Some people argue that the world was set on a fundamentally new track starting August 15, 1971, when Nixon decided to end gold convertibility.

The narrative makes sense. Nixon’s decision marked the beginning of the end for the hugely influential Bretton-Woods Agreement, established after World War II, where Western democracies had agreed to synchronise their currencies with the US dollar, which was itself pegged to the value of gold at $35 per ounce.

However, on the peripheral fringe of the world stage, the remote kingdom of Sweden was dancing to the tune of a different pipe. There too, 1971 proved to be a fateful year, but in a very different way, with a pivotal moment occurring on May 12.

May 12, 1971, was when otherwise orderly Swedes collectively rose in anger and took to the streets, literally risking their lives to defend…

Fourteen elm trees.

To fully understand what historians describe as Alm-striden (‘the battle of the elm trees’), one must look beyond the apparent environmentalist motivation that spurred volunteers from all over Stockholm—and from all social strata—to become instant tree huggers. Let’s zoom out a bit:

The Stockholm metro system first saw light in 1950 when the Slussen–Hökarängen shuttle began operating. What followed were two decades of fierce urban renewal, where large parts of the inner city were razed to the ground. Entire blocks disappeared. Think of it as a mad urban planner’s equivalent to attempting a whole body transplant.

In 1971, the bulldozers had reached Kungsträdgården. That’s Swedish for ‘the King’s garden’, a piece of land at the heart of the city centre which was once the private property of the king.

The opening up of Kungsträdgården was slow and gradual. The noble class was allowed access starting 1802, provided they adhered to the designated paths and did not touch the vegetation.

About a hundred years later, the area was effectively split in two; the eastern parts remained a sanctuary for the nobility, where distinguished ladies and gentlemen would take leisurely strolls. Meanwhile, prostitution had become rampant in the western parts, keeping the vice squad busy.

Fast forward to the early 1970s. City officials had now decided to build a metro station, whose exit was to be placed right in the middle of the park—exactly where a cluster of fourteen centennial elm trees stood. This area would become the literal battleground, but let’s zoom out again to set the political stage before delving into the events:

By 1971, the Swedish Social Democratic Party had held a comfortable parliamentary majority for 35 consecutive years. ‘Sossarna’—as the party is commonly known—had successfully merged the best aspects of the two dominant global doctrines of the time, creating what seemed like an unbeatable formula. Taxes were high, but whole generations of citizens felt they got their money’s worth.

Yet beneath the surface of apparent satisfaction, discontent was brewing.

The first signs appeared in May of 1968, as they did across continental Europe and the US. That’s when ‘the cultural revolution’ was sparked, which manifested in Sweden in the form of a group of hippies occupying a building at the Stockholm University campus; an event known as Kårhusockupationen.

However exciting Kårhusockupationen was to the radical left, it didn’t really rock the boat of social democratic hegemony. Almstriden was different that way.

Because this time the hippies were joined by respectable citizens: little old ladies descending from the bourgeois comfort of Östermalm, hardworking family providers from drab suburban high-rise blocks, and activist journalists—everyone seemed to be taking to the street. Perhaps for the first time since the introduction of democracy, the ruling class was reminded that the popular will can manifest in forms other than orderly elections.

Initially, the response was an impulse to crush opposition by brute force. Riot police unleashed their dogs on the protesters, while construction workers, acting as hired enforcers, let their chainsaws rip into the trees, even at the risk of harming bystanders. However, things escalated so quickly that the assailants had to call off their attack and back away, narrowly avoiding disaster.

Rattled to their core, politicians now frantically sought ways to get out of their corner without losing face.

That’s when it dawned on them that the perfect means for strategic retreat had been staring them in the face all along: blame the bureaucrats! Indeed one after one, politicians from all over the spectrum started claiming that they had been “tricked by the urban planners”, who had presented no other possible option than the one where the elm trees would be sacrificed.

In the end, as anyone familiar with ‘Kungsan’ will know, it proved perfectly possible to move the subway exit some fifty meters eastwards and leave the elms untouched.

So, what’s the moral of this story?

Several books and a handful of dissertations have been dedicated to answering this question. They all broadly agree that Almstriden marked a turning point, after which politicians could no longer afford to ignore the voices of the people they were meant to represent.

I also think it marks the end of a long era dominated by a distinctly Swedish blend of monoculture. Although Sweden was ostensibly a democracy, it often felt like a technocracy. There was always this implicit assumption that there was one right way to do things. As a result, ‘politics’ seemed meaningless; it felt as though the general wellbeing of our country depended solely on the adept implementation of seemingly self-evident ideas.

I guess that’s what a paradigm feels like, when experienced from the inside.

This post was inspired by Katarina Larsen‘s talk at the course Stockholm’s History of Technology. Other entries also inspired by the same course include Making Belief : A Brief History of World ExposWhat We Need Libraries For Atomic Swing : A Brief History of the Shifting Swedish Nuclear Policy and Things I Didn’t Know About KTH.