Illustration Ragni Svensson.

Reviews Dissertation review. Class divides and xenophobia in the shadow of World War II

Johan Svanberg Arbetets relationer och etniska dimensioner: Verkstadsföreningen, Metall och esterna vid Svenska Stålpress-nings AB i Olofström 1945–1952 [Labour Relations and Ethnic Dimensions of Work. The Swedish Engineering Employers’ Association, the Swedish Metalworkers’ Union, and the Estonians at Svenska Stålpressnings AB in Olofström 1945—1952] Linnaeus University Press: Växjö 2010 380 pages

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Pages 45-46, Vol 4:2010
Published on on January 11, 2011

No Comments on Class divides and xenophobia in the shadow of World War II Share
  • Facebook
  • Pusha
  • TwitThis
  • Google
  • LinkedIn
  • Digg
  • Maila artikeln!
  • Skriv ut artikeln!


Every period in the long history of immigration to Sweden has been characterized by unique conditions. During the build-up of Swedish industry that started in the late 19th century, immigration was relatively modest, but after World War II, it increased sharply. By then, workers in Sweden had built strong union and political organizations — exceptionally strong by international standards. Union organization helped improve working conditions and raise wages. Labor shortages in Sweden strengthened the labor position in the market. Immigrants were recruited to work in industry and arrived in a specific context that shaped their relationships with their Swedish coworkers. Homogeneity in terms of ethnicity and gender facilitated the effort, although it was not always to the long-term advantage of union organizations. A discourse using the categories “Swedes” and “immigrants” was developed around these issues. There has been continued discussion ever since about whether particularly xenophobic tendencies have existed among workers and in the union movement. Can ethnic prejudices be separated from the goal of limiting the labor supply and cultivating a common labor culture?

Johan Svanberg’s dissertation discusses these questions on the basis of a study of relationships between Estonian refugees sent as workers to a company town in the southern Swedish province of Blekinge, their Swedish coworkers, and company management. Labor relations at Svenska Stålpressnings AB (SSAB) in Olofström, a small industrial community dominated by a single company, found themselves at the intersection of class and ethnicity.

Union membership, virtually total in Sweden at the time, was one of the primary issues in the conflicts that arose between Swedes and Estonians. Of primary significance was the ambivalence of the Metalworkers’ Union towards labor immigration. The union eventually accepted the stance of the Social Democratic Party, that immigration was important to the development of the welfare state. The immigrants were to be included and were to be part of the Swedish organizations, albeit not really on an equal footing. Permission to come to Sweden was often made conditional upon accepting unionization.

The author claims that this conflict did not follow ethnic dividing lines. Many Estonians joined the union; relationships between Swedes who did not want to join the union and their coworkers were equally hostile. In spite of this, there was talk about the conflict between the organized and the unorganized in ethnic terms, as an antagonism between immigrants and Swedes. Gender also made some difference — male workers who refused to join the union were threatened with violence, while women were influenced by verbal means. Nor did gender enter into the contemporary formulation of the issue.


Was there a particular union-centered xenophobia? The question has been addressed previously based on union demands in the 1940s for mass deportation of the Estonians.[1] Svanberg’s account shows how two things coincide: the conflict surrounding organization based on class divisions, and the emphasis on ethnic dividing lines rife in society in the 1940s and not specific to the unions. The roots of xenophobia were found in the racism of the interwar period. This is a reasonable conclusion, although the distinction is a fine one and the notions were often confused with each other at the time.

Then as now, immigrants were given the worst and dirtiest jobs. Through the recruitment process, employers often created tighter bonds between themselves and immigrant workers. The immigrant workers were given housing assistance and sometimes loans to set up a rudimentary household. This made Swedish workers inclined to regard the Estonians as more privileged than were. In Olofström, the company appointed Estonians to salaried positions and gave them supervisory status over their countrymen. The Estonian workers were given no opportunity to learn Swedish, which made language a clear dividing line between the ethnic groups.

Svanberg makes an exemplary analysis of the immigrants’ backgrounds; instead of regarding them as a homogeneous mass, he illustrates the class differences that cut through the ethnic landscape. Part of the conflict was a class conflict played out on the shop floor. The majority of the Estonian refugees were not originally laborers: the group included former white-collar employees, housewives, business owners, farmers, and fishermen. They were employed at SSAB because that was the work on offer, not because they had actively chosen it. Their identities had been shaken and they found it hard to rapidly identify with the workers who were active union members.

