Sweden's grief adds to identity crisis

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The Independent Online
IT WAS Sweden's last day of official mourning yesterday, of flags flying at half mast throughout the country. But it was very early days in a growing national identity crisis that comprises far more factors than grieving for the perished on the Estonia. Underlying the mood of the nation is the knowledge that it is no longer an island protected from outside harm.

Last night King Carl Gustav, the conservative outgoing prime minister, Carl Bildt, and his incoming Social Democratic counterpart, Ingvar Carlsson, attended a service of mourning at Stockholm cathedral. Mr Bildt said in his address: 'The sea unites peoples and nations, but it also takes away . . . as human beings we constantly strive to become the masters of everything. But we will never succeed.' As every church in the country observed a minute's silence, an introductory prayer in one of them could perhaps as easily have substituted every mention of the word God with the word trygghet - the Swedish concept of cradle-to-grave security.

The prayer was based on Psalm 22. 'Why? My God, why? I do not understand You. How could it happen? How could You let it happen? You who were meant to be the God of goodness - where were You this terrible night? You who said that You would be there - where were You? You who said You would always be there. My God, why have You forsaken me?'

The return to power of Mr Carlsson only nine days before the disaster, following three years of conservative-led rule, was part of the Swedes' 'back to trygghet' as they feared an all-too-rapid dismantling of their welfare system. The same sentiment was echoed in the village of Ramsberg, where six families lost a relative. At its own memorial service at the weekend, one resident said: 'Together we must build up a new trygghet . . . The village will not be the same for a very long time.'

Princess Christina, the King's sister and head of the Swedish Red Cross, said: 'More or less everyone in Sweden knows someone who knows someone who hasn't come home. An accident like this should never have been possible.'

The good Lutheran work ethic has helped the nation in its labour of bereavement; 'crisis groups' have mushroomed overnight. Karin, a pensioner from Norrkoping, cancelled her journey on the Estonia in order to go to the optician. Among the 56 who perished from her town, she lost six close friends, including her constant companion, Stina. Karin keeps going by helping to run the crisis centre at the pensioners' club. 'But what happens when the practical work runs out - how will she cope then?' said one close friend.

The most immediate difficulty has been to come to terms with how this could have happened on a ship cleared for use by safety-conscious Sweden. The daily Svenska Dagbladet called for a 'sanitising' of the debate: 'There have been a few unpleasant elements. Among these is the striking enthusiasm to explain the accident by the fact that the crew was Estonian.' '

Many have flocked to church over the past few days. But there is still a refusal to let go of the state of Sweden as the institution that will keep the country safe. Some argue this dependancy must end. Bjorn Ljunggren writes in his new book A Certain Degree of Freedom that the Swedes have become ready to shoulder responsibility after being given education and economic development through the Swedish model. 'It was natural that since they have seen the welfare state be born and grown up, they must also understand that sooner or later it must die.'

The debate ahead of the next national trauma - the referendum on EU membership in six weeks' time - amply illustrates Swedes still demand some protection from what other European nations must suffer. They fear EU membership will bring an influx of drugs, rabies and a lowering of social and environmental standards. They also fear the loss of neutrality that has kept them out of wars for 200 years. There is no guarantee, they say, that young Swedish conscripts will not be forced to fight a war on behalf of other nations.

(Photograph omitted)