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Never Violence!
Astrid Lindgren
Translated by Laurie Thompson

This article appeared in the 2007:2 issue.

This speech, delivered by Astrid Lindgren when she collected the German Booksellers’ Peace Prize in Frankfurt in 1978, appears in a new anthology published to mark her centenary: Ingen liten lort (No Little Bit of Filth) focusing on Astrid Lindgren as an opinion former and campaigner. The anthology’s title is a quotation from Lindgren’s Bröderna Lejonhjärta (The Brothers Lionheart).

This book includes several seminal pieces by Lindgren that have not been collected in print before. Among them is her famous outburst of 1976 against the Social Democrats’ taxation system “Pomperipossa i Monismanien” (Pomperipossa in Monimania) also known as “The story that brought down a government”. There are also recollections and essays about Astrid’s campaigning interests, including the environment, world peace, children’s rights and child health care, by informed contributors including Bo Strömstedt (who first published “Pomperipossa” on the arts page of Dagens nyheter), Per Svensson, Caroline Krook, Boris Pankin, Karin Söder and others. The book is illustrated with photographs.

The world is very familiar with Astrid Lindgren the children’s writer. Her role as an opinion former is less widely known. How many people are aware, for example, that she gave her name to “Lex Lindgren”, Swedish animal rights legislation passed in 1988? She supported Greenpeace and famously joined the “mass hug” of threatened trees in a Stockholm park. She also worked enthusiastically on small, local issues: she campaigned, for example to save the narrow gauge railway in Småland and against the closure of branch libraries.

The editors of this volume have made extensive use of the huge archive of manuscripts, letters, press cuttings etc, which Astrid Lindgren left to the Royal Library in Stockholm.


My dear friends!

The first thing I must do is to thank you, and I do so with all my heart. The German Publishers’ Peace Prize radiates such a glittering aura, and having been awarded it feels like such an honour that actually holding it in my hands makes me weak at the knees. But here I am, on the very spot where, over the years, so many wise men and women have held forth and expressed their hopes for the future of mankind and the lasting peace that we all long for.

What can I say that hasn’t already been said in a better way than I am capable of? To speak about peace is to speak about something that doesn’t exist. Genuine peace is nowhere to be found on this earth, and has probably never existed except as a goal that we are evidently unable to achieve.

For as long as we humans have lived on this planet, we have been indulging in violence and war, and the fragile peace that sometimes exists is constantly under threat.

At this very moment, the whole world is in fear of a new war that will destroy us all. In the face of that threat, it is true to say that more people than ever before are working for peace and disarmament. That could be seen as a hope. But it is so difficult to be hopeful. Politicians gather in their hordes for summit meetings, and talk so animatedly in favour of disarmament; but only the disarmament they want other nations to undertake. Your country must disarm, not mine! Nobody wants to be the first to start disarming, nobody dares to start, because everybody is so afraid and has so little faith in the aspirations for peace of others.

And while one disarmament conference follows another, the reality is that rearmament is proceeding apace on a scale never before seen in the history of the world. It’s not surprising that we’re all afraid, whether we live in the east or the west, in the north or the south; whether we live in a country that is a great power, or in a small neutral country.

We know that a new major war would affect the whole of humanity, and it makes little difference if, at the end of it, I lie dead in a pile of ruins that is neutral or non-neutral.

 

After all these millenia of constant war, is it not time for us to ask ourselves if there is some inherent fault in the human condition that continually drives us to violence? Are we doomed to perish as a result of our aggression? We all desire peace. So is there any possibility at all of our changing fundamentally, before it’s too late? Of our learning to distance ourselves from violence? Of our trying quite simply to become a new kind of human beings? But how could we go about that, and where should we start?

I believe that we should start from the bottom. With the children. You have awarded your peace prize to a writer of children’s books, and that means you can’t expect from me any wide-ranging political visions or proposals for the solution of international problems. I want to talk about the children. My worries about them, and my hopes for them. The children of today will eventually take over the running of our world, if there is anything left of it. They are the ones who will make decisions concerning war and peace and the kind of society they want to have – if they want a society in which violence continues to grow, or if they prefer one in which people live in peace and brotherhood. Is there any hope at all that they will be able to create a more peaceful world than the one we have lumbered ourselves with? And why have we failed so badly, despite all the goodwill that exists?

 

I recall how shocked I was when it dawned on me at an early age that the people governing the fate of our countries and the world at large were by no means gods with superior capabilities and divine perspicacity. They were human beings, with the same human weaknesses as I had. But they had power, and at any given moment could make the most momentous decisions on the basis of whatever whim inspired them at the time. If things turned out badly, war could break out on the basis of a single person’s lust for power or desire for revenge or vanity or greed or – and this seemed to be the most common reason – an excessive belief in violence as the most effective remedy in all situations. Similarly, a single good and sensible person could sometimes avert catastrophe simply by being good and sensible, and refraining from violence.

 

There could only be one possible conclusion to draw: the fate of the world was decided by individual people. So why were they not all good and sensible? Why were there so many who wanted nothing but violence and power? Was evil congenital in some people?

