Reviewed by John Gilmour in SBR 2013:2
Review Section: Non-Fiction
In May, 1940, the Swedish authorities succeeded in detaining a German, Ernst Wollweber, for sabotage activities. Sweden resisted all attempts to extradite Wollweber to Germany. In 1944, he was instead ‘expelled’ to the Soviet Union. What Swedish officials could not foresee was that Wollweber would be a future head of the East German (Deutsche Demokratische Republik or DDR) security organisation Ministerium für Staatssicherheit or Stasi. From the 1960s and until the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Wollweber’s successors would organise operations that involved Sweden in several murky and discreditable affairs.
In a fine piece of investigative authorship, Christoph Andersson has described six of these subversive Stasi plots. Rapacious businessmen, dodgy middlemen, blackmailed Germans, a deluded film director, a corrupt clergyman and undistinguished Stasi officials are brought to life while their victims – and there were many, including imprisoned students, murdered investigators and slaughtered soldiers – are at last accorded some justice by the author’s detailed revelations of the facts of each conspiracy.
Until 1990, this exposure would not have been possible. Denial was the modus operandi of all concerned. Like the Nazis before them, the Stasi bureaucrats were inveterate record keepers and it is by plodding through the surviving Stasi archives that Andersson and others have confronted those surviving shameless liars with their misdeeds. Readers in search of easy sensationalism may be discouraged by page after page of excerpts from the files but, for most of us, it is precisely those details that provide the reply to the denials and help to direct attention more accurately on to the scoundrels involved and what they actually did.
The scope of Stasi ambition was truly astonishing. They hoped to limit Swedish influence – if that proved to be unhelpful to the Eastern Bloc – in the Helsinki process (1972-75) which led to the West agreeing to the inviolability of the post-war borders of the Soviet Union and its satellites in return for human rights concessions. The DDR/Stasi plan was to discredit Sweden by publishing a book entitled ‘The Unknown Trojan Horse’ (Das unbekannte trojanische Pferd) in which Swedish conduct during the Second World War would be shown as pro-Nazi. The 1970s lacuna in Swedish historiography would be filled by ‘new facts and relations concerning the Nazis’ secret diplomacy, espionage, and infiltration before and during the Second World War’. In the event, the book was never published because in the eyes of the DDR, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme became a useful supporter.
Palme unconsciously ended another Stasi operation intended to acquire isostatic presses covertly from the Swedish company ASEA for the DDR. The Stasi could not envisage that this sensitive equipment – which can be used to develop nuclear bombs – would be approved for export legally by the Palme government in June 1985. Permission was based on DDR assurances that it would not be re-exported. Andersson infers that a Swedish investigative reporter had been executed in Stockholm the previous year because she was closing in on the Stasi covert operation and, as for the assurances, he notes that by 2006 there was no trace of the whereabouts of the three presses supplied.
Re-export was one of the ways to earn the hard currency needed to maintain the bankrupt DDR and the Stasi was tasked with acquiring ‘sensitive’ goods from Sweden and re-supplying them to other countries. When the goods turned out to be ammunition from Bofors for illegal re-export to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, a network of intermediaries, misleading documentation, false trails and perhaps assassination of a Swedish official were deployed.
The most depressing revelation is the story of the German theology student who became a minister in the Swedish church and a respected professor in Sweden – and a diligent Stasi informer. The deceitfulness of his betrayal of all those with whom he had contact and his continued attempts to deny his guilt are truly Shakespearean, yet there may have been another sixty like him in the country. He does not appear to have been motivated by money nor even much by ideology. Instead, his convoluted personality appears to have derived pleasure from reporting in the minutest detail on the ‘lives of others.’
Swedish institutions do not come out of this account well. The companies and authorities involved come across as evasive, duplicitous, immoral and corruptible. Andersson makes the point that the Swedish state appeared to be more concerned to prevent tax evasion by arms dealers than to stop the flow of deadly materials to distasteful regimes.
When I visited the Stasi headquarters in Berlin in 2011, I found a building decorated with beige banality. It was difficult to believe that from behind these 1970s desks, so much misery and mischief were unleashed. Operation Norrsken shows how it was possible then and remains possible now for equally immoral states to employ infiltration, subversion, corruption and misinformation for harmful purposes in today’s unstable world.