Calm, classless, striving for beauty: Yes, Scandinavia really is all it's cracked up to be

British commentators have been dismissing Scandinavian culture and politics using selective statistics and un-contextualised observations. But from smart young people to art and happiness: the qualities of Nordic life are well established.

Maybe it’s just sour grapes. I’ve been waiting years for a beautiful Scandinavian to whisk me off my feet and suggest we return to her homeland to live happily ever after, and it seems to have happened to Michael Booth by accident. And yet I couldn’t help feeling Booth’s lambasting of Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway in his "grim truth" assessment of life in the Nordic countries was more than a little cynical.

Booth was doing nothing more than indulging the time-honoured tradition of deflating something that’s been over-hyped – even if he did so via a smörgåsbord of selective statistics and un-contextualised observations. And he’s not alone. Those who believe our interest in Scandinavian ideals has gone too far have some potent new ammunition to play with: riots in Sweden, the downgrading of Finland’s education system and Norway’s excessive wealth wrought from its natural resources are all sticks with which we can beat those conceited Scandinavians, attempting to re-boot our own sense of moral worth in the process.

Most Finns and Scandinavians would feel pretty uneasy if they knew how their countries were so idolised elsewhere. Which is a good thing. Booth isn’t the first to cite the Nordic unease with "displays of success, ambition and wealth" as a weakness and he won’t be the last. But it’s precisely those qualities – yes, qualities – which give the Nordic countries their egalitarian atmosphere, entrenched liberalism and distinct lack of a ruling class in politics, the media and elsewhere.

History would suggest it isn’t a new thing. The Nordic countries were among the first in Europe to abolish the death penalty, give votes to women, legalise gay marriage and reach something like a consensus on green issues. Then there’s the inbuilt regard for foreigners. I was gobsmacked when I sat sweating in a Norwegian sauna a few years ago only for the wooden box to be overrun by a group of unruly teenagers on the equivalent of a stag weekend. When they’d done with the headlocks and towel-whips, they introduced themselves to me one by one, shaking me by the hand, welcoming me to their country, and offering me a potted history of the small town we were in.

Sure, that’s another un-contextualised observation. But the difference is, in the UK we’re taught to assume certain styles of behaviour will be forthcoming only from certain sectors of society. In the Nordic countries – particularly in Norway and Finland where there’s no discernable class system and private education is virtually non-existent – what you see is what you get: a society in which everyone really is in it together. The so-called "Nordic Model" of high taxes, principled social welfare provision and high community spending may be under strain (despite the gloomy reports, Scandinavian countries still accept a higher per capita proportion of immigrants and refugees than the vast majority of their European counterparts, and according to the 2013 European Social Survey those immigrants feel more welcomed, too) but the fact that the Nordic Model remains in operation is inseparable from that sense of togetherness.

Such "togetherness" might be indescribable, but it’s the indescribable qualities of the Nordic spirit that don’t show up on those statistics the Scandi-bashers love to cite. We talk of smart Nordic design as if it’s a commodity tied to wealth and status. But a striving for beauty is a central, instinctive and classless Nordic ideal induced by so many factors including hostile weather and a sometimes lonely exploration of what it is to be a human. It’s all over the place up there: from the emancipated typeface on railway station signage to the modernist domestic furniture and proliferation of bold architecture. These things aren’t about social signaling or financial security. They’re about making life fundamentally more sensible, and their residue is what we’d optimistically call civilization.

Which in turn might explain why Scandinavians are among the happiest people on the planet. Social security and an emphasis on creativity (and major government support for the arts) make for the very opposite of the repression described by Booth. They actually create societies in which people are content because they have a voice and are willing to use it. True, many in Norway are uneasy with the country’s huge wealth, but that wealth has been consciously placed in the public domain by the Norwegian government – so everyone can benefit, yes, but also so everyone feels involved in the discussion. When I was in Stavanger in September, a spontaneous and open debate broke out in a café on the subject of oil wealth, corrupting capitalism and damage to the environment. Naturally, it was conducted in English for the benefit of the one non-Norwegian speaker in the room (me).

And now the political dialogue has its ugly side. UKIP equivalents have found themselves with support in Norway and Finland, and only a fool would dismiss their rise as transitory. Sweden’s failure to integrate its large immigrant population is more connected to technical detail than cultural will, but it is a failure nonetheless. The debate appears more raw because these are countries in which authority is naturally questioned, democracy is cleaved-to and voter engagement and activism is unusually high. The Nordic people – in the case of Norway and Finland, a young people occupying young countries which have changed fast in the last decade – voice their opinions in plain terms; sometimes it’s ugly, never is it avoided.

And rarely, in truth, does it embrace the ignorant and prejudiced. You can observe unsightly political posturing in the Nordic countries, you can even knock Finland for having dropped a few places in the worldwide educational leagues (though it still has the best schools in Europe according to the Pisa rankings). But recent political history does not a fair overview make. The Nordic countries are still the best examples of progressive societies in Europe, and it’s something you feel even more than you clock from statistics. I wouldn’t mind betting that progressiveness will overcome political fads, because it’s hard-wired into the way Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, Finns and even Icelanders carry themselves – in their natural modesty, their intense connection to the earth and their remarkable dance with capitalism which sees them touched by it but absolutely not defined by it. Spend some time in the Nordic countries and you may notice those things. You might also discover that Finns are more talkative, Norwegians less xenophobic and Swedes more emotionally open than their stereotypes would suggest ... and that there’s a little more to quality Danish TV than just The Killing.

Andrew Mellor is editor of Nordic culture website Moose Report, moosereport.net 

Swedish youth: polite and politically engaged. Photograph: Getty Images.
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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage