Mikael Tossavainen on “Judefrågan”: Debatt om antisemitism i 1930-talets Sverige

, November 8, 2010

Jewish Political Studies Review 22:3-4 (Fall 2010)

Henrik Bachner is one of the leading authorities on Swedish contemporary anti-Semitism. In his 1999 doctoral dissertation Återkomsten (The Return), he mapped the return of anti-Jewish tropes and prejudices to the public discourse in postwar Sweden. Bachner did not shy away from analyzing anti-Semitic content in the most prestigious publications and anti-Jewish statements made by some of the most influential public figures in the second half of thetwentieth century. Consequently, Henrik Bachner is a man with many vocal enemies in the public sphere in Sweden, especially among the Left that was furious at his exposure of anti-Jewish elements in its ever-intensifying anti-Zionism.

On the face of it, his new book, “Judefrågan” (“The Jewish Question”), is safer inasmuch as Bachner now deals with a distant period whose major players no longer are among the living, and in which everyone acknowledges that the Swedish public discourse was indeed infested by anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, there is a potential political mine hidden between the lines of this new book as well.

The book focuses on three distinct discourses in Sweden of the 1930s: the Christian, the Conservative, and the Social Democratic. After a thorough initial description of the historical context and a discussion of what defines anti-Semitism, Bachner devotes one chapter to each discourse. Each of these chapters deals with themes that characterize that particular discourse, important personalities in that discourse, as well as journals where “the Jewish question” was discussed – and it seems to have been discussed ad nauseam in more or less all of the main Conservative, Christian, and Social Democratic publications of the 1930s.

From a scholarly point of view, Bachner’s study offers an excellent and thorough analysis of all relevant forums and voices where anti-Semitism was vented. The index, where one can look for specific persons and their attitudes toward Jews and anti-Semitism, is also an invaluable aid for scholars seeking specific information. The general reader with no special interest in anti-Semitism or Swedish public discourse of the 1930s might, however, grow tired rather quickly. This is not – and neither is it intended to be – an easy read for the beach or a long flight, but rather an important scholarly contribution to the understanding of the anatomy of anti-Semitism – especially in the past, but the conclusions certainly cast a cold shadow on the present.

The book effectively shatters the popular image of the anti-Semite, and proves that one does not have to be a genocidal Nazi to harbor prejudices against Jews. Bachner shows how even some sworn enemies of the National Socialist ideology and the Third Reich still expressed anti-Semitic views, sometimes even as they were defending Jews against Nazi accusations. He also shows that, even though the number of Swedes who were openly proclaimed anti-Semites was small, the idea that there indeed existed a “Jewish question” that had to be “solved” was nonetheless ubiquitous, and anti-Semitism permeated the public discourse and influenced almost everyone.

One example of this is the accepted “truth” that the Jews themselves were to blame for the fact that they were despised. Between the world wars, virtually everyone in Sweden subscribed to this notion, whether they concluded that it meant the Jews must be expelled from their midst or thought that, instead, they must be helped to shed their primitive Jewish culture and adjust to Swedish society. The many texts conveying this attitude appear even more grotesque when read some seventy five-years later. One is also hard pressed not to think of today’s debate, where people still excuse anti-Semitism with “rational” explanations.

Unlike other countries such as Norway and Denmark, which were occupied by the Germans during World War II, Sweden never dealt with those who had supported Hitler and his Third Reich. Whereas the Norwegian Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun was shunned for his Nazism after the war, his Swedish counterparts quietly turned a new page and pretended that they had never supported the most vicious and inhuman regime that Europe had ever seen. Almost all those who had discoursed at length on ways to solve “the Jewish question” before 1945 conveniently opted to forget about it and continue on in the radically new ideological landscape that emerged when the dust from the battlefields had settled.

Icons of Swedish public and intellectual life, such as the professor of literature Fredrik Böök and explorer Sven Hedin, the last Swede to be knighted, were among Hitler’s most vocal supporters. After the war they both were allowed to continue as if nothing had happened, and later generations have bent over backward to explain that although Böök and Hedin might have been supporters of Germany, they were in no way anti-Semitic. In Böök’s case, his honor and memory have been defended tooth and nail by hagiographic and apologetic biographers. Bachner, on the other hand, shows with crushing clarity that, while Böök may have been against the physical extermination of European Jewry as the solution to “the Jewish question,” he did toy with the idea of forced transfer in order to rid Europe of its Jews.

The potential political mine lies buried precisely here, under Bachner’s iconoclasm. When he points out how easily the leading figures of the discourse of yesteryear got off the hook once their anti-Semitism no longer was comme il faut, he simultaneously uncovers the anti-Semitic roots of present-day ideologies. That this is a real danger can be discerned from the reactions to his book. Commentators from the Church of Sweden and the political Right, which no longer identify so closely with their forerunners from the 1930s, largely have accepted Bachner’s narrative as a painful reckoning with a dark chapter of their past. Leftists who still have a vested interest in preserving the icons of the first half of the twentieth century, for their part, minimize their own anti-Semitism in the past and stress that Bachner himself sees a difference in quantity between the Conservatives and the Christians on the one hand and the Social Democrats on the other.

Instead, some leftist commentators and reviewers have taken Bachner’s work as a pretext to implicate today’s Right, smearing it with the stigma of the anti-Semitism of the Conservatives of the 1930s. In that way Bachner’s newest book, just like his dissertation, has the potential to become a tool in an abscessed political quarrel over who has the most shameful legacy.

Another, and arguably more important, lesson to be drawn from Bachner’s book is that one does not have to be a rabid Nazi to hold prejudices against Jews. In today’s Swedish debate, anti-Semitism is far too often routinely connected with Nazism and the Holocaust. This connection between Nazism and anti-Semitism is so strong today that anyone who is not a Nazi can say almost anything he or she pleases about Jews without being seen as an anti-Semite. If Bachner’s latest book can teach us anything, it is that even self-proclaimed antiracists can be influenced by anti-Semitism.

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MIKAEL TOSSAVAINEN, PhD, works at the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism at Tel Aviv University.

About Mikael Tossavainen

Dr. Mikael Tossavainen obtained his Ph.D. in history from Lund University, Sweden. Tossavainen's earlier research focused on anti-Semitism, historiography, and the connection between nationalism and religion. He was research director of the Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism Project at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.