracy, fearing the growing power of the Germans within the Hanseatic League, negotiated for an intra-Nordic union with Denmark and the remaining medieval fiefdoms in Norway and Finland. The birth process of this experimental union began in the Swedish city of Kalmar, which gave its name in 1397 to the brief but farsighted Union of Kalmar. A leading figure in its development was the Danish queen Margaretha, who was already queen of Denmark and Norway when the aristocracy of Sweden offered her the throne in 1389. Despite the ideals of the union, it collapsed after about 40 years because of a revolt by merchants, miners, and peasants in defense of Sweden's trade links with the Hanseatic League, coupled with power struggles between Danish and Swedish nobles.
Although the union was a failure, one of its legacies was the establishment -- partly as a compromise among different political factions -- of a Riksdag (parliament) made up of representatives from various towns and regions; the peasant classes also had some limited representation.
Queen Margaretha's heir (her nephew, Eric of Pomerania; 1382-1459) became the crowned head of three countries (Norway, Denmark, and Sweden). He spent most of his reign fighting with the Hanseatic League. Deposed in 1439, he was replaced by Christopher of Bavaria, whose early death in 1448 led to a major conflict and the eventual dissolution of the Kalmar Union. The Danish king, Christian II, invaded Stockholm in 1520, massacred the leaders who opposed him, and established an unpopular reign; there was much civil disobedience until the emergence of the Vasa dynasty, which expelled the Danes.
The Vasa Dynasty -- In May 1520, a Swedish nobleman, Gustavus Vasa, returned from captivity in Denmark and immediately began to plan for the military expulsion of the Danes from Sweden. In 1523, he captured Stockholm from its Danish rulers, won official recognition for Swedish independence, and was elected king of Sweden.
In a power struggle with the Catholic Church, he confiscated most Church-held lands (vastly increasing the power of the state overnight) and established Lutheranism as the national religion. He commissioned a complete translation of the Bible and other religious works into Swedish, and forcefully put down local uprisings in the Swedish provinces. He established the right of succession for his offspring and decreed that his son, Eric XIV, would follow him as king (which he did, in 1543).
Although, at first, Eric was a wise ruler, his eventual downfall was due, in part, to his growing conflicts with Swedish noblemen and a marriage to his unpopular mistress, Karin Mansdotter. (Previously, he had unsuccessfully negotiated marriage with the English queen, Elizabeth I.) Eric eventually went insane before he was replaced by Johan III.
The next 50 years were marked by Danish plots to regain control of Sweden and Swedish plots to conquer Poland, Estonia, and the Baltic trade routes leading to Russia. A dynastic link to the royal families of Poland led to the ascension of Sigismund (son of the Swedish king Johan III) in Warsaw. When his father died, Sigismund became king of both Sweden and Poland simultaneously. His Catholicism, however, was opposed by Sweden, which expelled him in 1598. He was followed by Karl (Charles) IX (1566-1632), who led Sweden into a dangerous and expensive series of wars with Denmark, Russia, and its former ally, Poland.
By 1611, as Sweden was fighting simply to survive, Gustavus II Adolphus (1594-1632) ascended the throne. Viewed today as a brilliant politician and military leader, he was one of the century's most stalwart Protestants at a time when political alliances often were formed along religious lines. After organizing an army composed mainly of farmers and field hands (financed by money from the Falun copper mines), he secured Sweden's safety and, with his armies, penetrated as far south as Bavaria. He died fighting against the Hapsburg emperor's Catholic army near the city of Lützen in 1632.
When he died, his heir and only child, Christina (1626-89), was 6 years old. During her childhood, power was held by the respected Swedish statesman Axel Oxenstierna, who continued the Thirty Years' War in Germany for another 16 years. It finally concluded with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Christina, who did not want to pursue war and had converted to Catholicism (against the advice of her counselors), abdicated the throne in 1654 in favor of her cousin, Charles X Gustav (1622-60).
After his rise to power, Charles X expelled the Danes from many of Sweden's southern provinces, establishing the Swedish borders along the approximate lines of today. He also invaded and conquered Poland (1655-56), but his territorial ambitions were thwarted by a national uprising. He later defeated the Danes (1657-58), and at the time of his death, Sweden was ringed by enemies. Charles X was succeeded by Charles XI (1655-97), whose reign was fiscally traumatic. The endless wars with Denmark (and other kingdoms in northern Germany) continued. However, an even greater problem was the growing power of wealthy Swedish nobles, who had amassed (usually through outright purchase from the cash-poor monarchy) an estimated 72% of Sweden's land. In a bitter and acrimonious process, Charles redistributed the land into approximately equal shares held by the monarchy, the nobles, and Sweden's independent farmers. The position of small landowners has remained secure in Sweden ever since, although the absolute monarch gained increased power. With Charles's newfound wealth, he greatly strengthened the country's military power.
