Monuments to shame: Sweden’s useful stooges

There’s no useful stooge like a Swedish useful stooge.

That isn’t an old saying, but perhaps it should be.

During World War II, the Danes, from the king on down, courageously showed their contempt for the Nazi occupiers. When orders came down to ship Danish Jews to camps, Danish Christians snapped into action, rescuing almost every last one of them overnight and ferrying them under the Nazis’ noses to safety in neutral Sweden.

The Norwegian Resistance did valiant work, too, most famously destroying a heavy-water plant that could have been useful in the Nazi effort to produce nuclear weapons. The story of this escapade was told in the 1965 Burt Lancaster movie Heroes of Telemark. A terrific 2008 movie, Max Manus, focused on the eponymous hero of the Norwegian Resistance, a masterly saboteur, but also featured actors playing several other illustrious Resistance members.

Meanwhile, Sweden was shipping iron ore to Germany to be used in the production of Nazi weapons.

Yes, there was a Swedish Resistance. His name was Torgny Segerstedt. He was the editor-in-chief of Göteborgs Handels-och Sjöfartstidning, a financial daily in Gothenberg, and in his editorials was a fierce critic of Hitler.

Admittedly, it’s a slight exaggeration to suggest that Segerstedt was the only Swedish anti-Nazi. Behind the scenes, some high-profile Swedes made modest efforts to help the Allies and to persuade the Nazis to be a tad less beastly to the Jews. But to a remarkable extent, Segerstedt was a lone warrior. You might expect that someone else in the Swedish news media would’ve dared to slam Hitler. But nobody did — at least nowhere near as much as Segerstedt did.

A film about Segerstedt, The Last Sentence, directed by Jan Troell, was released in 2012. It did a splendid job of portraying the pusillanimity of the Swedish cultural elite in the years leading up to the war, and then during the war itself. At an elegant dinner party soon after Hitler’s installation as German chancellor, Segerstedt (played by Jesper Christensen) rails ardently and eloquently against the outrages of Nazism — and his friend react as if he’d let loose a loud, roaring belch. Why, they’re clearly wondering, does he insist on ruining their pleasant evening with such matters? He’s a moral crusader in a community of cowards.

Not long after, he receives a stern letter from Goebbels demanding that he cease and desist. He frames it. Swedish officials, up to and eventually including the prime minister, make various threats in an attempt to silence him. Finally he’s summoned to the Royal Palace, where the king himself, Gustav V (Jan Sitelius), tells him angrily that if Sweden ends up being dragged into a war with Germany, it’ll be Segerstedt’s fault.

Gustav V actually did say that to Segerstedt, by the way. Their meeting took place in 1940. The episode is hardly surprising to anyone familiar with Gustav’s record. He was friendly with Hitler and other Nazis, and in November 1941 threatened to abdicate if his government refused to grant a Wehrmacht division safe passage through Sweden from Norway to Finland.

In 1942, Segerstedt implicitly criticized his own monarch by praising Norway’s King Haakon. He too had threatened to abdicate, but for opposite reasons. When the Germans invaded Norway and ordered Haakon to appoint their puppet Vidkun Quisling as prime minister, Haakon met with his cabinet, presenting them with the order and telling them that he’d abide by their decision, whatever it was — but that if they chose to cave to the Germans he would step down from his throne, because he could not, in good conscience, inflict Quisling on his people. The cabinet unanimously supported him, and king and cabinet both escaped to Britain, where they formed a government-in-exile.

Here’s what Segerstedt wrote about Haakon: “King Haakon didn’t falter when it counted. His burden was heavy. He became great by bearing it….The Norwegian people and the king are one. Together they have erected the proudest monument known to the history of the Nordic region.”

Indeed. By contrast, many Swedes, like Gustav V, have erected monuments to shame. We’ll start meeting some of these Swedish stooges tomorrow.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Useful Stooges’s story.