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Why are so many Germans obsessed with Sweden?

The number of German tourists and expats in Sweden is rising, while in Germany the positive view of the Swedish lifestyle is so widespread there's even a specific word for it.

Why are so many Germans obsessed with Sweden?
A group of tourists in Stockholm's Old Town. Photo: Adam Wrafter / SvD / TT

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The number of German tourists coming to Sweden grows every year.

Last year, German visitors spent just above three million nights in Sweden, according to Tillväxtverket, the Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth. Compared to five years ago, that's an increase of more than half a million, making Germany the second most common country of origin for tourists in Sweden, just after Norway (3.3 million nights in 2017).

German fascination for all things Swedish got so strong that several years ago it even prompted Swedish officials to warn of German tourists stealing elk warning signs from Swedish roads.

What's more, many Germans seem to extend their stay and move to Sweden permanently. According to Statistics Sweden, there were 50,863 German-born people resident in Sweden in 2017 – making Germany one of the five European countries with the most emigrants to Sweden. 

In fact, the positive view of Sweden is so widespread in Germany that there's even a term for it: Bullerby-Syndrome or Bullerbü-Syndrom in German. 

“The Bullerby-Syndrome states that Germans see Sweden as a very romantic country,” Charlotta Seiler-Brylla, a professor of German at Stockholm University, tells The Local. “They see it as a country with lots of nature, in which everything is stable and in good order.”

The term gets its name from the characters in a series by Swedish children's author Astrid Lindgren, whose other stories of Pippi Longstocking and  Emil of Lönneberga are much loved in Germany and have contributed to the traditional image of red wooden cabins, sprawling nature, Midsummer festivities, and happy people.

But she isn't the only one painting a positive picture of Sweden.

“There's a German TV series called Inga Lindström,” Seiler-Brylla explained. “It's set in a fictional Sweden, that basically depicts only good sides and lots of beautiful nature. Many Germans feel like spending their holidays in Sweden because of that romantic picture.”

READ MORE: 'The image of Sweden in Germany is quite old-fashioned'

An episode of the German TV show “Inga Lindström” is recorded in Dalarö. Photo: Jurek Holzer/Svenska Dagbladet/TT

However, German tourists are also intrigued by the prospect of a darker side of Sweden – Swedish crime novels are immensely popular in Germany.

Germany has long had a huge appetite for detective fiction, and was home to some of the earliest examples of modern crime fiction by E.T.A Hoffmann and Friedrich Schiller. These days, novels by Swedes such as Stieg Larsson and Maj Sjöwall are found in bookstores around the world and not least in Germany, which may lead to an interest in their country of origin.

“There has been a wave of Swedish crime novels rolling over Germany since the '70s,” says Seiler-Brylla, suggesting that the German interest in so-called 'Scandi noir' long predated the trend in many other countries. 

The professor adds that it's not just the fictionalized, exaggerated versions of Sweden that appeal; many Germans also follow current affairs in Sweden closely. 

One topic discussed widely in Germany, especially in tabloids and magazines, is the Swedish royal family.

The magazine Bunte frequently publishes articles about the Swedish royals, covering their holidays, family photos, and travels. When magazines post photos of the family on Facebook, the comments are usually sympathetic: “What an appealing, down-to-earth family they are. I love them,” is one typical recent response.

READ ALSO: Five ways to cure homesickness as a German in Stockholm

The Swedish royal family in 2016. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

The Swedish ambassador in Berlin told The Local earlier this year that Sweden generally enjoys a good reputation in Germany, and there is a high level of knowledge among Germans about Swedish culture and companies.

The German ministry of foreign affairs states that the country is “keenly interested” in Sweden's socio-political progress – childcare, family policy and diversity are just some of the themes to mention.

Especially Sweden's gender equality policy is talked about frequently in Germany, and mostly with a favourable view.

The online magazine orange by handelsblatt published an article with the headline “Do you want to experience gender equality live? Then go to Sweden!”, the German radio station Deutschlandfunk did an article titled “How do feminist foreign- and trade politics work”, talking to Swedish ministers. 

“Additionally, I think that there is a certain recognition value that Germans see in Sweden,” explains Seiler-Brylla. “The countries have been historically linked for decades.”

