Lapland: Lonesome Wonderland

The Nazi theory of racial superiority was not born in Germany at all...

Lapland is a geographical and historical region in northern Europe, located on the territory of four countries: Finland, Russia, Norway and Sweden. Lapland is known for its scenic hills, blue lakes, and untouched nature. Indigenous to these regions are nomadic reindeer breeders - the Saami. Their relations with the authorities have never been serene. "Saami Blood", a Swedish-Norwegian-Danish film released in 2016, shocked European audiences with its story of how "civilised" Swedes assimilated the "stinking Saamis" in the 1930s.

Far up North gently rises Saamiland

The Saami are one of the few Finno-Ugric peoples. Throughout their three-thousand-year history, the Saami have never been able to create their own state. Nevertheless, they have never attempted it. However, the Saami have their flag and anthem:

Far up North 'neath Ursa Major

Gently rises Saamiland.

Mountain upon mountain.

Lake upon lake.

Peaks, ridges and plateaus

Rising up to the skies.

Gurgling rivers, sighing forests.

Iron capes pointing sharp

Out towards the stormy sea.

In August 1986, the flag and the anthem were adopted at the 13th International Saami Conference, held in the Swedish village of Åre. Today, there are about 20 thousand Saami living in Sweden, 50 thousand in Norway, 7 thousand in Finland, and about two thousand in the Murmansk region of Russia.

The Saami do not share a common language. Instead, they speak about ten dialects. Their origins remain a mystery. Most scientists believe the Saami people were formed by merging several ethnic groups. Saamis live traditionally by herding domestic reindeer, hunting, and fishing.

The Saami family, 1900
The Saami family, 1900

Inferior race

The Saami have been depicted in Swedish art throughout the twentieth century as inferior savages, almost like animals. Saamis never wash, which is what concerned the Swedes most. Therefore, Swedish society viewed them in the same way as the homeless. However, it wasn't just a matter of hygiene. The Swedes believed that the Saami's mentality made it impossible for them to live among "normal" people. On the one hand, they thought that the Saami should be isolated, yet on the other hand, they attempted to assimilate them.

Saami children were taught the benefits of civilisation at boarding schools, which served as a method for assimilation. The task appeared noble, but the way it was implemented was anything but humane. Children attending such schools were forbidden to speak their mother tongue, even among themselves. Those found guilty of violating the ban were subjected to be roughed mercilessly and to other humiliating punishments. Swedish anthropologists, including Herman Lundborg, who will be discussed below, often visited such schools. This was when "scientific" research began. Children and teenagers were publicly undressed and cynically photographed.

There was no special knowledge offered at these schools. The Swedish teachers only had one purpose: teaching Swedish to the Saami children. The Saami were officially viewed as an inferior, mentally challenged race incapable of standard learning. They were not allowed to attend public schools with Swedish children. These people were not permitted to attend universities, not to mention exercise their right to vote and other democratic rights.

The Saami
The Saami

Academic racism

The State Institute for Racial Biology was established in Uppsala in 1922. Its establishment was unanimously approved by parliament. The Institute was headed by Herman Lundborg, an anthropologist and geneticist who was openly fascist. A major objective of the Institute for Racial Biology was to "investigate the issue of human degeneration caused by race mixing" and to "identify the most superior racial materials".

In 1923, the Institute organised an expedition to Lapland to prove that the Saami were an "inferior race" to the Swedes and that racial mixing was damaging and illegal.

The scene from "Saami Blood" film
The scene from "Saami Blood" film

As an author, Lundberg has written books with intriguing titles such as "Racial Biology and Racial Hygiene", "On Racial Biology and Genealogical Research", "Description of a person from the perspective of racial biology", and many others.

By the mid-1920s, Uppsala had nearly become a major international centre for studying racial issues. Many of the German geneticists and anthropologists who would soon serve Hitler and his beliefs about the inferiority of Jews interned at the Uppsala Institute.

Its finest hour was the Scandinavian International Conference on Racial Biology and Anthropology, held in Uppsala from 25-28 August 1925. Its participants discussed passionately the superiority of certain races over others, concluding that "modern culture in many parts of the world rests exclusively on the Nordic race".

Interesting enough, the Institute for Racial Biology did not cease to exist at the end of World War II, and even after the Nuremberg Trials, which condemned Nazi racial theories, it continued to conduct research until 1958.

Last resort

In addition, the National Institute for Racial Biology played an important role in the adoption of sterilisation laws by the Swedish Parliament in 1934 and 1941. Several measures were taken to preserve the purity of the Nordic race. According to the laws, citizens who were deemed to be mentally or racially inferior by health or welfare authorities were subject to sterilisation. Lundborg classified the Saami as belonging to both categories.

According to official data, 63,000 people were sterilised in Sweden between 1935 and 1975, including 27,000 by force. This group of people included not only the Saami but also members of other "inferior races", first of all, the Gypsies. In addition to physically and mentally challenged individuals, asocial and criminal elements were sterilised.

Swedish state recognised these actions as illegal in 2003 and began compensating victims of sterilisation programmes. An amount of 300 million kronor (33 million euros) was allocated for this purpose. Approximately 2,000 individuals have already received such payments.

Saam lives matter

Obviously, such a slogan was never on the agenda of the Saami. However, the Saami communities began demanding equal rights at the legislative level from the Swedish government in the mid-1970s. The struggle led to Sweden recognising the Saami as an indigenous group in 1977. This is more than just a mere compliment. Following that, measures were taken to acknowledge the "ancestral territories" of the Saami, their right to land and natural resources, to ensure their representation in government, and language, and to overcome the domestic nationalism that had built up over centuries of oppression.

Modern Saami in traditional clothing
Modern Saami in traditional clothing

In January 2017, two other Nordic Council countries, Norway and Finland, also recognised the Saami as original inhabitants. This makes the Saami the only officially recognised indigenous people in Europe living in several countries.

The high point of this story was Archbishop Antje Jackelen's penitential address in a cathedral in Uppsala, Sweden, on 24 November 2020. The same town where the State Institute for Racial Biology operated for decades. Jackelen apologised on behalf of all Swedes for the years of humiliation suffered by the Saami people and concluded her speech by saying: "Instead of recognising the image of God in our Saami brothers and sisters, we tried to remake them in the image of the majority culture".

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