Charles XII (1682-1718) came to the throne at the age of 4 with his mother, the queen, as regent. Denmark, Poland, and Russia allied themselves against Sweden in the Great Northern War, which broke out in 1700. Charles invaded Russia but was defeated; he escaped to Turkey, where he remained a prisoner for 4 years. In 1714, he returned to Sweden to continue fighting but was killed in 1718. Charles XII presided over the collapse of the Swedish empire.
Under Frederick I (1676-1751) -- though chancellor Count Arvid Horn (1664-1742) had the real power -- Sweden regained some of its former prestige. Horn formed an alliance with England, Prussia, and France against Russia. The Hattar (Hats) and Mossorna (Caps) were the two opposing parties in the Riksdag then, and the Hats began a war with Russia in 1741. The conflict continued through the reign of the next king, Adolphus Frederick (1710-71).
Although he initiated many reforms, encouraged the arts, and transformed the architectural landscape of Stockholm, Gustavus III (1746-92) revived the absolute power of the monarchy, perhaps as a reaction against the changes effected by the French Revolution. He was assassinated by a group of fanatical noblemen while attending a ball at the opera.
The 19th Century -- The next king was Gustavus IV (1778-1837). Because he hated Napoleon, Gustavus IV led Sweden into the Third Coalition against France (1805-07). For his efforts, he lost Stralsund and Swedish Pomerania; in the wars against Russia and Denmark, Sweden lost Finland in 1808. The next year, following an uprising, Gustavus IV was overthrown and died in exile.
A new constitution was written in 1808, granting the Riksdag equal power with the king. Under these provisions, Charles XIII (1748-1818), the uncle of the deposed king, became the new monarch.
Napoleon arranged for his aide, Jean Bernadotte (1763-1844), to become heir to the Swedish throne. Bernadotte won a war with Denmark, forcing that country to cede Norway to Sweden (1814). Upon the death of Charles, Bernadotte became king of Sweden and Norway, ruling as Charles XIV. During his reign, Sweden adopted a policy of neutrality, and the royal line that he established is still on the throne today. Charles XIV was succeeded by his son, Oscar I (1799-1859), who introduced many reforms, including freedom of worship and of the press.
The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century changed the face of Sweden. The Social Democratic Party was launched in 1889, leading to a universal suffrage movement. All males acquired the right to vote in 1909.
The 20th Century -- Norway declared its independence in 1905, and Sweden accepted the secession. Sweden adhered to a policy of neutrality during World War I, although many Swedes were sympathetic to the German cause. Many Swedish volunteers enlisted in the White Army during the Russian Revolution of 1917.
In 1921, women gained the right to vote, and an 8-hour workday was established. The Social Democratic Party continued to grow in power, and, after 1932, a welfare state was instituted.
Although Sweden offered weapons and volunteers to Finland during its Winter War against the Soviet Union in 1939, it declared its neutrality during World War II. Sweden evoked long-lived resentment from its neighbor, Norway, whose cities were leveled by the Nazi troops that had been granted free passage across Swedish territory. Under heavy Allied threats against Sweden in 1943 and 1944, Nazi troop transports through the country eventually were halted. Throughout the war, Sweden accepted many impoverished and homeless refugees. The rescue attempts of Hungarian Jews, led by Swedish businessman and diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, have been recounted in books and films.
Sweden joined the United Nations in 1946 but refused to join NATO in 1949. Rather more disturbing was Sweden's decision to return to the Soviet Union many German and Baltic refugees who had opposed Russia during the war. They were presumably killed on Stalin's orders.
Dag Hammarskjöld, as secretary-general of the United Nations in 1953, did much to help Sweden regain the international respect that it had lost because of its wartime policies. In 1961, toward the end of his second 5-year term, he was killed in an airplane crash.
Sweden continued to institute social reforms in the 1950s and 1960s, including the establishment of a national health service.
At only 27 years old, Karl XVI Gustaf became king of Sweden in 1973, following the death of his grandfather, Gustaf VI Adolf. (The king's father had been killed in an airplane crash when the king was still a child.) In 1976, he married Silvia Sommerlath, who was born in Germany. King Karl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia have three children.
The Social Democrats ruled until 1976, when they were toppled by a Center/Liberal/Moderate coalition. The Social Democrats returned in 1982 but lost their majority in 1985 and had to rely on Communist support to enact legislation.
The leader of their party since 1969, Olof Palme was prime minister until his assassination outside a movie theater in Stockholm in 1986. A pacifist, he was a staunch critic of the United States, especially during the Vietnam War. In spite of an arrest, the murder has not been satisfactorily resolved.
Following the assassination of Olof Palme, vice prime minister Ingvar Carlsson was shoehorned into power, in accordance with provisions within the Social Democratic Party's bylaws. There he remained as an honest but dull caretaker until the end of Palme's elected term, devoted to promoting the party platforms of bountiful social benefits coupled with staggeringly high taxes.
