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The Dark Side of Sweden

by RITT GOLDSTEIN

Dalarna, Sweden

The film’s US opening was December 20th, with a Reuters review of David Fincher’s too-real thriller titled, “Dragon Tattoo” film paints Sweden in darkest shades.  But, the sad fact is that there’s a very uncomfortable amount of truth in Stieg Larsson’s fiction.

Larsson’s riveting story of moral wasteland and Nazi heritage, the courageous investigative journalist and troubled feminine genius that rise above it, does depict a number of real-life issues Sweden is yet struggling to hide, especially it seems from itself.

Dragon tattoo’s heroine, Lisbeth Salander, is brutally bound and raped at one point by the man placed as legal guardian over her, Larsson providing comment upon the disturbing reality here of those that have been found to use their official position to ruthlessly prey upon the vulnerable.  In example, about a year ago the former police chief of Uppsala County, a major city area in Central Sweden, was sentenced to six years imprisonment for a string of serious sex crimes.

According to an English language article in Sweden’s The LocalEx-police chief given lighter sentence, the court found the former chief guilty of “aggravated rape, rape, assault, pimping, buying sex and attempting to buy sex.”  The article noted that the crimes included the rape of a seventeen year old girl, with the court determining that the “girl spent much of the rape tied up”, paralleling Salander’s being bound and raped.

This story, as with many that The Local prints, was also pursued widely in regular Swedish language media.  But, much of the nation’s darker side just doesn’t make it into the major english-language press, and — to my thinking — not every ‘rape’ here need involve sex.

Glaringly highlighting the dichotomy between the nature of the ‘ex-Chief’s’ official position and the reality of what he ruthlessly pursued, the fellow headed Sweden’s National Police Academy between 1989 and 1997, was one of the Swedish Police’s leading authorities on morals and ethics, and remarkably, a nationally well-known lecturer on issues such as sexual harassment and feminine equality.

Recent other scandals include: a senior charity official having been convicted of defrauding the Swedish Red Cross and the Swedish Cancer Society, over a million dollars said to have been involved; city officials in Gothenburg’s building and housing sector facing assorted corruption charges; government acknowledgement and the promise of $38,000 each to what is estimated as thousands of children that were badly abused in foster care, and, the list goes on.  The common thread running through the scandals is an abuse of power by those placed in authority by this society, and worse still, long term neglect and/or tolerance of abuses by those charged with preventing them.

As I said, not every ‘rape’ here need involve sex.

In Larsson’s two subsequent works, The Girl Who Played with the Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, Larsson addresses the issues of Salander’s violent abuse as a child at the hands of the Swedish System’s bureaucracy, portraying elements of the bureaucracy with a tolerance of, and complicity in, the worst kinds of criminal activity.  This is not to say that Larsson implies the majority of those in the Swedish bureaucracy act in a monstrous manner, as that certainly isn’t the case, but — in this journalist’s opinion based upon what I have personally witnessed — too many do, and too often they are not stopped.

The dichotomy, between the ‘proper and noble’ image versus a ‘shameless and brutal’ reality, is highlighted by Larsson again and again.

Repeatedly, the actual fact of Steig Larsson’s ‘dark Sweden’ has been seen in Swedish news accounts, including those relating to the country’s Nazi heritage.  Just this past August, a Swedish book was published that claims Ikea founder and philanthropist Ingvar Kamprad was “active in recruiting to Sweden’s main war-time Nazi movement the National Socialist Workers’ Party (Svensk Socialistisk Samling – SSS)”, according to The Local and the Swedish News Agency TT.

“It confirms only one thing – that Ingvar time after time has told about the biggest mistake of his life and apologised to all involved 20 years ago”, the article noted a Kamprad spokesman observing.  But today, while all of the Nordic countries have far-right parties in their parliaments, it is only Sweden’s party, the Sweden Democrats, that has neo-Nazi roots.

Perhaps more troubling still, following the Norwegian mass-murder rampage of far right Islamophobe Anders Behring Breivik, the Swedish daily Expressen revealed that it’s believed Breivik had lived in Sweden and acquired a substantive portion of his political beliefs here.  A Swedish hamburger chain even made international headlines some months ago when parents found their young son had received a swastika tattoo with his child meal, and, just days ago, neo-Nazis marched past the Jewish community’s headquarters, decrying a so-called ‘Jewish conspiracy’.

Contrary to its progressive image, Sweden also founded the world’s first ‘racial biology’ institute in 1922, the Statens institut för rasbiologi (SIFR), with the SIFR subsequently associated with the forced sterilization of 63,000 in a program that only ended in the mid-1970s.  According to a Swedish government 2005 report upon the country’s “structural discrimination”, Det blågula glashuset (The blue/gold glass house), in some areas Roma were sterilized simply for being Roma.  But, the report also notes how strong ‘structural discrimination’ still exists in Sweden, with immigrants, the indigenous people (Sami), and all others not seen as ‘typical Swedes’ being subjected to it.

