VL Museen



Underbara fasansfulla människa - vem har rätt att leva?
(Wondrous, horrendous human being - who has the right to live?)
Nordiska Museet. The National Museum of Cultural History
Stockholm / Sweden
2 September 2002 - 16 February 2003

WWW: http://www.nordm.se/exhib/ufm/index.html
http://www.nordm.se/exhib/ufm/index_e.html (English version)

Rezensiert von
Tanja Schult, Södertörns Högskola, Sweden
E-Mail: TanjaSchult@web.de

Who will be “the significant other” in the 21st century? The persecuted, the outcast or unwanted? No one can withdraw from the prejudices of his time, no one can know, how future generations will judge our actions, but after the Holocaust we ought to be aware of how misleading so-called scientific “truths” can be.
Race-biology was already one of the topics of the exhibition “Elective Affinity” in the Deutsches Historisches Museum Berlin in 1997. [1] Race-biology is also one of the starting points for the highly recommended exhibition “Wondrous, horrendous human being – who has the right to live?”, shown at Nordiska Museet in Stockholm.

Everything started with an article in the national daily Expressen: in a wooden box 60 small-sized heads made of plaster were found. The box came from Vipeholmsanstalten, where 200 mentally ill persons were starved to death between 1941-43. Every single one of the plaster-heads represented one person’s characteristics - according to phrenology, at the time a popular method to judge someone’s character after the form of his or her skull.
Margareta Alin, chief of the museum Kulturen in Lund, bought the box and tried to discover the story behind it. During the research she learned that Lund was indeed one of the places in Sweden where the method of skull-measurement was popular and that Lund was the place of the first known sterilization worldwide, carried out in 1906. The idea to host an exhibition about human dignity throughout the last century was born. It was first displayed in the museum Kulturen in Lund. Now Nordiska Museet has taken over.

The discovery of the plaster-heads was the starting point of the exhibition. To enter it you have to pass a line of photographs showing the plaster-heads and the small models in front of them – but one photograph is replaced by a mirror. Looking at myself I begin to wonder: How would my skull be assessed? As the one of a thief or an idiot? However my personality would be categorized, I would certainly not be judged as intelligent: women have smaller brains than man – and size (or form), according to phrenology, was decisive for ones fate. It may be comforting me today to know that race-biology was only precise as long as it confirmed the supremacy of the white man and served as authorization for the social system as well as for colonial power – but what will be the measurement of the future: my DNA-code, my genetic heritage – will this be decisive for getting a health-assurance or allow me to give birth to a child?

“Wondrous, horrendous human being” starts with Carl von Linnés classification “Systema naturae” (1735) of human beings and animals. While Linné’s system was still rooted in the genesis, the scientist of the 19th century tried to learn more and more about man by observation, measurement and description, leaving the prejudices of their time behind them. In Sweden, Anders Retzius developed the international known method of skull-measurement further on and his son Gustav tried to prove with this method that the Swedes are the purest Germanic race.
1921/22 the first institute of race-biology in the world was founded in Uppsala. Its founder, Herman Lundborg, was successful in raising money even among the Swedish cultural elite: The creator of the Nils Holgersson, Selma Lagerlöf, as well as the socialist Hjalmar Brantig were among the donators - the painter of idyllic family life, Carl Larsson, or Ellen Key, the pioneer for the children rights, supported the new institution. Even if the nazi-sympathies of Herman Lundborg had to be hidden to receive financial support by the government this wide support shows how deeply rooted race-biology ideas were in Sweden. There was a great fear that the Swedish people would be “ stained” by other races or that the better-living conditions would make life for more and more handicapped persons possible, at the disadvantage of the “healthy”.

In 1935, when the Nürnberg laws were established, Sweden promulgated its sterilization law. Forced sterilizations took place during and after WW II. Only in 1974 the law on sterilization was abolished. In the late 1930s the Swedish borders were closed for the Jewish refugees from Germany. While the exhibition otherwise concentrates on the Swedish context, here the curators make an excursion to the German politics based on race-biological ideology. The temporal parallel to the German atrocities makes one aware of the “Zeitgeist” which ruled even the Swedish welfare state, which begin to establish itself on the principle of functionalism. “The other” - as homosexuals, handicapped or social outsiders - was a thorn in the flesh of the welfare-ideologists represented by Alva and Gunnar Myrdal. Gypsies were registered and catalogued, and from 1914 until 1954 it was forbidden for them to come to Sweden at all. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that Gypsies were accepted as an ethnical minority.

