Sweden Abolishes Capital Punishment Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During a period of democratic reform and minority governments, Sweden’s parliament enacted several human rights reforms, including abolition of the death penalty for peacetime offenses.

Summary of Event

As early as 1855, Sweden began to adopt policies aimed at guaranteeing humane treatment of its citizens. Punishments such as caning, whipping, and “church duty” (forcing citizens to sit in special pews at church to be publicly ridiculed) were abolished, and limited religious freedom was granted in 1860. It was within this context that the first attempt was made, in 1867, to abolish the death penalty for peacetime civil offenses and wartime offenses under the military penal code. J. A. Bouvin introduced a motion to abolish the death penalty into the Swedish parliament in that year, but it was defeated. Capital punishment Sweden;capital punishment [kw]Sweden Abolishes Capital Punishment (1921) [kw]Capital Punishment, Sweden Abolishes (1921) Capital punishment Sweden;capital punishment [g]Sweden;1921: Sweden Abolishes Capital Punishment[05290] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;1921: Sweden Abolishes Capital Punishment[05290] [c]Human rights;1921: Sweden Abolishes Capital Punishment[05290] [c]Social issues and reform;1921: Sweden Abolishes Capital Punishment[05290] Sydow, Oscar von Bouvin, J. A. Lindhagen, Carl Albert De Geer, Gerard Louis Branting, Karl Hjalmar

A restructuring of Sweden’s political system was also under way. In 1866, the Swedish parliament began to revise its own structure and processes. The earlier four estates (nobles, clergy, burghers, and landowners and the rural middle class) were replaced by the popularly elected Second Chamber (lower house) and a senatorial upper house. In 1907 the definition of suffrage was broadened (although the vote was not granted to women until 1921) and most property qualifications for voting were abolished.

During World War I, the Young Socialists, Young Socialists (Sweden) also known as Left Socialists, continued to demand liberalization of the government and espoused Marxism. The Young Socialists were able to strengthen their political organization throughout the duration of World War I. When a potato famine in 1917 left Swedish farmers destitute, considerable public unrest threatened the government. Many non-Socialist party leaders, both Conservatives and Liberals, became concerned that the Socialists might lead the nation in a revolution similar to the recent Russian Revolution. Even if the Young Socialists had developed a stronger leadership, however, their power base was too small to cause major disruption.

The end of World War I caught the Conservatives unprepared. The Liberal and Socialist Parties, which had both gained strength in the parliament, took advantage of the moment to join forces. The two parties cooperated in order to continue their political reforms, and this collaboration helped bring both the political and the social emancipation of women. When the 1921 Electorate Law went into effect, the number of eligible voters more than doubled, with women clearly in the majority. Numerous other political and humanitarian reforms were enacted, in part because they were a natural evolution of the great period of reform and in part as a means of undermining the growing strength of the Young Socialists by adopting some of their programs.

In 1920, Karl Hjalmar Branting became prime minister of Sweden’s first Social Democratic government. As a single-party, minority government, it had little chance for a long tenure. When the election for the Second Chamber took place six months after Branting’s election, the Conservatives made a relatively strong recovery, and Branting was forced to resign. The result of the shift in power, however, was that no party had a clear majority in the chambers, and none of the parties would form a government on a minority basis. The Liberals, the most moderate party, would cooperate with neither the right nor the left. King Gustav V therefore proposed a bureaucratic caretaker ministry under Gerhard Louis De Geer that would not be aligned with any of the parties. Only one member of the parliament served in De Geer’s “professional” ministry.

Many reforms were introduced in the parliament during this critical period. Included in those reform measures was Proposition No. 144, which provided for the abolition of the death penalty for peacetime offenses. The measure was introduced in the First Chamber in 1921. De Geer, with the support of the Conservatives, attempted to block passage of the proposition. At the same time, parliament member Carl Albert Lindhagen put forth a motion to amend Proposition No. 144 to include the abolition of wartime offenses as well. Lindhagen’s motion for amendment was defeated by a vote of 46 to 32. The unamended Proposition No. 144, which exempted peacetime offenses, passed through the First Chamber by a vote of 62 to 23.

When First Chamber elections were held in 1921, the Social Democrats gained more seats, although no political party had a clear majority. Once again, the king suggested a coalition government, but the parties would not comply. Largely because of his failure to show strong leadership, De Geer was replaced by Oscar von Sydow, another nonparty legislator. It was during the tenure of Prime Minister von Sydow that both the original Proposition No. 144 and Lindhagen’s amendment were considered and acted upon in the Second Chamber. The motion for complete abolition was defeated, but the original peacetime-only abolition was passed by a vote of 116 to 48. The failure of the parliament to approve Lindhagen’s amendment can be attributed to the lack of a strong majority party and the concerns of the Swedish people about wartime offenses in the aftermath of a world war and a revolution in Russia. The abolition of the death penalty for wartime offenses as well as for peacetime offenses was finally enacted in 1972 by a vote of 266 to 37. Sweden completed abolition of the death penalty for all offenses with the 1972 legislation.


