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Son Of A Gunnar

Germany or Sweden? Two Models Of Social Democracy Put To The Test

From afar, new Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and incoming German Chancellor Olaf Scholz share much, both in their views and the political system where they rule. But subtle differences, which arose in the rubble of World War II, can be everything.

anuela Schwesig (SPD), Minister-President of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, (l-r)  take a selfie with Chancellor-elect Olaf Scholz (SPD)

Incoming Chancellor Olaf Scholz poses for a selfie

Carl-Johann Karlsson

My dad has died ...

That was my first thought a few Fridays ago when I saw that Netflix had added another series to its growing Nordic-noir category: a six-part crime drama about the 1986 assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme.

Well, OK, my very first thought was trying to guess who they’d picked for the role of Palme’s assassin; but almost immediately after that, my second thought was that indeed, most certainly yes, Gunnar Karlsson had clocked out.

After all, my old man — an admirer of Palme and (since his retirement two years ago) an even greater admirer of Netflix — hadn’t called to give me a thorough review right away.

A stroke, most likely (all those ready-to-eat microwave meals) I reasoned as I turned my Bulgarian flat upside down in search of my phone.

But it turned out, a suspenseful 10 minutes later, that Father Gunnar was alive and kicking, sounding chipper even, when telling me that the killer was skillfully portrayed by Swedish comedian Robert Gustafsson.

Targeting Wall Street 

Mostly, however, Gunnar had been engrossed in the concurring (live) screening of another political event, in the form of the Swedish election: “A great speech!” he said. “It had some of that stuff that’s been missing.”

The speech was that of Magdalena Andersson, the former Swedish finance minister who’d just been elected the new leader of the social democratic party (SAP). The stuff that’s been missing, in Gunnars book, was the once-upon-a-time passion and pathos of labor leaders — attributes that had to some extent died with Palme that frosty night in 1986.

And indeed, hanging up to watch a replay, it was a good speech; 45 minutes of sharp elbows to Wall Street bankers, a call to better integrate migrants, a plan to quell organized crime and — finally — some plain talk about the real damage of economic inequality.

Andersson also took a moment to salute another just-crowned leader sitting in the audience: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. To Andersson, the recent center-left victories in Germany and Norway supported her case that Europe is seeing a turn of political tides.

Photo of new Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson

New Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson


Never again 

And yet, as Gunnar pointed out less enthusiastically if social democracy in Europe is truly experiencing a revival, Germany was far ahead of Sweden.

Following World War II, as democracy returned to West Germany, the country adopted a set of new laws in 1949 to ensure it would never relive the catastrophe of the Third Reich. Hitler had come to power in a country with a highly liberal constitution, exploiting democratic freedoms to undermine and then dismantle democracy itself.

The new German constitution set up barriers to radical, undemocratic tendencies by granting the Federal Republic powers to ban unconstitutional parties (which it used, first in 1952 to shut down the neo-Nazi Socialist Reich Party and then the German Communist Party four years later.)

The law is separable from morality.

What became known as “defensive democracy” in Germany led to a European renaissance of natural law — the idea that humans have inherent rights and that regulation and morality should be deeply connected. As such, several countries, including Norway, now agreed that the law must rest firmly on inalienable rights — the same conviction that inspired the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But not in Sweden. In my home country, the social democrats of SAP had in its formative days fully committed to a concept of what’s called “legal positivism” — the idea that what the law is must be separated from what the law ought to be; in other words: The law is separable from morality.

So Nazism, Fascism and other ugly isms hardly surfaced at all in the Swedish legal discourse of the decade that followed the War. In the eyes of my parents' and grandparents' generations, there was no need: The country’s legal system had passed the test of the totalitarian era with flying colors, with wide support for the burgeoning welfare state staving off the threat of extremist ideologies.

From morals to pure mathematics

But fast-forward to today, and Sweden is questioning the very roots of its political system.

As the far-right Sweden Democrats have gone from 1% support to roughly 20% in the last two decades, the SAP (alongside every other mainstream party) have been unable to formulate a credible response to the nationalist and xenophobic stances of a party with roots in Nazi ideology.

And it makes logical sense in our system: if the law is indeed amoral, and democracy is a question of mere formulas, how do we dismiss calls for the deportation of migrants, or the sinister assertion of an “inherited Swedishness,” as inherently undemocratic?

Of course, social democracy has dwindled for the same reasons in Germany as in Sweden and other Western democracies, where voters have seen their lives turned upside down by globalization, automation and recurring financial crashes that are exploited and twisted by xenophobic leaders. But Germany benefits from an arsenal of now 60-year-old constitutional tools to protect itself against extremist forces, while Sweden does not.

Alternative for Germany (AfD) party was a “suspected case” of anti-democratic extremist activity.

Earlier this year, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported that the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in Saxony-Anhalt would place the regional branch of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party under surveillance as a “suspected case” of anti-democratic extremist activity.

Meanwhile, in Sweden, the center-right opposition parties have in the last few years gone from refusing to collaborate with the Sweden Democrats to embrace them as a necessary partner on the way to parliamentary power.

To Gunnar, it’s not possible to detach democratic values from natural rights without the detrimental consequences that Sweden (like others in the West) is experiencing today.

It’s worth noting that while Swedish labor leaders like Olof Palme, as well as his predecessors, all subscribed to legal positivism, they carried much of the humanistic message in their characters, which kept the ideology from becoming hollowed out. But today, with the faultlines of legal positivism becoming increasingly clear, we know that these leaders were the exceptions that confirmed the rule: namely that democracy needs more than votes to sustain it.

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Olaf Scholz: Trying To Crack The Code Of Germany's Enigmatic Chancellor

Olaf Scholz took over for Angela Merkel a year ago, but for many he remains a mysterious figure through a series of tumultuous events, including his wavering on the war in Ukraine.

man boarding a plane

Olaf Scholz boading an Air Force Special Air Mission Wing plane, on his way to the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Tirana.

Michael Kappeler / dpa via ZUMA Press
Peter Huth


BERLIN — When I told my wife that I was planning to write an article about “a year of Scholz,” she said, “Who’s that?” To be fair, she misheard me, and over the last 12 months the German Chancellor has mainly been referred to by his first name, Olaf.

Still, it’s a reasonable question. Who is Olaf Scholz, really? Or perhaps we should ask: how many versions of Olaf Scholz are there? A year after taking over from Angela Merkel, we still don’t know.

Chancellors from Germany’s Social Democrat Party (SPD) have always been easy to characterize. First there was Willy Brandt – he suffered from depression and had an intriguing private life. His affected public speaking style is still the gold standard for anyone who wants to get ahead in the center-left party. Then came Helmut Schmidt. He lived off his reputation for handling any crisis, smoked like a chimney and eventually won over the public.

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