The Foundations for Democracy in Scandinavia

In times of perceived crisis in Western democracies, the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden stand out as remarkably stable: Polarization and populism are weaker than elsewhere, and civic unrest is very limited. Recent research shows that this extraordinary stability characterized Scandinavia even in the 19th and early 20th centuries when democracy replaced autocracy in an otherwise dramatic series of political changes. However, it remains heavily understudied why the Scandinavian democratization processes diverged from most of their European counterparts. As Francis Fukuyama puts it in his Origins of Political Order, “[m]ost people living in rich, stable developed countries have no idea how Denmark itself got to be Denmark” (p. 14). Historian Erik Bengtsson reaches a similar conclusion for literature on Swedish democratization, stating that “the factual basis of the Swedish Sonderweg interpretation is weak” (p. 124).

Notable empirical puzzles underline this dearth of research: Denmark was one of Europe’s most absolutist regimes until 1849, Norway faced the monumental task of simultaneously building a nation and a democracy after independence from Denmark in 1814, while Sweden had a widely different political-institutional past of constitutionalism and proto-parliamentarism. Why did these countries converge around stable democracy?

In a forthcoming article in American Political Science Review, I examine the origins of stable democratization in Scandinavia. My analysis is distinct in two ways. First, it applies a historical perspective. While the consensus is that the early integration of dense civic associations and institutionalized parties was essential in shielding Scandinavia from the extremist politics associated with late industrialization, these factors are also close conceptual relatives of democracy. To avoid such near-tautological reasoning, I seek for explanatory factors before the French Revolution in 1789, which marked the beginning of popular pressures for liberalization or outright transitions to democracy, i.e., a regime where governments are selected in free, fair, and inclusive elections.

Second, my analysis is explicitly comparative. Generations of Scandinavian historians have produced detailed accounts of regime developments but mostly with eyes fixed on one country, whereas comparativists in the international literature have tended to downplay or subsume Scandinavia under more general pathways. I compare the three Scandinavian countries with each other and with France and Prussia, both of which saw patterns of unstable democratization from similar points of departure – France, a series of democratic revolutions and authoritarian counter-reactions until the Third Republic was inaugurated in 1870, and Prussia, where autocracy was relatively stable until 1918. This set of comparisons reveals what separated Scandinavia from the rest.

War-made-the-state in Scandinavia

I trace the explanation to a set of remarkable developments in the 16th and 17th centuries that created penetrative, bureaucratic state apparatuses. This may seem counterintuitive. A strong state is normally presented as a contrast to democracy. When the state rules, either a small, kleptocratic elite or a huge, impersonal ‘Big Brother’ chains the people. However, in Scandinavia, the state provided public goods and accidentally laid the foundation for democracy. How did that happen?

16th and 17th century Europe saw the development of ‘modern states,’ i.e., organizations with a monopoly on violence and powers of extraction over a specified territory. These states almost unanimously emerged through waging or preparing for war, but whether and in what direction state-building developed depended on the balance of power between social groups in society, most notably the traditional estates in Medieval Times: the peasantry and bourgeoisie (e.g., merchants), the nobility or landed aristocracy, the clergy, and the king. However, on the brink of the Wars of Religion, which began with Luther’s Protestant Reformation in 1517, the balance of power differed substantially across Scandinavia: The peasantry was particularly weak and the nobility particularly strong in Denmark, the exact opposite characterized Norway, whereas in Sweden, power was more balanced with a notably strong church. Nevertheless, through contingencies related to wars, the Scandinavian states developed remarkably high degrees of meritocracy in how state officials were recruited and state control over local administration. Simply put, early-modern state-building constitutes the first point when we can relatively evidently say that Scandinavia began diverging from the rest (see the figure below).

Triggering of state-building in Scandinavia. Marked in bold is the social group that was relatively stronger compared with the other Scandinavian countries.

In Denmark, the war with Sweden (1657-1660) and the subsequent territorial losses were widely blamed on the landed nobility. This enabled King Frederick III to stage a coup d’état and initiate a series of groundbreaking laws that substituted the political-administrative prerogatives of the old nobility for royal nominations of servants and streamlined a hierarchical-legal system. As the weaker part of the Danish-Norwegian union, Norway largely followed this state-building path of Denmark, but the overhaul of the rudimentary administration went even more smoothly. In Sweden, later King Gustav Vasa exploited the dissolution of the Kalmar Union in 1523 to circumvent the powerful estates, installing non-noble royal bailiffs personally appointed by the king, and later reforms by Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna in the 1630s created a more consistently bureaucratic model. Corruption was by no means eliminated, but the almost complete eradication of venal office-holding from top to bottom of the administration was very similar across Scandinavia.

