Drawing the Wrong Conclusion

A photo of this satirical cartoon is displayed on one neo-pagan website with the erroneous caption:
"The poet and writer Viktor Rydberg (drawing sword, right of center)
is shown leading the barbarian assault on the academy."
 However, the cartoon does not depict Viktor Rydberg leading a 'barbarian assault' on the Swedish Academy.   The truth is, it satirizes an on-going internal dispute for philosophical control of Stockholms Högskola,  the founding college of the University of Stockholm. The incident is well documented.

Gösta Mittag-Leffler Otto Pettersson Viktor Rydberg
 Depicted as
Head of Roman Senate
Chemist, Physicist  
a Germanic warband
Historian, Author,
Poet, & Cultural Figure

Drawing sword, right of center


     Titled "Barbarians enter the Forum", the cartoonist satirizes a bitter feud raged between professors Magnus Mittag-Leffler and Otto Pettersson for philosophical control over the Stockholm Högskola. Founded in 1878, the Högskola attracted some of Europe's finest minds. Although active as a lecturer at the school, Viktor Rydberg was not directly involved in the dispute. As Sweden's foremost living author, famed for his Roman, Biblical, and Old Norse studies, Rydberg was invited to teach there in 1884 and held the only liberal arts chair at the school, otherwise reserved for advanced sciences such as mathematics, chemistry and physics. The cartoon pokes fun at the on-going conflict within the Högskola at which Rydberg held the chair of Professor of Cultural History and later the J.A. Berg Chair in the History and Theory of Art.
      It should also be noted that the designation högskola, which is typically translated as 'college,’ [cf. the German hochschule] has been translated literally by the same neo-pagan 'non-profit' that creatively captioned the cartoon, in an obvious effort to equate it with an American secondary school. However, while the term "high school" refers to secondary education in the United States, a secondary school in both Sweden and Germany is known as a Gymnasium, such as the Viktor Rydberg's Gymnasium in Djursholm. The facade of Göteborgs/Gothenburg University clearly illustrates the relationship between a högskola ("college") and a university.

      In the cartoon, the seated body is intended to represent the Roman senate. Its leader, in the center left of the cartoon sitting slightly higher than his fellow professors, is Swedish mathematician Magnus Gösta Mittag-Leffler.The root of the problem at the school, by all accounts. Entering the hall at the head of a band of Germanic warriors is his rival Otto Pettersson. Viktor Rydberg (drawing sword) is shown supporting Pettersson. The remaining figures are other professors at the school. Note the detail the artist gives each head. These figures are clearly meant to represent actual people, and appear to be drawn from known photographs of them. Pictures of these men, widely available on the internet and reproduced above, confirm the identity of the key players in this dispute. The battle against Mittag-Leffler's effort to win control of the fledgling university was waged successfully, first by Otto Pettersson and then by his successor Svante Arrhenius.
The theme of the cartoon, possibly inspired by Viktor Rydberg's recent studies in Roman history and on-going studies in Germanic mythology, as well as Pettersson's role as an Oceanographer, was made relevent by the extravagant lifestyle and heavy-handed tactics of Mittag-Leffler, who long sought to wield political and philosophical control over the school. He is depicted as the leader of the corrupt Roman Senate, challenged by an invading Viking army. This depiction indicates that the cartoonist was sympathetic to Pettersson's cause.
To ensure that no one misunderstood his intent, the cartoonist added the words 'Dichtung'(Poetry) and 'Wahrheit' (Truth) to Rydberg's sword. "Dichtung und Wahrheit" is also the title of Goethe's autobiography. Rydberg, who was a Swedish national icon by this time, had published an acclaimed translation of Goethe's Faust, Part I, in 1876. The Swedes of that time, of course, took pride in their Germanic heritage. Naturally, a Swedish cartoonist would turn to his nation's history for such an allusion. It's rather amusing that a self-identified 'heathen' organization would miss this obvious fact. Despite the web-author's incredible claim that one cannot find reliable information in English regarding Rydberg's life and works (which is simply not true), the nature of this dispute is well known, inside and outside of Sweden. The sources presented below provide an accurate overview of the situation depicted in the cartoon.

