Living in Sweden, Thinking of the Holocaust

FALUN, Sweden.

It was December when neo-Nazis marched through the streets of Stockholm, parading by the Jewish Community’s headquarters, their protest against a perceived ‘Jewish conspiracy’ too historically familiar.  On 13 May, Swedish media reported that a Riksdag party with neo-Nazi roots, the Sweden Democrats (SD), had increased about 40% in popularity over the last month, 6.6% of Swedes now supporting them. Beyond this, in April the head of the Obama administration’s Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, Hannah Rosenthal, actually came to Sweden, discussing what have been described as the Social Democratic mayor of Malmö’s repeated ‘anti-semitic’ comments…all of these events speaking to disturbing changes.

I’ll add that discrimination here is a fact for many more than Jews, as indeed it was in the Europe of the 1930s.

Further emphasizing the current milieu’s gravity, the trial of a man accused of randomly shooting immigrants in Malmö opened on 14 May.  According to the New York Times, the lead prosecutor also alleged in an interview that the fellow believes it was actually Jews that were responsible for the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Center, further highlighting the nature of the present hate.

When I first came to Sweden, to Falun, it was 1997, and I genuinely found it a place that felt the closest on earth to heaven.  But over the last years, I have seen changes, personally endured events, that earlier I could not even have conceived of.

Sweeping ‘economic reforms’ have reshaped Sweden and much of Europe.  Effectively, there has been a massive redistribution of societal assets, one that has steadily resulted in the disenfranchisement of untold numbers, numbers that had once belonged to Europe’s storied middle class.  But while the pain of this ‘reform and austerity’ is genuine, blame is being too often wrongly placed.

The poison fruit of so-called ‘reform’

Recent headlines illustrate that many have sought scapegoats, blaming minorities and immigrants instead of their political leadership.  Statistics show the far-right’s message of scapegoating and hate has found an increasing audience, and while centrist political figures do condemn the far-right’s rhetoric, I have yet to hear one accept blame for the current upheaval their reforms and austerity brought.

In the first round of French voting, the far-right Front National polled 18%.  In Greece, Golden Dawn — a party that reportedly advocates concentration camps for immigrants — received 7% of the vote, up considerably from the .23% they received in the prior election.

In late April Reuters reported Francois Hollande, France’s newly elected president, describing the roots of his nation’s far-right leanings as “economic despair among ‘a suffering electorate’”.  The fact of ‘austerity’ stricken Greece’s neo-Nazis celebrating a poll rise of about 3000% makes further statement.   Of course, if one ties the development of far-right feelings to economic privation, it would seem there’s ample room to argue that a ‘poison fruit’ has grown from the branches of Europe’s ‘reforms’, and in Sweden ‘the reforms’ have proved particularly noteworthy.

Social democracy a museum-piece

Like much of the West, Sweden has embraced neoliberalism, but done so with extraordinary speed.  Only this March, the US’s conservative Heritage Foundation happily intoned that Sweden has privatized and deregulated itself faster than any other advanced economy on the planet.  And as the right wing US magazine American Spectator gleefully reported in September, “Sweden has been quietly turning social democracy into a museum-piece”.

According to The Local (Sweden’s largest English-language media site) a new Swedish Parliament report found that: “When unemployment, sickness and work-related injury benefits are added up, the maximum level of compensation in 2010 was only half the relative level available in 1975.”  The article also noted one of the reports authors observing that Sweden is in “the process of abandoning the famed ‘Swedish model’”.

For many in Sweden, the changes have not been cause for celebration – they have only been quick and painful.  This once egalitarian country now has “the steepest increase in inequality over 15 years amongst the 34 OECD nations”, Reuters reported in March, adding that the financial gap between Swedes is “rising at four times the pace of the United States”.

For tourists coming to Stockholm, a new bus to take is one which offers the so-called ‘class war safari’, affording visitors a view of the truly ‘New Sweden’, a Sweden increasingly of the rich and the poor.

Tax-reforms substantively aiding the wealthy and business (ie, Sweden ended inheritance taxes in 2005), plus ‘corporate welfare’, have effectively meant devastating cuts to social programs.  But many Swedes mistakenly turn their wrath upon societal minorities instead of the political leadership responsible for present policies, immigrants being a particular target, but obviously not the only one.

While many appear in denial of any significant danger, it’s perhaps worth recalling that in the year prior to 1929’s ‘economic crisis’, Germany’s Nazi Party polled 2.6% of the vote; but, by 1933 Hitler was Chancellor.  Given this, it would seem prudent not to underestimate the potential effects of widespread economic suffering, and in Sweden, the suffering is increasingly substantive.

Disarray in healthcare and social services is obvious here.  Seemingly regular news pieces now appear about ambulances that are called for but never come; medical ‘errors’ are making increasing headlines (a fellow with a broken neck sent home on painkillers); incontinent elderly in care centers have had their used diapers weighed to ensure ‘proper’ use; plus, unemployment compensation, sick pay, and disability benefits are similarly a shadow of their former selves, things such as education and child care taking substantive hits as well.

Glaringly, the pattern is repeated throughout this nation’s once great social service network.  Of course, those political leaders responsible have not volunteered to accept any blame, the age-old evil of scapegoting arising along with Sweden’s far-right, conveniently diverting the electorate’s attention from those leaders who in reality should be enduring the public’s wrath.

Xenophobia, a societal contagion

Following the SD’s 2010 election to Sweden’s parlaiment, I interviewed political scientist Cristian Norocel for The Christian Science Monitor, reporting at the time that: “The SD has ‘managed to fish in very murky waters on both the left and the right. The party does not have just a racist political agenda … it is also a matter of welfare’ says Mr. Norocel.”  That article also notes Norocel added that “the party’s nationalism, its stance on immigration and perspective upon cultural stereotypes, plus its embrace of social programs, parallels many aspects of ‘very early National Socialism (Nazism) in Europe.’”

As a Jew that lost the European side of my family in the Holocaust, I often wondered how a people with the cultured civility of the Germans could have allowed Nazism to rise.  I have recently come to believe the answer lies in an inability to perceive the consequences of events when they occur, the empty reassurances of widespread denial, of victim blaming, significantly aiding in the growth of horror.

It is difficult to convey the venom I’ve heard directed towards those of foreign origins.  As in the 1930s, racism is also a factor, a YouTube video link, “Swedish Racism: The Venus Hottentot Cake Vs. Swedish Culture Minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth”, illustrating the point.

Today, as I write this, this journalist’s own life is actually in jeopardy, ie, over the last 18 months I have suffered three quite serious incidents of vandalism in my apartment.  I’ll add that such crime is unheard of in the area I live.  But, such threats are not the most severe that the new xenophobia presents.

Swedish governmental reports detail substantive discrimination by the country’s authorities and courts against minorities and those of foreign origins.  Of course, once xenophobia and racism become part of a nation’s official structures, decisions based upon them carry the full force of law.

I won’t dwell upon what this can mean for any in Sweden not born here of majority heritage, but in a time where predatory conduct is not unknown, substantive implications are apparent on both the personal and business levels.

Writing on Sweden for Asia Times in August 2011, I wrote the article ‘Living with the far right’, the last paragraph of it noting that if “it seems as though many of the circumstances described are difficult to even imagine, I agree, except perhaps in the context of another era.”

Ritt Goldstein is an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden.  His work has appeared fairly widely, including in America’s Christian Science Monitor, Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald, Spain’s El Mundo, Sweden’s Aftonbladet, Austria’s Wiener Zeitung, Hong Kong’s Asia Times, and a number of other global media outlets.

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

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