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Åsbrink: The Founder of IKEA Is a Model Example of Swedish Entanglements in Nazi Ideology

Mikołaj Gliński
And in Wienerwald the trees are still standing
And in Wienerwald the trees are still standing, image from the book cover, press release

The laureate of this year's Ryszard Kapuściński Award for literary reportage, Elisabeth Åsbrink says in an interview with the Polish Press Agency that "Ingvar Kamprad - the founder of IKEA - never murdered anybody, but he was friends with murderers. It is a model example of how the Swedes were entangled in Nazi ideology".

The Ryszard Kapuściński Award for Literary Reportage (Nagroda im. Ryszarda Kapuścińskiego za Reportaż Literacki in Polish)  is an international award intended to pay posthumous homage to Ryszard Kapuściński, a reporter, journalist, publicist and poet. Among Poland's most prolific non-fiction writers, he was known both at home and abroad for his incisive and very personal accounts of political and social upheavals across the world. Kapuściński was fascinated by exotic worlds and people, but he also approached foreign countries through literature, spending many months reading before each trip. He knew how to listen to the people he met, but he was also capable of 'reading' the hidden sense in the scenes he encountered: the way that the Europeans moved out of Angola, a discussion about alimony in the Tanganyikan parliament, the reconstruction of frescoes in the new Russia - he turned each of these vignettes into a metaphor for historical transformation.

Established in January 2010 by the Council of the Capital City of Warsaw, the award is, according to its founders, "a form of distinction and promotion of the most worthwhile reportage books which touch on important contemporary issues, evoke reflection, and deepen our knowledge of the world of other cultures". It is presented annually to the author of the finest work of literary reportage published in Polish in book form. The first winner of the award was French journalist and war correspondent Jean Hatzfeld for The Antelope Strategy; in the second edition the award went to Bielorussian journalist Svetlana Aleksyevich for War Has Nothing Feminine About It, and the subsequent year, to China's Liao Yiwu for The Guide of the Dead. In 2013,  the award was presented to Ed Vulliamy, for his book Amexica: War Along the Borderline.

The winner receives 50,000 PLN, and when the award is given to a foreign author, the Polish translator also receives a prize (15,000 PLN).

Elisabeth Åsbrink received the award during the official ceremony on Friday, 23rd of May, 2014. The Ryszard Kapuściński Award for Literary Reportage went to her in recognition of the book And in Wienerwald the Trees are Still Standing (Och i Wienerwald står träden kvar in the original Swedish, translated into Polish under the title W Lesie Wiedeńskim wciąż szumią drzewa). The main protagonist of the factually-based book is Otto, a boy from a Jewish family who was transported to Sweden in 1938.

His parents went to a lot of trouble in order to ensure their son's safety in such an unsure period of history. They made recourse to the Protestant missionaries who were active among Viennese Jews, and who obtained permission to transport a hundred Jewish children to Sweden - a country which was then closing its doors to Jewish immigrants. After arriving in Sweden, the children were forced into hard labour, and no one was inclined to give them any extra help, aside from sparing their lives. And although Otto met indifferent and hostile people in Sweden, he also made friends. One of these friends was his peer, Ingvar Kamprad, a member of the Swedish Nazi organisation. His views somehow did not prevent him from befriending Otto.


"W Lesie Wiedeńskim wciąż szumią drzewa"PAP: How popular were sympathetic stances towards Nazi ideology in Sweden?

Elisabeth Åsbrink: There were significantly fewer supporters in the north of the country than in the south. In order to understand this state of affairs, we must look into the context. Swedes have a tradition of looking up to German poetry, music,  philosophy, and knowledge of German was a form of entry into European culture for them. On the other hand, fear of Russia and the Bolsheviks was extraordinarily strong in Sweden. In the eyes of many Swedes, Hitler was the only man capable of confronting Stalin. These are only a few of the reasons for quite a high level of popularity for the Nazi movement in Sweden.

PAP: Many problems of 20th century Swedish history actualise themselves in the story of Ingvar Kamprad. What is the reception of the founder of IKEA in his home country? Is he the archetype of an efficient businessman, or rather a man with a dark past?

