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Sweden's early history, like its day-to-day life, is intimately wrapped up with the natural rhythms of season and climate. It was the end of the Ice Age that brought the first inhabitants to Scandinavia more than twelve thousand years ago, as the receding glaciers and the warming climate turned barren permafrost into lush plains and vast forests. By 8,000 BC, there were extensive settlements in the region, but dropping temperatures pushed the inhabitants southward to the coasts.
A few thousand years later the cycle reversed, and once again the interior became productive, fertile ground. This back and forth movement between the land and the water, between farm and boat, characterizes Swedish culture even today, although the cycle now follows season, holiday, and personal preference.
What most people know of Scandinavian history is limited to the Vikings, and what most people know of the Vikings is limited to a vague idea that they were plunderers. In fact, the Vikings of what is now Sweden had a much more lasting impact on history as traders and as founders of some of the great cities of medieval Russia. Embarking from settlements like Birka, tucked deeply and safely within the bays of the Swedish coast, these early seamen headed east and south, establishing trade routes that extended as far as Byzantium and the Golden Caliphate of Baghdad.
At the turn of the millennium, after about two centuries of prosperity and power, the trade empire of the Vikings began to decline. Continental Europe began its economic rise, and the power of the Vikings in Swedish lands was supplanted by the newly prosperous farmers of the interior plains.
Two of Sweden's many monarchs hold particularly prominent positions in its history. The first is Gustav Vasa, whose leadership established the foundations of the Swedish nation state in the early sixteenth century. The second is Gustav II Adolf, a figure perhaps better known as Gustavus Adolphus, the "Lion of the North." Although lacking the resources of other, larger European states, Sweden under Gustav II Adolf won a stunning series of campaigns that catapulted the kingdom to great power status within just a few decades. In 1632, the by-then legendary commander was killed at the battle of Lutzen, leaving Sweden a troubled legacy of vast possessions, great influence, and a century of almost constant war.
One result of that experience has been a deep commitment to neutrality in subsequent European conflicts, including both World Wars.
Modern Sweden maintains a worldwide reputation for its progressive social welfare policies, which were the outcome of a steady evolution toward democratic government that began in the early nineteenth century. As Swedes are quick to point out, such policies were also the result of the country's strong industrial achievement and its sustained economic prosperity in this century.
At the same time, Sweden has carefully maintained the pristine beauty of its stunning natural environment - it holds the only extensive wilderness area left in Europe, and the waters of Stockholm remain clean and clear enough for fishing and even a downtown swim. As we move toward the twenty-first century, Sweden seems to offer - as it has offered for decades - an irresistible picture of where the rest of the world would like to be.
Over 1.5 million Swedes have immigrated to the United States. If you want to find out more about Swedish heritage, there are numerous genealogy sites on the web, as well as plenty of resources in Sweden. Many genealogical tours are also available.
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