Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 9, 2015

Swedish imperialism in Africa

Filed under: Sweden — louisproyect @ 4:13 pm

Dag Hammarskjold: not quite the saint he was cracked up to be

(This is the third in a series of articles on “the Swedish model”. Part one is here. Part two is here.)

If Sweden seems pure as the driven snow compared to the major imperialist powers such as England, the USA and France, that is only a function of how low the bar has been set. In my last post I tried to show how indigenous peoples got screwed by the dominant nationality bent on creating a modern capitalist powerhouse. Now I will look into the question of Sweden’s footprints in Africa, a continent that most of us—including me until I began researching the matter—considered untouched by the reputedly benign northern European state.

If there’s any term that captures the essence of European colonialism, it is the “scramble for Africa”, a project largely associated with England, France, Germany, Italy and Belgium. Believe it or not Sweden was a player as well.

This is all laid out in copious detail in an article by David Nilsson titled “Sweden-Norway at the Berlin Conference 1884–85: History, national identity-making and Sweden’s relations with Africa”. Sweden and Norway had a common monarch in this period—King Oscar II whose visage adorns the brand of sardines seen in your local supermarket. Norway had been taken over by Sweden in the Napoleonic wars, just another indication that it was as capable of territorial aggrandizement as any other European empire-builder. Nilsson, like Gunlög Fur whose scholarship on the persecution of Sami I referred to in my previous article, is part of the generation of younger Swedish scholars who are taking a fresh look at the nation’s dark past.

Nilsson focuses on the role played by Sweden in a conference that awarded the grand prize of the Congo to King Leopold of Belgium, an act that would cost the lives of millions of its dwellers and the resources siphoned off of mines and rubber plantations for nearly a century. At the time King Leopold wrote a letter stating: “I do not want to miss a good chance of getting us a slice of this magnificent African cake”

When you keep in mind that Otto Von Bismarck was the ruler of Germany at the time of the Berlin conference, it follows that King Oscar would find a commonality of interests with the Prussian bent on suppressing socialism and radical democracy by any means necessary as well as his partner in crime King Leopold.

In 2011 to 2013 Nilsson dug into the Swedish foreign ministry archives to pull together an analysis of Sweden’s participation in the Berlin conference of 1884-5. The naked territorial ambition of European powers struck the USA as so blatant that it declined an invitation to participate. Sweden, however, had no such compunction and sent a full delegation.

The Swedish foreign ministry defined its goals for the conference, including the need for freedom of trade on the Congo River, an activity dramatized by Joseph Conrad in “The Heart of Darkness”. Sweden sought “most favored nation” status among the vultures circling the African body. Conducting its written communications in French, the Swedish diplomats regarded freedom of trade as “une œuvre essentiellement civilisatrice,” which meant a work of civilization or what Kipling described as the white man’s burden.

King Leopold welcomed Sweden’s participation in this civilizing mission, especially since its crackerjack troops could keep the savages in check. In a letter to the Swedish monarch, Leopold wrote that the Swedes had already “authorised several outstanding officers from her splendid army to enter into the service of the International Congo Association. Important stations, central nodes for vast areas in the middle of Africa, are today managed by Swedes.” One such officer was Lieutenant Matts Julius Juhlin-Dannfelt who supervised the construction of the Congo railways in 1888.

Nilsson admits that it is “difficult to argue that direct and short-term economic benefits were an important driving force for Sweden-Norway at the Berlin Conference.” But by allying itself with Germany, there were economic benefits—particularly in the sale of Swedish iron to German steelmakers. When you keep in mind that Sweden supplied Nazi Germany with iron ore throughout WWII, this pact with the devil makes perfect sense.

There were motives as well that could not be directly tied to profits. The Swedes were imbued with the “civilizing mission” that was at work when the Samis were pressured into forsaking their polytheism and rather free-spirited mores. There was lots of work for Lutheran missionaries considering what Swedish officers assigned to protect King Leopold’s interests as Nilsson reports:

Lieutenant Peter August Möller in 1887 depicted the Congolese as “mendacious and cowardly, indolent and vain, and deceitful and ungrateful.” This people, of a “half-human nature” are characterised by “want of development” and they “lack depth and could never resolve themselves for any kind of bold action or decisive steps.” Another Swedish officer, Lieutenant Wester, claimed in 1886 that “the inhabitants of Central Africa, who live in a luxuriant land, are particularly inclined to indolence, [and therefore] the work of civilising must be aimed at teaching them to understand the necessity of work” (Axelsson 1970:223ff). Teaching the local people to work in the context of Leopold’s Congo Association typically meant forced labour and gruesome punishment for those who refused, as Adam Hochschild describes in his bestselling book of 1998.