Until the beginning of the twentieth century, most governments accepted the death penalty as an effective and appropriate way to prevent and to punish crime. Executions were made to appear lawful and were justified with the argument that the supreme penalty was necessary, especially for very serious offenses, for the good of society. Since 1867, when Bouvin introduced abolition legislation, there have been intermittent movements throughout Scandinavia and the Western world to abolish the death penalty, even as punishment for murder.

Sweden’s 1921 Proposition No. 144 affirmed the value of human life and established a limit on what the state might do to its citizens. Some members of the Swedish parliament based their votes on the measure on political exigencies, attempting to avert further political crises. Many, however, cast their votes in a principled stand for human rights.

As one of the first nations to abolish the death penalty, Sweden exerted pressure on other Scandinavian and Western nations to reevaluate their own statutory punishments. The result was the limiting of the numbers of offenses for which the death penalty may be demanded or the removal of that penalty entirely. Great Britain used Sweden’s abolition of the death penalty and later reforms of alternative punishments as a yardstick to evaluate its own position on incarceration and executions. Great Britain’s 1949-1953 report of the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment Royal Commission on Capital Punishment examined the alternative punishments imposed by Sweden and expressed interest in the efficiency and humanity of Stockholm’s Utrecht and Langholmen prisons, where psychiatric clinics worked with both convicted prisoners and suspects awaiting trial. The report concluded that available evidence showed that few released murderers committed further crimes of violence.

The prohibition of the death penalty became an integral part of the Instrument of Government of the Swedish Constitution. Chapter 8 states in Article 1 that no law or regulation may imply that a sentence for capital punishment can be pronounced. In 1976, this statement was moved to Chapter 2, which concerns fundamental liberties and rights. Its Article 4 states, “Capital punishment may not occur.” Inclusion of the statement in Chapter 2 means that the abolition of the death penalty applies not only to Swedish citizens but also to alien residents, who are thus protected against extradition to nations where the death penalty is still practiced.

Although Norway preceded Sweden by removing the death penalty for peacetime offenses in 1905, that nation did not abolish capital punishment for all offenses until after Sweden had done so. Denmark, in 1933, and Finland, in 1949, also abolished the practice of executing convicted offenders. By the mid-twentieth century, many countries had abolished the death penalty; international public opinion generated pressure to stop executions. International human rights treaties established restrictions and safeguards on the use of the death penalty in countries that had not yet abolished it, and the trend among nations was toward gradual abolition of the death penalty. As of 2005, eighty-five countries had totally abolished the death penalty, with another thirty-five substantially restricting it or not enforcing it, leaving about seventy-six countries or territories where it continued to be legal. Capital punishment Sweden;capital punishment

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Amnesty International. When the State Kills: The Death Penalty, a Human Rights Issue. New York: Author, 1989. A concise source for the status of capital punishment worldwide. Each nation is listed separately. The work presents a bias toward abolition but discusses arguments for and against capital punishment. The appendix includes extracts from various human rights conventions. No bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aspelin, Erland, and Sten Hecksher, rapporteurs. A New Penal System: Ideas and Proposals. Stockholm: Kristianstads Boktryckeri, 1978. Report for the National Council for Crime Prevention addresses the underlying principle that treatment should replace punishment. It is an excellent source for details on imprisonment, conditional sentences, probation, “open prisons,” and other aspects of Sweden’s penal system. No bibliography. Indexed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hadenius, Stig. Swedish Politics During the Twentieth Century. Translated by Victor Kayfetz. 3d rev. ed. Stockholm: Swedish Institute, 1990. Brief scholarly analysis of the Swedish model of parliamentary government. Includes an especially useful bibliographic list of English-language publications.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Henningfeld, Diane Andrews. The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2006. Excellent introduction to the issue of capital punishment geared specifically toward younger readers. Part of a series that provides clear and concise examinations of specific issues from conflicting perspectives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Metcalf, Michael F., ed. The Riksdag: A History of the Swedish Parliament. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. Presents an unbiased look at the evolution of Sweden’s parliament beginning in the thirteenth century. Includes maps, charts, tables, and index. Extensive topical bibliography is annotated, but many sources are available only in the Swedish language.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moberg, Vilhelm. A History of the Swedish People: From Renaissance to Revolution. Vol. 2. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005. Good general reference includes discussion of human rights issues. One of the best-selling books in Sweden’s literary history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Royal Commission on Capital Punishment. Report. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1953. Provides a detailed examination of the effectiveness of Sweden’s penal system and thorough analysis of the techniques employed. Extensive graphs and charts are useful for making comparisons with other nations’ systems. Includes detailed index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scott, Franklin D. Sweden: The Nation’s History. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977. Comprehensive work discusses the evolution of Sweden’s political parties in depth. Does not specifically address the death penalty, but does outline the political setting for its abolition. Includes index and extensive bibliography listing many sources in the original Swedish.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Verney, Douglas V. Parliamentary Reform in Sweden, 1866-1921. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1957. Useful primarily for passages on the parliamentary reforms. Includes excellent biographical notes on many of the chief participants. Extensive bibliography.

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Finland Gains Independence

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League of Nations Adopts International Slavery Convention

Categories: History