The report’s English language summary is worth quoting:

Sweden, it is popularly assumed, lacks a history of racism and oppression of ethnic minorities.

Sweden’s treatment of, for example, the sami and the roma are clear examples in Swedish history that demonstrate the problems with this view. The fact that Sweden established the world’s first institute for race biology is another. Sweden’s history is a part of Europe’s history. The same racism that arose and spread in Europe, has thus occurred and occurs in Sweden. The racist view of, for example, people from Africa and Asia has been widely disseminated inSweden, being almost a part of popular culture.

Before writing his Millennium Trilogy, Larsson was an investigative journalist specializing in the far-right.  Shortly before his death, he predicted that the Sweden Democrats would be elected to the parliament in 2010, something which is now a fact.  He was also concerned about a return to the abuse of women, immigrants, and Jews, as had once been quite strong in Sweden.  And over the last five years, this journalist has personally experienced that the levels of discrimination and abuse have risen dramatically.

To say my own circumstances are both nightmarish and life-threatening is accurate…I seriously wonder if I’ll survive much longer.  But as startlingly nightmarish as that is, perhaps even more disturbing is that the abuse I and others suffer usually occurs quite casually, in plain sight, as if it is simply ‘the right and proper thing’.  Beyond this, and paralleling the Millennium saga, to my eyes such abuse seems typically aided by those with a duty to prevent it, assuming they are not perpetrating the abuse in question themselves.

It is as if some members of Swedish society are ‘subhuman’, and ‘deserve’ to be treated accordingly.

The election of the Swedish Democrats provided an indicator of how much Sweden has changed in recent years, with very obvious xenophobia and structural discrimination increasingly felt by many.  But worst is what is perhaps best termed the ‘banality of evil’ that has taken root, something which Larsson would seem to vividly convey in his descriptions of the Swedish courts and bureaucracy, the damage they are capable of inflicting.

It was 1963 when political theorist Hannah Arendt exploded into world view with her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil”.  The Jerusalem trial of Nazi mass-murderer Adolf Eichmann provided the impetus for Arendt’s examination,, and while there are certainly no extermination camps in Sweden, that doesn’t mean there isn’t the institutionalized and unspeakable abuse of some.

Arendt’s belief was that those responsible for committing nightmarish acts, in the performance of their duties, were often quite ordinary, not the ‘madmen’ one would like to believe.  She revealed these people as mainly simple functionaries that did what they felt ‘was expected of them’, not bothering to examine the horrific implications of their acts.

As the American writer Edward S. Herman wrote some years ago:

Doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on “normalization.” This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as “the way things are done.”

Is it possible that many of Sweden’s scandals occur because those presently in the governing bureaucracy have come to see scandalous conduct as just “the way things are done”, with unspeakable acts having been “normalized”?  At a pre-school called Guldstigen, in the area I live, both very young Swedish children and the pre-school’s personnel suffered severely for months from the toxic effects of mold, with the municipality’s initial denials of any problems ending only after a concerted effort by both parents and local media.

At first, local authorities claimed the Guldstigen problem was merely one of “dust”, but after numerous headlines and some heated confrontations with parents, it was months later when a headline noted, “The municipality admits wrong about Guldstigen” (Kommunen medger fel om Guldstigen), with the mold sickening the pre-school finally acknowledged and addressed.  But what about the other official denials of problems where hard evidence states they exist, and what of a bureaucracy that seems to callously enable suffering?

As for how immigrants can be treated, a headline in one of the national papers last January read, “We live worse than animals here” (Vi bor sämre än djur här).  But what can one expect when the country has come to a point where authorities question if a man whose both legs are amputated is suffering a “permanent” condition (Legless man denied wheelchair – The Local), and where nursing home personnel made August headlines for betting on when a patient would die?

There are many good, decent, and fine Swedes that I’ve met, and some of these are indeed among the finest people I’ve ever encountered, but there are others.  In the Swedish-film version of Dragon Tattoo, there is a scene where a torture/murderer explains himself, noting:  “I’m taking whatever I want…I love the disappointment in their (his victims’) eyes – it doesn’t seem to fit with what they planned.  They always seem to think that I’ll show mercy.  It’s a fantastic moment when they finally realize they’re not getting away”.

To recall an 18th century political theorist and statesman, Edmund Burke, “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing”…and, perhaps some things never change.

Ritt Goldstein is an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden


Ritt Goldstein is an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden.

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