The victims were young and mostly female, judged to be rebellious or promiscuous, of low intelligence or perhaps of mixed blood. One was a young woman whose priest believed she had not learned her confirmation lessons well enough, another who couldn't read a blackboard because she did not have eyeglasses and was deemed to be retarded.

In the eyes of Swedish authorities, they were misfits in a forward-looking nation, and for that they paid a terrible price: sterilization at the hands of the state, often against their will. From 1934 to 1974, 62,000 Swedes were sterilized as part of a national program grounded in the science of racial biology and carried out by officials who believed they were helping to build a progressive, enlightened welfare state.

Now the collective history of the victims, brought back into public view by a sharply written series of articles in Sweden's largest morning newspaper, has stirred the public consciousness of a country that has often ignored the darker corners of its past.

The newspaper series and international interest in the program have prompted a painful reexamination of Sweden's self-identity and forced the government to announce its intention to create a high-level commission of inquiry. The panel will be asked to explain why the sterilizations happened and how to compensate those whose lives were unalterably affected by them.

"These acts were barbaric," said Margot Wallstrom, the minister of health and social affairs, who spoke at a news conference today. "We should call things by their right name. Today, of course, we strongly condemn these acts, and they can never be defended." She added that "no amount of compensation" can fully repay the victims.

The reality is that, for many years, these acts were routinely accepted in Sweden -- and other Scandinavian countries -- and often promoted by officials who were otherwise seen as embodying progressive and humane values of statehood. In recent days, reports have come to light of similar programs in Switzerland, Austria and Belgium.

As Wallstrom stressed, there was nothing secret about the sterilization program. It was carried out in the light of public debate at a time when Swedes believed they were creating a society that would be the envy of the world.

Other nations, including the United States, have had their own dark chapters of sterilization and medical experimentation on the poor, the incarcerated or those in mental institutions. But what strikes home here is that Sweden was seen as a country with enlightened attitudes toward the weakest among the population.

"Everything was so good, so equal," said Maija Runcis, a doctoral candidate in history at Stockholm University whose research has helped expose the full dimensions of the sterilization program. "Nobody had seen the back yard."

There have been other reports of the sterilization program. Swedish Radio presented a documentary on the subject six years ago, and its producer also wrote a book based on interviews with many of the victims. Last year, an academic study of the sterilization policies of Sweden and other Nordic countries was published in the United States. But these accounts were largely ignored or dismissed.

Then last week, the respected newspaper Dagens Nyheter published two lengthy articles describing the history of the program and arguing that the Social Democrats, the country's ruling party today and at the time the program was initiated, accepted the policy as an essential part of their overall philosophy. The Social Democrats argued in response that Swedes bear a collective responsibility for the program.

Other Swedish media were slow to react to the series; it was not until this week, for example, that national television aired its first long report on the issue. But Swedish officials were bombarded with questions from abroad, and it appears there will be no turning back from the kind of inquiry that could fundamentally affect the way Swedes see themselves -- and how the rest of the world sees Sweden.

"From a democratic point of view, it is not acceptable to hide this black chapter of our Swedish history anymore," said Alf Svensson, leader of the small Christian Democratic Community Party. Svensson, who along with former prime minister Carl Bildt recently demanded a formal investigation of the program, added: "To hide is to deny. Swedes ought to be ashamed."

"It raises questions that are very disturbing to the Swedish peace of mind," said Arne Ruth, editor in chief of Dagens Nyheter. "The fact that this has attracted international attention helps to explain why there is rising reaction in Sweden as well."

The sterilization program had its roots in the study of eugenics, whose advocates believed in the potential of human engineering to create a superior race, a pseudoscientific theory that helped bring about the horrors of Nazi Germany. Sweden was the first nation to establish an institute on racial biology, in 1922, and enacted its first law authorizing sterilization for the mentally ill in 1934. By then, Germany, Denmark and Norway had similar laws.

The law in Sweden was broadened in 1941 to include sterilization not only for reasons of mental incompetence, but for what was considered antisocial behavior. The new law dramatically increased the number of sterilizations. In 1935, there were 235; in 1941, there were 800; from the late 1940s into the 1950s, there were about 2,000 per year.

At first, about 70 percent of those sterilized were women, Runcis said, but in the 1950s and 1960s, the figure grew to about 90 percent. The program was abolished in 1974 as a result of the growing women's rights movement. Runcis said that while the idea behind the policy was racial, its implementation was based more on economics and social behavior. But as late as 1963, according to the newspaper series, a sterilization was carried out on someone deemed of "mixed race."

The growth of the program after World War II is especially troubling to many people today. In Sweden, which remained neutral during the war, there was little of the postwar vilification of the Nazis that occurred elsewhere; neither was there any serious debate about the sterilization program. According to a 1991 radio documentary, the program was strongly supported by Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, who wrote a pioneering book about race in the United States and were considered enlightened progressives at the time.

Politicians in Sweden defended the program as a way to hold down the costs of the enlarging welfare state. They argued that it was important to limit the size of families, especially those with a history of antisocial behavior. Runcis said the Social Democrats "argued that it was necessary to sterilize people who got a lot of benefits from the welfare state because the welfare state was only for people who behaved themselves."

No one can document with certainty how many of these sterilizations were involuntary, but those who have looked at the program believe that, at its peak, a sizable majority were forced. The victims, many of whom were in mental institutions -- although by today's standards they would not be considered mentally ill -- or in reform schools, were told they had to sign a document authorizing the procedure if they wanted to be released.

In some cases, couples judged to be inferior parents were sterilized, as were their children when they became teenagers -- all part of a theory that social misbehavior is hereditary and that society would be improved if the cycle were broken by sterilization.

Runcis uncovered the case of the young woman who had not mastered her confirmation studies well enough to satisfy her priest. "I thought it was horrible, terrible history," she said. "I thought I had to write about this." Dagens Nyheter published an account of the 72-year-old woman who had been forced to undergo sterilization after being judged mentally slow as a child because she could not read the blackboard at school -- she suffered only from poor vision. "I am not ashamed," she told the newspaper. "Others should be."

For most victims, however, shame and trauma kept them silent for most of their lives. "They've internalized the establishment view of themselves as useless, as people who shouldn't have been born," said Bosse Lindquist, who produced the Swedish radio documentary and wrote a book about the issue in 1991. "They were ashamed. They put the whole blame on themselves."

Maciej Zaremba, who wrote the newspaper series that triggered the uproar this past week, believes there are several reasons that explain why the government is acting now when it did not in the past.

One reason is a growing body of evidence of the true nature of the program, based on research by several academics and journalists. But another is a new generation of Swedes who do not see the past the way their parents do. Economic hard times have shaken the country's faith in the welfare state model, and these younger Swedes are more willing to believe negative interpretations of their history.

Social affairs minister Wallstrom, who has been the government's chief spokeswoman on the issue, is part of that generation. Today, under a barrage of questions about how the Swedish government had allowed this program to continue for so long, she said: "It's impossible for me to say. I belong to another political generation. I can hardly explain this."