Tuesday, 27 November 2012

New books: The decline of monarchy in Sweden

The Swedish monarchy is today the most powerless of all the European monarchies. While other monarchs still have a constitutional role, the current Swedish Constitution, which came into force on 1 January 1975, has left the monarch with representative duties only, virtually introducing a republic while retaining the King. How this came about is the topic of the historian Jan Berggren’s interesting new book Från härskare till estradörer – Bernadotternas fall och demokratins seger, published by Carlsson Bokförlag, which charts the decline of monarchy in Sweden since the mid-nineteenth century.
The book opens with a 50-page introduction to the development of royal power from the reign of Gustaf V in the sixteenth century to Oscar I. However, the majority of the book concerns the developments since Carl XV, who came to the throne in 1859 and whose reign marks the beginning of the decline. Berggren’s analyses of the significant events and developments which led to the King’s powers’ continuous decline are very sharp. To those not too familiar with the story of the decline of monarchical power in Sweden this book will probably be an enlightening eye-opener.
The chapter on Carl XV is admirable, clearly setting out why his reign was a turning-point and summing up the key events which inflicted defeats on the King’s power from which it never recovered. The process continued through the turbulent reigns of Oscar II and Gustaf V into the rather more peaceful years of the old and generally beloved Gustaf VI Adolf, whose reign ended with the so-called Torekov agreement of 1971, whereby the monarch was confined to a symbolic role. Berggren proves to be an expert guide through the political events of this century of monarchical decline and retains a sharp eye for the turning points. About the reign of the current King, however, he has little to say (indeed he contends that it is wrong to say that Carl XVI Gustaf “reigns” at all).
Unlike most Swedish authors Berggren takes into account the crucial fact that the first four Bernadotte monarchs were also kings of Norway, which was in a personal union with Sweden from 1814 to 1905. Swedish writers tend to leave out Norwegian issues and to treat the kings as Swedish monarchs only, which means that much of vital importance is ignored. Berggren does not make this mistake, and is to be commended for his ability to present the often complex and entangled political strives of the late nineteenth century, which eventually led to the dissolution of the union, in a clear and accessible prose.
However, one might wish that Berggren would have seen the developments in the two kingdoms more in relation to each other. For instance, one of the main reason why Oscar II, following his deposal as King of Norway in 1905, declined the offer of the Norwegian crown for a Bernadotte prince, was concern that such a move might undermine the standing of the monarchy in Sweden as well as in Norway, and diaries and memoirs suggest a certain Swedish discontent with the royal family in the wake of the union’s dissolution. But how events in one country influenced the monarchy in the other is a topic Berggren avoids.
The book’s greatest weakness is indeed its lack of context. While Berggren’s survey of the political events which led to the decline of monarchical powers is in itself excellent, he does not say more than a few words about the ideas and currents of the time, which were surely the preconditions for the political developments influencing the role of the monarchy.
The author also demonstrates an interest in the monarchs’ sex lives which does not really belong in such a book. Furthermore there are some errors and over-simplifications. For instance the author writes that the famous signature stamp of the Age of Liberty was to prevent the King from refusing to give assent, but, as Jonas Nordin has shown in his excellent book Frihetstidens monarki, the main reason for acquiring this stamp was to save the King from the burden of having to sign everything by hand and it was only rarely used to stamp his signature onto documents he was unwilling to sign. He misspells the name of the leader of the Left throughout (“Svedrup” rather than Sverdrup) and that his claim that the Norwegian Parliament altered the wording of Oscar II’s refusal to give the royal assent to the consular bill of 1905 is nonsense. His claim that Queen Victoria’s behaviour during World War I bordered on the treasonous seems exaggerated given that Sweden was not actually at war.
The last chapter is not worthy of the high standard of the rest of the book. It is indeed a curious chapter, a mix of various topics, much of it consisting of polemics against various books on the monarchy and the royal family published between 2006 and 2010. For instance, there are several pages about the very well-known story of how Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte became Crown Prince of Sweden in 1810, all of it in order to argue that the word “we” used in the subtitle of the notoriously unreliable author and tabloid journalist Herman Lindqvist’s book on Carl XIV Johan, “The Man We Elected”, is misplaced.
What makes this chapter even more confused and confusing is that it was obviously written in 2010 and only very lightly updated since then. And given the events of the past two years, which have seen the standing of King Carl Gustaf dramatically undermined, much of this chapter is no longer relevant – in particular what Berggren considers the deference shown to the royal family by the media.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this review very much and found it informative and insightful. Please could you contact me at the address below about a publication to which I would like you consider contributing. Thank you !

    Professor Miles Taylor, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, UK
    email: IHRDIR@sas.ac.uk


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