  Nowlan, Robert A., A Chronicle of Mathematical People:

 "In 1877 Mittag-Leffler was appointed to a chair at the University of Helsinki, and four years later he returned home to accept a post at the Stockholm Hogskola, later to become the University of Stockholm. In 1882, with the financial backing of his wealthy wife, Mittag-Leffler founded Acta Mathematica and served as its chief editor for 45 years."  

 Batterson, Steven. Stephen Smale: The Mathematician Who Broke the Dimension Barrier,  2008, p. 134-135.

Chapter 7: The Nobel Prize and the Fields Medal

     "They were won, however, only after head-on confrontations with the old guard led by Mittag-Leffler. Petterson’s re-election as rector early in 1895 only occurred after a drawn-out fight during which the Högskola for a short while, partly as a result of Mittag-Leffler’s machinations, found itself with three rectors, two of whom had only been duly elected by the council of teachers at two successsive meetings, the third having been appointed temporarily by the governing board.
     "This episode was followed four months later, in May 1895, by a row over the appointment of Arrhenius to the newly created chair of physics. In an effort to block Arrhenius, Mittag-Leffler succeeded in having Lord Kelvin called as one of the three experts judging Arrhenius’ competence. Kelvin’s opinion was predictably negative, but was transmitted to Mittag-Leffler in a personal letter rather than, as called for by the rules of appointment (sakkunnighets- institutionen) in a formal opinion addressed to the Högskola. This made it possible for Pettersson to disallow it."
      "...In Stockholm’s small intellectual community, where pratically everybody knew someone in the press, these conflicts received considerable attention from the newspapers which made much of 'the trouble at the Högskola.'"

Thus, the origin of the satirical cartoon.

Professors at Stockholms Högskola
Sonja Kovalevsky
The First Female Professor
in Europe
Svante Arrhenius Vilhelm Bjerkes

Crawford, Elisabeth T.,  The Beginnings of the Nobel Institution: The Science Prizes, 1901-1915,  1987, pp. 111-112  

      "Mittag-Leffler, ...had few of the features that endeared Arrhenius to his friends. In the diary he kept for most of his adult life his bad health is a recurrent feature. From the turn of the century, (when he was in his fifties) onward, this increasingly preocccupied him. As he himself recognized, his health problems could be attributed at least partly to a nervous disposition and an overriding ambition to succeed, not only as a mathematician but also in the many related endeavors to which he applied his organizational and other skills.
     "Mittag-Leffler used all means available to him to promote his various causes. Whether his aim was to secure financial support for his journal Acta Mathmematica or the Högskola, to promote or block candidates for academic positions, or later in life, to influence Sweden's defense and foriegn policy, the ingredients of his 'campaigns,' as he himself called them, were essentially the same: a stream of letters and cables would flow from his desk exhorting and cajoling those he regarded as his friends into supporting his course of action. When necessary, journalists from leading newspapers would be summoned and 'instructed,’ as the put it, in the proper way of handling the matter. In all this he displayed the skills of a public relations man and lobbyist operating on the level of present-day professionals.
      "To him, all actions were justified by the righteousness of his cause. To many of his contemporaries, though, Mittag-Leffler appeared as nothing less than Machiavellian, in what they felt was his self-seeking pursuit of power and influence, and their judgments of his person were accordingly harsh.
      "In his memoirs, Arrhenius recounts how when he came to the Högskola in 1891, largely through the help of Mittag-Lefflar, the latter offered to lend him money. 'If I understood him correctly,' he writes, 'it was a question of buying my support for his viewpoints. I despised him and have never since had reason to change my opinion.’
      "Even without this incident, it is difficult to see how the two could have cooperated, since they were almost two exact opposites on so many counts. Although their social origins were similar, Arrhenius considered thrift both a necessity and a virtue, whereas the lifestyle of Mittag-Leffler was lavish in the extreme."
     "..Arrhenius generally held liberal reformist views, whereas Mittag-Leffler’s stance was on the whole elitest, nationalist, and monarchist.”
     "...Coming as it did in the aftermath of the battles at the Högskola where the 'young Turks’ led by Pettersson and Arrhenius had succesfully fought the old guard led by Mittag-Leffler, it is not surprising that the Nobel prizes should become the scene of further conflicts between Arrhenius and Mittag-Leffler."

