The most famous Swede of his age

…was someone I had not previously heard of. I can’t resist posting another excerpt from Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century,  one of the many fascinating bits of knowledge that are everywhere in this masterpiece. (And no, I’m still not finished. It is really long).

In the subsequent generation, Sven Hedin, having started his long career in 1894 with a research trip to Central Asia, became the most famous Swede of his age, with unfettered access to monarchs and heads of government in both West and East and adorned with countless decorations, gold medals, and honorary doctorates.

Hedin’s life encapsulates the contradictions of Europe’s relationship with Asia. Convinced of the general superiority of the West over the East, Hedin was an excellent linguist and scholar and at the same time a Swedish (and, from personal choice, German) nationalist and militarist, a man of the political Right, who enjoyed taking part in geopolitical fantasizing about a “power vacuum” in the heart of Asia.

But he was also one of the first Westerners to take contemporary Chinese science seriously and to cooperate with Chinese experts. He is held in high esteem in China today: a not atypical posthumous reputation, since quite a few European explorers, despite their activity in the service of empire, have been integrated into the collective memory of postimperial countries.

Osterhammel notes that there is no English-language biography of Hedin; I for one would read one. In the meantime, there is a reasonably extensive Wikipedia page.

Sven Hedin

Sven Hedin

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