In Sweden, a nation that historically has seen itself to be neutral, peaceful and gender-specific, initiatives have recently been launched to preserve the memory of the Cold War. Since 2005, more than 20 military facilities from this period have been converted into museums with state funding. In addition, many stakeholders outside the national memory institutions, from entrepreneurs and civil society organizations to enthusiasts and non-profit groups, have converted former military sites into tourist facilities and residential or recreational areas (Frihammar, Krohn Andersson, Wendt, Åse 2021). There is an interesting socio-cultural side to this development, as the legacy of military activities plays a central role in national narratives. Sweden is, therefore, a fascinating case in which an extensive military legacy needs to be reconciled with the stellar national narratives of peace and neutrality. Another interesting aspect concerns Swedish militarization and the associated ideals of male protection in relation to the national rhetoric of gender equality (Kronsell 2012).
Examples in this article come from the research project Making a Military Heritage. Gender and Nation in Swedish Cold War History, a collaboration of researchers from the fields of gender studies, ethnology, political science and architectural history. The project combines feminist international relations and critical heritage studies with the overall aim of understanding how gender and nation become meaningful when memories and remnants of the Cold War are understood, displayed and viewed as heritage. A wide variety of Cold War heirs will be examined throughout the project. In this paper the presentation begins with a brief description of the militarization in Sweden during the Cold War, followed by an illustration of some of the ways in which military facilities have been reused for various purposes since the end of the Cold War. It continues by placing the spotlight on a specific type of remnant of the war, namely bunkers and shelters. The aim here is to show how these abandoned, remote and presumably secret institutions today attract a special kind of enthusiast, so-called “bunkerologists” (Bennett 2013), who during the course of the year draw attention to the production of masculinity as a structuring principle. Because almost all of them are men, why do these men seek out old abandoned Cold War military installations? What kind of nostalgia activate old bunkers? How does gender come about?
Several studies have analyzed the production, use, and implementation of war and Cold War heritage as political, cultural, aesthetic, and economic resources (Frihammar & Silverman 2018; Opponent & Ziino 2012; Rampley 2012; MacDonald 2009; Schofield & Cocroft 2007). However, in countries like Sweden, which lack recent and extensive experience of active wars, processes of military heritage remain a relatively unexplored phenomenon (with a few exceptions: Axelsson and Persson 2016; Feldmann 2013; Cronqvist 2012; Linderoth 2011).
In analysis, heritage refers to processes through which the past becomes a resource for and in the present. Heritage is therefore conceived as a process that establishes connections between memory, identity and specific objects and places (Harrison 2013; Smith 2006; Harvey 2001). The reuse and reinterpretation of the bunkers and shelters is seen as a process in which the bunkerologists try out and / or negotiate gender roles, especially masculinity. Gender is theorized here as the creation of identity, while different norms, ideals and requirements work together and masculinity and femininity are generated as opposites (Connell 1995). Given the military nature of this specific heritage, the separation between a masculinized protective position and a feminized protective position becomes central to the analysis (Åse 2016).
Sweden, a peace-loving nation?
Sweden took no active part in either the First or Second World War (and, unlike its neighboring countries, was not occupied). The image of Sweden as neutral and peaceful has been and is vigorously reproduced. Indeed, the phrase “Sweden hasn’t been at war in 200 years” is repeated frequently in the national geopolitical debate. However, it is not true to call Sweden a nation with no military experience. Sweden pursued a policy of neutrality during World War II, and after the war Sweden wanted to maintain its neutral position. A paradoxical consequence was that a large arms industry and active arms exports were deemed necessary to make the neutral position credible. Since Sweden was well populated compared to the countries that participated in World War II, the arms industry grew rapidly and Sweden became and is one of the largest arms exporters in the world.
An example of an expansive arms export is the “success” of the recoilless rifle named Carl Gustaf (which is traditionally a royal name in Sweden; today’s Swedish king, for example, is named Carl XVI Gustaf). The weapon, also known as the Gustaf Bazooka, was first developed in 1946 and is still in production. It is used today by many armies around the world and has become so common that it has received different nicknames in different military national contexts. British troops call it “Charlie G”, Canadian troops “Carl G”, the US Army “The Goose” or “Carl Johnson” and in Australia “Charlie Gutsache”. It was used in a number of wars (including the Falklands War, the Lebanese Civil War, the Gulf War, the Kargil War, the Afghanistan War, the Iraq War, the Eelam War IV, the Libyan Civil War, and the Syrian Civil War).