Svansson, Artur. Otto Pettersson: oceanografen, kemisten, uppfinnaren, 2006 
"Men ett långt brev från OP till SH-kollegan Viktor Rydberg (VR) den 9/12 86 (KB) om rektorsval, avslöjar, att de nedan under OPs rektorstid (1893- 96) omtalade inre stridigheterna var aktuella redan nu.
Man skulle välja ny rektor för tvåårsperioden 1887-88. Om VR hade kandiderat, hade han sannolikt blivit vald. För det var nog inte bara den mindre gruppen kring OP, som menade att "Du står utom partierna och är den ende som kan bringa fred inom Högskolan."
Majoritetens kandidat blev då omval av matematikprofessorn Gösta Mittag-Leffler, som i NE, efter att ha prisats för sina stora insatser, på sluttampen karakteriseras: "Han skydde inte strid för att nå sina mål och blev därigenom en kontroversiell och ibland fruktad person". Det senare motsägs inte av brevet till VR, vilket jag citerar delar av:
Efter värt samtal i Tisdags ansäg jag vid närmare eftertänkande, att det var ärligast och bäst, att utan längre dröjsmål meddela mina yngre kolleger, [Knut] Ångström och [Nordal] Wille, det svar Du gav åt mig och [Robert] Rubenson. Jag sade dem: att Rydberg avböjt valet till rektor för sin egen del; att han icke har förtroende till [Gösta Mittag-] Leffler och anser, att det icke vore lyckligt för Högskolan, om L. bleve rektor, men av ett skäl, som är personligen bindande för Rydberg själv, beslutit skänka Leffler sin röst vid valet. Jag tillade, att enligt min uppfattning var Rydbergs beslut orubbligt. Därpå bad jag mina kamrater att förena sig med mig om en annan kanidat, eftersom ingen av oss kunde vara med om att välja L. utan att handla mot sin övertygelse. Jag hade väntat att få mina kamrater med mig häruti, men fann istället ett motstånd, som jag knappt torde kunna besegra, och fick ögonen öppna för ett förhållande, som jag borde tänkt på förut. Om L. blir rektor för de kommande båda åren, så är detta egentligen  endast en obehaglig händelse för oss andra, som vi ej kunna ha något ont av - endast ledsamheter. Men för Wille och Ångström blir det en allvarsam sak. Deras ställning vid Högskolan är, som Du vet, osäker, deras fullmakter lyda på några månader i sänder och måste nu t.ex. i denna månad förnyas, om de ej skola tvingas att lämna...


But a long letter from Otto Pettersson to his Stockholms Högskola-colleague Viktor Rydberg (VR) dated 9/12 86 (KB) regarding the selection of a principal, reveals that during Otto Petterson's time as rector (1893-96) talk about internal strife was already relevant.

A new president of the two-year period from 1887 to '88 was to be chosen. If Viktor Rydberg had stood as a candidate, he'd probably have been elected. For it was not only the smaller group around Otto Petterson who said that "You are outside of the dispute and are the only one who can bring peace within the University."

The majority's candidate was then re-elected —mathematics professor Gösta Mittag-Leffler, who in NE, after being praised for his great efforts, is in closing characterized, "He spared no battle to reach his goals and thus became a controversial and sometimes fearsome person." The latter is not contradicted by the letter to Viktor Rydberg which I quote parts of:

"After much conversation I carefully considered, thinking it was best, without further delay, to inform my younger colleagues, [Knut] Angström and [Nordal] Wille, of the response you gave to me and [Robert] Rubenson. I told them that Rydberg declined election to the Vice Chancellor for himself; that he does not have confidence in [Gösta Mittag-] Leffler and believes, that it would not be good for the University, if Leffler became principal, but for personal reasons Rydberg himself intended to give Leffler his vote at the election. I added that I believed that Rydberg's decision was steadfast. Then I asked my friends to join me in support of another candidate,  because none of us could be involved in choosing Leffler except we act against our beliefs. I had been expecting my comrades to join with me on this, but found instead a resistor, which I would barely be able to defeat, and had my eyes opened to a relationship, which I should have seen before. If Leffler becomes president for the next two years, it will certainly be an unpleasant event for us, not anything harmful- just sadness. But for Wille and Angström it becomes a serious matter. Their position at the University is, as you know, uncertain, their contacts last a few months at a time and must now— e.g. this month, be renewed, if they are not forced to leave."
Walter Rüegg Universities in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries (1800-1945)‎,  2004,
p. 126 :
 “The University of Stockholm, founded in 1878, was as different as possible to the Uppsala-Lund state university tradition, since in the beginning there was no examination, the professors represented only the natural sciences with one exception, and the famous writer and liberal journalist Viktor Rydberg (1828-95) was given a chair in History of Culture (later History and Theory of Art) The institution did not like being called a university, but was named Stockholms Högskola. From 1904, the Högskola gained the right to set examinations, and with a new faculty of law and social sciences and semi-municipal status from 1907, became de facto a university, finally attaining the status of a state university in 1960, at which time is name changed to Stockholms Universitet. The number of professors of Jewish origin was remarkably higher in Stockholms Hogskola than in the state universities, and one of the world’s first female professors taught there.”
Stubhaug, Arild. Gösta Mittag-Leffler: A Man of Conviction, 2010, p. 430-431

"More and more people were moving to Djursholm. Businessmen and intellectuals and many others settled in the new residential areas, which was widely regarded as an ideal place to live. Most were well-to-do and had radical interests. The average income was among the highest in the country, and one of the wealthiest was Mittag-Leffler, who according to public records had a taxable income of about five times the professor salary that he received. The most famous resident was of Djursholm was Viktor Rydberg. It was Mittag-Leffler who had persuaded Rydberg to move to Djursholm and become his closest neighbor. In spite of disagreements about the College, the two neighbors often ment at social gatherings and had private conversations. Judging by the brief notes that the two exchanged—scribbled in all haste on calling cards and the like— it seems like spiritualism, one of the popular interest of the day, was occasionally included in their conversations. In any case, there seems a hint of this in Rydberg's words: "Keenly interested in embarking with you on the foreamentioned borderline area of philosophy." Or perhaps this referred to mathematical ideas?

There was great sorrow in Djursholm and in the entire country when the great poet Rydberg unexpectedly passed away on September 21, 1895. As a response to the many public memorials and obituaries honoring Rydberg, Mittag-Leffler wanted to present his own portrait of the man and the writer, with whom he'd been entralled ever since his days in secondary school.

"...After Rydberg's death, Mittag-Leffler and Henrik Palme, who was the founder of the Djursholm residential area, took the initative to comission one of the country's foremost sculptors, John Börjeson, to create a bust of Rydberg. The bust was unveiled in Djursholm six years later."

Although it lasted many more years, the political struggle at the Högskola peaked between March 1893 and November 1895. Viktor Rydberg died September 21, 1895, provoking a national day of mourning. The struggle continued on after his death unabated. Ultimately the 'Young Turks' led by Svante Arrhenius prevailed, paving the way for Stockholms högskola to become the University of Stockholm.

Considering the well-documented nature of the cartoon's subject in both Swedish and  English, one can reasonably conclude that the web-based cult disseminating this misinformation has intentionally misrepresented the cartoon to support their own agenda.

The truth is out there.


Additional Resources

Over A Century of Scholarship
on Viktor Rydberg and his mythological works.

A Statement from Tore Lund
of the Viktor Rydberg Society
Rydberg & Race:
Exposing false allegations of Aryan Racism
perpetrated by internet cults opposed to
Rydberg's mythological thesis.

Was Viktor Rydberg Gay?