CJRColumbia Journalism Review

January/February 1998 | Contents

CJR World: Sweden

The Man Who Told the Secret
It took a non-Swede to get the full story of a government sterilization program

by Paul Gallagher
Gallagher is an associate producer for 60 minutes

Maciej Zaremba The revelations in Sweden's largest newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, shocked the world: long admired as a model of the enlightened and humane social welfare state, Sweden had forcibly sterilized more than 60,000 people, mostly women, between 1935 and 1976. The sterilizations were part of a government program designed to weed out "social undesirables" in the pursuit of a stronger, purer, more Nordic population. Those undesirables included, as the paper put it in a subhead, "'mixed race individuals,' single mothers with many children, deviants, Gypsies, and other 'vagabonds.'"

 The program's Nazi overtones were disturbing, yet inescapable. Under the headline racial purity in the welfare state, reporter Maciej Zaremba put it this way in his two-part series in August: "In Sweden, it was only under Social Democratic rule and in Germany only under Nazism that citizens could be deprived of their reproductive functions as a result of their origins or their disabilities."

His stories may have been a jolt for Swedes, but it was no surprise that it was Zaremba who produced them. For more than a decade, Zaremba, 46, has been exposing the underside of Sweden's welfare state in Dagens Nyheter, a 380,000-circulation morning newspaper that is Sweden's most influential voice. He has uncovered abuses in trusted institutions: the State Marine Institute, the Ministry of Social Affairs, and Sweden's celebrated judicial system. But this time he challenged the utopian vision Swedes hold of themselves and their government, and called into question a piece of their national identity.

 The sterilization program is not mentioned in Swedish history texts. Like most Swedes, Zaremba didn't know very much about the Swedish Sterilization Act, which was passed by the Parliament in 1935 and stayed on the books for forty-one years. Early in 1997, Zaremba came across an obscure book about sterilization, which was co-written by historian Gunnar Broberg of the University of Lund, but published only in the United States. Immediately, Zaremba knew he was looking at a major story: "The numbers of sterilizations Broberg uncovered convinced me this program was much bigger and more widespread than anyone ever imagined."

 So Zaremba read everything he could about sterilization in Sweden and around the world -- including the U.S., where forced sterilization of the mentally disabled, certain criminals, and others was legalized in several states starting in 1907 and continued until the 1960s. In Sweden, meanwhile, Zaremba learned that the sterilization program was rooted in the study of eugenics, a pseudo-science devoted to the creation of a superior race. But the program was expanded in 1941 to include any Swedes who exhibited behavior judged by the state to be anti-social.

 His research eventually led him to Maija Runcis, a doctoral student at Stockholm University. For years, Runcis had been researching Swedish sterilization policy. More important to Zaremba, Runcis had access to Sweden's well-protected archives of the State Medical Board, which housed the medical files of tens of thousands of Swedes. Zaremba knew the real story lay in those files.

"Maija and I had a coffee together and after about fifteen minutes, I was so excited I didn't know what to do with myself," he recalls. "I realized that her head was so full of dynamite and she didn't even know it." Zaremba could now prove, with Runcis's help, that thousands of Swedish citizens had been sterilized with the full and even enthusiastic support of their government.

More disturbing, Zaremba discovered that the sterilizations had never been voluntary, as was believed in Sweden, and as they were portrayed on paper. In the largest group of cases, adolescent girls who fit the state's criteria had been removed from their parents' homes by state officials and put in reform schools or institutions. Then, as a condition for their release, they were forced to undergo sterilization. And the state's criteria could be alarmingly arbitrary: people who fell behind in school were labeled "stupid," people who were outgoing were "sexually promiscuous," and people who were quiet or shy were deemed "anti-social." All were grounds for sterilization. It was clear from the files that sterilization had been forced upon vulnerable and often terrified women, a point Zaremba drove home forcefully in his articles:

Freedom of choice was in fact totally illusory. The person concerned was either declared 'of unsound mind' -- a simple procedure -- or was subjected to irresistible pressure. Sign this or we'll take the children, sign this or there'll be no social benefit, no flat, no leave . . . and so on. Sweden went furthest in the way of legalized blackmail . . . .

Previous reports on the sterilization program, including a documentary on Swedish Radio, had been largely ignored or dismissed. But in the space of just two articles Zaremba managed to tear away years of myth and secrecy, partly because of the power of his newspaper and partly due to his writing and reporting. "Maciej's greatest strength is his moral compassion," says Arne Ruth, editor-in-chief of Dagens Nyheter. "He backs up that morality with the most thorough research imaginable."

Ruth also credits Zaremba with giving his sterilization story the added punch of what he calls a "non- Swede" perspective. Zaremba was born in Poland in 1951. In 1969, he emigrated to Sweden with his mother, fleeing the growing anti-Semitism of communist Poland. He became a Swedish citizen in 1978. He returned in 1980 to Poland during the Solidarity revolution only to leave again when martial law was imposed in 1981.

 Ruth believes Zaremba's personal experience with communism makes him a sharper critic of Sweden's brand of socialism. "Maciej has a basic suspicion of the state, which many native-born Swedes don't," says Ruth. "In these articles, he basically dared to say the unsayable -- that Swedish Social Democrats had been involved in racism."

That conclusion opened Zaremba to criticism from fellow journalists in Sweden who accused him of unfairly blaming the Social Democratic and Labor party, which has ruled the country on and off for more than fifty years. Says Gunnar Fredriksson, a columnist at the competing Aftonbladet: "The anti-Social Democrat slant seems so important to Maciej, but he forgets that, at the time, these policies were supported by a broad range of political parties in this country and were being implemented in other countries, including the United States. In the end, it will be more important for people to believe the social historians, not Maciej Zaremba."

Zaremba's articles set off a chain reaction of soul-searching by other countries with a history of sterilization programs, including Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, and Norway. In Sweden, the minister of health and social affairs, Margot Wallstrom, whose agency just a year earlier had refused to compensate several victims of sterilization, called the sterilizations "barbaric" and promised to revisit the compensation issue. Indeed, the government set up a commission to investigate the sterilization program and decide if any victims should receive compensation.