The Origins of Nordic Noir Part II:
The Nazi Connection in Swedish Crime Fiction
SPOILER ALERT: In this post I (briefly) discuss a few major plot elements from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
From the early pages of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:
“[Richard Vanger] joined…one of the first Nazi groups in Sweden…[and later] the Swedish Fascist Battle Organization, the SFBO, and there he got to know Per Engdahl… In his free time he travelled around and did proselytizing for Nazism…Richard was a brutal domestic. He beat his wife and abused his son. “ –from pp. 96-97 of the US edition
I. Swedish Neutrality and the Rescue of Jewish Refugees
Americans are used to the vilification of Nazis in fiction and movies, so much so that the commanders’ decidedly German uniforms Star Wars serve as shorthand for Evil. The Nazi is always the Other for us. Hollywood shows Americans pretending to be Nazis—while barely containing their righteous indignation as they set about foiling genocidal plans. In our popular imagination, it’s a question of infiltration. How do you get inside the Death Star to take it down?
Now imagine you’re in Sweden in 1939-45. Sweden has been a neutral country since 1815. In WWII, this neutrality was arguably realistic. What else could a small, peaceful country do against a force like Nazi Germany? Neutral Sweden came through the war relatively unscathed (though neutral Norway suffered a German occupation, so Sweden wasn’t that safe).
Further, because of its neutrality, Sweden was able take in Jewish refugees throughout the war. After the German occupation of Denmark, Sweden accepted 8,000 rescued Jews. And Raoul Wallenberg, a Swede working in Budapest during WWII, handed out illegal protective Swedish passports to Jews who would otherwise have been deported—saving 20,000 lives. He also helped prevent another 70,000 Jews from being massacred in Hungary.
Gosh! you might think. Everyone should have been neutral. The U.S. itself remained neutral even after the invasion of Poland. Only a direct attack on Pearl Harbor brought us into the war (two years old by then). So what was wrong with Sweden’s position? It was never directly attacked, so… –Alas.
II. Recent Revelations of Swedish Nazism During the World Wars
To this day, scholars ponder the moral and political implications of neutrality. Was Swedish freedom and democracy paid for with the lives and blood of the Allied forces? How would Sweden have fared if Germany had won? Would it have remained a free, democratic country? Would it have fended off anti-Semitism?
Would it have wanted to?
This last question is exceedingly touchy. In the past few decades, Swedes have begun to examine their country’s murky relation to the Nazis—sometimes reluctantly. For instance, Per Engdahl was a known leader of a far-right anti-Semitic, Swedish Nationalist group founded in 1941 (Nysvenska Rörelsen, or New Swedish Movement). In 1994, Engdahl died and his personal letters were made public—letters revealing that Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, had once joined the movement (1942-1945). Kamprad soon expressed deep regret for his youthful allegiance. But the fact remains: he was involved with Engdahl’s group, and he did not publicly, overtly renounce his allegiance until the truth bubbled to the surface late in his life.
More recently, Swedish news media has pointed to the fact that Sweden’s Queen Silvia (born
in Germany to a German family) has kept secret all these years her own father’s connections to Nazi Germany. As the journalist Bosse Schön says, “The truth about Queen Silvia’s father, which she doesn’t want to tell herself or her family, is that he joined Hitler’s Nazi party beginning on December 1st, 1934.” Then the family moved to Brazil, and he soon linked up with an ex-pat Nazi group. Schön continues, “Queen Silvia’s father worked during his time in Brazil for the German company Acos-Burderus-do Brasil-Ltda, which used wartime prisoners as slave labor in Nazi Germany” (translations mine). Queen Silvia failed to discuss these issues in her most recent TV interview.
Some Swedes are more forthcoming about their regrettable past ties. Ingmar Bergman confessed to having been very impressed by Hitler when he was young, and having failed to intervene in any way during the vandalization of a Jewish house by his own brother and friends.
Newspapers today often depict neo-Nazis as fed-up working class youths who are violently angry about lax immigration policies, which they believe result in fewer jobs for native Swedes (I’ll discuss neo-Nazis in a later post). Yet a case can be made for ‘upper class Nazism’ during the years of the two world wars. Though it may be quieter, it was in fact far more insidious, since the anti-Semitism and Swedish nationalism of wealthy elites arose from the abstract threat of an imagined global Jewish conspiracy to control world finance and international politics. These well-to-do citizens, educated, tempered by adulthood, were presumably rational (they weren’t hot headed, impressionable youths).
I rather think Stieg Larsson had this particular brand of Nazi in mind when he dreamed up the horrifying family history of the Vangers in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Larsson seems to find in the (fictional) Nazi history of the Vangers the necessary ingredients for the makings of brutal serial killers: a lack of empathy for fellow human beings (in this case women), a willingness to use cruel force (and even a certain zest for it), and an astonishing sense of entitlement. Admittedly, some of Larsson’s other (many other!) barbarous characters prove that people don’t need politics to justify their cruelty; they don’t have to be anti-Semites or Nazis…sometimes they are just men who hate women). And yet I think that particular brand of upper-class Nazism makes most Swedes cringe a little more than usual.