I couldn’t believe that, and I still don’t think it is the case. Intelligence and intellectual powers are congenital, but children are not born with a seed that automatically sprouts to develop into good or evil. What decides if a child is going to become a warm, open, trusting person with a propensity for communal feelings or a callous, destructive lone wolf is up to those who bring the child into the world and teach it the meaning of love – or fail to bring home to it what love entails. “Überall lernt man nur von dem, den man liebt,” said Goethe, and so it must be true. One only learns from the people one loves. A child that is surrounded by love and loves its parents learns from them a loving attitude towards the whole of its environment, and retains that attitude for the whole of its life. Which has to be a good thing, even if he or she never becomes one of the few who decide the fate of the world. But if that child, contrary to expectation, does become one of those who decide the fate of the world, we can all be grateful if his or her nature tends to love rather than violence. The character of even our future statesmen and politicians is formed before they have reached their fifth birthday – it’s a dreadful thought, but it’s true.

 

If we look back as far as is possible and consider how children have been treated and brought up down the ages, is it not the case that far too often the norm has been to break their will, physically or mentally, by means of some form of violence? How many children have received their first lessons in violence “von denen die man liebt”, from those they love, from their own parents? And then passed on the lessons learnt from generation to generation? “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” we were urged by the Old Testament. A lot of mothers and fathers have followed that teaching ever since. They have frequently wielded the rod and called it love. There are so many really “spoiled children” in this world of ours today, so many dictators, tyrants, oppressors, torturers – what sort of a childhood did they have? That is something that really ought to be researched. I believe that behind most of them is a tyrannical father or some other figure responsible for their upbringing, wielding a rod or a whip.

Children’s literature has no shortage of depictions of rancorous childhoods featuring domestic tyrants who have beaten their children into a state of obedience and submission, and more or less ruined their lives. But happily they were not the only kind. Thankfully there have always been parents who have brought up their children in an atmosphere of love without violence. But it is probably true to say that it is only in the twentieth century that parents in general have begun to regard their children as their equals, and given them the right to let their personalities develop freely in a family characterized by democracy, without oppression and without violence.

 

How can one avoid feeling despondent on hearing the current outcry advocating a return to old authoritarian methods? The clamour is coming from various places throughout the world at the moment. People are demanding “a more rigorous approach” and “tighter reins”, and believe this will help to eradicate the youthful vices that are blamed on too much freedom and too little strictness in their upbringing. This is in fact an attempt to drive out the Devil with the aid of Beelzebub, and in the long run can only lead to more violence, and greater and more dangerous gaps between the generations. The “more rigorous approach” being demanded might possibly have a superficial effect that its advocates could interpret as an improvement. Until they are eventually forced to accept that violence gives birth to more violence – as it has always done.

Many parents will no doubt be worried by these new trends, and may start to wonder if they have done wrong, if an anti-authoritarian upbringing is reprehensible. But it is only reprehensible if it is misunderstood. An anti-authoritarian upbringing does not mean that children should be left to drift along and do whatever they please. It does not mean that they should grow up without a set of norms – nor do they want to. Both children and adults need a set of norms as a framework within which to conduct themselves, and children learn more from the example of their parents than from anything else. Of course children should respect their parents, but make no mistake about it: adults should also have respect for their children, and not misuse the natural advantages they have over them. What one would like to see in all parents and all children is mutual loving respect.

 

I should like to tell all those clamouring for a more rigorous approach and tighter reins what an old lady once told me. She was a young mother in the days when people still believed in the idea of “Spare the rod and spoil the child” – or rather, she didn’t really believe in it, but one day when her little boy did something naughty, she decided he had to have a good hiding, the first one of his life. She told him to go out and find a suitably supple stick or rod for her to use. The little boy was away for a long time. He eventually came back in tears and announced: “I can’t find a rod, but here’s a stone you can throw at me.” At which point his mother also burst into tears, because it had suddenly dawned on her how her little boy must have regarded what was about to happen. He must have thought: “My mum wants to hurt me, and she can do that just as well by throwing a stone at me.”

She threw her arms round him, and they spent some time crying together. Then she placed the stone on a shelf in the kitchen, and it stayed there as a permanent reminder of the promise she had made to herself at that moment: never violence!

 

However, if we bring up our children without violence and on a loose rein, will we produce a new kind of human being who will live in a state of eternal peace? Only authors of books for children could be simple enough to believe such a thing! I know full well that would be a Utopia. And of course, there are so many more things in our poor, ailing world that must also be changed if we are going to achieve peace. But at this point in time, even though no war is currently raging, there is so incredibly much cruelty and violence and oppression going on in the world; and our children are most certainly not blind to it. They see and hear and read about it every day, and will no doubt end up by believing that violence is the natural state of affairs. Is not the least we can do to show by example in our own homes that there is another way of living our lives? Perhaps it would be a good idea for us all to have a little stone on a shelf in our kitchens as a permanent reminder for ourselves and our children: never violence!

Despite everything, that might eventually become a small contribution to world peace.