Racial experiments carried out in Swedish schools in 1950s

Members of a Swedish minority group were subjected to racial biology experiments and mistreatment in schools during the first half of the 20th century, a new study has revealed.

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards NewsMavens, Sweden
Racial experiments carried out in Swedish schools in 1950s - NewsMavens
Wikimedia Commons

Why this story matters:

The affected children came from Sweden’s Tornedalian minority group, descendants of Finns historically from the Tornedal region in northern Sweden. Tornedalians were only officially recognized as a national minority group in 1999, and the preliminary study presented on Monday shows that members of the group underwent abuse and mistreatment on a wider scale than previously thought.

This abuse included racial biology experiments apparently linked to the pseudoscience of craniometry, which purported a link between skull size and mental capacity.

At least 150 Tornedalians were subjected to these experiments as schoolchildren, according to the report’s writer, who said that number only represented the cases he knew of “with 100% certainty”. Skull measurements were carried out as late as 1951, and possibly into the 1960s.

During the early 20th century, racial biology experiments were also carried out on Sweden’s indigenous Sami population, representatives of whom have campaigned for recognition and proper investigation of the abuse for decades, and the country’s Jews.

Sweden has a dark legacy of eugenics policy, and its response to these latest findings will show how serious the country is about making amends for past mistreatment of its minority groups.

Details from the story:

  • The study, commissioned by Sweden’s Culture Ministry, is titled ‘I Was Like a Prisoner Then. The state’s abuse of Tornedalians and speakers of Meänkieli in the 1800s and 1900s.’
  • There are around 50,000 Tornedalians in Sweden, making it the third largest of the country’s minority groups. The research was compiled through interviews with 30 Tornedalian pensioners, and skull measurements were documented in 14 different areas of Tornedal.
  • The study presented on Monday also detailed abuse in schools and punishment for Tornedalians speaking the Meänkieli language.
  • Though officially neutral in the Second World War, and despite Sweden's humanitarian efforts to help European Jews, pro-Nazi sentiment was common through large parts of Swedish society.
  • In 1922 the country became the first to set up an institute for racial biology with the purpose of studying eugenics, and tens of thousands of women were forcibly sterilized up to as late as 1976.
  • Sweden’s Culture Minister said that the government would act on the findings of the report, and the National Association of Swedish Tornedalians has called for the creation of a Truth Commission to fully investigate the issue.

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