In many countries History is taught in order (partly) to inculcate patriotism. This has meant prioritising one’s own country’s history over others’, and in some cases teaching and learning one’s own history alone. I’ve always been proud that History teaching in British schools and universities from ‘A’-Level onwards has not, generally speaking, followed that pattern. This was one of Margaret Thatcher’s complaints against the new National History (school) Curriculum that was drawn up in the 1980s (I had a very small part in that): that it wasn’t ‘British’ enough. (Her other objection was that it seemed to have jettisoned the rote learning of lists of Kings and Queens with their dates, in favour of critical thought.) My own (Mediaeval) A-level course was as much continental European as it was English; and when I got to university I found that it was impossible to take more than 30-40% of my History courses in British history alone. Most of the other choices were in continental European history, or American. That suited me at the time. It should have suited the ‘patriots’ too; for what better way is there of understanding your own country’s history than by studying it in the context of others’?
I had one gripe then; and I’ve added another to it since. Apart from American, which was seen as a kind of extension of British history, we were able to study very little extra-European history. There was one exception: imperial history, called – tellingly – ‘The Expansion of Europe’; which in any case was not highly rated, but only offered as an alternative for those who weren’t bright enough to cope with its alternative, which was the history of European political thought. (That’s what I opted for. Hence I became an imperial historian without ever having studied imperial history as an undergraduate.) So the syllabus still seemed to me to be Eurocentric, even if it wasn’t Anglocentric; that is, ‘white men’s history’ – yes, just men – alone. I hasten to add that this was many years ago, in the 1960s. I guess it will have changed now.
I wonder whether my other gripe has been addressed? That concerns the geographical limits that were placed even on the European history we were given to study; which comprised, almost exclusively, the histories of France, Germany and Italy – or what later became those nations. Other countries occasionally got a look in if they had fought with any of those nations, or with Britain, or had been invaded by them; so Russia, the Low Countries, the Balkans and the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires were given walk-on roles from time to time. But all the serious action revolved around the core European countries of France, Germany and Italy (together of course with Britain); with what we might call the continental periphery being almost totally neglected. That included the Iberian peninsular, Greece, and the whole of Scandinavia.
It’s the Scandinavian absence that has, naturally enough, struck me most since I started living (partly) in Sweden twenty years ago; not only the omission of the Nordic countries from our history syllabuses, but also the lack of any serious reporting from there in our current British media. The Swedish press has been covering our recent political shenanigans in great detail – and with an accuracy and objectivity we don’t often find in the British press. The only time Scandinavia is prominently mentioned in our papers, however, is when there’s a massacre there; or if it corroborates our stereotypes of the place: IKEA, leggy blondes, the ‘Nordic model’, and so on. When we want to make political or economic comparisons between our own national situation and foreign ones, it’s nearly always to the ‘core’ nations that we turn, even when Scandinavian ones might be more apt. The aptest one would be with Sweden’s (and for all I know Norway’s and Denmark’s) political, social welfare and economic systems. You occasionally find references to Swedish child-care, for example. But these are mere mentions, footnotes, never properly explored in the British discourse. If they were, they could teach us a lot.
Similarly, even we ‘intellectuals’ know very little about Scandinavia’s cultural life, apart from Ibsen, Bergman, Grieg, Abba, and The Scream. When I switch my computer on, it gives out the first chord (I think) of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony; leading me to wonder each time: what has become of Sibelius’s stock now? In my youth he was one of the great modern symphonists; now he is rarely heard on British radio. Is this another example of our (British) marginalisation of the North?
When I left university I still had only the vaguest idea of Scandinavia. One of my father’s friends was a nudist, and went to Sweden to practice his hobby. That coloured my image at the time. We heard stories of young Swedish women – mainly au pairs – being particularly liberal with their sexual favours. We assumed it was cold there all the year round. We also admired Sweden for its internationalism, anti-imperialism and pacifism. In the Labour Party we had this glorious vision of the ‘Swedish model’ of society, our ‘shining city on the hill’, which we hankered after in Britain, but without knowing much about it.
Meeting Kajsa in 1995 was my first proper introduction to the country. I can’t – mustn’t – say I was disappointed (where are all those nudists?), but I was surprised. Its women are not particularly promiscuous. Indeed, the Swedes are rather straight-laced about these things. (It comes out in their particular brand of feminism.) Its summers can be hot, and even its winters seem warmer (because drier) than ours. Historically, the country is not at all innocent of aggression, militarism, imperialism, slavery and collaboration with tyrants (in World War II). No country is perfect. But the Scandinavian ones are still better than most, and worth serious study, both historically and politically, by us Brits. We could learn a thing or two. They shouldn’t be dismissed simply because they’re way up there, on the edge of our ‘civilised world’.
The Divine Comedy’s song “Sweden” is interesting (and funny) on British & Irish Swede-envy:
On the other hand, the invasions and settlement of the British Isles by Norsemen, together with a study of ‘Viking’ culture and society, once played a very significant role in secondary schools’ History courses, right across the Empire. Surely that cannot be gone.
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True. And still popular in those TV drama series set in a mythical – but obviously Viking – past. (‘Westeros’ is actually a town in Sweden.) It must be the violent, macho, heavy-metal image of the Vikings that endears itself to us still. After that – nothing. And I’m not sure that ‘rape and pillage’ are as good models for us today as ‘the Swedish model’!