In 1941 the Swedish government passed a law authorising the sterilisation of 'antisocial' citizens, and targeted the gypsy-like 'travellers'. Fisher Dilke met some of the state's victims

IN BRITAIN in 1931 the Labour MP Archibald Church introduced a private member's bill to Parliament for the sterilisation of "mental defectives". The bill, which said sterilisation was only to be performed if the patients agreed, or if their spouses, parents or guardians agreed on their behalf, set out to prevent people considered to have "bad genes" from having children. The bill was thrown out.

Genetics is an unusual science in that, almost from the moment it was discovered, a philosophical-political movement was associated with it: eugenics, the aim of which was to improve humanity through breeding. In the early years of this century, scientists were making such important discoveries in the field of genetics that governments of many non-Catholic countries began to become interested in eugenics. To many of the scientists involved, it seemed that the new advances in genetics could be used to eliminate inherited diseases. The method would be sterilisation.

At about the time that Church's bill was thrown out in Britain, similar laws were being passed in the United States and, with the most extreme and terrible consequences, in Germany. There, the sterilisation law was used on the long-term inmates of mental hospitals. When such measures were deemed insufficient, at about the start of the Second World War, mental patients were gassed instead.

Two years ago, it emerged that Sweden - a country which had for so long been admired all over the world for its socialist democracy - had sterilised more than 63,000 people, 90 per cent of whom were female. About 11,500 of the 63,000 were mentally disabled. Sweden's first sterilisation law, passed in 1934, allowed doctors to sterilise the mentally ill provided that the patient gave consent (or by a doctor's authority if the patient was judged unable to make such a decision). By law, sterilisation could be performed only on those who were considered likely either to be incapable of bringing up children, or to pass on their "bad genes". From 1935 to 1941 about 500 sterilisations were performed each year. In 1941 the law was changed, and it became legal for sterilisation to be performed on people who were deemed to have an "antisocial lifestyle" - in other words, on those considered to have a detrimental influence on society. While researching a documentary about eugenics in Sweden, I learned that this change in the law was used to target a particular sector of society - the travellers, a group similar to the gypsies but with more shrouded origins.

IN THE EARLY Thirties, Sweden had a new social democratic government which was determined to modernise the country. One of the problems it faced was the fact that it had the lowest birthrate in the world. The social scientists Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, a young married couple, were eager to make their reputations. They wrote a hugely influential book called Kris i befolkningsfragen ("Crisis in the Population Question"), in which they argued that Sweden's low birthrate was caused by poverty and unemployment. Give ordinary people decent housing, child care and financial security, they wrote, and they would have more children. In other words, if Sweden wanted a growing population, it would have to adopt a welfare state. In the same book, the Myrdals, who were socialists, called for equal rights for both sexes, legal contraception, and sex education in schools.

One of the important consequences of the book was to bring about the 1941 change in the Swedish sterilisation law. It was not in the interests of the welfare state, the Myrdals argued, to help all couples have many children. Some people were likely to make unsuitable parents not because they might pass on "undesirable genes", but because they had questionable morals. After the introduction of the "antisocial lifestyle" clause the number of people being sterilised went up to 2,500 a year.

The 1941 Sterilisation Act said that Swedish doctors needed to protect not only their patients but also the welfare state. Far from opposing the law, doctors found ingenious means of persuading reluctant patients to give consent. Pregnant unmarried girls from poor backgrounds who asked for legal abortions were often told that they could have one only if they agreed to be sterilised. In the early Fifties, the numbers dropped, but remained at about 1,500 - mainly women requesting abortions - until abortion was made legal in 1975, at which point the sterilisation law was repealed. Many of the victims were so ashamed of what had happened to them that they kept silent - hence the quarter of a century that passed before the truth emerged. According to one of the doctors I spoke to, Dr Rudkilde, the local authorities began to send unemployed and simply nonconformist people to the mental hospitals, so that about a quarter of the inmates in the hospital where he worked during the early and mid-Fifties were not mentally ill or disabled. Nevertheless, they were only to be released if they agreed to be sterilised. In addition to the sterilisation programme, some "difficult" patients were given lobotomies, and a small number of men were castrated.

I began to try to track down people who had suffered by the programme. Hundreds of victims had written to the government to complain, and their letters had been made available to journalists.

