How Sweden fell in love with iron ore exports — and a plug for the Journal of Northern Studies

One of the best things about working with Dag Avango at KTH was that he pulled me into thinking about the past, present, and future of the enormous iron ore mining operation at Kiruna in northern Sweden — and how the mine has become intertwined with both the town and with the country as a whole. Today the state-owned mining company LKAB is the dominant employer in a town of over 17,000 people. Despite attempts to build alternative industries around space science, it’s pretty clear what drives the local economy, to the point where parts of the town are being moved in order to permit continued extraction of the iron ore body. It’s a fascinating place and well worth a visit, particularly if you also make time to explore the surrounding mountains. (For the omnivorous, be sure to try the reindeer pizza at Palladium restaurant.)

The early years of Kiruna (founded at the turn of the twentieth century) were dominated by the local administrative director of LKAB, a larger-than-life character named Hjalmar Lundbohm who is often praised as the father of “mönstersamhället” — a model community that others would do well to emulate. I’ll leave it to others to debate how far that praise is warranted. (If you read Swedish, this is a good place to start.) But I found myself thinking a great deal about the place of this mine in the wider Swedish economic and political context. The ore is both an economic commodity (a source of revenue) but also a geopolitical one, tied up with links to political developments abroad. Iron ore exports to Germany were sufficiently important that they made Narvik, the Norwegian port from where the majority of Kiruna’s ore is shipped, a vital strategic point in the Second World War.

In the first fifteen years or so of the mine’s existence a controversial question raged in Sweden: should the iron ore from Kiruna be exported to earn valuable income for the state treasury, or should it be kept in the ground so that Sweden could process the ore in addition to simply extracting it and selling it? Without coal resources of its own Sweden lacked the combination of iron and coal that made the Ruhr Valley such an industrial powerhouse. The choice was tied up with bigger questions such as whether it befitted a country with ambitions to status in the world to be an exporter of raw materials, whether hydropower could underpin alternative means of turning iron ore into steel, whether the state ought to exercise control over the ore fields in order to protect them from foreign exploitation, and whether foreign capital did more good than harm. In the paper here I’ve gone through those debates to explain how Sweden fell in love with iron ore exports. The answer, as in so many things, boils largely down to money: the revenue generated from iron ore exports proved a wonderful asset to political projects of various kinds, from defence spending to national insurance. (Though being a historian I’m obligated to say that of course it’s a bit more complicated than that.)

And I also want to give a plug to the Journal of Northern Studies. This is the second time I’ve published with them and I have nothing but praise for their winning combination of professionalism, friendliness, and open access. Please do keep them in mind if you have an article touching on the history of the circumpolar north.

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