Sven Hedin was a person who evoked and still evokes many different memories and feelings, who has been subjected to many admiring as well as highly critical comments. The contents of these comments all depend on which periods of his life and which of his activities they refer to, during which times and contexts and by whom they have been passed, and even in which country they have been voiced.
Early in Sven Hedin’s professional life, let us say until the immediate aftermath of his third expedition, i.e. 1908-1910, the dominant, though not only, image of him was that of a national hero combing the two qualities of being an explorer-adventurer and a scientist, a common combination in those days. His achievements and adventures in the field were well known trough his travelogues, spread in books for youth and popular journals for the general public, and public presentations drew huge crowds. His scholarly reputation was not undisputed but well known to people sharing his interests. It rested on his scientific reports, maps, papers for geographical journals, and appearances in front of learned societies.
Heroes of his kind could, however, also be used for national, political purposes and during the difficult years when the union between Sweden and Norway broke down and eventually was dissolved Sven Hedin readily offered himself to voice the official Swedish position. His role as a public figure was then already established and was henceforth to be strategically extended and maintained, not the least internationally. It was, though, a process he was far from always in control of himself.
Hedin was eventually to command a national and international network of contacts that few of his times could match; encompassing scientists and explorers, politicians, militaries and civil servants, artists, authors, royalties and for that matter ordinary people from all walks of life and nations. He had a true gift for easily associating with all and everyone, regardless of their background, facilitated by another gift of his, his command of many languages, also languages spoken by the people he travelled with and met during his expeditions.
His networks stretched over all nations, but the surely most instrumental and emotionally loaded ones were found in Germany, originating from his academic training there and from a general cultural reorientation in Sweden towards Germany after the Franco-German war of 1870-71, and the emergence of Germany as a unified nation.
However, Sven Hedin did not belong to a family valuing participation in politics, quite the contrary. An often repeated phrase by Sven Hedin is that his father and uncles cherished a “sublime disdain for politics”. Hedin himself was not to do so.
His family background is well known, and varied. On his father’s side it can be traced along a line back to an early 17th century peasant in middle Sweden, but also contains his great grandfather, who was a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and aspired to succeed Carl von Linnaeus in Uppsala. His paternal grandmother linked him in history to the alderman of the brewers’ guild, and thus to a person of substantial wealth and influence in Stockholm at the turn of the 19th century. His father made a remarkable career after a slump in family history and fortunes, when he and his siblings in the 1830:ies were left orphaned. He rose to be the City architect during those momentous decades of the latter part of the 19th century when the townscape of Stockholm was dramatically transformed.
On his mother’s side the line can be traced back to a Jewish immigrant in the late 18th century, who was, though, promptly christened and could see his descendants becoming well established in Swedish society. Sven Hedin’s maternal grandfather was the dean of a Southern Swedish parish and among other positions represented the priestly stand in the parliament of those days. Hedin calculated that a 16th part of him through that line was Jewish, something he often proclaimed to be proud of. Even though this in no way would identify him as Jewish in Nazi Germany, it was a fact that was well known there as elsewhere. Hedin was a favourite object of caricatures and they virtually always exaggerated what was deemed to be his “oriental and Jewish traits”. Anti-Semitism was widespread in Swedish comic press of the early 20th century carrying jokes and caricatures, and far from unknown in media later on.
Sven Hedin, in the interval between his second (1899-1902) and third (1905-1908) expeditions, truly got the taste and interest for politics, not only participating in the debate surrounding the failing union between Sweden and Norway, but also in the Times strongly criticising the British for the Younghusband invasion of Tibet 1904.
The political arena was then to become more and more important to him. Between 1910 and 1912 he participated in what has gone down to Swedish history as the “Strindberg feud” which was of both a political and cultural nature, Hedin positioning himself squarely in the conservative corner defending not only himself but values related to monarchy, church and nation.
This was in a way a prelude to the defence debate which raged in Sweden the years before the Great War (WW I.), Hedin then become an important proponent, in writing and in public addresses, for building the Swedish defence. His geopolitical standpoint was a many century old Swedish one – the fear for a Russian need to reach the open sea, to get access to ice-free harbours, avoiding being land-locked. Sweden would simply be in the way for such a necessity to expand. This interpretation of the political and military situation was coupled with a never abandoned conviction that Germany would be the only nation in Europe powerful and righteous enough to stand up to the Russian threat. Sven Hedin was a person who rarely changed his opinions.
