It was September 13, 2007, and I was feeling strangely at unease. I had just finished reading ”De goda måste agera oftare”, the good ones must act more often, a column by Cordelia Edvardson. As an avid reader of hers, she had always left me filled with energy, resilience, and a clearer vision, but this particular one felt different. (My translation of her column.)
At the time I couldn’t quite put a finger on that unsettling feeling. It wasn’t the same lingering, slightly anxious feeling I had had the days after November 30, 1999, when passing the new security guards at the Aftonbladet entrance, one of the four newspapers (with Svenska Dagbladet, Dagens Nyheter, and Expressen), that had jointly published the faces and names of 62 Swedish Nazis on their respective front pages.
Sadly, Nazis and extremists were nothing new even back then, but at the time I considered them more as part of the criminal underground than an actual threat to democracy. So why would a Holocaust survivor now express such deep concern that made her describe the present as “at a time when the proud promise of “Never again” is becoming increasingly hollow in many parts of the world.” Her words stayed with me as a form of North Star, changing the way I paid attention to the world around me, and it never looked the same again.
Cordelia Edvardson (1929 – 2012) was a highly recognized and beloved German-born Swedish journalist and author. She was a Holocaust survivor with the prisoner number A3709, who at the age of 14 was sent to Auschwitz and forced to work for Josef Mengele, the ”angel of Auschwitz”. An excerpt from the eulogy by Martin Jönsson, Editorial Development Director Dagens Nyheter, beautifully captures the impact and legacy of her voice (my translation):
“She who saw the evil in the eye, but never stepped away, and throughout her life made life more bearable for all the rest of us. Always fearless, always carried by a driving force and an unfailing ability to understand and explain. She was drawn to the complex, close to the incomprehensible, but she always helped us gain insight.”
Holocaust survivors and victims of ethnic cleansing are our canaries in a coal mine in our quest to protect humane society and democratic values. I grew up with my dear, late grandmother’s war stories, and how she as the only one in her family managed to flee to Finland from Stalin’s ethnic cleansing when it stroke down in Vyborg. Rest of her family of six were faced with a faith unknown in Siberia, just for being Finnish. I attribute much of my resilience and life skills to her survival stories, and for seven months ago, on February 24 when the evil and “Never again” was back in Europe, I could feel her war PTSD on her behalf. Of course I have never seen the kind of evil in the eye that my grandmother and Cordelia did, or the one with an evil agenda that the brave people of Ukraine are heroically staring straight back at.
In 2007, at the time of Cordelia’s column, the support for far-right nationalist movements in Sweden were still in low single digits. A year earlier, the fascist neo-Nazi party Sweden Democrats (SD) and now the second largest party with 20,54% of the votes, had received just 2.93% of the minimum 4% of the votes in the 2006 election, leaving it outside the Riksdag (parliament), but for the first time eligible to receive financial party support from the state and Riksdag. Unlike Cordelia, little did I know that the tide of peaceful post cold war optimism was rapidly turning.
Fast forward ten years to 2017 and my internal alert system raised by Cordelia’s concerns over “Never again” was now turned up to eleven. During the course of just one decade Europe had seen an uptick of far-right parties including Germany’s AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) gaining 12,6% as the third largest party in the 2017 Bundestag election. The same year the world also witnessed a deadly white supremacist terrorist attack during the white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA. A rally that had started with a stream of tiki torch carrying angry beige khakis chanting “Jews will not replace us”, ended with Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old civil rights activist, being murdered by a neo-Nazi in a high speed rampage, leaving 19 others injured. Donald Trump, then on his first year of U.S. presidency, but what already felt like a decade, not only didn’t condemn, but instead described the events using the now infamous phrase: “Very fine people on both sides”. Among those very fine people were attendees such as David Duke, former grand wizard of Ku Klux Klan, bumping elbows with leaders of Swedish neo-Nazi movement.
A year later in 2018, almost on the same September date of Cordelia’s urging words, the Sweden election saw SD with its nationalist, anti-immigration, and xenophobic agenda gain 17,5% of the votes as the country’s third largest and fastest growing party (up 4,7% from 2014). It didn’t yet give it a seat at the table, as no other party would stand closer than six feet from it. The center-right Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson, now being tasked to form the new government, had with the press as his witness even promised a Holocaust survivor Hédi Fried to never co-operate with SD. A promise that he would callously betray four years later, using excuses lamer than one would hear a teenager mumble when confronted about a quiet sleepover turned into a house party.