One consequence of the significant cultural effects of the neutrality policy was that compulsory military service for men was considered necessary (Åselius 2005; cf. Agrell 2010). This meant that approximately 40,000 young men received military training each year. Citizens’ relationship and experience with military defense were therefore expressly gender-specific. The compulsory conscription system lasted until 2010 when it was replaced by combat units.
Sweden was heavily involved in building up a military and civil defense during the Cold War. In the 1960s, Sweden had one of the largest air forces in the world, consisting of more than 4,000 aircraft. In addition, Sweden had one of the world’s highest rates of air raid shelters per capita (Hörnfeldt 2015; Cronqvist 2008). Paradoxically, despite the routinely repeated national “old peace song” (Burch 2013), militarization was a cornerstone of Swedish welfare society during the Cold War. If the metaphor “Folkhemmet”, “the house of the peoples” was used to describe the cozy interior of the Swedish welfare state, “the people’s defense” (folkförsvaret) can be described as a cold, hard shelter (see also Cronqvist 2012). The national rhetoric of peace and neutrality has always been accompanied by a profound militarization, the traces of which can be found today in every corner of Swedish territory in the form of abandoned bunkers, rebuilt shelters and overgrown concrete anti-tank barriers. If you know how to look, you will find that Swedish urban and rural landscapes are indeed full of military regulations. In addition, the socio-cultural landscape is shaped by the militarization of the Cold War, as virtually every Swedish man born before 1990 has first-hand experience of military training. In addition, Swedish weapons have been used in most wars and armed conflicts around the world.
The end of the Cold War marked a radical change in Swedish defense strategy, including a fundamental downsizing and professionalization of the Swedish armed forces. However, conscription, which was abandoned in 2010, has recently been reintroduced. What is important is that one radical change in the new system is that the attitude is now gender neutral and includes both women and men. Compulsory male conscription, which created a close relationship between the armed forces and the male citizen and made male ideals of protection a central part of the Swedish experience of the Cold War (Åse 2016), has ended. In other words, the system that had strengthened gender citizenship (Kronsell 2012; Sundevall 2011; Eduards 2007;) by underpinning a male privilege to protect (Young 2003; Tickner 2001) has been replaced by a system that encourages women to share responsibility and equaled men to serve in the name of the nation.
The heritagization of military facilities in Sweden is particularly interesting in view of the complexity of a post-war identity based on neutrality, internationality and peace-building (Stråth 2000), in combination with the “deep militarization” that characterized Swedish society in the post-war period (Kronsell 2012) as well as subsequent changes related to gender issues.
Different ways to reuse military facilities
The abundance of Cold War supplies has created a multitude of different ways to reuse the facilities. A common route has been to rebuild abandoned company houses for residential use or everyday practices such as offices. In the city of Ystad, for example, an entire regimental area has been given civil functions. Similar developments can be observed in Skövde, Linköping, Karlstad, Sollefteå, Karlskrona, Borås, Strängnäs, Kristinehamn, Västerås, Vaxholm, Örebro Boden and Kiruna. In the north of Gotland, the Bungenäs area, which used to be a closed military training area with many bunkers and air defenses, has now been converted into luxury holiday accommodation. Here the military installations are used to create a Cold War aesthetic (for a further analysis by Bungenäs see Åse & Wendt 2021 and Frihammar & Krohn Andersson 2020).
Many military facilities have been converted into conference centers or hotels. One example is Airbase F4 in Jämtland, which was closed in 2005 and is now the Quality Hotel Frösö Park and Conference Center. Another is Hemsö Fästning near Härnösand. During the 20thth Century, one of Sweden’s largest defenses, has been relaunched as a “bulletproof attraction for the whole family”. Here you can check out radars and command and control rooms and enjoy your Christmas dinner.
As already mentioned, many milieus have been converted into official or semi-official museums (for an in-depth analysis of some exhibitions, see Wendt 2021). Figure 1 and Figure 2 (see below) show examples from the Aeroseum in Gothenburg, a former hangar in a 22,000 m2 cave, and from the Army’s Defense Museum in Boden in northern Sweden.