During the First World War Hedin travelled the West and East Fronts (1914-15) and wrote two heavy volumes on his experiences, which were presented from a decisively German perspective. Hedin’s informants and comrades in the field were German officers and troops. His unlimited admiration for the German Kaiser Wilhelm II was met with ridicule in Swedish and British publications and mirror a general inclination of his, never abandoned, to put his faith in strong leaders, preferably German and certainly male. His tour of the Middle East (1916) again resulted in two heavy volumes in which hail for the German war-efforts played an important part, though coupled with Hedin’s unmistaken gift for describing the historical, cultural and natural landscape he travelled through.
The end of the First World War and the resultant Treaty of Versailles (1919) were hard to take and understand for Sven Hedin. He was far from alone to predict that the resultant situation would lead to another war. He finished a book on Swedish politics during the war, which actually also dealt with the war at large, true to Hedin also communicated in maps. His unbroken faith in Germany was not extended to the German post-war political order.
During the ensuing years, to regain better spirits, which had suffered due to the outcome of the war, he worked hard finishing the scientific reports on his third expedition (Persia and Tibet 1905-08), and he nurtured new plans for returning to Central Asia. Such dreams had always been there, right after returning to Europe from Asia in 1908. He devotes time to writing some biographies, finishing a novel in two volumes (Tsangpo lamas vallfärd/”The pilgrimage of Tsangpo Lama”), getting travelogues published in other languages.
The family must be supported. “The family” to Sven Hedin was his natal family. He never married, though records tell us of at least one serious attempt and a number of less serious but stirring ones. His father had died some years earlier (1917), but his mother had still some years to live (1925). He and his four sisters (only a fifth sister had married) and during periods his younger also unmarried brother, right through their lives kept and lived together, with or close to their parents. In most respects they formed one economic unit, and to Sven Hedin they constituted an indispensable secretariat. His contribution to the economy was mainly generated by his books and by his public lecture tours organized by impresarios, income which for many reasons fluctuated. In return, one could say, the family got a life more or less constantly in the limelight, thrilling and eventful, hardly ever a day without guests for dinner, hardly a visitor of importance coming to Stockholm not being in contact with the celebrity that was their brother. Hardly a day without their brother being mentioned in the press somewhere in the world, in critical or appreciative tones.
In 1923 Sven Hedin embarked on a journey around the world. To start with he toured the USA, during eight months getting better to know, but never fully appreciate, the country he before and certainly later politically criticized. He lectured, met people of importance, marveled at the sight of the Grand Canyon and visited movie stars in Hollywood before he crossed the Pacific to Japan, then to return to China and Peking. The visit there was short but surely strengthened his never abandoned plans and dreams to return to China and Central Asia.
Travelling through Mongolia and Siberia he stayed in Moscow and Sankt Petersburg, then Petrograd, discovering that his relationship with Russian scientists had not turned completely sour, on the contrary. Sven Hedin’s political views before and during the First World War had certainly estranged him from his old friends and colleagues in Russia, and for that matter in Britain and France. Hedin had difficulties in accepting and understanding that science and politics could not be kept apart. Again well received in the country that once had offered him such a lot of support and kind attention made him see many extenuating circumstances in the newly established Soviet Union he visited. And it also had its strong leader! Hedin admired leaders who brought order to a previously chaotic situation.
In 1925 Sven Hedin’s aspirations to return to Asia starts to take real shape, financing from the German side is offered. But it takes a year before he is again in Peking. And it will take yet a number of months before he can launch his last and by far most complicated, but at the same time also most rewarding expedition. The political climate in Peking was not what he had expected and it required all his diplomatic skill and the support of others to negotiate an agreement with the Chinese authorities and not the least with the nationalistically bent scientific community there.