Now what does this have to do with the Social Democrats, one might ask—the same sort of question posed about the treatment of the Sami in the 1600s. As it turns out, plenty.

Fast forward to 1960 and you will discover Swedish footprints in the Congo, the same slice of the pie that was divided up in 1884-5.

And mostly the shoes belong to Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN’s General Secretary who is regarded by most fans of the “Swedish model” as a kind of martyred saint. For example, the Nation Magazine referred to him as the “Statesman of the Century” in a 2013 review Andrew Gilmour of a new biography. Gilmour sums up his contribution to the crisis in the Congo:

As they tried to hold the country in one piece and maintain a semblance of order throughout its transition to independence, Hammarskjold and the UN officials on the ground found themselves bitterly opposed by Soviet Communists, African and Congolese nationalists, American cold warriors, French Gaullists, Katangese secessionists, Belgian colonialists, mining companies and mercenaries. Despite this formidable array, Hammarskjold doggedly went on doing what he thought was best for the people of the Congo, the African continent and global peace.

Considering the fact that the name Lumumba does not appear once in this rancid article, we can understand why Gilmour was so ready to dismiss “Congolese nationalists”. Since he was identified as Director in the Secretary-General’s Office for Political, Peace-keeping, Humanitarian and Human Rights, you can understand why he would defend the party line of the liberal establishment.

For those of us who might be favorable to the agenda of “African and Congolese nationalists”, there’s more to the story starting with the fact that Hammarskjold backed the Christian, anti-Communist Moise Tshombe who led the breakaway province of Katanga.

In Ludo De Witte’s authoritative “The Assassination of Lumumba”, there is this succinct description of Hammarskjold’s agenda:

How can the UN’s respect for Tshombe be explained? Hammarskjold was well aware of the artificial nature of the copper state. Bunche, his assistant, made it very clear in his telegrams that Tshombe was “a puppet manoeuvred by the Belgians, that he took no decision that was not inspired by the Belgians, that no official meeting was held without the presence of a Belgian and that without the Belgians, he would he would have not come to power”. But the UN leadership shared he West’s strategy: to use secession as an instrument to destroy the Congolese government. In his confidential message of 26 July, Hammarskjold talked of Tshombe’s “legitimate aims”. A telegram sent by “H” on I August reveals that he UN leaders were convinced of the need to break Lumumba’s nationalist government. The secretary general was in Leopoldville at the time:

After a number of meetings here with the Cabinet and members of the Cabinet, I have a fairly clear picture of the internal dynamics of politics in the Central Government. The two or three men who may be characterized as moderates and who at all events are men of real integrity, intelligence and sense of national responsibility understand, I believe, fully my approach. . . . However, the vast and vocal majority have a highly emotional and intransigent attitude. . . . Until the Katanga problem is in hand . . ., there will, I am sure, be a continued drift towards extremism in the Cabinet and a continued weakening of those on whom, in my view, Congo’s political future if at all possible has to be built.

in the light of developments, the Congolese nationalists could draw only one conclusion, one that Colonel Vandewalle much later formulated as follows: Until the final drafting of the Congolese constitution and its approval by Katanga, the status quo would be based on the Katangan constitution. . . . This arrangement . . . consolidates the Katanga regime. It was to have dire consequences for Lumumba.”

When Brian Urquhart, a former official at the UN, attacked De Witte’s debunking of the Hammarskjold legend in the New York Review of Books in 2001, he replied in a letter.