The Estonian workers came to Sweden in two waves. The first group of refugees had arrived in the autumn of 1944 and came to Olofström relatively soon thereafter. A second group was recruited in German refugee camps around 1950 when the company needed to expand. An Estonian supervisor, Alfred Wendt, managed the recruitment process. He had held a high-ranking position in the puppet government in Estonia under German occupation and was among those accused of war crimes. In other words: he had been an active Nazi sympathizer.

Svanberg discusses the stereotype of the “Balt as Nazi” that existed in the minds of the Swedish public in the 1940s, previously studied by two other historians, Carl Göran Andrae and Mikael Byström.
Andrae traced the origins of the stereotype to the Swedish communist press, which got information about the refugees directly from the Soviet Union. In these terms, anyone who feared the Soviet Union or belonged to a non-Socialist party was a fascist. Describing the entire group of Estonians in this way was not something that gained the support of the Social Democratic government.[2] Fears that fascist war criminals would make their way into the country were the basis of the interviews held with all refugees, which also constitute fascinating source material for Svanberg. Byström talks about a comprehensive campaign in the communist press and discusses why they were accorded interpretive precedence on this issue by the Swedish labor movement. He sees the need for a Swedish coming to terms with Nazism after the end of the war as one reason the Balts became targets.[3]

Wendt was there as an obvious target in the company town of Olofström. But Svanberg goes beyond the invectives in the public debate. He is able to document how Wendt was appointed by the company, not the Estonian group, and that feelings about his leading position within the group were far from wholly enthusiastic. The anti-communism of the Estonians was unpopular during the initial years after World War when Stalin was hailed as a victor; with current knowledge, it seems more understandable. Union methods that would not be accepted today were then used also against non-unionized Swedes and later against immigrant Finnish workers. Svanberg gives a very credible picture of the conflict in Olofström. His method, analyzing the immigrant group based on its own conditions, leaving room for varying backgrounds, should be applied considerably more often. He gives a great deal of nuance to the understanding of ethnic antagonisms. Laudably, he ascribes to the immigrants their own ability to act, a history, and political convictions.


One possible objection is that Swedish workers become less visible — the detailed and critical discussion is devoted to the organized union actions — and that private actions, both hostile and benevolent, appear mainly in anecdotal form. One might get the impression that they had no political opinions and that the image of the Soviet Union and Stalin made no difference to them. This does not seem likely.

Johan Svanberg attempts to unite two theoretical traditions, the institutional tradition of working life research and the constructivist tradition of migration research, oriented toward the construction of the Other, in a chapter on Swedes’ views of Estonians and Estonians’ views of Swedes. Charles Tilly is among the role models. Meanwhile, the author avoids evaluating these perspectives and sometimes gives the impression of adding the one to the other without discussing their mutual relationship. He calls it the “polyphonic method”. The main impression is that the polyphony becomes richer than the unanimous picture. ≈


  1. Björn Horgby, Dom där: Framlingsfientligheten och arbetarkulturen i Norrköping 1890—1960 [Those people: Xenophobia and working class culture in Norrköping 1890—1960], Stockholm 1996, p. 9 ff.
  2. Carl Göran Andrae, Sverige och den stora flykten från Estland 1943—1944 [Sweden and the great flight from Estonia 1943—1944], Uppsala 2004, pp. 125—129.
  3. Mikael Byström, En broder, gäst och parasit: Uppfattningar och föreställningar om utlänningar, flyktingar och flyktingpolitik i svensk offentlig debatt 1942—1947 [Brother, guest, and parasite: Opinions and beliefs about foreigners, refugees, and refugee policy in Swedish public debate 1942—1947], Stockholm 2006, p. 125.
  • by AnuMai Kõll

    Is legally responsible for the publication Baltic Worlds. Professor in Baltic History, Culture and Society, and director of CBEES at Södertörn University.

  • all contributors

Johan Svanberg Arbetets relationer och etniska dimensioner: Verkstadsföreningen, Metall och esterna vid Svenska Stålpress-nings AB i Olofström 1945–1952 [Labour Relations and Ethnic Dimensions of Work. The Swedish Engineering Employers’ Association, the Swedish Metalworkers’ Union, and the Estonians at Svenska Stålpressnings AB in Olofström 1945—1952] Linnaeus University Press: Växjö 2010 380 pages