Here is a review of my book about the Scandinavian political legacy in Minnesota. It is written by Kevin Proescholdt, editor of the Swedish-American Historical Quarterly, and published in January 2018, Vol. 69, No. 1.
Bergman, Klas. Scandinavians in the State House: How Nordic Immigrants Shaped Minnesota Politics. Saint Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2017. 310 pp., illustrations, bibliography, index, endnotes. ISBN: 978-1- 68134-030-2.
Minnesota is often referred to as the most Scandinavian of all the United States. Tens of thousands of immigrants from Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland did indeed settle in Minnesota, and over time these immigrants exerted an enormous influence on the state, including its politics. Since 1892, for example, Minnesota has had twenty governors of Nordic descent. Between 1915 and 1976, every Minnesota governor was of Swedish or Norwegian descent except for one Finland- Swede and one Dane. And the numbers of these governors are dwarfed by the thousands of Nordics who have served in local and county positions and state legislative offices, across the state and through the decades. Two such Nordics from Minnesota have even served as vice president of the United States.
Klas Bergman’s Scandinavians in the State House tells the story of the Scandinavian influences in Minnesota politics, and how those influences have shaped, and continue to shape, Minnesota politics today. Far more than just a compilation of Scandinavians who were elected to offices in the state, and far more than an uncritical filiopietistic, cheer–for-our- own-ethnic-group portrayal, this book delves into the widely varying backgrounds of Scandinavians in Minnesota, and how that diversity of experiences helped create the rich and enduring influence on the politics of the state.
The book is arranged somewhat, but not strictly, chronologically. This deviation from a purely chronological arrangement allows the author to delve more deeply into topics that may not neatly fit a straight chronological pattern, topics such as “Radicals in Exile” or “Finns on the Range.”
The books begins in detail looking at the “four pioneers” in the state capitol, the first Scandinavians to be elected governor of Minnesota: Norwegian immigrant and Civil War veteran Knute Nelson in 1892, a Republican; Swedish-born John Lind in 1898, a Democrat; John A. Johnson, also a Democrat and son of Swedish immigrants, elected in 1904; and Adolph Olson Eberhart, also born in Sweden, and elected as a Republican in 1908. Though traditionally affiliated with the Republican Party, “the Scandinavian vote was far from monolithic,” even in these early years of gubernatorial success.
The cleavages among the Scandinavian voters were widened even further during the tumultuous years between the turn of the twentieth century and the end of World War I. The Nonpartisan League gained strength among Scandinavians during this time—especially in rural areas—and Swedish immigrant Charles A. Lindbergh Sr. (the father of the famous aviator) became a nationally recognized member of Congress from Minnesota and opponent of World War I. Lindbergh challenged Governor J. A. A. Burnquist (the son of Swedish immigrants) in the Republican primary for governor in 1918 amid the toxic politics of war-time repression and strident xenophobia, and eventually lost to Burnquist, splitting the Swedish vote mostly along urban-rural lines.
One of my favorite chapters in the book is “Radicals in Exile,” a chapter reprinted in the April 2017 issue of this journal. This chapter provides a nice counter-balance to the image of Swedish immigrants in Minnesota as pioneer farmers like Karl-Oskar from Vilhelm Moberg’s emigrant novels. The chapter follows the lives of three Swedes—Walfrid Engdahl, Carl Skoglund, and Walter Malte Frank—who had all been blacklisted in Sweden for participation in the General Strike of 1909 or for other labor activities, and were essentially forced to emigrate. Though none of the three was ever elected as governor, all three became active in Minnesota politics via such avenues as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies), the Farmer-Labor Party (later the Demo- cratic-Farmer-Labor Party), the Socialist Party, or the Communist Party.
After World War II, the author writes of the emergence of the two modern political parties in Minnesota, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party, led by Nordic-American Hubert H. Humphrey; and a progressive Republican Party, a moderate and internationalist party shaped by the former “Boy Governor” Harold Stassen of German/ Czech/Norwegian descent. The author attributes much of the progressive nature of the state and its politics to the Scandinavian influences brought by the masses of Scandinavian immigrants who settled in the state and became involved with the state’s politics and public life.
Klas Bergman ends the book in a most interesting way. In the penultimate chapter, entitled “From Snoose Boulevard to Little Mogadishu,” he describes how Somali immigrants of today have taken a page from the playbook of the old Scandinavian immigrants in the south Minneapolis Sixth Ward. Once a stronghold of Scandinavian Americans, the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood and the broader Sixth Ward today have become a stronghold for Somali immigrants. Like their Scandinavian predecessors, the Somali immigrants have exerted their political power, and with growing success. In 2013, for example, Somali immigrant Abdi Warsame won an impressive victory over the incumbent city council member to represent the Sixth Ward on the City Council. In 2016 Ilhan Omar, a thirty-three-year-old Somali-American woman who had fled Somalia as a child, defeated a long-time DFL member of the state legislature, becoming the first Somali American elected to any state legislative office in the country. The Somali-American immigrants of today are following the same path to political office in the same neighborhoods that were blazed by the Scandinavian immigrants of a century or more ago.
There is much to recommend in Scandinavians in the State House. It is well researched (including citations of many articles from this Quarterly), well written and well documented, and the author conducted more than ninety interviews to supplement his meticulous research. It is a must-read for understanding the influence of Scandinavian Americans on the political life of Minnesota.
EDITOR, SWEDISH-AMERICAN HISTORICAL QUARTERLY