Förlaget Atlas, 2015.
Reviewed by John Gilmour in SBR 2016:2
Review Section: Non-fiction
It may be difficult to believe that an academic linguist saved Sweden from the temptations of a terrifying Nazi-inspired solution to the economic problems of the 1920s and 30s. Yet this is one of the conclusions in Björn Elmbrant’s fascinating and challenging look at the two countries at a critical juncture in their 20th-century histories.
Elmbrant, a veteran political commentator, expertly dissects the political and economic difficulties of the post-1918 Weimar Republic in Germany and Sweden’s faltering parliamentary democracy. He inserts the experiences of individuals caught up in crushing poverty – not of their own making – and of politicians striving to find solutions. This adds a human element to economic statistics and political intrigues. Painter Arnold Palm tramping the countryside in Sweden looking for work and finding kindness in unexpected places; feminist left-winger Toni Pfülf taking her life in despair following the Nazi takeover in Germany; Swedish Social Democrat Per- Edvin Sköld reaching out to a political opponent by asking him home to dinner and cards to discuss how to build consensus in the face of the immediate Nazi threat; the obstinacy of German Social Democrat Rudolf Hilferding ruling out any alternatives to the failing economic policy to which he shackled his party.
That academic linguist, Ernst Wigforss, became Finance Minister in a Social Democrat government led by Per Albin Hansson that came to office expecting to survive only months. The instability of Swedish governments was matched in Germany, leading to widespread doubt in both countries that democratic politicians could deal with the economic situation. The attractions of demagogic leaders taking decisive steps to end the miseries of mass unemployment and shredded savings were powerful. Elmbrant shows in detail how, thanks to Wigforss and his colleagues (and an unexpected precedent from Denmark), a new consensus on economic measures was reached that offered Swedes an attractive alternative to Nazi dogmas – and one that they embraced.
For Germany, Elmbrant demonstrates how the political incompetence of the Social Democrats failed to produce a similar option and the battered German people accepted Hitler, naïvely believing that the Nazis offered them the security for which they yearned. The Third Reich lasted twelve years. The Swedish Social Democrats not only survived, but headed governments (excepting a three- month period) from 1932 to 1976 – for 44 years.
Elmbrant illustrates clearly the interplay of prevailing economic theory with political realities. He shows that the Nazis were shameless economic charlatans, but their simplistic solutions to complex problems offered hope for the future and a return to better times – features that drive right-wingers, nationalist resurgence and demagogic politicians in today’s troubled western democracies.
And it is to today’s world that Elmbrant turns in the final section of his book. In a less convincing manner, he draws on Swedish success and German failure in the 1920s and ’30s to advance an eight-point agenda for tackling the current political and economic problems in the west that threaten democracy and provide platforms for demagogues. Perhaps most controversial are his assertions that ‘politicians must take control over capitalism in order to save it (from itself)’ and that Swedish social democracy can again lead that process by example.
If only that were possible, the world would be a better place, without the economic conditions to support such as Jimmy Åkesson, Marine le Pen and Pegida, not forgetting Donald Trump and his foul-mouthed, violent rhetoric. But we are now in a globalised economy, not the national model that responded – as Elmbrant shows – to Keynesian stimulus so well in the 1930s for Sweden (and the USA). Today’s politicians have trouble admitting that they surf events rather than control them, and that decisions made in Beijing, Silicon Valley and offshore tax havens have a greater impact on the economic wellbeing of their citizens than adjusting marginal tax rates or investing in vanity infrastructure projects.
Elmbrant’s agenda could be more about inter-national political efforts: for example to control unaccountable corporations currently diverting €300 trillion in tax away from public services. This cannot be achieved now by the actions of single countries. His eight points nevertheless provide a stimulating starting point for today’s global citizens to consider where their future best interest lies.