Norstedts, 2010. ISBN: 9789113017082
Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2011:1
Anna Paterson's interview with Henrik Berggren can be found in the 2011:1 issue of SBR.
There is more to Wonderful Times Ahead than it might seem. Not that the first impression isn’t interesting enough: a biography of a leading Swedish politician,radical as well as successful, whose career ended with a never-resolved assassination. It is a worthwhile work then, by a respected historian and writer; but Henrik Berggren has changed the familiar structure of political biography into a base for his analysis of how cultural context, in the widest sense, shapes a nation’s politics – as well as vice versa, a still harder case to prove. Any attempt to derive an understanding of political success or failure from perceived national characteristics is a high-risk strategy, but this is precisely the approach Berggren has used before in an intriguing earlier book, co-written with Lars Trägårdh. In Wonderful Days Ahead, the study of Palme’s family background is extended to give a perspective on cultural developments in modern Sweden. Politics are inevitably a major part of it, together with the public debate which sets out new goals for the citizenry: freedom for the individual and tolerance of others, at least for as long as they keep themselves to themselves, and a ‘flat’ democracy in which all men and women should have equal opportunities for self-improvement. The mind-set includes a belief in modernity and progress that amounts to a secular faith, and a keen interest in the orderly adaptation of science and technology to all aspects of human life. Such principles do not amount to a detailed mandate for political change. As Henrik Berggren emphasises in the interview in this issue of SBR, it is the slow process of ‘the craft of politics’ that matters – the ebb and flow of opinion, man management, awareness of financial pressures. The remarkable outcome of the stable, goaloriented Swedish brand of socialism and, more narrowly, of Palme’s success as a politician, was that the quiet collaboration between the Swedes and their state apparatus turned out to be as well-liked and resilient as it still is. Berggren is very aware of the links between the culture at large and political change. As a result, his study of the Palme family has greater significance than other engaging and learned inquiries into the lives of past generations. Per-Olov Enquist, Sweden’s grand old man of letters, has written about Berggren’s book in a witty and insightful essay – ostensibly a newspaper review – that the family story had features of ‘the house of Buddenbrooks, but at the same time, of a family breaking into a new era.’ Enquist argues that it is their intellectual baggage that matters, specifically their cultural radicalism (kulturradikalism), which he sees as a Scandinavian trait: ‘A strong belief in science and modernity, multilingual internationalism, a combination of aristocratic noblesse oblige and a Faustian desire for power, of interest in literature, drama and rhetoric, and a deeply rooted conviction that it is essential to mobilise willpower to reach crucial goals.’ If cultural radicalism is indeed a strand in the Scandinavian political success story, it becomes less easy to trace beyond the 1960s. By then, another native narrative has emerged, parallel in time and divergent in its ideas, which define a populist and more conservative (with a small c) kind of culture. Recently, it has been brilliantly analysed by Jens Liljestrand in his new study of the writer, polemicist and folk-hero Vilhelm Moberg. What Berggren set out to capture is precisely the multiplicity of voices that sang, in reasonable unison, the national tune. Asked during an onstage discussion if he had deliberately adopted ‘the Anglo-Saxon style [of political biography]’, part of his answer was that Walt Whitman’s America had inspired him. It begins: ‘I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear’. To explain the drive to write just this book, another brief Berggren quote is helpful; it expresses both the historian’s excitement and the scholar’s modesty: ‘Checking the newspaper cuttings about Palme, I realised I had found a source referring to much of the history of the twentieth century. My book is a 700-page footnote.’