My country failed to deal with its wartime past – and the idea of the ‘good Swedes’ has enabled the rise of extreme rightwingers.
Trying to define a nation’s self-image is always an interesting exercise, especially if one tries to boil it down to a single word. What would that be for Britain? Independence, perhaps. For Sweden, there can only be one word: goodness. We aren’t looking quite as good as we would like to right now, though. Neo-Nazis march through the streets, not many but highly visible, trying to influence the political scene through threats and violence.
In recent years Roma, black people, Muslims, and pupils and teachers in a school, have all been targeted by killers driven by extreme rightwing ideology in a country where the Swedish Democrats, (Sverigedemokraterna) strongly influenced by the idea of keeping different cultures apart – as well as the idea of ethnicity as the basis for nationhood – are the third largest party. And a survey published earlier this month shows that Sweden has one of the worst attitudes to immigration in Europe.
Yet we Swedes like to think of ourselves as good people. We like to believe that our politics are good for the rest of the world, and that if only the world acknowledged this rather obvious fact it would most certainly become a better place. After all, goodness is a pretty positive thing. Except in recent years it has become clear that the idea of the “good Swedes” has actually enabled the rise of rightwing populists.
I first noticed the tendency in 2011, when I published a nonfiction book about a Jewish boy sent to Sweden from Vienna in 1939 to escape Nazi persecution. When meeting my readers I often got the same reaction: “I don’t recognise my country. Is this really Sweden?” they asked, on hearing that after Kristallnacht, Sweden demanded that the Nazis stamp the letter J in red ink on the passports of German Jews to make it easier for the Swedish authorities to turn them away at the border. Or the fact that in 1939, a rumour that the medical board was inviting Jewish doctors to Sweden triggered mass protests at its top universities, with students demanding a stop to the “Jewish invasion” in order to “save the race” (and the jobs).
My readers seemed unaware of the full extent of Swedish complicity with Nazi Germany during the war. This is one reason that I have returned to the subject in my latest book – revealing how, from July 1940 to November 1941, a total of 686,000 German soldiers travelled by train through Sweden to occupied Norway, and how, in spite of the best efforts of the Allies, Sweden had covertly continued to export ball-bearings to Nazi Germany, making an important contribution to rearmament.
Our historical narrative of goodness doesn’t deal with these things. Instead, it begins in October 1943, when more than 7,000 Danish Jews were taken to Sweden in fishing boats (the boat owners were handsomely paid in many cases) in order to escape deportation. It includes the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who, in 1944, saved Hungarian Jews in Budapest from being deported – although the initiative and the funding was in fact American. And we are proud of the fact that in 1945, we sent buses to pick up concentration camp survivors, except what is repeatedly described as a Swedish initiative was actually a joint Nordic action intended to repatriate imprisoned Scandinavians.
So why the great Swedish belief in our own altruism? It’s fair to say that after the war there was an undefinable, often denied, sense of guilt trickling through society. When Denmark and Norway were occupied, Sweden was not. When the rest of Europe was reduced to ruins, Sweden steamed ahead in the construction of a welfare society. And – most important of all – when Denmark and Norway had their postwar legal and moral purges dealing with collaborators and local Nazis, Sweden did nothing of the kind. No self-examination or moral debate took place. Those who had sympathised with Hitler simply went silent, and continued their lives as if nothing had happened.
In Sweden and elsewhere after 1945, it was assumed that the ideologies behind the war – Nazism and hatred of Jews – disappeared as a consequence of the Nazi defeat. New moral ideas were expressed in the Nuremberg Code on medical experimentation and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But even as the slogan of “Never Again” became ubiquitous, it is under-acknowledged that ideologies of hatred were also growing, and in many cases becoming more complex and internationalised.
One man was particularly instrumental in the survival of Nazi ideologies: the Swedish fascist leader Per Engdahl – who counted the Ikea founder, Ingvar Kamprad, as a friend and fan. Engdahl initiated a secret intellectual network, with the aim of retaining and reconstructing Nazi ideology. Within it, the denial of the Holocaust was nurtured, the Wehrmacht was whitewashed, and the word “race” was exchanged for the word “culture”. The concept of ethnopluralism was created – an idea of separate, independent cultures living side by side but not mixing in order to avoid extinction. His postwar actions remain key to the rise of the far right today.
In 1951, Engdahl founded the European Social Movement, also known as the Malmö Movement, after his hometown of Malmö, where about 40 Nazi and fascist groups in Europe connected. Among them were Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement and German old-school Nazis as well as MSI (the heirs of Mussolini’s forbidden party) and the successors to the Hungarian Arrow Cross party. They all shared a vision of a new “restored” Europe, a white bastion with neither “foreign elements” nor democracy.
The movement started a magazine called Nation Europa, which in 1952 British intelligence described as “having all the appearances of being the most dangerous piece of neofascist propaganda put out since the war”.
It wasn’t until 1979 that Engdahl seized his moment to take his ideals mainstream in Sweden, with a call to arms in his fascist paper Vägen Framåt (The Way Ahead) and the launch of Keep Sweden Swedish (BSS), in collaboration with the Nazi party Nordiska Rikspartiet.
Modelled on the British National Front, BSS acted as a launchpad for extreme rightwing groups. In 1988 some members broke away to form the Swedish Democrats, whose leadership consisted of a Swedish SS veteran, people from Engdahl’s movement, and postwar Nazis. Since then, the leadership has changed, and so has the rhetoric and party image, but the concept of ethnopluralism is still detectable. And in the 2018 parliament election, 17.5% of Swedish voters chose them.
Arguably the Swedish need to believe that all Swedes are good has made the rise of the far right possible. Instead of examining itself during the postwar years, Sweden chose to focus on the good deeds done during the war, turning a blind eye to the residual Nazi sympathisers within the country (especially within the well-educated middle class and the upper class) and widespread antisemitic sentiments in Swedish prewar society. One Swedish newspaper response to an outbreak of worldwide Nazi graffiti in 1960 epitomised this smugness: “Racial hatred has never rooted itself in our country. That is why we are happier than others.”
The concept of Swedish goodness denied the existence of antisemitism, racism, Islamophobia and even sexism. It also precluded introspection. And, of course, as the most recent elections showed, it was all a bit too good to be true. Only when Sweden stops being blind to its Nazi past will it be able to confront the threat posed by the rise of the far right today.
• Elisabeth Åsbrink is a Swedish journalist and the author of Made in Sweden: 25 Ideas That Created a Country