The new genre of museums that has developed with the downsizing of military activities and the network of military museums (https://www.smha.se/) counts just over 25 museums. They are known as “adventure museums” and are all aimed specifically at children. You are affiliated with the Swedish Military Heritage Network. As interesting as these museums and curated exhibitions may be, they do not seem to fully satisfy one type of “bunker connoisseur”, namely the so-called bunkerologists (Bennett 2012). Bunkerologists are (almost entirely) men who want to satisfy the desire to revive the Cold War atmosphere by visiting abandoned military sites in their spare time. The specific environment in which the feeling of the Cold War seems to be activated is abandoned and former secret air raid shelters and bunkers. There is an extensive network of people in Sweden who are fully involved in this type of abandoned bunker exploration. The same phenomenon occurs in other national contexts (see for example Bennett 2017). The monomasculine group composition was explained by the fact that bunkers bring together different characteristics that appeal to men according to custom and tradition (Bennet 2012). In this paper the approach is different; that the bunkers are interpreted as spaces that are filled with nostalgic masculinity through heritagization.
Cozy cave explorers
In Sweden, a Facebook group called a hub is in this nostalgic network of meaning production Svenska Hemligheter / Svenska Hemliga Rum that translates into Swedish secrets / secret Swedish rooms. The group has approximately 50,000 members who share pictures of their shelter / bunker excursions, the location of hidden abandoned shelters, general information on Swedish military history, etc. The following analysis is based on the feed in the Facebook group and on interviews with recognized bunker enthusiasts. I will describe image content, but for ethical reasons I will not publish images. However, I will cite some of the comments translated from Swedish to English where converting from one language to another makes it difficult to trace each quotation back to the source.
A post contains a series of images from what appears to be a fairly large room. The walls are made of concrete. In one picture, seventeen red metal rounds with a diameter of about three feet are arranged next to and above a red door. It is difficult for a non-specialist to understand the function of the metal rounds, but they give a rather aesthetic impression. Another picture shows a construction made of concrete beams and the silhouettes of three people with moving backlighting. Only parts of the walls, floor and roof are reached by the light source. The comment on the photos is: “A quick look back at one of the coolest [places] I have ever experienced several thousand square meters of pure love for moisture, rock and concrete. The facility is still used today, but for something completely different. “
Another post shows a picture of a concrete staircase. The walls are also made of concrete, with bits of exposed rocks here and there. At the bottom of the stairs you will see a dark wall (also made of concrete) with a grille door partially open, but it is not possible to see what is inside. The handrails along the stairs emphasize the sloping perspective of the picture. The roof is in the dark. The comment reads: “My fiancé asked me what makes me happy! I sent this picture in response. “A third post shows a dark picture in which you can barely see the contours of a very worn and damp room. An iron handrail and an iron door are full of rust. The only comment on the photo is: “Longing”. Another suite of images, however, shows the same type of milieus, but adds a photo from an empty corridor with a torch lighting the open doors on the walls. It may seem like a gloomy, deserted place, but the comment is cheerful: “Caves, check. Flashlight, check. Check drawings. Nice company, check. Thursday evening couldn’t be better. Smiley “.
The pattern continues post after post with photos of dark caves with enthusiastic and positive comments. A picture showing a cave asks: “Do you know the scent?” This comment can be seen in the light of an answer from an interview with a bunker enthusiast. When asked how he knew whether a facility he had just found was a good place, he said, “It’s the scent! I know this is going to sound nerdy, but I also know many will get what I’m talking about. Because we talk about the scent a lot, this is a good mountain because it smells! “
Next to a photo of a similar cave in another post that says “relax” on the line. “2500 square meters of moisture, frost, darkness and pure love” is another comment. Most of the photos are without people. The mentioned silhouettes are an exception, as is the child in a picture on which the line with the symbols says “Father & Son Day”. In some cases a printout has been noted and is beginning to be reused. An example is the way the experience is described as “cozy”, as in “Sunday Cosiness”, “Cozy Saturday Snow”, “Good Friday Cosiness”, and “Cozy Friday with two friends”.
How should we understand these enthusiastic and emotional images and comments? Why do the caves make men because these are exclusively men, feeling love, being relaxed, happy, delighted and delighted? To what extent do you find a damp and raw bunker cozy? What is it about the scent that makes you sparkle with joy?
Bunkers as homosocial retreats
Evidence of violence remains latent in the Facebook feed. In some cases, the photos convey feelings of threat by highlighting the locations as dangerous or outside of society’s protective rules. First and foremost, however, the community and cohesion between the members of the group is reproduced. In a homosocial process, the raw and worn physical structures are interpreted as cozy, relaxing, and otherwise desirable. The connotation of social consideration is also reflected in one of our interviews when a bunker enthusiast stated that he viewed the shelters and bunkers of the Cold War as reflections of a state that genuinely cared about its citizens (as opposed to today’s society). In these contexts, the bunkers speak of the Cold War as a time of unity, collective organization and security.