III. The Near Success of Swedish Nazism
One interesting question about Sweden’s relation to Nazism is just why it didn’t take hold the way it did in Germany. This is tough to answer, but I’ll offer a few reasons. Lena Berggren notes that while the various fascist groups in Sweden either didn’t participate, or did not do very well, in elections, “…the different [Swedish fascist] organizations nevertheless managed to attract 30,000 members and financiers when they peaked in the mid-1930’s” (p. 417). So that’s still a lot of people, and one can imagine how it might have spawned a situation similar to Nazi Germany. Berggren adds that if the Germans had won, “It cannot…be assumed that all Sweden’s established political forces would have declined a German offer of collaboration” (p. 408).
Some scholars have pointed, quite simply, to the lack of any charismatic fascist leader during the interwar period, and even the presence of too many fascist groups, each too small and exclusive to make any significant impact on its own. Berggren points to Sweden’s “ethnically homogenous” population; she says there were “virtually no ethnic tensions that could evolve into major political conflicts” (409). Immigration issues were not inflammatory enough in Sweden during the 1930’s. I assume this was at least partly because of what Berggren describes as the “highly restrictive Swedish immigration laws…practiced until well after the outbreak of war in 1939,” which laws, she says, “especially kept Jewish refugees out of the country after the crises in Russia at the beginning of the century as well as during the Nazi era” (413).
So it was hard to foment large-scale anti-Semitism in a country without many Jews. And yet anti-Semitism (and more broadly speaking, fascist Swedish nationalism) still existed even without many immigrants.
III. Concerns About Swedish ‘Collaboration’ and the Origins of Swedish Noir
The issue of Sweden’s relation to Nazism simply highlights the more general problem of how to distinguish between neutrality and collaboration. Sweden did not back Germany (or the Allies), but it made money by trading with Germany… Upon close inspection, it becomes nearly impossible to completely distinguish ‘neutrality’ from ‘collaboration’. And certainly the Swedes (and others) would very much like to! For even now Scandinavians use the term ‘Quisling’ to refer to a traitor, because Vidkun Quisling was appointed by the Germans as the President of the collaborationist Norwegian government during the occupation. He was later executed for high treason.
In a way, Stieg Larsson may have been playing with the theme of collaboration at the level of the family. Recall that it is Richard Vanger (the grandfather of Harriet and Martin) who was a Nazi and a ‘brutal domestic’ (Larsson deftly links political fascism to physical, sexual brutality here). Years later, Gottfried Vanger, the son ‘abused’ by Richard-the-Nazi, forces his son, Martin Vanger, to ‘collaborate’ in his hideous, perverted activities. One could argue that Gottfried, having himself been warped by his Nazi father, ultimately turns Martin Vanger into a monster like himself.
In this way, one can begin to question the effect of non-intervention on the character of any given human. One wonders what sort of intervention is required to break such a dark streak in the Vanger family history—or any such dark streak. Certainly Larsson was preoccupied by these worries, given that so much of his work focused on the problem of neo-Nazi hate groups.
I think in order to really understand anything you like and admire, you have to come to terms with its deepest flaws. Every country has dark secrets that most would like to forget, and I don’t mean to single Sweden out as particularly evil. Indeed, I’ll put out some lighter posts soon!
But as for the ‘Origins of Nordic Noir,’ at least in Sweden, perhaps one can argue that Swedish noir gains life in part because of a vague, disturbing sense that truly terrible secrets lie just below the surface of everyday, prosperous life. It’s enough for any sleuth (whether a detective, reporter or fiction writer) to ponder at length. One wonders if the very hiddenness of it constitutes its own kind of collaboration—and wonders, as well, how it actually affects Swedish culture. For in the case of Nazism in Sweden, it’s harder to always characterize evil as ‘over there’ in Germany—it’s homegrown, and not yet fully accounted for.
***For further reading: While Nazism is one theme among many in Larsson’s novels, readers will find that Henning Mankell’s The Return of the Dancing Master is entirely about Nazism in Sweden. Besides, it’s a terrific book too!
 Raoul Wallenberg’s disappearance at the end of the war remains a mystery. He was arrested in 1945 by the Russians, who later claimed he was executed in 1947. However, just last month (April 2010), new evidence came to light suggesting that he was alive after his supposed date of execution. See an article about the latest revelations here.
 Arguably, he ‘publicly’ renounced Engdahl’s group by canceling his membership. Yet such a quiet sort of denunciation hardly seems satisfying.
 The phrase ‘upper class Nazism’ is attributed to Karl N. Alvar Nilsson (Svensk överklassnazism 1996) in Sweden’s Relations with Nazism, Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust (Ekman, Åmark, Toler eds. Kendall trans. Almqvist & Wiksell International: Stockholm 2003). In this book however, Jonas Hansson notes that “Nilsson devotes himself to name-dropping and it is never really clear to which extent the person is to be considered as being included in ‘upper-class Nazism’ or how they should otherwise be described” p. 148. Point taken. But however many ‘upper-class Nazis’ there were in Sweden, there still seems to be a special stigma attached to socially privileged Nazis, especially those who managed to cover up their past and forge ahead, continuing to amass wealth and power long after the war.