Soldiers of fortune: Sweden’s most controversial historian
When it comes to creating a musical niche, Swedish power metallers Sabaton are hard to beat. Instead of writing lyrics about “drinking beer or dragons, or whatever”, as the band’s frontman Joakim Brodén has put it, almost every Sabaton song has taken an episode from military history as a theme.
But instead of simply raiding the history books for vivid tales of heroic deeds, great battles, and tragic last stands, Sabaton has made education a mission. Their website carefully details each of the real-life stories behind their songs, while their YouTube channel features mini-documentaries where the band goes even deeper into these episodes from the past. Their latest LP The war to end all warswhich deals with World War I chronologically, from the opener Sarajevo to closing track Versailleswas also released in an extended version with a commentary in a clipped British accent that provides a history lesson in addition to the already didactic lyrics.
Now Sabaton has been rewarded for his educational efforts. Last month
Vetenskap og Folkbildning (VoF) named Sabaton the People’s Educator of the Year 2022. VoF chairman Pontus Böckman commented: “In a world where we are inundated with fake news and conspiracy theories, fact-checked information is delivered from the last place many would have expected – a hard rock band.”
With four number 1 albums in his native Sweden, top LPs in Austria,
Germany and Switzerland, and both have their own music festival in their home
the city of Falun and an annual cruise in the Baltic Sea under their flag, Sabaton
can claim to be not just a band but a full-fledged phenomenon, and the award only confirmed another dimension to their already unique oeuvre.
But it quickly turned sour. It soon turned out that in the summer
In 2015, Sabaton played at a lavish gala in Sevastopol, in annexed Crimea, staged by the pro-Putin biker gang Night Wolves. The band’s bassist and co-founder, Pär Sundström, had also commented on Crimea: “All these years they have felt like Russians but have been treated as a small piece of Ukraine.” VoF announced a review of their award and the band was removed from a playlist created for the 2023 Swedish Presidency of the EU Council. It turned out that already in 2021, plans for the band to be involved in the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Swedish Royal Guard were canceled due to the Sevastopol gig.
Sabaton was sure to provoke controversy before long. While their lyrics have always emphasized the futility of war and been critical of the historical “bad guys”, the very idea of writing over-the-top metal songs about subjects like the Holocaust (see 2010s The final solution – “Sent away on a train, sent on a one-way trip to hell/ Enter the gates, Auschwitz awaits”) or the rise of the Third Reich (2006’s Rise of Evil) doesn’t sit entirely comfortably, especially for a band whose stock in trade is clumsy lyrics, creepy pulp novel-style covers, and a more than faint dose of ridiculousness.
It is also not difficult to see why the history-loving Swedes with their unbridled,
military-obsessed masculinity, appealed to the Nightwolves. The aesthetic
adopted by the two groups is almost indistinguishable, with Night Wolves’ promotional video for the Sevastopol gala featuring grainy stock footage of the Soviet victory over the Nazis interspersed with scenes of bicycle stunts, pyrotechnics and a T-34 tank loaned to the group by the museum of the battle at Stalingrad. Such unintentionally camp, Spinal Tap levels of pomp are Sabaton all over the place – after all, this is the band that has a two-ton drum riser in
the shape of a tank as the centerpiece of their barbed wire-strewn live show set.
Sundström has now clarified that he admits that the invasion of Ukraine
was against international law, and the band has made statements against the war, including – somewhat bizarrely – at the reopening of the Heugh Battery Museum in Hartlepool last March after raising money for the historic site when it was threatened with closure. VoF has confirmed that, in light of these statements, they will not withdraw Sabaton’s award.
But in an interview the year after the Sevastopol gig, Brodén had doubled down
down, simply saying, “There’s always going to be some crazy guy somewhere!”, adding, with great naivete, that as an apolitical band, they couldn’t turn down Night Wolves’ invitation because that would have been a political statement in itself. Sabaton will keep their gong, but they may have lost any reputation for critical thinking.
Sabaton in five songs
The Cliffs of Gallipoli (2008)
Typical of Sabaton’s accessible power metal sound, and their focus on episodes from military history, this was their first and only number 1 single in their native Sweden.
Carolus Rex (2012)
The title track of the concept album based on the rise and fall of the Swedish empire, this song was featured on Spotify’s “Songs from Sweden” playlist for the EU Presidency, but was removed after the controversy over the VoF award exploded.
To hell and back (2014)
From heroesSabaton’s first album that reached number 1 in Sweden, this typically
bombastic track pays tribute to Audie Murphy, one of the most decorated US
soldiers from World War II.
The Last Stand (2016)
The title track of Sabaton’s eighth album, this song was about the Swiss Guard during the sacking of Rome by the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor
Charles V (“In heaven’s service/ They protect the holy line/ It was 1527”).
From last year’s EP Weapons of the modern agethis course was inspired by the “father of chemical warfare” Fritz Haber and the use of gas as a weapon in the First World War.