The German-Swedish relationship started off well with an elective affinity in the 19th century, according to Seiler-Brylla. After the Second World War it changed for the worse, but nowadays Germany's reputation is getting better again, with many young Swedes showing a growing interest in Berlin.

Today, there are striking similarities between the two countries on several levels: a booming tech industry and strong industrial sector, close partnership within the EU, and closely linked languages, which may make communication easier.

READ MORE: Coffee, cash and Eurovision: Eight differences between Germany and Sweden

The Local spoke to two young Germans about their opinions on Sweden. Johanna Stein, a trainee at the Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung in the German city of Hannover, has spent three months in Stockholm for an internship. She decided on Sweden because she heard many good things about the country beforehand.

“Many of my relatives are fans of Scandinavia. It seems like everyone has an idea of Sweden, which in most cases is quite positive,” she told the Local.

Asked what she likes most about Sweden, Stein stated: “The tranquility. Everyone seems so relaxed.” She also talked positively about the “great nature and culture” and added that “Swedes are really good people, once you crack them.”

Johanna Stein. Photo: Private

Andreas Wershofen, a student of plant biotechnology, also has a good picture of Sweden, due both to the country's cultural output and his experiences socializing.

“I recently found out that a lot of the bands I like are from Sweden… The Hives, Royal Republic, In Flames and so on. That's the reason why I have a growing interest in that country,” said Wershofen.

He added: “Some of my friends went to Sweden after school. When they came back they talked very positively about the informal way of addressing people, and that Swedes seem to be a really respectful folk. When a non-Swedish speaker was in a group of Swedish students, they usually started talking English, even to each other.”

READ ALSO: Alter Schwede! The surprising role of old Swedes in the German language

Andreas Wershofen. Photo: Private.

It is reasonable to expect that Sweden will remain interesting to Germans in the future, says Seiler-Brylla, listing the Bullerby-Syndrome as the biggest reason for that. And even if life in Sweden doesn't quite resemble an Astrid Lindgren book, there's still a lot to interest Germans who stay in the country on a temporary or even permanent basis.

“The countries actually have a lot in common, for good and for bad,” she says. “Both represent a humane refugee policy, but also a growing right-wing party.”

As long as both countries stay on the same side in the future, she sees positive effects though: “Sweden will always be interesting for the Germans.”


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For members


‘Sandals mean freedom’: Eight tips on how to dress like a German

Germans have an international reputation for enjoying functional clothing. A top German fashion expert told The Local whether the stereotypes of German fashion are really true - and what Angela Merkel has to do with modern style.

‘Sandals mean freedom’: Eight tips on how to dress like a German

‘Comfortable and practical’

“It’s pretty easy to define German style,” says Bernhard Roetzel, the author of books on men’s fashion such as ‘Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion’. “Nowadays the basic dress of a grown-up man is mainly blue jeans, some kind of sweatshirt and an anorak. The shoes are usually comfortable sneakers. This is the basic German fashion that everyone from workers to doctors wears, and it is suitable for 90 percent of occasions.”

The basic theme, he says, is comfort and practicality. “That is very important.”

According to Roetzel, this love for the practical stretches all the way back into the 19th century when most other Europeans still had strict public dress codes.

“It began with a movement called Lebensreform, which valued things like vegetarianism and woollen clothes, which were supposed to be healthy,” he says.

“Even if Germans at the time didn’t like political freedom, they loved the freedom to wear sandals. Freedom for Germans is to wear sandals in places where it is not appropriate!”

A woman lies on the shore of the Schwarzachtalsee in Baden-Württemberg still wearing her sandals. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Thomas Warnack

Dressing down became even more acceptable after the First World War, when Germany became a republic and the aristocracy, with its formal sense of dress, lost its importance. “The Nazis also propagated being active outdoors,” Roetzel notes. “Fashion was seen as something awful created by the French and the Jews to bring about the downfall of German culture.”

When the craze for casual wear crossed the pond from the US in the 1960s, Germans were slow to adopt it. But now jeans are even standard clothing for septuagenarians, he says. “Twenty years after jeans arrived people started to realise that they are great for all occasions – and now everyone wears them. This was the last blow to formal German clothing.”

