Mikael Tossavainen on They’ll Die Anyway: Ten Years in the Swedish Intelligence Service

, April 12, 2010

Jewish Political Studies Review 22:1-2 (Spring 2010)

Nineteen seventy-three was the year of the biggest journalistic scoop in Sweden in the twentieth century. Two young journalists, Peter Bratt and Jan Guillou, revealed a secret and illegal intelligence organization that kept track of extreme leftists and their organizations in Sweden. The two journalists served time for the disclosure of state secrets, but became instant heroes in the Swedish media world. This is a status that at least Jan Guillou managed to cultivate well, and ever since he has been one of Sweden’s best-known and most respected journalists.

One of the agents who was uncovered, and consequently had to leave the secret service, was Gunnar Ekberg. He and his wife had to leave Sweden altogether and stayed abroad for several years until things had calmed down. Now, almost forty years later when his version of events no longer can cause any harm to other agents or the nation, Ekberg breaks the silence.

Ekberg was a sports diver who had also served in the marines. After he and a friend had dived down to a Soviet ship that had sunk off the coast of Sweden, he caught the attention of the secret service. Gradually Ekberg started to work for them, and before long he was given the task of infiltrating extreme-Left organizations that the secret service thought best to keep an eye on.

As an undercover agent in various Swedish groups supporting the Palestinian cause, Ekberg soon attracted the attention of Palestinian terror organizations in the Middle East, and he traveled to the region on several occasions. His military know-how made him interesting to those who planned and carried out terror attacks against Israeli targets, and he describes how he became a witness to the planning of the bloody 1970 attack on Lod Airport during one of his trips to Lebanon. Ekberg also managed to stop at least one terror operation from costing human lives, when he – only a few months before his cover was blown by Bratt and Guillou – alerted the Israelis that a Palestinian terror organization planned to blow up the passenger ship Sounion on its way from Beirut to Haifa. There were no Israelis aboard; the fact that it was heading for Haifa was enough to target it. Thanks to Ekberg, the ship was delayed in the port of Beirut, and when the bomb exploded all the passengers were elsewhere or had been able to get off in time.

The 1960s and 1970s were characterized by political radicalization in Sweden as in the rest of the Western world. Leftists all over Europe witnessed the liberation process in the old colonies in Africa and Asia and hoped that the decolonization would ignite a revolution that would spread to the West as well. There was a sense of living at the dawn of a new social order, and many leftists were eager to help usher in a presumably better world. The most dramatic expression of this eagerness was probably the Paris riots in 1968, when students tried to start a socialist revolution in France.

In Sweden – a country that had lost all its modest colonial possessions centuries ago – the war in Vietnam fanned these flames of radicalism, and support for communist North Vietnam was massive. The Palestinians were another favorite cause of Swedish leftists. All over Sweden, solidarity groups working for and with the PLO, the PFLP, and other Palestinian organizations sprang up. These Palestinian organizations were allied with the Soviet Union and China, and the Swedish Left saw their struggle against Israel as part of the worldwide struggle against bourgeois imperialism.

Ekberg shows how the Swedish solidarity groups aided the Palestinian organizations even though they knew that the Palestinians used violence against civilians. Aversion to violence and innocent civilian deaths was even seen as bourgeois weakness. A few members of these Swedish groups even went to the Middle East to participate in the armed struggle against Israel. The most prominent of these was Jan Guillou, then already a journalist though not yet as famous as he later became; he took great pride in his participation in military raids against Israel.

Many of the members of these Swedish groups later went on to occupy key positions in the academic world, media, and political spheres. Although the communist revolution they dreamed of never became reality, their identification with the outlook of the PLO and the PFLP has no doubt influenced their view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They have been very influential in the Swedish public discourse, and this outlook came to be the accepted framework for understanding the Middle East in Sweden. Among the best known of these people, whom Ekberg mentions, are Guillou, the journalist Staffan Beckman, and Ulf Bjereld, today professor of political science, leader of the Christian Association of the Social Democratic Party, and a frequently employed commentator on the Middle East.

Thus, even though it is not the aim of Ekberg’s book, it sheds light on the anti-Israeli bias to be found in large segments of the Swedish academia, media, and other circles. The noncritical adoption of the perspective of the PLO, PFLP, and similar organizations, backed and bankrolled by Moscow and Beijing during the Cold War, helps explain the anti-Israeli sentiments in the Swedish public discourse over the past several decades.

It is not likely, however, that this is an exclusively Swedish phenomenon. We have extensive knowledge of how these extreme-Left groups worked and thought in Sweden, ironically because the agents who infiltrated and monitored them were exposed. But it is hard to imagine that such groups existed only in Sweden. In many respects, Sweden was a typical West European country in the shadow of the Cold War, where many radical intellectuals followed the eastward-leading revolutionary path of the late 1960s.

In that regard, Ekberg helps clarify that some of the roots of the clear anti-Israeli bias in today’s West European discourse can be found in the revolutionary romanticism of the 1960s radicals. Such anti-Israeli attitudes are a part of the Cold War heritage that still has not been fully exposed in Europe.

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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.

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.