 Agrarian reform to survive and thrive

Penetrative bureaucracy proved to be Scandinavia’s comparative advantage in the 18th century when the need for reforming a low-producing agrarian sector amidst staggering population growth became urgent. Subsequent kings and other decision-makers variously came to see the emancipation of peasants and/or land redistribution as ways of promoting Enlightenment ideas and imperial ambitions, or simply hindering revolution. Yet the impartial administration of reforms in policy-making and implementation was the unifying factor across Scandinavia.

Despite initial differences in regime type and degrees of rural inequality and peasant participation rights, with Sweden and in some ways Norway being more inclusive, an almost identical pattern crystallized: Policy content was negotiated in commissions that included diverging interests mostly via petitions, public officials, ingenious landlords, and land surveyors, while technical commissions of experts and rule-bound jurists in appeal courts oversaw reform realization. Together, these processes ensured against capture by ‘conservative’ landlords or ‘revolutionary’ peasants and thus helped limiting peasant grievances and landlord resistance to reform (see the figure below).

Forging of peaceful agrarian reforms in Scandinavia

Things turned out differently in France and Prussia. Despite centralization of state power around the King’s Court and his administration after wars against the Habsburgs in the 1630s, office ownership continued at the local level and sale of new offices became an all-encompassing and deliberate strategy to raise finances. As historian David Parker notes, the administration was “compounded by venality of office which precluded any possibility of separating office from officeholder and of the bureaucracy meeting the criterion of impersonality postulated by Weber’s typology” (p. 176).

People would be surprised that bureaucracy and impartiality were hampered in Prussia as well. As is well known, the Thirty Years’ War changed the balance of power between the Hohenzollern royal family and the landed aristocracy, thus forging a new bureaucratic state organization – much like in Scandinavia. Yet against what happened in Scandinavia, and against the oft-cited image of Prussian bureaucracy, the price of centralization was the preservation of local administrative-judicial privileges for the Junkers.

The different forms of biased administration in France and Prussia led to distinct types of agrarian failure, reform through violence in France and stalled reform in Prussia. The predominance of patrimonialism hindered consistent agrarian reform attempts and thus contributed to radicalizing the peasantry for revolution in 1780s France, whereas the ambitious Stein-Hardenberg reform attempts in the 1810s were sabotaged and delayed by local landlord-administrative coalitions. As S. A. Eddie concludes on the Prussian case: “[T]he state remained insufficiently ramified in the localities to force through a transfer of power […] or wealth […] away from its indispensable furthest protuberance, the noble manor” (p. 258).

Democracy as unintended consequence

Equating extensive and peaceful agrarian reform with a deliberate move to prepare for democracy is not the message of my analysis. Although peasant emancipation played an important part of Danish agrarian reforms, this was not the case in Sweden. Across Scandinavia, liberalization of inheritance laws and property ownership was the more general element. This underscores the point that the agrarian reforms were seen as instruments to increase economic growth and prolong monarchical-aristocratic rule. However, the point is that over the 19th century, agrarian reforms unintentionally laid the foundation for comparatively strong peasant movements that successfully pushed for democratization.

The land that peasants had acquired and their newly won freedom to move around (most pronounced in Denmark) became sources of economic and political autonomy to form temperance societies, local and regional assemblies, and schools and cooperatives, which to a significant degree also functioned as networks of opposition activity. To be sure, not all peasants valued broad suffrage, at least not if it included industrial workers or women, and full democratization was a struggle that required these other social groups. However, especially when compared with Prussia where peasants never developed a significant force of liberal opposition, the Scandinavian freeholder stands out as indispensable in the initial fight for liberal constitutionalism, multiparty elections, and parliamentarism. Being characterized by penetrative bureaucracy, the state in Scandinavia thereby paradoxically paved the way for democracy.



  • David Andersen has a PhD from and is currently associate professor at the Department of Political Science, Aarhus University, Denmark. His research interests include patterns of state formation and regime change, history of democracy and bureaucracy, and comparative-historical methodology.

Leave a Reply