This time he was less in the field himself, rather functioning as the negotiator and provider for and coordinator of a team of scientists from many different countries, outlining their joint program. The composition and size of the team varied over time and the expedition actually consisted of three connected phases, financed in three different ways: 1927-28 financed by Germany, a joint expedition by camel. 1928-33 financed primarily from Swedish but also private sources, a number of separate expeditions with various modes of transportation. 1934-35 financed by Chiang Kai-shek’s Railway Ministry, a small Swedish-Chinese team lead by Sven Hedin himself travelling by car.
1935 Hedin was back in Sweden, at the same time back to a new political landscape in Europe. During the rest of his life, till his death in 1952, he was ceaselessly occupied with the publication of the results of the “Sino-Swedish Expedition”. It was a matter of raising funds for his “boys” to write up their materials and get the books published. He saw some 35 volumes being released before others had to solely take over. He also had to write books for the public to earn money, preferably at least one for each Christmas.
The nature of the books, however, changed character, even though he still had a lot of material, not the least great adventure, from the last leg of the expedition to offer the readers. The new German leaders called upon him.
In Germany he was very popular, most of his income was generated by his German editions. The German leaders evidently believed that this admiration extended to other countries, making Hedin an ideal person to “explain” the new Germany to the outside world, as well as explaining its virtues to those Germans who still had any doubts. Hedin was considered a true and never faltering friend of Germany, which in fact he was. He was taken on extended tours to see what the Nazi-regime wanted him to see and then to write about his observations in convincing words.
Hedin was indeed generally taken by what he saw, a resurrected beloved Germany after the disgraceful end of the Great War and the interlude of the Weimar Republic that he had never liked. And he did write about what he saw. But he also saw and wrote about developments he did not, at this time, like; treatment of the Jews and Nazi policies towards the church. That, and many other passages, were not appreciated when the manuscript was “proof-read” by the the Ministry of Propaganda in Berlin, and Hedin was requested to substantially either delete or rewrite objectionable parts of the manuscript, marked with red, when returned to him, Hedin refused, and the book was then not published in Germany.
This conflict did not, however, shake Hedin’s confidence in the “peace-seeking” German leaders he believed he knew and trusted. The war that anyhow soon broke out was to him justified from the German point of view. Hedin followed it closely from all sources available to him and tried to make the best out of what happened on the battle fields and in the diplomatic corridors. He did not travel the war-fronts this time, but saw the German leaders, including Hitler a number of times in Berlin, discussing the war, arguing for Finland. Hedin was in a unique position to have personal access to Hitler and his men. And to the Swedish government he was a unique source of direct information on German opinions expressed by the Nazi-leaders. He believed what they told and promised him. He understood and agreed to the reasons for Germany to occupy Denmark and Norway, but considered Quisling a traitor and saw no reason for any Nordic country to adopt a Nazi political and ideological system. But Nazism was well suited to Germany in the situation it had experienced during the Weimar Republic. And again, the threat from the East, this time “Bolshevist”, condoned any German action to stop it.
As we know, the war after a “promising start” did not go the German way. Hedin grappled to understand this tilt of fortune and was eventually forced to buy the German explanation for it; a conspiracy between American and Bolshevist Jews. Hedin’s notes in his diary include more and more unattractive passages. How much he knew about German atrocities against the Jews and other ethnically and socially “unwanted elements” is not sure. His notes indicate that he either suppressed what he knew or actually did not have the picture clear to him. When forced to realize the full extent of what had happened in the camps he could not believe that German soldiers could commit outrages like that, the German character would simply not allow such conduct.
The last seven years of Sven Hedin’s life, 1945-52, were devoted to defending his position during the war, trying to instill in people that Hitler after all was right and should be appreciated for what he had done for Germany. The memories of the Versailles Treaty popped up again, but this time Germany was utterly defeated and the conditions imposed upon the country were much harder. Still Hedin hoped and was convinced that Germany again would rise from the ashes.
Social life around Hedin was then not as hectic as it used to be. A certain degree of social isolation followed upon what was also his defeat. It would take a long time, however, until Sweden started to make full accounts of its role during the War.
Hedin turned to writing some more personal books delving into the past; returning to Berlin around 1890 and Stockholm before the Great War. And he turned to memories of meetings he had had with a horde of important men, and a few women, of his times. There were many to choose between.
By Håkan Wahlquist, Keeper of the Sven Hedin Foundation.