The Myrdals’ Eugenicist Roots

Kris i Befolkningsfraågen
Alva Myrdal and Gunnar Myrdal
Stockholm: Albert Bonniers Förlag, 1934

It was the summer of 1934 when Gunnar Myrdal and his wife Alva published Kris i Befolkningsfraågen (The crisis in the population question, hereafter KiB), just as Gunnar, then thirty-five years old, was assuming a seat as a Social Democratic member of the Swedish Parliament.1 As a salvo from the enfant terrible of the Swedish economic establishment, the book was not merely analytical in intent but intended as a political strategy and policy manifesto for the Social Democratic Party. Long viewed as the founding intellectual document of the Swedish welfare state, KiB is also a book that in recent years has achieved a certain notoriety, since among its many policy suggestions was a proposal for the sterilization of the “unfit”—a proposal that in fact became policy, leading to the sterilization of nearly 63,000 Swedes in the four decades after the book’s publication. Appreciating the significance of this text requires careful consideration of both the Swedish national and international eugenics movement at the time, for which it was an important work.

Demographic Crisis

The context for this book was a widespread sense of demographic crisis in contemporary Sweden.2 Swedish birth rates had been in continuous decline since the late nineteenth century and by 1933, exacerbated by the economic conditions of the Depression, had fallen to what was then an all-time low of 13.7 per 1,000 people.3 Even with death rates also in decline, a linear extrapolation of demographic trends suggested that the Swedish fertility rate was on the verge of falling below replacement levels within a few of years. This in turn provoked a variety of alarmist discussions that Sweden faced the prospect of slow-motion “race suicide”—ergo, the sense of “crisis” named in the title of the Myrdals’ book.4

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