It’s True: Sweden Was Too Good to Be True

The news of two explosions in the heart of Stockholm – according to Yahoo!News the first suicide bombing in Sweden’s history – shook not only Sweden, but the whole Nordic region. Already fingers are pointing at Islamic radicals as the culprits, and this might very well be the case, although it helps not to jump to conclusions. Remember how the rush to judgment in Oklahoma City played out.

Even before all the facts are in, the right-center Swedish government has tried to use the event in a somewhat cynical fashion. Before the bombing, in November, Sweden had announced it would start pulling some of its 530 troops in Afghanistan out of the country, a process to be completed by 2014. Immediately after the bombing, the Swedish government changed tactics and instead is now trying to increase its military presence there.

News of the bombing triggered a flow of personal memories of the country. I never lived there, but in the late 1980s traveled through Sweden repeatedly and got to know the different strands of its peace movement as they existed in those days rather well.

Was deeply impressed with the place; so was Mikhail Gorbachev, who openly admitted that the goal of his failed effort of reforming Soviet Communism was to render the USSR ‘more like Sweden’. And then there were the fair number of Vietnam era draft dodgers from the U.S. who made Sweden their permanent home, many of whom never looked back or returned stateside.

Communism – both as an ideology and as ‘really existing socialism’ – might have been collapsing as any kind of viable alternative model to capitalism, but at least there was Swedish social democracy – never really the ‘socialism’ that rightwing idiots in the USA claimed it was – but a state administered market economy with a strong social component. Yes, there was social distance between the rich and poor in Sweden, but more at the 10:1 rather than the 500:1 levels it was already approaching in the USA shortly thereafter. Probably not a model for the USA in some ways – it’s hard to compare a culturally diversified country of 270 million with a largely culturally homogeneous nation of 9 or so million – but that said, we here could learn a lot from the Swedes and how they set up their society.

I have fond memories of the place… among them

  • Attending the first open rally in Europe of a recently freed Nelson Mandela in Stockholm in March of 1990. Mandela chose Sweden for his European ‘entrée’ in gratitude for what was an extremely potent solidarity movement, not only in Sweden but throughout the Nordic countries, to end apartheid. Watching what I understood as the pure joy on the faces of so many blond and blue eyed Swedes at Mandela’s presence in their midst and the obvious love they felt for this black former guerilla fighter, is the last time I can remember tears coming to my eyes.
  • There was also the city of Orebro, in central Sweden, where I had a long talk with the mayor about the city’s program to integrate immigrants from Africa – as I recall they were from Somalia and Ethiopia – into the life of the city. There were programs like this all over the country – two years language training in Swedish, job training, and ‘cultural training’ (how to get on a bus, what to expect at the social services offices, etc., some of the not-so-obvious cultural rules and taboos of the Swedes). I wondered why other countries did not offer such thoughtful programs in cultural adaptation (or assimilation).
  • Then there was my friend Thorstein, who was arrested for hunting and killing a deer in ‘the Kings Forest’, the private preserve of Sweden’s King. It’s a country where virtually all forest land is public. I think Thorstein did a few months in jail for that; but he could not abide by the idea that a forest in Sweden was private property and thus Thorstein was willing to pay the price. In earlier times he would have been executed.

All that is more than 20 years ago. Haven’t been back since. But the memories linger.

A more sober view…

But even then, I suspected that the picture was too good to be true. This was after all a capitalist country with all the wonders and slime that entails. There had to be some rot, some decadence, somewhere hidden beneath those great social programs, its fine educational system, excellent public transportation and comprehensive healthcare system, although I was never there long enough to probe it.

During the Cold War, Sweden was often viewed as a neutral country. This was a bit exaggerated. Economically it was integrated first into what was called EFTA – the European Free Trade Association and then after the collapse of Communism, entered the European Union in 1995.

While it never had the same kind of security agreements with the USSR as did its neighbor (and for 750+ years, former colony, Finland) the fact that Sweden did not join NATO opened up opportunities for trade with Eastern Europe and the USSR that kept the country somewhat recession-proof during the 1970s when the Western European economies were floundering. If the country genuinely welcomed immigrants from Third World countries (much more receptive than neighboring Finland), it was not without some typical resentment and, as the decades wore on, increasing xenophobia.

