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Att bo granne med ondskan. Sveriges förhållande till nazismen, Nazityskland och Förintelsen Klas Åmark, Att bo granne med ondskan. Sveriges förhållande till nazismen, Nazityskland och Förintelsen (Neighbour of Evil. Sweden's Relationship to Nazism, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2011. ISBN: 9789100124939

Reviewed by Carl Otto Werkelid in SBR 2011:2


Review translated by Anna Paterson


Perpetrators, victims, bystanders – international research on the Holocaust use these concepts as a basis for classification and discussion of the relationships which neutral countries typically developed towards the Holocaust. Introducing ‘Swedish policy towards refugees and the reception of refugees 1933-1947’, one of the most extensively documented and important chapters of his book, Klas Åmark says: ‘In this context, the representatives of Swedish society allowed themselves to become bystanders, regardless of what they did or did not do, since fundamentally the country watched and waited while the Holocaust perpetrators initiated and then carried out the liquidation of their victims. Generalisations such as bystander suggest or hint that neutral states or, at least, the democratic ones, were arguably obliged to intervene in support of the Holocaust victims – an obligation that they should have acted on.’ He observes that to give moral judgements such a central role in historical research can be problematic: ‘Moralising might obstruct the analysis and explanation of events as they developed at the time.’ It is satisfying to find that a particular strength of Åmark’s impressive work is precisely the way in which it invites and stimulates analysis and the search for explanations. Who is Klas Åmark? It would be hard to find someone better qualified to write this book, in which he critically examines the situation described as ‘neighbour of evil’ from a wide range of important vantage points. For the last twenty years, he has held a chair in history at the University of Stockholm; almost four decades ago, he presented his doctoral thesis within the framework of a large research project entitled Sweden during the Second World War. Åmark’s thesis on Power or Morality elucidated issues raised in the public debate before the outbreak of war. It was one of twentyodd doctoral theses which, together with several books and articles, were the tangible outcomes of the project’s fifteen-year run. A more direct route to the present volume opened up when the then Swedish government initiated a major investigative programme, Sweden’s Relationship to Nazism, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, which aroused much interest and included an international conference to review current research. Another condition was that the outcomes should be presented in a ‘conclusive final report’, both as a contribution to knowledge and a stimulus to general debate. Klas Åmark was appointed to coordinate the wideranging programme; his book, published early in 2011, must be seen not only as the promised final report, but also as the kind of grand summing-up that can be steered safely only by a profoundly experienced and exceptionally acute man of learning – who is also an superb writer in every sense of the word. Åmark is keen to emphasise that his primary goal is not to communicate new findings and methodologies; rather, it is to draw together known information and earlier research results in order to build ‘a broad, solid base of investigative data drawn from an array of disciplines and fields of study, brought together and merged into a systematic summary’. He adds that no similar wide-ranging surveys are available and that ‘syntheses of this kind are relatively unusual in Swedish historical research.’ When Åmark later tells his readers that, for him, the book is an example of ‘science for the people rather than popular science’, I understand what he means, even though it seems to me a superfluous remark; reading the book, one repeatedly and gratefully notes that a text such as this is possible only when the author is quite clear about his intent not to popularise his exposition at the expense of the content, but instead, aware of the demands of academic professionalism as well as the profound seriousness of his subject, sticks consistently to established facts and the findings of current research, which during recent year has grown into a veritable flood. So, does the result fulfil the expectation that it should raise general knowledge and stimulate debate? The reviewers have received the book with great respect and welcomed it warmly as the definitive work on its subject, highly relevant also outside academic history. So far, I believe its effect on the debate within Sweden has been limited, but with its accessibility, as well as dense accumulation of substantive information, it will surely become influential; its status as a standard work of reference guarantees a long life. Besides, it offers several openings into incendiary topics of debate between those engaged in day-to-day political exchanges in the international arena, not only the very different national attitudes to the circumstances affecting immigration and reception of refugees – with the growing family of EU member states as a background – but also the unmistakable growth in so many countries of groups hostile to immigrants, groups capable of appearing on political platforms and even being heard internationally. When, some ten years ago, Åmark undertook the task of project coordinator, the then social democratic Prime Minister’s serious engagement with those issues was a noteworthy impetus. Movingly, Göran Persson (the PM) stressed the necessity to remember and to try to understand, as anything less would be a betrayal of those who survived the Holocaust. Nothing similar must ever happen again, he said and emphasised that the advance of neo- Nazism is a threat to democracy: ‘Today, we know that Swedish authorities failed in the performance of their duty during the Second World War [...] The moral and political responsibility for what Swedish society did – and failed to do – during that war will always be with us’. Five years later, in Moscow to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the German surrender, Göran Persson was interviewed on Swedish Radio’s evening news and proved that, in the interim, his earlier analysis had changed quite radically. Persson could see no reason for Sweden to be ashamed of anything it did during the war: ‘Should we apologise for Swedish neutrality? Indeed not. We have nothing to say sorry for’, the Prime Minister insisted. What had happened? Had forgetfulness sneaked in? Had his judgement been clouded by that familiar, deeply rooted need to be free of guilt at any cost – even that of lying? Klas Åmark’s book is in every way a contribution to greater knowledge and vigorous debate. Those who want a powerful argument in favour of reading this work should consider this brief, simple motive: to find out how right Göran Persson was in 2000 and, five years later, how wrong.


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