Fast forward another four years to the present and recent September 11 election, and SD would become Sweden’s second largest party despite 214 Nazis and affiliates to extremist organizations on its ballots. No longer surprising, but nonetheless disturbing. Even more so was to learn that its election advances weren’t due to last minute undecided voters or protest votes: The first post election political poll two week later showed unchanged support for SD, making it painfully clear that one in five Swedes have no regrets what so ever to have voted for a fascist, racist party. A party that just couldn’t wait to shout out “Helg seger”, a wordplay on the Swedish Nazi greeting “Hell seger” live on-air during the election night celebrations. Dismissed as harmless drunken behaviour by Rebecka Fallenkvist, the front figure of the SD propaganda channel Riks, she has now been elected as a member of Stockholm Regional Council.
Equally jaw-dropping was to witness how the host of the Swedish public broadcaster SVT program Agenda’s post election day coverage kept interrupting and questioning guests who called out SD as a racist party with racist politics and agenda, simply by arguing whether SD can really be a racist party if one in five voted for them?
SD’s go-to argument for not being racist is that it’s good at cleaning out extremists from the party, referring to its 2012 zero tolerance policy against racism and extremism (not a joke). As an example it likes to tell how it broke ties with its youth section SDU (Sweden Democratic Youth) for being too extremist. Kids, am I right. In reality, the cleaning up argument keeps constantly falling flat on its face like people in failed TikTok challenge attempts gone viral. If the party truly was good at cleaning, then why would people with racist and extremist views still seek to join 10 years after the policy? It would be tempting to suggest that the reason SD sees itself as a Rumba on steroids, is because men make the majority of the party, and as men in general suck at cleaning, but often exaggerate their skills and achievements, they probably think they’re doing a good job, but that’s hardly the case. If you leave the door open, dirt gets in.
The SD enterprise has obviously never invested in neither bouncers, nor cleaning staff to keep racism, or extreme thinkers, out as following teasers of longstanding and high ranking members show:
SD has been tasked to chair four committees: The Justice, Foreign Affairs, Labour Market, and Industry Committee, enabling it to significantly flex its racist agenda. The Justice Committee will be chaired by its anti-immigration and islamofobic party secretary (2015-2022) Richard Jomshof (53), who thinks that Islam is a worse threat than Nazism, and that rape is an expression of Islamic culture. Member since the late 1990s.
Julia Kronlid (42), an anti-abortion and anti-evolution theorist who joined the party in 2006, but in 2014 couldn’t confirm if the Earth was created 6,000 years ago because she wasn’t there to witness it. She has now been elected as the vice speaker of the Riksdag, following the footsteps of Björn Söder (46), vice speaker of the Riksdag (2014-2018), and former party secretary (2005-2015), according to whom Jewish and Sami people may carry Swedish citizenship, but can’t be Swedes unless “assimilated”. Surely, you ask, he must have expressed those views prior the 2012 zero tolerance policy? You answered correctly: It was 2014 as the party secretary. Member since 1996.
Good at cleaning up, not so much.
The Sweden election also revealed a deeper divide between the sexes, with majority of women voting for the left, and men together with young people voting for the right. We are accustomed to have older relatives bring the spice into dinner conversations, but this certainly adds another flavour and layer to family dynamics, and not just the dinner talks.
If young people are the future, Sweden’s sure doesn’t look too bright: Election polls show that one in four (26%) 18-21-year-olds voted for SD, part of which can be traced back to its successful whitewashing TikTok campaign promoting lower diesel fuel prices. As the vice chair of SD’s youth party commented: “I don’t think the fact that there were shady people in the party 30 years ago, referring to WWII Nazis, has affected our election standing.”
