Monday, 20 July 2015

The Stockholm During Wartime Tour: Swedish style neutrality

The Living History Forum, a Swedish organisation dedicated to promoting human rights, published this self-guided walking tour of Stockholm city centre. This tour takes in some 30 sites which were selected to highlight different events that happened during 1933-45. Taken together, they give a picture of how Swedish neutrality was not absolute, and how within the country there were divergent opinions.

The booklet includes a handy foldout map but gives no indication how the 30 sites should be connected. They are numbered in chronological order with the first event, number 1, dating from 1933 and the last, number 30, 1945. To navigate them in this order would be crazy, however, as they are dotted haphazardly around the city centre. If this existed as a guided tour first, and a booklet second, it would almost certainly have sorted out this problem and found a way to shape the tour into a walkable route, or else have found another way to give it thematic development instead of this frustrated chronology. However, as it exists as a booklet only, it has never had to properly confront this expectation of the live event offering a narrative. At first I experienced this as laziness on the part of the author, but I later found that the expectation of being given a narrative is also a lot weaker when following a self-guided tour. It was, in fact, quite sufficient to just wander neighbourhood to neighbourhood picking out these wartime sites as I went, making my own sense of it.

The first site I visited was Liljevalchs Art Gallery where I learnt that Picasso's Guernica was shown here in 1938. The Swedish newspaper coverage was, apparently, doubled-edged both praising the painting but also saying the indignation it would spark in the general public would be not against Franco but against modern art.

Sitting on the tram, I passed a site where an English businessman was arrested for plotting to sabotage Sweden's iron ore exports to Germany. The sign advertising 'fika', an afternoon snack, was more present than any British spies and this was to be the general feeling of the tour more generally: a distant past provided an often oblique lens to view a the contemporary city. In this instance, I struggled to see how the two had any obvious relation except to imagine spies tucking into fika in between plotting missions.

Roxette is another story altogether. The Swedish 80s band, still going strong, have songs that can just about provide the soundtrack to refusing jews asylum in 1938. It Must Have Been Love (but it's over now...springs to mind and then there's Dangerous. The seventeen individuals listed as being refused by the official office on this site, all later died in concentration camps.  

A meeting here in the The Medical Society Assembly Hall in 1939 resulted in a 263-18 vote against allowing a group of ten Jewish refugee doctors being granted permission to practice in Sweden. The meeting was highly anti-semitic and featured a student protest against the "refugee imports" on the grounds they would undermine Swedish doctors employment prospects.

And this is the site of Aberg's Bookshop: an anti-semitic bookstore whose owner founded 'The Anti-Jewish Fighting Brigade' in 1941 which called for "the total destruction of Judaism in Sweden". Today it's a H&M who, providing unexpected continuity, had to withdraw a T-Shirt last year as it featured a scull inside a star of David that was considered anti-semitic.  

I began to find that the way I was taking this tour was not to follow it as a formal tour start to finish but rather to use it as an accompaniment to spending a couple of days in the the city. When there were no better things to do, I consulted the map and located the closest wartime site, in this case where the last Swedish Nazi rally in uniform was held before the law was changed in 1933 prohibiting the wearing of uniforms in public. This meant there was always something that could get me moving to a new point in the city but I was also at liberty to break off this tour at any moment and do other things. What's more, the map became my general map for getting around during those two days so, in a sense, I was on this tour for 48 hours, though most of the time doing other things.

This is the site of a theatre, now closed, which staged the premiere of the anti-Nazi play The Executioner in 1934. The play was largely ignored in Stockholm whist it received standing ovations in Oslo. Indifference not only existed as a feature of the story of this site, it was a feature of the tour more broadly as the tour set itself up to provide a picture of a not quite so indifferent neutral country. The sense I got from the accumulation of stories on this tour was that the country was, in the 1930s, culturally closer to Germany than to the allies and non-participation in the war was about the best to be hoped for. Despite the tour's stated objective of dispelling the sense of Swedish neutrality or indifference, this feeling nonetheless seeped through every pore of the tour as this was a largely neglected, low-intensity, self-guided walking tour of a city that was more busy with fika and boat cruises than with examining its past.

The Berlin Olympics of 1936 were mentioned as the departing Swedish athletes were encouraged not to make Nazi salutes in Berlin, advice they sensibly heeded. It would have been wise if the British monarchy had done likewise.

Freedom of the press or Viking Longboat Souvenirs? This is the sort of dilemma that I was faced with when arriving in the old town where a newspaper that published an article critical of the level of Nazi support within the country's navy was prosecuted.

I finished the tour with this story about the first Swede to enlist in the SS. Credit should be given to the Living History Forum for publishing this booklet as it does not show Sweden in a particularly positive light. Reading it and looking around their centre I had the feeling that the impetus for their active promotion of universal human rights took the holocaust as its starting point so this tour can be seen as a part of a broader project. Indeed, during my two-day tour I came across the Nobel Centre and I had the sense that the country as a whole positioned itself as being at the forefront in promoting human rights around the world. Reflecting on this took me back to an experience I had listening to a Swedish arts manager speaking at a meeting in Brussels decrying the Roma gypsy's tendency towards marrying women young and denying them education, something he said should be actively stopped. He was a fundamentalist of human rights. Taking this Stockholm wartime tour I felt something of a similar contradiction behind the project as a whole and how it fitted into the society, contemporary and historical. It felt like it was trying just a bit too hard. It is only normal that a society is broad and contains divergent views and impulses that do not resolve themselves into one simple message and in this sense the tour did something to communicate this. It is quite definitely a worthwhile tour but I would have liked it to have been given by a live guide so I could have asked questions as in this form it leaves a great many unanswered, perhaps the greatest of which is, are the 30 events truly representative?

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