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Götz, Norbert:

Witch-hunt in Cold War Sweden: The ‘Hjalmarson Affair’ Revisited

In 1959, Sweden – that ‘middle way’ country of apparent all-inclusive political consensus and rationalism – was shaken by the so-called Hjalmarson Affair. Breaking the national tradition of sending all-partite political delegations to the General Assembly of the United Nations, the social democratic Swedish government refused to grant a seat on the delegation to the nominee of the conservatives, party leader Jarl Hjalmarson. The move was explained by non-conformity with standards of a policy of neutrality, in particular in connection with Khrushchev’s cancelled visit to Sweden that year.

Existing explanations of the affair stick to rational-choice type explanations of Foreign Minister Östen Undén’s action: They claim that he acted ultimately rational under the condition of imperfect information. They maintain he had subjective reason to believe the cancellation of Krushchev’s visit was caused by Hjalmarson’s behaviour and to do – by a drastic measure – what he considered necessary for restoring the credibility of Swedish neutrality. The paper argues that in order to understand human agency and ultimately history, we need to take underlying psychological factors into account. There is sufficient evidence that Undén simply lost control over his feelings. The issue is not what he subjectively believed being right in regard to Swedish neutrality at a given point in time, but rather on which processes of filtering and framing knowledge his belief was based.

Undén’s action became particularly problematic because it was embedded in a power structure, which did not provide a corrective. The bizarre turn of the tables in the parliamentary debate, stage-managed by the government as a tribunal trying Hjalmarson, is an alarming example of the arrogance of power. While this debate has attracted scholarly attention as formative for the Swedish doctrine of non-alignment the simultaneous destruction of a political enemy in a manner that reminds of a witch trial or McCarthyism has so far been overlooked.

Friday 30 Oct 9.00-11.00 SESSION 4
Panel: Choosing Sides: Was Neutrality Really Possible?