Short recap of SD’s history: Who were these shady people then who did bad stuff that no longer matters? Founded in 1988 by former SS Nazi soldiers, SD was the first (!) Nazi party outside German speaking countries. Around 200 Swedes volunteered during the WWII in Nazi Germany as SS soldiers responsible for ethnic cleansing, mass murders, and concentration camps. Upon return to Sweden, no one was charged with war crimes, many of them moving on to take high places in society as lawyers, doctors, officials, and businessmen, unless of course joining the German Nazis in emigrating to South America. But it wasn’t just these 200 men ranging from working families (half of them with a single mother) to noblemen who had bought into the promise of the Third Reich and its race ideology. Swedish Nazi supporters were busy preparing ethnic cleansing by keeping a “Death List” of 6,000 Jewish names, and in the process of building detention camps in Southern Sweden to allocate Jews prior sending them off to concentration camps. The Nazi greeting was also commonly used by the party up until the mid 90s, during the time which its current party leader Jimmie Åkesson joined its youth party.
At this point, instead of asking if SD can be a racist party when one in five voted for it, the question Swedes really should be asking themselves now is: If one in five voted for SD, is Sweden a racist country?
The obvious answer is no, of course not, as four out of five still didn’t vote for SD. And yet, one in three placed their vote on parties, the Liberals party included, that now have officially welcomed SD to sit at the cool kids table, even if at the cost of breaking a promise to a Holocaust survivor. Fresh poll shows that one in three Liberals are positive to someone with racist, anti-immigrant, and anti-abortion views to hold a government post.
And just like that, in four years, Sweden, a poster child for democracy, had sold off its democratic values in exchange for power.
If the TV show Seinfeld taught us anything is that there are no innocent bystanders. Normalizing racism and fascism sure tilts the scales of justice towards being complicit.
Oh, how I miss Cordelia’s voice.
The Sweden 2022 election outcome is well detailed in both “Rise of Far-Right Party in Sweden Was Both Expected and Shocking” by Steven Erlanger and Christina Anderson, and “Sweden Is Becoming Unbearable” by Elisabeth Åsbrink.
Sweden: “One in three are fine with co-operating with a racist party.” Italy: “Hold my vino!”
In the same breath that Sweden took a right turn, Italy drove straight into fascism, electing Giorgia Meloni of the neofascist Brothers of Italy as its first female prime minister with clear majority. I don’t hold forever grudges against anyone for having done stupid stuff as a teenager, say joining a neofascist movement as a 15-year-old activist, but if you 20 years later co-found a party with the fascist tricolour flame symbol, and still today refuse to let it go the same way a toddler refuses to let go of its favourite snuggle toy, you’re still very much a Mussolini fan girl to me.
She doesn’t even have to be a fascist to disqualify for the job: Her hideous anti-immigrant and xenophobic election “stunt” to post a video of a rape of an Ukrainian refugee woman was definitely the final deal breaker to believe anything that she claims to represent. Neither did it ever help that she just four years ago was very excited to party up with soon to be inmate Steve Bannon. My deepest condolences to Italy.
Italy’s history with fascism, like Germany’s, differs from that of Sweden’s and most of the European countries, but I can’t help but to wonder if Holocaust and fascism in Europe are facing the same challenges that the Critical Race Theory (CRT) faces in America, i.e not being spoken about, or taught at school. The 2018 results of a CNN poll about antisemitism in Europe strongly indicate that.
Few alarming statistics of Europeans’ knowledge of Holocaust:
1 in 20 have never heard of it, whereas
1 in 3 know just a little or nothing.
4 in 10 adult Austrians, Hitler’s birth country, know “just a little”.
1 in 10 young Austrians and
1 in 5 French ages 18-34 have never heard of it.
1 in 3 said that Jewish people use the Holocaust to advance their own positions or goals.
Alarming example of how misinformation amplifies ignorance:
1 in 4 Hungarians, and 1 in 5 British and Polish estimated that the world is more than 20% Jewish.
The correct answer: 0.2%.
The poll also revealed unfavourable and negative views of:
Jews (10%), LGBT+ (16%), Immigrants (36%), Muslims (37%), Romani people (39%).
(CNN Poll: 7,000+ people, >1,000 each in Austria, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Poland, Sweden)
“The Bulwark of Goodness”
I know personally that speaking up comes with a price, but I also know what it’s like when people look away and stay silent instead of speaking up for you.
Cordelia wrote about the “Bulwark of goodness”, about not turning your back and hardening your heart. Words she might as well have written today, was she still with us.