Big paintings show the stereotypes of the time, sometimes questioned or contrasted by a quote of a popular representative of today, always surrounded by warning-tape (like the ones used in construction sites). Photos of today-people are integrated in the different historic chapters: Be aware, how would you be judged and judge in this period? There are no easy truths to find, no sweeping statements or pictures of the ultimate evil, this is the big merit of the exhibition. The curators are well aware of the moral concepts of today but try also to do justice to the moral categories of the past and wonder about future concepts. The exhibition does not focus on historical events only, but try to link them to the problems of modern society as xenophobia or genetic. Scientists realized that the differences between the races cannot be considered as relevant. Instead they concentrate now on the health of the individual. What choices can future-parents make and under which kind of social pressure does this liberty puts them?

The higher question of the exhibition as well as of the book “Grandfather was a race-biologist” by Eva Dahlgren [2] is: What is knowledge? And why should we believe in (genetic-)scientists? The faith in scientific truths were overstrained by the atrocities of the 20th century: “Medical genetic science. That’s how race-biology is called today”, sounds Eva Dahlgren’s sarcastic statement. [3]

Even if not many members of this mailing-list will have the possibility to see the exhibition this review may give an impression of the topics Swedish society is dealing with at the moment. Eva Dahlgren’s book may be seen as just one of many examples. [4] Sweden is facing its past. Since the 1990s there are hot debates about Sweden’s roll as a “neutral” power during WW II, the rigid asylum-policy against Jews and Gypsies and the policy of sterilization within the country. The new vogue of nazism, anti-Semitism and violence especially against homosexuals at the same time shocked the Swedish society. The fact that a lot more research has to be done becomes already clear while considering the basic figures which differ very much from each other. Did 63 000 people (mostly women) were sterilized between 1906 until 1975, when the old sterilization-law was replaced [5], or 10-30 000 – as the exhibition states? Did Folke Bernadotte save 30 000 refugees from Germany with his white busses in 1945, of them 11 000 Jews [6], or only 12 000 (a quarter of them Jews)? This may be just numbers but the numbers may be a measurement for the Swedish self-image.

It is very regrettable that – as often in Sweden - there is no catalogue to this exhibition. The online-version consists of the texts of the exhibition only and is available under: www.nordm.se/exhib/ufm/sid2.html

Tanja Schult, Södertörns Högskola, Sweden, TanjaSchult@web.de

[1] See Gunnar Broberg: Rassenbiologie und Antisemitismus. In: Bernd Henningsen a.o.: Wahlverwandtschaft. Skandinavien und Deutschland 1800 bis 1914. Berlin 1997, p. 172-174
[2] Eva F. Dahlgren: Farfar var rasbiolog. En berättelse om människovärde igår och idag. Stockholm 2002
[3] Ibid., p. 247
[4] Here I give just three examples if one wish to read more. Gunnar Broberg has written a couple of books on this topics, here I mention a book written in English, where you can find more literature: Gunnar Broberg and Nils Roll-Hansen (ed.): Eugenics and the welfare state. Sterilization policy in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland. Uppsala 1996; Maija Runcis: Steriliseringar i folkhemmet. Stockholm 1998; Lennart Lundmark: Lappen är ombytlig, ostadig och obekväm. Svenska statens samepolitik i rasismens tidevarv. Umeå 2002
[5] See Dahlgren, p. 250, as well as the documentary film ”Dokument inifrån”: ”De icke önskvärda – en bit ur den Svenska historien” (The not wanted – a piece out of Swedish history”, shown on Swedish Television 1 (SVT 1), 29.8.2002
[6] See the documentary ”Handelsresande i liv” (A commercial traveler in Life) by Lena Einhorn, shown on SVT 2, 25.3.1998

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Dokument erstellt am 2.11.2002