<cite>Neighbour of Evil</cite> In 2000, the Swedish government commissioned the then Swedish Council for Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences to carry out a research programme on Sweden’s relations with Nazism, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust and allocated twenty million Swedish kronor for this purpose. This programme was part of a wider Social Democratic government initiative on the Holocaust, genocide, racism and Nazism. The following year the new Swedish Research Council took over responsibility for the Nazism programme and the historian Klas Åmark was appointed coordinator. His remit was to coordinate the individual research projects and write a final report on the programme, which was intended to contribute to the development of knowledge in this area and stimulate public debate.

Att bo granne med ondskan (Neighbour of Evil) is thus the final report on the Nazism research programme and a reevaluation of the period. It is a synthesis of a number of commissioned research projects, previous research and the author’s own research, but presented in a popular form for a broad public. The 710-page book is thematically structured in four parts. The extract that follows is taken from a chapter entitled ‘Nazi aesthetics and Swedish culture’ in Part II ‘Nazism meets democracy: the battle for ideas, ideology and culture’. The theme of this chapter is the appeal of Nazism and Nazi Germany to Swedes in the arts and how the latter chose to relate to Nazi ideology, anti-Semitism and cooperation with representatives of the Nazi regime. There is a bibliography at the end of the article.


Hitler regarded himself as a prominent artist and connoisseur of all forms of art. He exerted a strong personal influence on cultural life in Germany by means of appointments, dismissals, rewards, financial support and art purchases. He had not only the power of dictatorship at his disposal but also significant private income, including royalties from sales of Mein Kampf. He also controlled important funds into which money poured, including royalties from stamps bearing his image (!) and donations from large enterprises. In the course of time Hitler and the Nazi German regime established themselves as by far the largest art thieves in history, seizing enormous amounts of art, jewellery and other valuables, especially from wealthy Jews (such as the Rothschilds) in the occupied countries.

Following Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933, extensive Nazification of Germany’s richly developed cultural life and all its institutions, opera houses, theatres and art museums began almost immediately. In the first instance all Jews and Jewish art were purged. Persecution also included Nazism’s main political opponents, communists and social democrats, but even affected those classified as representatives of modernism. Jazz was regarded, for example, as music for ‘Negroes’ and therefore condemned. The Nazis also took over control of various organisations that arranged art events and maintained contacts with other countries, such as the Nordic Association (Nordische Gesellschaft).

It cannot have been difficult for the world around to see and follow this extensive transformation process, in which so many artists and so much art were expelled from German society. A number of creative and performing artists soon also left Germany. Much of what was happening in Germany could be followed in Swedish journals such as the Swedish Musicians’ Union’s The Musician and Swedish film journals. Swedish players could scarcely have been unaware of the strong politicisation of cultural life in Germany or the Nazis’ conception of the political aims of culture. This is a typical example of the way in which Swedish players faced problems when the Nazis assumed power in Germany, which had long been seen as the most important civilised nation by many Swedes. There were many close links between German and Swedish cultural life. Was Sweden to continue this relationship or dissociate itself from Nazi Germany and its representatives?

The Nordic Dream

An important element of Nazi German cultural policy, especially for Sweden, was ‘the Nordic dream’. The Germanist Birgitta Almgren has written about this in a book of the same title, which mainly concerns the German lecturers employed at Swedish universities during the period 1933-45 to teach German. In Nazism’s strongly racist thinking, the Nordic region and its people were part of the Germanic race. The Nordic dream developed into an increasingly cultural concept, in which words such as Nordic, Germanic and German tended to become blurred. Nordic not only referred to a geographical area, but also had a racist content. The Nazis expected to find the pure, sound and true in the Nordic.

However, Nazi German expectations of the encounter with the Nordic region and Sweden were by no means fulfilled. Almgren was able to follow reporting by disillusioned German propagandists in Sweden. While Swedish research has tended to single out fairly broad groups in Sweden as Nazifriendly, Nazis or Germanophile, with ideological thought patterns similar to the ideas collected by the Nazis and combined into their own ideology, contemporary German players emphasised the difficulties in meeting with a positive response in Sweden for German Nazism and its worldhistoric mission, the fight against Jewish Bolshevism. Sweden was characterised by ‘2,000 years of Christianity and 150 years without war. Where will it end?’ sighed the head of the German Academy in Stockholm. And Otto Höfler, former lecturer in German at Uppsala University, warned that the Germans knew far too little about Sweden and the Nordic region and therefore ran the risk of making serious misjudgements. In actual fact he had learnt that the Swedes could not be expected to welcome Nazism with open arms.