Dress down for work

The German love for all-purpose clothes means that it is perfectly appropriate to wear jeans to work, according to Roetzel. 

“If you don’t work in a bank or law firm you can probably wear jeans in most offices. A non-iron, short sleeve shirt is also very important. German men love these shirts, despite the fact that you get hot in them.”

You can even wear sneakers in the office. Or, if you have to look a bit smarter “some very cheap, comfortable leather shoes” will make you fit right in.

“In business, it is very important that you don’t stand out,” Roetzel advises. “If you are smartly dressed people will ask if you have an important meeting or will think you are looking for a pay rise. For everyday business, you dress as casually as possible.”

A woman cycles to work in jeans and a simple jacket in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Christin Klose

Nothing too sexy

Meanwhile, women’s workplace style, perhaps even more than men’s, is based on the principle of ‘the more forgettable the better.’

“Women in German business must not look too sexy,” says the fashion writer. “If you wear a skirt, for example, it should not be too short and heels should not be too high.” A “boxy, mouse grey suit” including a jacket that doesn’t complement one’s figure completes the look.

“Whereas in Italy, businesswomen carry Chanel bags, in Germany they usually carry a laptop bag or something very practical. Makeup is also rather reduced, not too much lipstick, nothing that is too obvious,” he says.

No door policy

Ties are basically a redundant piece of apparel in modern Germany, meaning wearing one really is a matter of choice in most settings.

“There are very few places where you are not allowed in if you don’t wear a tie,” says Roetzel. “I don’t know a single restaurant that wouldn’t admit you if you don’t wear a tie. You might not be allowed into Cologne Cathedral if your shorts are too short, but basically, you can wear everything everywhere and Germans love this!”

Funerals and weddings

Even the most formal occasions, such as weddings, funerals and important birthdays are much more informal events than they once were.

“At funerals, people will wear black but they rarely wear a black suit, most people will wear a black sweatshirt and jeans,” says Roetzel.

Copy Merkel

Angela Merkel’s unpretentious style appealed to Germans. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Fabian Sommer

Anyone looking for inspiration need look no further than recently retired German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who famously wore variations on the same trouser suit for most of her career.

“She had different colours and fabrics but that was her uniform and she also found her hairstyle and that was it. I don’t think she had a stylist,” Roetzel says. “That’s what Germans love. It’s recognizable and it doesn’t look expensive.”


“In Germany, one thing you should never admit to is wearing expensive, tailor-made clothes,” he explains. “As a politician, you can admit that you like drinking but you should never admit to having an expensive wardrobe.”

In fact, the cheaper the better. “Olaf Scholz has always earned a lot of money but his clothes are awful, his suits are awful – this is just perfect for Germany,” says Roetzel.

Splash the cash subtly (or on outdoor clothes)

This is not to say that all Germans wear cheap clothes, but they don’t make a big fuss about the brands that they do wear.

“People want to express status by wearing certain brands,” Roetzel points out. “But in Germany, this is done in a very subtle way. You will see small details in the clothes and glasses of a professor or doctor that will tell you a lot. Class exists but people hide their status because it is negative to show it off. This can be hard for foreigners to detect.”

There is one major exemption thought to the rule of not flaunting your wealth – outdoor apparel.

“Outdoor clothes are really a big thing here,” Roetzel says. “It gives people a sense of freedom and healthiness. Spending €800 on an outdoor jacket is perfectly okay. But it is a sin to spend the same amount on a tailor-made suit – you will destroy your image if you admit to doing this.”

Moreover, anyone who wants to impress Germans through their possessions would be better advised to buy a good car or modern kitchen, the fashion expert says. “It is perfectly normal to have a very expensive kitchen, but your clothes should still be cheap.”

Focus on inner beauty

The German (dis)interest in fashion can actually tell us a lot about deeper German values.

“There is an old Prussian saying of mehr sein als schein (content is better than appearance). Germans feel that if something is too beautiful there must be something fishy about it. Anyone who is too smartly dressed could be a conman,” says Roetzel.

“Germans are very honest, they like to be very direct. They say “what’s the point in not wearing sandals if it’s hot?’”