The Cultural Imaginary of Terrorism: Close and Distant Readings of Political Terror in Cold War Sweden

Research project
Active research
Project size
Project period
2022 - 2025
Project owner
Gothenburg Research Infrastructure in Digital Humanities (GRIDH), Department of Literature, History of Ideas, and Religion

Short description

The project studies the cultural meaning-making about terrorism in Sweden during the Cold War 1945-1991. The aim is to examine how "terrorism" is portrayed in non-fiction books and fiction, as well as magazines and newspapers – from the folkhemmet era through the radical 1960s and 1970s and up until after the Palme murder. Combining historical research and digital methods, the project investigates both specific cultural contexts and overall shift in meaning of key terms in news reporting. The researchers analyse the extent to which terrorism have been depicted in relation to various geopolitical tension fields, such as east-west, north-south, left-right as well as the extent to which it has been discussed as a "foreign" or "domestic" phenomenon and presented as something that affects social existence in the welfare state.

Although terrorism has long been a controversial phenomenon, Swedish researchers have studied it only to a limited extent. Historians have either described its overall development or particular cases of violent events, while political scientists and criminologists have focused on accounts of changes in laws and crisis management. But research into the cultural significance and context of terrorism during the Cold War is conspicuous by its absence.

The project combines pure historical research with sophisticated digital methods to describe in detail the cultural imaginary of terrorism in non-fiction books and in fictional sources as well as periodicals and newspapers. The researchers’ scrutiny of historical sources is being complemented by systematic computer-aided distant reading of daily and evening newspapers in the database of the National Library of Sweden, to present general statistics on the implications, and the shifts in meaning, of “terrorism” and other terms used to describe political violence in national news reports. Digital analysis is also used to examine underlying factors, structures and networks that have helped to shape the discourse on terrorism in the Swedish press.

Since international research has shown that our current perceptions of terrorism are colored by the Cold War, the researchers are focusing on the extent to which perceptions of terrorism in Sweden during the period were associated with various areas of geopolitical tension, such as the frictions between East–West, North– South, Left–Right, etc. They also examine the extent to which terrorism has been discussed as a “foreign” or “domestic” phenomenon and presented as a factor impacting social life in the welfare state.

The historical analysis spans the era from the interwar creation of the welfare state, via the radical left-wing influence of the 1960s and 1970s, up to the period following the murder of prime minister Olof Palme. The researchers will analyse how different forms of terrorism-related political violence have been defined (“terror”, “terrorism”, “urban guerilla”, “state terrorism”, etc.), along with the use of various tropes (“good” vs. “evil”, “rationality” vs. “madness”, “civilization” vs. “barbarism ”, etc.). Much attention is being devoted to depictions of the relationship between terrorism, citizens and the state, and how acts of terrorism are explained in relation to various international conflicts, including militant struggles in Western colonies.

Among other things, the project is examining the controversies surrounding organizations like Ustaša, RAF and PKK, along with Swedish anti-terrorism laws, the war in Algeria and the Israel–Palestine conflict, which were recurring themes in Swedish newspapers and periodicals, such as Folket i Bild/Kulturfront and BLM. Other topics are the use of political violence by the revolutionary Left and the Swedish publication of Ulrike Meinhof’s writings. Also covered are key non-fiction books on terrorism and works of fiction, such as the novel Terroristerna by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö, and Jan Guillou’s Hamilton  spy novels.

The researchers’ overall aim is to contribute a comprehensive study of the cultural imaginary of terrorism and its importance to Swedish society, broadening knowledge and perspectives on the past and present place of terrorism in Sweden.

Project members

Michael Azar

Daniel Brodén

Mats Fridlund

Victor Wåhlstrand Skärström