“All in all, Bergman has written an excellent book that any layman or scholar with an interest in Minnesota’s Nordic past will enjoy reading,” concludes Danish professor Jørn Brøndal in his review of my book about Minnesota’s Scandinavian political legacy.
The review was published in the latest issue of the Norwegian-American Historical Association’s journal Norwegian-American Studies (https://www.naha.stolaf.edu).
Klas Bergman, Scandinavians in the State House: How Nordic Immigrants Shaped Minnesota Politics (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2017). 6×9 inches, 20 b&w photos, index. viii + 310 pp. ISBN 9781681340302. $19.95
By Jørn Brøndal
In this interesting book, Klas Bergman explores how Nordic immigrants and their American-born progeny helped shape Minnesota’s political culture all the way from the 1850s to the present. During those years thousands of Nordics participated in Minnesota politics, several of them reaching high positions of power, including twenty-one governorships from 1893 to 1999.
The book offers short, incisive biographies of an impressive array of Minnesota’s Nordic politicians. As one might expect, ample room is made for exploring such towering figures as U.S. senator Knute Nelson (dates in office 1895–1923), Governors John B. Lind (1899–1901), Floyd B. Olson (1931–1936), and Wendell R. Anderson (1971–1976), as well as vice presidents and later Democratic presidential nominees Hubert H. Humphrey (1965–1969) and Walter F. Mondale (1977–1981). More controversial leaders are also examined. The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety under Governor Joseph A. A. Burnquist (1915–1921) put civil liberties under massive pressure during World War I. Also, Burnquist’s fight in the 1918 Republican primary against Charles A. Lindbergh Sr. turned ugly. Governors Hjalmar Petersen (1936–1937) and Harold Stassen (1939–1943) each employed red-baiting and anti-Semitism in their election bids.
Two dimensions of Bergman’s study stand out. First, he demonstrates the historical importance of an amazing array of left-leaning grassroots activists, including such Swedish-American radicals as Walfrid Engdahl, Walter Malte Frank, and Carl Skoglund, each of whom left Sweden in the wake of the General Strike of 1909, only to resume their labor activism in Minnesota. Whereas Engdahl and Frank ended up joining the Farmer-Labor Party, Skoglund was a central leader of the landmark Minneapolis Teamsters’ Strike of 1934, later emerging as a Trotskyist and serving time in jail. Minnesota’s Nordic radicals, however, also included many Finns of the Iron Range whose reception in Minnesota was negative, to the point of one draft resister being lynched during World War I. The Finns, it turns out, were more politicized and radicalized than any other group, and when the American version of the Communist Party was founded in the early 1920s, more than forty percent of its members were Finns. During Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror, many Minnesota Finns made the disastrous decision of migrating to Soviet Karelia.
The second dimension of Bergman’s book that stands out is his comprehensive coverage of the various political currents coursing through Minnesota from the territorial days to the present. Here, the Scandinavians, especially the Norwegians and Swedes, played a central role. They did so first as staunch Republicans but from the end of the nineteenth century also as Populists and then as activists within the Progressive movement and its radical offshoot, the Nonpartisan League, in the early twentieth century. During the 1930s many of them joined the Farmer-Labor Party, “the most successful third party in American history” (150), and from 1944 the liberal Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL), while also contributing to keeping the postwar GOP moderate and reform-minded. Generally prudent, pragmatic, and progressive—and oftentimes informed by a secularized version of Lutheranism—the Scandinavians of Minnesota helped build a result- and reform-oriented political culture.
From the turn of the millennium, to be sure, the traditionally progressive state GOP took a conservative turn. In that sense, Bergman suggests, even as the DFL “stayed true to its Scandinavian roots . . . the Republican Party became ever less Scandinavian” (194). Nevertheless, as Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota suggests, notwithstanding the recent waning of Scandinavian-American political leadership, “we are on the road that the Scandinavians have put us on” (252).
Based on an impressive amount of historical literature and primary sources, including oral history interviews and the author’s own talks with Minnesota leaders and grassroots, Bergman’s account is transnational in scope, focusing not only on Minnesota but also on Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, and Icelandic history. The book is skewed somewhat toward the Swedes, for instance, in its rather surprising coverage of the contemporary Somali presence both in Minneapolis’s Sixth Ward—an old Scandinavian stronghold—and in Sweden. Minor quibbles involve the book’s unclear distinction between the meaning of “liberal” and “progressive” and the use of “Scandinavian” and “Nordic” interchangeably. Of course, any analysis of Scandinavian influences on Minnesota’s political culture will have to include impressionistic elements, as Bergman’s book indeed does. To be pedantic, Danish-American George A. Nelson was not elected to the Wisconsin Assembly in 1899 but only years later (190). As a journalist rather than a historian, Bergman loyally quotes many historians while rarely challenging their accounts.
All in all, Bergman has written an excellent book that any layman or scholar with an interest in Minnesota’s Nordic past will enjoy reading.
Jørn Brøndal is professor of American studies at the University of Southern Denmark. He specializes in U.S. ethnic, racial, and political history.