In the early 1990s, Sweden faced some of the most troubling economic problems in recent memory, foremost of which was slow economic growth. Inflation was severe. In 1992, the government, then led by Conservative prime minister Carl Bildt, experienced a currency crisis that made headlines around the world. In September 1994, the Social Democrats, again spearheaded by Ingvar Carlsson, were returned to office after a brief interim of Conservative rule. The election brought the proportion of women in the Swedish Parliament to 41%, the highest in the world.
In 1995, Sweden, along with Finland and Austria, was granted full membership in the European Union, thereby providing a context for much-needed economic growth. In 1996, Prime Minister Carlsson, citing advanced age and a growing distaste for public life (in which he was the butt of many jokes that compared his appearance to that of an old shoe), retired midway through the elected term of his party.
Following well-established parliamentary procedures, fellow Social Democrat Goeran Persson took his place. A highly capable former finance minister, Persson appealed to Swedes with a platform that advocated cutting taxes and curtailing government spending. Despite personal talent, Persson has been judged as a capable but remote administrator whose most visible drawback is a chilly, somewhat arrogant personal style that has provoked murmurs of discontent among some members of the Swedish electorate.
Just as its own image as one of the most progressive nations on earth was being questioned, a chilling chapter from Sweden's past was revealed in 1997. Sweden had as many as 60,000 of its citizens sterilized, some involuntarily, from 1935 to 1976. The ideas behind the sterilization program had similarities to Nazi ideas of racial superiority. Singled out were those judged to be inferior, flawed by bad eyesight, mental retardation, and otherwise "undesirable" racial characteristics. The state wanted to prevent these genetic characteristics from being passed on. This law wasn't overturned until 1976. The respected newspaper Dagens Nyheter stirred national debate and worldwide headlines when it ran a series of articles about the former program.
As if this weren't bad enough, Sweden's once-lustrous reputation received more battering in 1997 with revelations of wartime iron exports that fed Hitler's military machine and of postwar Swedish hoarding of German gold, much of it looted from Nazi victims, which it received in payment for the metal.
In an election in September 1998, Social Democrats, still led by Goeran Persson, remained in power on a pledge to increase spending on the country's huge welfare program. The party secretary of the Moderates, Gunner Hokmark, found little comfort in the election, claiming, "It puts Swedes in a left lock that is stronger than any other country of Europe."
Postmillenium -- The government presently spends 46% of the gross national product on welfare, more than any other industrialized country. The income taxes required to support this public outlay take 59% of the pay of people. Employers pay up to 41% of employee remuneration into social security and pension plans. The former Communist Party now is called the Left Party, and it has steadily been growing in approval with voters.
In May 2000, Sweden, for the first time in its history, became physically linked with the Continent by the Øresund Bridge. Construction on the 16km (10-mile) motor and railway link began in 1995. Both Queen Margrethe of Denmark and King Carl Gustaf of Sweden inaugurated the span that links the Scandinavian peninsula with Europe.
The bridge gives the island of Zealand (the eastern part of Denmark) and Scania (the southern part of Sweden) a shared bridge, serving some 3.5 million inhabitants in the area.
The Øresund region, which encompasses parts of both Sweden and Denmark, is the largest domestic market in northern Europe -- larger than Stockholm and equal in size to Berlin, Hamburg, and Amsterdam combined. Built at a cost of 24 billion SEK ($3 billion), it is the largest combined rail and road tunnel in the world.
In theory, a vehicle now can travel in roughly a straight line from the Arctic coast of Norway to the Mediterranean shores of Spain. For centuries, it has been a dream to link the Continent from its northern tip to its southern toe. The "Øresund Fixed Link" spans the icy Øresund Sound between the cities of Copenhagen and Malmö.
In 2002, Sweden again became one of the world leaders in advanced social legislation when parliament voted to let same-sex couples adopt children. Under the new bill, gays registered in a legal partnership, allowed in Sweden since 1995, can be considered joint adoptive parents. One of the partners will also be able to adopt the child of another.
While Sweden is hardly viewed as a Banana Republic, where its leaders are routinely assassinated, violence against public officials has come to Scandinavia: One of the attacks in modern Sweden occurred on September 11, 2003, when Ann Lindh, Sweden's minister for foreign affairs, was stabbed and mortally wounded while on a personal errand. She stood as a role model for many younger women and a representative of a modern, outward-looking Swede.
In a surprise political move, Sweden in September of 2006 swept away 12 years of center-left government, voting to reject its longtime prime minister, Goran Persson, in favor of a conservative candidate who has pledged to revise the welfare state. A right-of-center coalition, led by the leader of the Moderate Party, Fredrik Reinfeldt, beat the Social Democrats. Because most Swedes prize political stability, Reinfeldt took pains to cast his plan as a "fine-tuning" rather than a full-scale overhaul of Sweden's economic model.
Unlike residents of some countries of the world, most Swedes, according to surveys, seem content with their big-government, high-tax system. However, joblessness remains an issue with many young Swedes, who have begun migrating to oil-rich Norway for better jobs with more pay.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.