German reports also show how Swedish opinion grew increasingly negative from a German perspective, especially reactions to the Nazi German use of violence. Many Swedish individuals, companies, organisations and public authorities long maintained active relations with Nazi Germany. German attacks on Norwegian Jews in autumn 1942 were a key watershed, which led to an increasing number of Swedes no longer wanting cooperation with the Germans. The next key event was in late 1943, when the Germans closed Oslo University using police violence. There was now a clear public reaction in Sweden. Swedish university vice-chancellors and students’ unions protested, as did the Swedish government. A general cultural boycott began against Germany. A number of members of the Swedish parliament, as well as the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Günther, spoke in favour of this boycott in the preliminary debate in January 1944. Arthur Engberg, an active anti- Semite in the 1920s and the Social Democrat Minister for Education and Ecclesiastical Affairs in the 1930s, was particularly clear:

A scientific and artistic culture, which has been reorganised along racial lines and which excludes and expels on principle and in reality every creative artist and practitioner not belonging to a prescribed race from the realm of science, music, the fine arts and literature, can never be taken seriously by thinking people. The door must now be inexorably closed. There is no room for relations.

This is an elucidatory statement, but in fact also a severe judgement on the wide-ranging relations that had continued between Sweden and Nazi Germany since 1933. And it is striking that a Nazi crackdown on a Norwegian university was the catalyst, not the increasingly brutal persecution of the Jews, which had been known about in Sweden since autumn 1942.

Trends in Swedish Cultural Life

Developments in Sweden between 1933 and 1945 differed somewhat between various art forms. Artists faced with the challenges of politics can choose between various stances: participating in political manifestations and creating art with a clear political message, interpreting and responding to the more universal challenges of politics or turning away from politics and concentrating on purely aesthetic and artistic forms of expression. In literature, a fair number of well-known authors engaged politically and took part in various manifestations against Nazism, fascism and violence. In the 1930s these protests mainly took the form of opposition to Nazism and support for the Spanish Republic during the civil war. These actions were mainly on the political Left. The Finnish Winter War activated somewhat different circles with a more non-socialist and anti-communist profile, while some of the authors who had taken part in the manifestations in the 1930s also supported Finland through, for example, Samfundet Nordens Frihet (Society for Liberty in the Nordic Countries). Following the occupation of Denmark and Norway, particularly the latter became the focus of sympathy actions, again mainly by authors on the Left.

During the war many authors also chose to wrap their political message in metaphorical form. One of the best known examples is Wilhelm Moberg’s best-selling novel about the province of Småland in the seventeenth century, Rid i natt! (Ride This Night!) (1941), which deals with different attitudes to the German bailiff in the area. The contemporary parallels were difficult to miss. Eyvind Johnson’s Krilon trilogy also depicted the fight between the major powers and its consequences for Sweden in contemporary novel form.7 Although reactions against Nazism and violence were predominant among authors, there were those who instead readily took up themes that also recurred in Nazi German ideology, such as the ‘Blut und Boden’ (blood and land) theme and various forms of racism and anti- Semitism.

It was quite common for theatres to stage plays expressing various messages of opposition against Nazism, fascism and violence. This type of play was mainly performed at Gothenburg City Theatre and some private theatres in Stockholm. However, the government-funded national theatre, the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, chose a different line in relation to politics in art. The then managing director, Pauline Brunius, prioritised non-political aesthetics and entertainment. The relationship with politics was sometimes problematic and the line then chosen by the theatre’s management was discussed both at the time and in modern research, which is to be used in this book for a more detailed analysis of the Royal Dramatic Theatre and politics.

Politics did not play a key role in the Swedish visual arts during this period. Nazi German representatives never complained about Swedish art exhibitions nor tried to attract well-known Swedish artists for their propaganda activities. The visual arts were isolated during the war, quality was not the best, but prices were quite high due to the lack of foreign works on the art market. ‘Much chiaroscuro from the information board, Mr Günther’s ministry and the secret police has settled over the visual arts in the country of Neutralia,’ wrote Gustaf Näsström, for example, in a discourse of February 1945 on Swedish art during the war years entitled ‘The Five Lean Years’.10 Modern research has focused instead on the sculptor Carl Milles and the sympathies he expressed with certain aspects of fascism and Nazism in a large number of letters to friends and acquaintances.

Clear opportunities for cooperation with representatives of Nazi Germany existed in music. There was also a marked antagonism between modernism on the one hand and a more traditional and conservative interpretation of musical composition on the other. Musical life has been studied in detail by the Fear, fascination and affinity project as part of the Nazism research programme.

Swedish feature films of the interwar period have gone down in history as ‘Pilsner films’. The quality of these films is not highly regarded by film experts. On the other hand, they can be interesting for research into stereotyped views of race and ethnicity. A change in feature films occurred during the war, resulting in new qualities in many films.

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Andersson, Greger & Geisler, Ursula (ed.) Fruktan, fascination och frändskap: det svenska musiklivet och nazismen, Sekel, Lund, 2006.

Andersson, Greger & Geisler, Ursula, Myt och propaganda: musiken i nazismens tjänst i Sverige och Tyskland, Forum för levande historia, Stockholm, 2007.

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Mjöberg, Jöran, Dikt och diktatur: svenskt kulturförsvar 1933-1943, Natur och kultur, Stockholm, 1944.

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