Elsie Soderberg, 69, is retired and lives in a council flat in Malmo. Brought up in a children's home, at the age of 16 she developed an ear infection and was taken to a local hospital. When she came round from the anaesthetic she was told that she had been sterilised. No one had asked her permission; no one ever gave her any explanation.

Gote Karlsson, 58, was 18 years old and a patient in a psychiatric hospital when he was sterilised. He had been told that if he gave his consent, he'd be released. He agreed - but after the operation was performed the authorities changed their mind and Karlsson remained in various institutions for the next 10 years. It appears that the hospital authorities decided that he fell into the "antisocial" category because he came from a rough, deprived family who lived in a shack near the railway station in Trelleborg, southern Sweden.

The travellers are the Swedish equivalent of tinkers. They have no fixed abode and live outside the constraints of ordinary society. In former times they moved around the country in horse-drawn caravans. They earned a living by making small artefacts, trading in cheap goods and horses, and occasionally working as hangmen. They were not gypsies, although they had a similar way of life. Nowadays, travellers are widely known in Sweden by the derogatory term "Tattare"- "Tartars" - and are regarded as an underclass by many. I discovered, however, that the travellers have claimed the epithet as their own.

The travellers are dark-skinned and dark-haired, but their origins are mysterious. Much points towards them having a definite cultural identity - certainly, their comparatively dark complexions give them a southern or eastern European appearance. According to some of the travellers, their ancestors were invited into Sweden in the 16th century - no one could say from where - by King Gustav Vasa, on account of their military skills. The story goes that the names of the original traveller families are written in an ancient book that is in the possession of the Swedish government, which denies its existence.

Kristin Lindberg Larsson comes from an old traveller family, the Lindbergs, and she clings fiercely to her heritage. She told me about the berries the travellers find in the forests, and about their midsummer festival in the south of Sweden, where traveller weddings are performed by a traveller priest.

The 1941 Act was drafted with the travellers in mind, but the question of whether they constituted an ethnic group bothered the Swedish government. They were regarded as a threat to the welfare state, but accusations of racial persecution needed to be avoided, so the Institute of Race Biology at the University of Uppsala was asked to look into the matter. The researchers took photographs and measured the heads and bodies of many travellers, before pronouncing that, while a surprising number of "Tattare" did have small heads and narrow shoulders, they were not as a group physically distinct from the rest of the Swedish population. In the Institute's view, the travellers were Swedes who had lost their land and had become dwellers on the fringes of rural society. Once there, they had adopted some of the ways of the gypsies. Armed with the report, the government stepped up its sterilisation programme and doctors began to target the travellers. (Sweden's gypsies, who counted as an ethnic group, were left alone.) There are no official figures as to how many travellers were sterilised: one traveller told me about 3,000 people, out of a total population of about 20,000; Bo Hassel, a Swedish journalist, suggested that 900 was a more likely figure. Either way, it was a significant proportion.

By asking around, I discovered that there was an elected head of the travellers, Birger Rosengren. I telephoned him, and we arranged to meet at Stockholm's main railway station. He would be arriving by train. I should have a car with me so that we could go and visit his mother. I would be very interested to meet her, he told me. She had been put in an institution when she was 13, where she had escaped sterilisation only through her strength of will in refusing to give her consent.

At the railway station, I scanned the knots of people emerging from the main entrance to the station. Birger Rosengren stood out from the crowd. In his late thirties, he was stout and shortish, his hair Brylcreemed. With him was his wife, Eva, a dark- haired woman in a floral dress. Eva told me that she was not a traveller herself but, because her English was better than Birger's, she told me some facts about the travellers. They speak a language called Romany; the Swedish gypsies speak Romanes, but apparently the two are very different. The travellers move around during the summer, but in the winter tend to settle in flats in the suburbs.

We arrived at the immense council estate where Maiken, Birger's mother, lives. Small and chubby, she had an eager, intelligent face and was sitting in a wheelchair. There were two other people with her in the flat: Birger's uncle Valentin, a wheezy pensioner with bullfrog cheeks which he'd puff up when surprised or interested, and Tomas, who, it became clear, was Birger's bodyguard.

One evening when Maiken was 13 years old, she told us, social workers came to her house and took her away. She was put in an institution for girls. After she'd been there for three months she was taken to see the doctor, who had a kindly manner and a gentle voice. He told her that she was to take her clothes off because he wanted to examine her. When she asked why, he replied that he thought she might have a venereal disease. Maiken said indignantly that she had never been with a boy, but the doctor told her that because she refused to be examined she would be put in solitary confinement for a week.

