Book review: Scandinavians in the State House

Sada Reed
Phoenix, Ariz.

If someone wanted to pick up a book that would make them proud of being of Scandinavian descent and/or Minnesotan, this book is it.

Scandinavians in the State House: How Nordic Immigrants Shaped Minnesota Politics by Klas Bergman straddles the line between being an informative, reference guide-type text and a feel-good read about Nordic immigrants’ and their descendants’ accomplishments in Minnesota. Bergman paints both a wide-lens view of Scandinavian immigration and its influence on Minnesota public policy and highlights individual Scandinavian immigrants or Americans of Scandinavian descent who rose through the ranks of Minnesota political leadership.

The wide-lens view—factors that led Scandinavians to migrate to Minnesota—is highlighted first. “Push and pull factors” that encouraged a move to America included poverty, economic crises, joblessness, crop failure, and a lack of available land in their home countries, as well as religious intolerance, rigid social hierarchy, and political blacklisting or resistance to military service. Thousands of Swedes, for example, flocked to Minnesota following the 1909 General Strike. Bergman discusses Scandinavians’ role in the Civil War and temperance movement, particularly how this involvement helped solidify Scandinavians’ devotion to their new home.

He then examines individual prominent Scandinavians, like Knute Nelson (1843-1923), the first Scandinavian-born American to be elected to the Senate and Minnesota’s 12th governor; John Lind (1854-1930), member of the U.S. House of Representatives and Minnesota’s 14th governor; John Johnson (1861-1909), Minnesota state senator and 16th governor; A. O. Eberhart (1870-1944), Minnesota’s 17th governor; and former U.S. vice presidents Hubert Humphrey (1911-1978) and Walter Mondale (b. 1928), among others.

Bergman’s description of Scandinavians’ involvement in agrarian politics and the rise of progressive movements at the beginning of the 20th century helps the reader understand how modern Minnesota politics became what they are, particularly the left-leaning policies that distinguish it from other Midwest states. Swedish-born socialist Carl Skoglund, for example, was a leader in the Minneapolis Teamsters’ Strike of 1934, which “became a landmark in U.S. labor history as the rights of the union were recognized and Minneapolis ceased to be an open-shop city” (p. 122). The author highlights leading Republicans, describing Tim Pawlenty as the end of traditional progressive Republicanism in Minnesota.

A chapter on the Finns is of particular note. It explains the darker experience Finns had in America compared to other Nordic groups. Isolated from other Nordic immigrants because of language differences, Bergman describes their radical brand of politics, the influence they had on Minnesota’s unions, and the racial discrimination they faced. Local newspapers actually stereotyped them as “reds,” “anarchists,” and “drunks,” Bergman said.

“One survey in the early 1920s found only 36 percent of respondents willing to live next door to a Finn. Tavern signs could be found declaring ‘No Indians or Finns allowed.’ In 1918, Olli Kiukkonen, one of many Finns who had refused to register for the World War I military draft, was tarred and feathered and lynched by a vigilante group in Duluth. His gravestone in Park Hill Cemetery reads: ‘Victim of Warmongers’” (p. 124).

Overall, the strength of the book is simultaneously its weakness: The book thoroughly explains Scandinavians’ plight in their new country and their rise as a political voice. It’s inspirational and informative. The downside is that since it focuses on the positive attributes of prominent Scandinavians and Scandinavian Americans, the book glosses over the more collective dark eras of Minnesota politics. Lawlessness, gambling, illegal booze, and gang killings were rampant in the Twin Cities in the 1920s, for example. Corruption plagued the cities for decades, and it’s unlikely all political leaders of Scandinavian descent had their hands clean of such turmoil. The difficulties non-white immigrants have had in Minnesota are also glossed over. (There is, however, a chapter devoted to “the new guard” of immigrants shaping Minnesota politics, Somalis in Ward Six.) However, the book delivers on its title’s promise: It’s a deep dive into the experience of this one specific ethnic group—Scandinavians.

This is a fun, heavy read about an important group that helped define Minnesota. It’s worth picking up. Bergman’s writing is well organized, clean, and insightful. The Swedish-born author is a longtime journalist, his tenure including six years as the chief U.S. correspondent for Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter. He is also the author of Land of Dreams: A Reporter’s Journey from Sweden to America. You can follow him on Twitter @ksbergman.

This article originally appeared in the July 28, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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