Late in August this year, a message was widely broadcast by the international media. Filing their reports out of Stockholm, journalists from around the world presented their readers and viewers with the news that between 1934 and 1976, tens of thousands of people—more than 90 per cent of whom were women—were victims of sterilization policies in the Nordic countries. Supposedly, these repressive policies constituted the hidden side of the construction of the emblematic Scandinavian welfare state.

There was one source for this news story, an article published in Sweden’s most influential daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, on 20 August—followed by a second article the next day.footnote1 The articles, written by the newspaper’s journalist, Maciej Zaremba, stated that 63,000 Swedes, 40,000 Norwegians and 6,000 Danes had been sterilized. The sterilizations were motivated both by racist thinking on eugenics and, later, by economic motives—poverty was seen as caused by genetic inferiority, and poor people who burdened the public purse should not be allowed to procreate.

The most important aspect of Zaremba’s articles, however, was his very specific interpretation of these policies. In his view, the sterilization policies demonstrate that the Swedish welfare state was a ‘myth’ which should now finally be laid to rest. He claimed that the sterilizations were primarily a social-democratic project, and a logical outgrowth of the construction of the welfare state, indeed one of its underlying ‘foundations’. He went on to hint at an ideological affinity between Scandinavian social democracy and Nazism: ‘What were the connections between the ideology of Nordic social democracy and that of national socialism?’ Zaremba’s obvious aim was to use this horrible history of forced sterilizations and racist thinking among Swedish authorities and politicians to discredit the welfare state.

In Britain, the media reaction to the story published by Dagens Nyheter was typified by an article in the Guardian, written by Jonathan Freedland.footnote2 ‘All over Scandinavia’, Freedland asserts, faithfully reproducing Dagens Nyheter’s framing of the story, ‘people are facing up to the stain now spreading over their snow-white self-image, as they discover that their governments spent decades executing a chilling plan to purify the Nordic race, nurturing the strong and eradicating the weak’. He then embarked on a blanket assault on the British Left, claiming that ‘contempt for ordinary people and outright racism were two of the defining creeds of British socialism’. This article portrayed the well-known racism of several leading Fabian and liberal thinkers as characteristic of the Left as a whole, while demonizing progressive scientists, apparently unaware that it was precisely people like J.D. Bernal who helped to discredit racist ideas at a time when they were quite generally accepted by mainstream opinion.footnote3 The Webbs, Freedland claims with unintentional comedy, were alarmed by British troops’ performance in the Boer War, where they ‘had taken a good kicking at the hands of the black man’. Figures on the Left are tainted by the vaguest association with eugenics; the trouble began with Darwin, says Freedland, and then remarks darkly, and as it happens incorrectly, that Marx ‘dedicated an early edition of Das Kapital to none other than Charles Darwin.’ Indeed, it is now time, according to Freedland, to finally tell the truth about socialism: for too long, ‘leftists, historians and everyone else have drawn a veil over Adolf Hitler’s naming of his creed National Socialism. It has been dismissed as a perverse pr trick of the FÜ hrer’s, as if Nazism and socialism represented opposite faiths’. In fact, socialism with its faith in science and the wisdom of the elite, ‘contained the seeds of the atrocities that were to come later.’ For such propagandistic purposes, the news about the sterilization campaigns in Scandinavia seems to have broken at just the right moment.

As we shall see, however, the story published by Dagens Nyheter was not news in the proper sense. Let us look first briefly at the history of sterilizations in Sweden, and how other observers have reacted to Zaremba’s interpretation of them, and then proceed to the question of how this became a sensational news story, and what ideological considerations may have been involved in this process.

In the articles in Dagens Nyheter, no clear distinction was made between sterilizations as such and forced sterilizations. Zaremba claimed that out of the total number of 63,000 sterilizations in Sweden between 1935 and 1975, an unspecified number—‘tens of thousands’—were forced sterilizations. The way substantial segments of the international media have treated the figures, however, is by saying that all 63,000 cases were forced sterilizations on government orders, or by not making any distinction between these categories.

One of the main sources for both of Zaremba’s articles was the book, Eugenics and the Welfare State.footnote4One of the co-authors of that book, Norwegian professor Nils Roll-Hansen, strongly reacted against the ideological spin Zaremba had put on the history of sterilizations in Scandinavia. In an article published in the Norwegian daily Aftenposten, Roll-Hansen takes issue with Zaremba’s whole interpretation of the historical record.footnote5 Zaremba’s ‘rendering of the facts is adjusted to suit an altogether unreasonable interpretation of the historical record’, he writes, concluding that the number of cases of forced sterilization was substantially lower than that given by Zaremba. Roll-Hansen does not give an exact figure, but says that the figure of 40,000 attributed to Zaremba is in any case ‘strongly exaggerated’. In the same article, Roll-Hansen goes on to point out: ‘Among what receives little attention in Zaremba’s articles is the fact that most social democrats, in contrast with many conservatives and centrists, explicitly distanced themselves from and condemned Nazi Germany’s racial theories and policies in the 1930s.