Later on, there were meetings with more doctors, who told Maiken that they wanted to sterilise her, and promised her that if she agreed she'd be allowed home within a month. But she refused; she wanted to have a family. As a result, she was kept in the institution for two and a half years before they let her out. Now, though, she is a grandmother. A matriarch.

Maiken went on. One of her brothers was put in a mental hospital for being "difficult", and given a lobotomy. He died young. Uncle Valentin was luckier - he was sent to a children's home but escaped sterilisation. When Maiken came to to the end of her story, the room fell silent. Birger had a few things to add. There was an institution called Bona, in the forests near Motala, he said, where young Tattare men were sent for being vagrants or for failing to contribute maintenance to children they had fathered.

"Bona was the travellers' Auschwitz," Birger told me. There was hard labour and military discipline. The inmates wore striped uniforms and were beaten by the warders. Worst of all, they were sterilised.

Bona consists of three large neo-Baroque buildings that had formerly been used as barracks, set on a wooded hill. Apart from the buildings, little remained of the place Birger had described. The wire fence that had encircled the place had been removed, and although the parade ground was still there, it was grown over with weeds. The buildings were about to be converted into holiday apartments.

I met Rolf Tidlund at the main entrance. He used to be a warder at Bona, and now lives nearby. A thick-set man with a greying crew cut, he was dressed in blue jeans and a denim jacket. He produced a key which the caretaker had lent him and took me into one of the buildings. Inside was chaotic; graffiti had been drawn on the walls, and rubbish and broken furniture littered the rooms.

Rolf told me about the young men who had once been his charges. He produced a photograph album and showed me some pictures of them wearing their striped uniforms. Most of them looked forlorn and lost.

I asked Rolf how many of them had been travellers.

"Some of them were. But not all by any means."

Then he told me about the sterilisations. A new doctor had arrived, he told me, and that's when it had all started. The young men were loaded into buses and removed to a nearby hospital, where the operations were performed. Rolf was clearly still horrified by what he had witnessed.

EARLIER THIS YEAR, a Swedish government commission recommended that anybody who had been sterilised with any degree of coercion should receive financial compensation roughly equivalent to pounds 13,500.

At the heart of Sweden's sterilisation law lay a belief which I gathered many of the older generation of doctors still clung to - that some people were unfit to be parents and shouldn't have children. I had been given the telephone numbers of several doctors who had been practising in the early Fifties, but most did not want to speak to me. The few who did allow me to visit them generally did so on the understanding that whatever they said was off the record. All those I visited were retired and fairly well off. Most denied having had anything to do with the sterilisation programme. But, extraordinarily, there were one or two who seemed glad of the opportunity to explain the system's merits. One retired psychiatrist, bespectacled and immaculate in a dark suit, pulled a textbook down from one of the shelves that lined his study and showed me diagrams to illustrate how genetic diseases were inherited. If somebody with an inherited disease was sterilised, he said, all likely future occurrences in the family would be eliminated too. Of course, he added, he had never been involved in the programme.

Dr Bygdeman, one of Sweden's most eminent psychiatrists, told me that when he was a junior doctor he did perform a few sterilisations; he had been required to by law. At the time, it had seemed right. Now it didn't. Moral laws, he told me, were not absolute, but were tied to the age in which they applied. Another doctor, Hans Isaksson, who claimed to have been too young to have taken part in the sterilisations (and I believed him), told me that a change had taken place in medicine when the sterilisations were on the decrease in the mid-Fifties. Before then, there had been a category of people called "the poor", who had been appallingly deprived. Sterilisation was just one of the horrors that had been visited on them. Now that the poor no longer existed, Isaksson said, with an ironic smile, it was no longer necessary to sterilise them.

It is frightening to reflect that, in some ways, the sterilisation programme had its desired effect; that Sweden's liberalism was achieved through a fear of nonconformism. The fact remains that it is a country which, to eliminate poverty, struck at the poverty-stricken. And, perhaps from a combination of the sterilisation programme itself, from a fear of persecution and from a desire to conform and improve their standard of living, the travellers have now all but disappeared, absorbed into ordinary Swedish life. Birger Rosengren is one of only a few thousand who remain.

'Equinox: Sweden, Sex and the Disappearing Doctors', directed by Fisher Dilke, will be shown tomorrow at 9pm on Channel 4

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