And while Sweden undoubtedly played a calming alternative role to U.S. Cold War rhetoric, it should not be forgotten that throughout that period, arms manufacturing (Saab, Bofors) was among the country’s most successful industries and Sweden was selling arms up the kazoo to whoever would buy them, especially Third World dictatorships. More or less along the same right-wing militarist lines, while Sweden was ‘neutral’ during World War 2, and was able to avoid combat to its great credit, it was forced to strike a deal with the devil and deliver – on the threat of possible Nazi invasion – all the iron ore that Hitler wanted.

Furthermore, while ‘neutral’ it is well known that there were many, many Nazi sympathizers in the country, some who volunteered to take up arms for the Third Reich; others who, after Hitler’s defeat, never really changed their allegiance, but simply hid their collection of Nazi swastikas in a closet or basement to view on special occasions when other wacko fascists tend to come out of the word work, like Hitler’s birthday.

Steig Larsson: He Hated Nazis

Even in the best of times, corporate fraud, hidden Nazi connections, ties between intelligence agencies, extreme rightwing racist hate groups and Eastern European drug rings were all there in Sweden lurking not that far beneath the surface waiting for the moment when they could take their pictures of Hitler out of the drawer. After the Soviet Union and Eastern European Communism had the nerve to collapse, leaving the West, for a moment anyway, without an enemy, the rightwing crazies in Sweden (and other Nordic countries) gained confidence and became bolder.

Two Swedish writers, Stieg Larsson (of the now famous ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo’ series) and Henning Mankell, scratched below the surface of Sweden’s social democratic calm exterior, put the dots together, suggesting the rightwing forces so long and so patiently lurking in the shadows were about to have a coming-out party.

It is likely that Larsson, who died of a heart attack just before his trilogy was published, would have had a field day with recent revelations of Sweden’s Queen Silvia’s Nazi family connections. The whole of Larsson’s professional life was dedicated to exposing and condemning the country’s hidden ultra right tendencies.

For years, Sweden’s Queen Silvia, of German origin, had repeatedly denied any connection between her family and the Nazis. Then earlier this month the lid blew off that particular fantasy. It turns out that her father, Walter Sommerlath, had joined the Nazi party in early 1934, and worked for a time for a company, Acos-Burderus-Do-Brasil,Ltda that used slave labor. Then in 1939, Sommerlath moved to Berlin and took over a company called Wechsler and Hennig, which he bought from a Jewish manufacturer, one Efim Wechsler, for a pittance of its value, which was typical of the times.

Signs have long been in the making.

With the shift in the strategic balance of power at the end of the Cold War, Sweden moved closer to the E.U. and the United States both economically and politically. Although not yet formally integrated into NATO, it participates in what is called NATO’s ‘Partners For Peace’ program, which has included a series of joint maneuvers in the Baltic Sea and more recently, the sending of 500 Swedish combat troops to Afghanistan, a gesture which would have been unheard of two decades ago

While Sweden has long had an anti-immigrant ultra right party, it is gaining in strength. Just three months ago, the misnamed ‘Swedish Democracy’ gained an unprecedented 20 seats in the Sweden’s single assembly. Party members used to openly wear swastikas on their jackets, but have changed the party symbol to Sweden’s purple anemone to put a bit of make up on the corpse that is their political legacy in the country.

Larsson, Assange and WikiLeaks

Had he lived, there is little doubt that Stieg Larsson would be on the front lines defending Julian Assage’s commitment to releasing US State Department communiques to the general public through WikiLeaks. For Larsson and Assange shared many qualities. Larsson understood that ‘the need for secrecy’ essentially provided a veil for corporate and state crimes and that the kind of shallow jingo-istic hysteria which seems to be permeating the U.S. body politic at this moment is merely an excuse to take censorship here to yet another level.

Larsson would have smiled at the corruption, hypocrisy, and deviousness in the extreme which the WikiLeaks cables reveal and understood that the attempt to villify whistleblowers is perhaps the greatest threat to democracy we now face. Secrecy is, after all, the greatest enemy of democracy, after ignorance — to which secrecy is the greatest weapon available to the plutocracy, even greater than propaganda. That’s why the US and other states are working so hard to shut down WikiLeaks, Assange, and other whistleblowers.

Larsson would have had a very cynical view of the Swedish government’s little pathetic maneuvers to have Assange arrested on sexual misconduct charges for failure to use a condom in his sexual relations with two Swedish women who related with some excitement, their encounters with Assange to friends on Twitter.

And he, Larsson would have understood that Swedish government acquiescence to Obama Administration pressure by pressing charges against Assange is nothing more than an admission to the degree to which Sweden has drifted into the U.S. foreign policy orbit these last years and that the famous ‘Swedish neutrality’ has long been a dead letter.