Here are two current voices on how to help protect and strengthen the “Bulwark of goodness” of humane society and democratic values:
“Pay attention. Don’t turn your back.”: Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer
“Never underestimate them, I think that was partly what went wrong in Charlottesville, that they were not taken seriously. I would caution in Sweden or anywhere else: Pay attention. Don’t turn your back.”: Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer who was killed in the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, speaking to Swedish public broadcaster SVT in August 2018.
I can highly recommend to watch Susan speak with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton in their new series Gutsy, Ep. 2 “Gutsy Women Refuse Hate”. In the episode you will also meet Shannon, an ex Nazi who now helps others leave the violent movement. When you’re finished with the episode 2, please keep watching all the many gutsy and amazing women. As an extra perk you’ll get helpful tips on how to have a conversation with people who don’t respond to logical argument. Especially useful skill to have these days.
“Being silent is a choice”: Derek Black, former white nationalist
“It’s a white person in the room who has the strongest voice to counteract the racist thought. We were aware of that as white nationalists. […] What they say shuts down any sort of white nationalist racist thing you’re saying, and it stops the room. And that’s the thing that people can do. […] It’s the thing that anyone anywhere can do is speak up, because being silent is a choice.”: Derek Black on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.
Derek was born into white nationalism. His father is the founder of Stormfront, the largest racist community on the Internet. His godfather’s name is David Duke, the very same former KKK Grand Wizard from the deadly rally in Charlottesville, VA. Derek’s journey is told in the book by Eli Saslow – Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist.
I let Cordelia close with her ever powerful call to action:
”The Good Ones Must Act More Often”
By Cordelia Edvardson, September 13, 2007 (My translation of ”De goda måste agera oftare”)
I don’t know her name, or what she looked like. But I will never forget her; the woman who unnoticeably slipped few ration cards in my coat pocket. It happened more than 60 years ago. I, the girl with the yellow Jewish star, was trying to make my way through the streets of Berlin without getting noticed. Jews were forbidden to use the public transport, their food stamps quota was extremely limited, and the horror of the covered trucks, that could be waiting behind the next street corner to deport victims to their final destination, was constantly present.
I’m now reading that Eskil Franck, newly appointed head of the “Forum for Living History” wants to direct a spotlight on the atrocities of communist regimes, mainly in the former Soviet Union, China, and Cambodia during a period between 1917 and 1989. “It’s a story as important to tell as the one about the Nazi atrocities. Not only as an act of respect and reverence for all the victims, but above all as an ambition to build bulwarks against allowing it to happen again”, Franck writes in an article on Svenska Dagbladet (Sep 2, 2007). This is of course an excellent goal, but difficult to realize. For several reasons.
The motives that lay behind the German Holocaust, which got willing henchmen in all the countries where The Brown Plague moved forward, are not, or only partially, the same motives and mechanisms that allowed the bloody rampage of the regimes in the Soviet Union, China, and Cambodia, which in turn differed from one another. Anyone who wants to build a bulwark against a collective evil won’t have it that easy. Especially not when the prophets of evil, as usual, masquerade themselves as sacrificing warriors of Justice, The public good, The only true faith, or of any other noble purpose. Genuinely evil and bloodthirsty men and women are after all quite rare. The Nazis failed to attract crowds to join their ranks with battle songs that promised “The Jew blood that sprays from our knifes”. The ordinary German middle class dismissed such behaviour as frustrated teenage aggression, and among the educated and the upper class one frowned upon such “mob manners”, which, after all, didn’t have to be taken seriously.
But it became serious – and worse than anyone could have imagined. It was then the “bulwark” would have been needed. It’s good, but it’s not enough with academic, historical knowledge of the emergence and mechanisms of dictatorship and oppressive regime. What is primarily needed to preserve a humane society, was summed up by the words of the 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
My benefactress in Berlin was one of those, too few, good people who didn’t turn away and harden their hearts. Would anyone have asked her why she put her own safety at risk to strengthen the fragile “bulwark” of goodness, she probably would have answered:
I don’t know. I just did what I had to do.
That answer was given by almost everyone who was interviewed by the journalist Eric Silver in his book, The Book of the Just: The Unsung Heroes Who Rescued Jews from Hitler (1992).
With that answer, which is so crucial at a time when the proud promise of “Never again” is becoming increasingly hollow in many parts of the world, we may have to let ourselves be content with.