Sweden confronting its role in the Nazi war machine

STOCKHOLM — The midsummer sun sets but the light never fades out completely on this affluent, neatly maintained society, where almost everyone you see on the street seems to be about some constructive purpose.

As one of the "neutral" countries during World War II, Sweden was saved from the destruction that wracked its European neighbors. But in recent years, more and more voices here have questioned the nation's pragmatic stance toward the Third Reich.

On the one hand, diplomatic policies — carried out by Raoul Wallenberg and others — saved the lives of thousands of Eastern European Jews. On the other hand, Swedish business interests provided iron ore and ball bearings that were vital to the Nazi war machine. Like most of its neighbors, Sweden closed its borders to Jews fleeing Nazi terror; today only 20,000 Jews live in the nation of nearly 9 million.

"The myths surrounding Sweden and Swedish neutrality during the Second World War are extraordinarily strong, and they have been very influential for understanding Swedish political behavior over a range of issues in the post-war era. These myths have begun to break up," said Paul Levine, a research fellow at the Uppsala program for Holocaust and genocide studies, part of the Centre for Multi-Ethnic Research at the 500-year-old Uppsala University.

Over coffee in a central Stockholm cafe, Levine discussed his participation in Sweden's "Living History" campaign, which is an attempt to increase awareness of the Holocaust, and raise issues of democracy, tolerance and humanitarianism.

The campaign was initiated in June 1997 by Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson, leader of the Social Democrats, after a research poll undertaken by Stockholm University found that up to one-third of Swedish schoolchildren between the ages of 12 and 17 "were prepared to entertain the thought that the Holocaust never occurred," according to Levine.

"These poll results were misread both by the researchers themselves, and, certainly, the media that reported on the poll," added Levine, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Swedish diplomacy and the Holocaust.

Nevertheless, all of Sweden's parliamentary political parties signed on to Persson's initiative to launch an extensive educational campaign, which, as its first effort, would publish and freely distribute a book about the Holocaust.

"We received the government's commission to do something on the Holocaust on Nov. 14, 1997," Levine recalled. "The book was ready Jan. 16, 1998 — we did that book in two months, seven weeks of actual work with a week of vacation."

Levine, who was raised in California and has been living in Sweden for the past 10 years, worked with his co-author, Stephane Bruchfeld, "16 to 18 hours a day" during the final weeks of the writing process.

The result of their labor is "Tell Ye Your Children: A book About the Holocaust in Europe, 1933-1945." The 80-page book covers the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and the Nazis' genocide of the Jews, as well as their mass murder of Gypsies, gays, and the developmentally disabled. The tome mixes text and graphic photographs in its concise Holocaust survey.

The Holocaust book and the larger Living History educational campaign strike Levine as "remarkable, that a Swedish politician would care about this. This is a political party that did their best to ignore the real history of Sweden during the Second World War for two generations. All of a sudden they're willing to honestly let people explore both Sweden's past and Sweden's response to the genocide."

In fact, the Swedish government sent out letters to 713,000 households with teenage children offering the Holocaust history book. Those interested could send back an enclosed card, and the book, which is available in several languages, would be mailed out at no charge.

"The government hoped for 20,000 to 30,000 responses in the first six months," Levine said. "They got 300,000 requests in two weeks."

Some 800,000 copies of the Swedish edition have been published, and the book is now the "most widely distributed book in Swedish history, after the Bible," Levine said.

In addition to the book, Levine helped coordinate the first major event of the Uppsala program for Holocaust and genocide studies, an international conference for educators on teaching the Holocaust.

"We're going to have more scholarly conferences and publications; I'm working on a book on Raoul Wallenberg now," Levine said.

He characterized the latter project as the "first scholarly study of Raoul Wallenberg's activities in Budapest. There are many books on Wallenberg, but none done by a Holocaust historian who can read the essential Swedish documents. That is to say, the story of Wallenberg has not been told properly yet."

Levine said that his book would dispel some myths about the Righteous Gentile, who came to the aid of Jews in Budapest and was then taken away in 1945, presumably by Soviet troops, never to be seen again.

"Wallenberg is a hero, he's a very important hero, but he did not save 100,000 Jews. That's a completely wrong figure," said Levine, who added that Wallenberg's actions were "a link in the chain of previous Swedish diplomacy…He's not an angel of rescue. He was a very real man who endangered his own life using Swedish methods of protecting Jews that others had established before him."