However, through an analytical change of perspective, an exciting indication of risk and death can be found in the search for meaning in the vicinity of the bunker. The facilities’ raison d’etre is related to the risk of war, be it to offer your life while defending the nation or to kill the enemy. By residing in these remaining fragments of the once powerful Swedish people’s defense, the bunkerologists are associated with the ultimate symbol of male valor – the sacrifice of life on the battlefield and the protection of the nation. Since the bunkers are understood retrospectively, the concept of nostalgia is necessary to understand what it is about: the time span adds an evocative dimension to the narrative of the Cold War. The literary scholar Svetlana Boym (2001) describes nostalgia as more than an individual emotion. Rather, nostalgia should be seen as a “symptom of our time”. This is a feeling evoked by the modern tendency to understand time as constant change. Nostalgia is thus a productive longing for something else, in which the past is used as a projection surface. Nostalgia is the construction of ideals. The paradox is that these ideal images of the past are fundamentally determined by present needs and affect how the future is perceived. However, nostalgia should not be understood as a specific emotion. In contrast, nostalgia is ambiguous in its nature and tends to hover between two types of memories: the restorative type and the reflective type. Restorative nostalgia emphasizes the prefix NostosHomecoming. This way of understanding the past is viewed not as nostalgia but as truth and tradition and expresses the will to rebuild a lost home. Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, emphasizes the word’s suffix: álgos, the pain or pain that underpins the longing, thinking about the changes of time and thinking nostalgically of times gone by.
There are no absolute boundaries between the two types, but they reflect different attitudes and uses in the past. Restorative nostalgia protects what is believed to be the absolute truth, while reflective nostalgia casts doubt on it. The revision of the past in the present through the examples I have given oscillates between a restorative and a reflective mode. On the one hand, the previous international instability and the danger of war or an atomic bomb are emphasized as a nostalgic framework. On the flip side, the time gap itself seems to act as a kind of sandpaper, filing down the scariest edges, leaving behind a streamlined version of the story. The nostalgic mode facilitates the paradoxical (re-) production of the image of Sweden as neutral and peacekeeping within a military milieu.
A Freudian interpretation of male madness for abandoned bunkers could be that it has to do with male penetration. This understanding can also be fostered by a passage from one of the interviews in which the urge to be the first to find an untouched facility is referred to as the engine for bunker exploration, a kind of post-military defloration ritual. From an ethnological point of view, male exploration of abandoned bunkers should not be understood psychotically, but culturally. In a national context where the protective monopoly for men has been suspended, parallel to a general devaluation of other male privileges, the bunkers may offer a journey back in time to a time when military masculinity and male violence were sanctioned and welcomed by the state. I therefore suggest that abandoned bunkers should be viewed as protective “human caves”. They were built by and for men; therefore men belong to the bunkers. They are in remote areas that no one outside of the community will find. Sharing secret places adds to the sense of belonging. In other words, the bunkers become arenas for gender-specific protection and a nostalgic reenactment of a male privilege to protect.
In summary, despite Sweden’s image, which spread both internally and externally, as an anthesis of military conflicts and wars, the Cold War era in Sweden was characterized by a comprehensive defense strategy that led to a deeply militarized society. While Swedish geopolitics of neutrality rhetorically formulated the welfare state as a way to create an inclusive “people’s home”, it encouraged investment in the arms industry and exports. The compulsory conscription system, including all male citizens, has gendered the experience of being the protector of the nation and strengthened the gender binary of citizenship. Following the dismantling of the Swedish military defense organization after the Cold War, which left countless military provisions without care or purpose, a multitude of actors reinterpreted the remains as legacy. This essay has analyzed the nostalgic bunkerolog movement and shown how abandoned bunkers and shelters from the Cold War now serve as arenas for the creation of a protective masculinity. In this heritagization, the image of the Swedish welfare society with a strong defense army, in contrast to today’s gender-neutral conscription system, serves as an ideal. The presumed gender binary and heterosexuality of the past social order gives way to a tale of a male military hero who is ready to kill and be killed in the name of the nation.
Figure 1: Interior of the Army of Defense Museum in Boden. Photo by Mattias Frihammar.
Figure 2: Interior of the Aeroseum in Gothenburg. Photo: Mattias Frihammar.
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