Brian Urquhart [Letters, NYR, December 20, 2001] writes that my analysis of the role of the UN in the Congo crisis (1960–1964) is dogmatic, partisan, and simplistic. However, he gives not one refutation to the facts I mentioned about the complicity of the UN in the downfall of the Congolese prime minister Lumumba. He tries to make the best of it writing that Secretary-General Hammarskjöld’s green light for the coup against Lumumba was a staple of Soviet propaganda. That’s true, but doesn’t refute my thesis. The cable traffic between Hammarskjöld and his envoy Cordier before and during the coup and testimonies from Belgian advisers are crystal clear: the UN wanted Lumumba “to be broken,” in the words of Hammarskjöld. Not one or two, but tens of cables gave evidence of the partisan role of the UN in the crisis.

While there is little doubt that Hammarskjold was acting on behalf of all imperialist interests in the Congo, radical scholar David N. Gibbs identifies the particular Swedish interests in the overthrow of Lumumba in an article titled “Dag Hammarskjold, the United Nations, and the Congo Crisis of 1960-1: A Reinterpretation” that appeared in The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Mar., 1993). In this article he raise the possibility that while hostile to Lumumba’s nationalist aspirations, Hammarskjold came into conflict with Belgian interests after he began promoting Swedish and American ambitions in the Katanga province. Gibbs writes:

The facts are as follows. The Hammarskjold family was associated with the Liberian-American Swedish Minerals Company, known by the acronym Lamco. This syndicate of six separate Swedish mining companies was closely connected with Boliden, another Swedish enterprise with interests in copper mining, and with the International African American Corporation. Several persons from the syndicate were involved in the U.N. force in the Congo, notably Sture Linner, the first head of civilian operations, who was, at the time of his hiring, a ‘managing director’ of Lamco. Two other Swedes employed by the U.N. mission as consultants also had connections with Lamco: Sven Schwartz had been a director at a constituent company as well as chairman of the board at Boliden, and Borje Hjortzberg-Nordlund was listed as an ‘alternate director’ at Lamco. Both assisted the U.N. in evaluating the prospects for economic development, especially in the mining sector, and their interest in the Congo probably alarmed the Belgians, especially those affiliated with the Union miniere, which regarded the Swedes as interlopers in what had historically been a special ‘preserve’ for Belgian capital. Such suspicions were increased when it was discovered that Bo Hammarskjold, the brother of the Secretary-General, was on the board of directors of Grangesberg Oxelosund, the largest of Lamco’s constituent companies.

In my next post I will take up the question of eugenics in modern Sweden.


  1. Good piece Louis. It hasn’t stopped. Swedish industrials and corporations are all over the place–expanding, expanding, expanding.

    Comment by Jim Faris — July 9, 2015 @ 4:23 pm

  2. Quite an eye opener.

    Comment by bhupinder — July 9, 2015 @ 6:40 pm

  3. Here’s how reactionary today’s Swedes have become: http://rt.com/news/272368-sweden-halal-meat-muslims/

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 10, 2015 @ 12:56 am

  4. Good article Louis. I would like to recommend everybody (especially Swedes) to see “Concerning Violence” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3263690/ by Göran Hugo Olsson.

    Comment by Johan — July 10, 2015 @ 10:02 am

  5. […] (This is the third in a series of articles on “the Swedish model”. Part one is here. Part two is here. Part three is here.) […]

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  6. […] Bismarck’s reforms. Part two is here. It is about the persecution of the Samis. Part three is here. It deals with Sweden and the “scramble for Africa”. Part four took up the Myrdal enthusiasm […]

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  7. […] Bismarck’s reforms. Part two is here. It is about the persecution of the Samis. Part three is here. It deals with Sweden and the “scramble for Africa”. Part four took up the Myrdal enthusiasm […]

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  8. […] Bismarck’s reforms. Part two is here. It is about the persecution of the Samis. Part three is here. It deals with Sweden and the “scramble for Africa”. Part four took up the Myrdal enthusiasm […]

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  9. […] Bismarck’s reforms. Part two is here. It is about the persecution of the Samis. Part three is here. It deals with Sweden and the “scramble for Africa”. Part four took up the Myrdal enthusiasm […]

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  10. […] Bismarck’s reforms. Part two is here. It is about the persecution of the Samis. Part three is here. It deals with Sweden and the “scramble for Africa”. Part four took up the Myrdal enthusiasm […]

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