For me, he is an excellent example of Swedish engagement in Nazi ideology. Kamprad had a German grandmother from the Sudety mountains who sympathised with Hitler, and she considered the day that he incorporated the region into the Reich as the most beautiful one of her life. Kamprad didn't kill anyone, but he sympathised with the murderers. For many, many years he also kept this a secret, and only once he was pressed against the wall, and confronted with documents that left no doubt, only then did he declare that he had been wrong and went astray during his youth.

A few years later, even more documents saw the light of day, revealing even more facts. It turned out that Kamprad belonged to the Nazi political party called Svensk Socialistisk Samling (Swedish Socialist Coalition), and he was in fact an activist who recruited new members. Confronted with these facts, Kamprad said that he was very sorry, and he apologised. But he only admitted to that which he had no means of denying.

Your book also points out that right after the war, Kamprad was very close friends with Peter Engdahl, who was an activist in nationalist and neo-Nazi organisations, a fact that could have significantly aided Kamprad in business. It turns out that numerous influential people formed part of this milieu. 

I think that this was indeed the case, and I tried to do some research into the matter. I didn't, however, bump into any indisputable proof that the Nazi movement of the era supported IKEA, or that this company supported the movement. But it is typical of the Swedish Nazi ideology, the fact that it often had to do with supporting partners in business.

How did the ideologically Nazi Kamprad reconcile his views with such a great friendship with Otto, a Jew who was miraculously saved from the hands of his idols?

I think that this is the mystery of human nature. It's when we meet someone face to face, when we get to know him as a living human, we start to act more decently towards this person than towards people we don't know.  We have a tendency to make an exception for this person, an exception from the values and rules we live by. Every American racist knew an African American which we was willing to exempt from his racist generalisations. This must have also been the case with Ingvar and Otto. On the one hand it's beautiful that they were capable of being friends, and on the other hand - it is exactly this kind of thinking, this repeating that an exception only confirms the racist rule that winds up the spiral of racist stereotypes.

In 2010, you conducted an interview with Kamprad. What was your impression?

When I asked him about Otto, it turned out that he had very good memories of him, and that they were very close. But when I asked him about his Nazi past, his memory failed to cooperate, he did not reveal any details of his actions. Still, it was clear from the talk that Kamprad continues to cherish the leader of Swedish Nazis, Peter Engdahl, he calls him a great man. It's certain that Kamprad hasn't distanced himself entirely from the past.

In your opinion, has Sweden come to terms with its history of the World War II period?

Sweden still has many a story to tell, and this process is taking place now, before our eyes. We Swedes like to think of ourselves as this good country which never took part in the war, and which instead became a refuge for those persecuted by Nazis. But things were like this only from 1943 onwards, when Sweden took in seven thousand Jewish refugees from Denmark. This was a beautiful act, and more soon followed, but few remember what the situation was like before then. From the end of the 1930s, when a growing number of Jews were forced to seek refuge, the Swedish borders were sealing up. A huge debate took place within the country about the sense in taking in Jewish refugees. There were the representatives of various professions who declared they felt threatened, such as doctors and merchants, but there were also all kinds of advocates of Nazi ideology, who raised traditionally anti-Semitic arguments. 

Do you not think that the story of Otto provides us with a condensed overview of all the flaws in humanitarian aid, dating back from that period and still pertinent to this day?

It is a bit like that. In the late 1930s, Swedes sealed up their borders, and limited the number of received immigrants, especially those of Jewish origin. After long negotiations, they finally agreed to take in a hundred Jewish children, but only those who fulfilled certain criteria - they were healthy, well-behaved, properly raised, hard working, and also baptised. They took them in under the condition that the parents would take them back within one or two years. The Swedes behaved as if they believed there was no need for them to act with any empathy towards these children, as if they had already done enough simply by saving their lives. The parents of those children could not come, even when it became very clear that death threatened them in their own country.

An analogous situation happened recently in Sweden with refugees from Somalia. A young Kurd told me after reading my book that he had found his own experiences described in it. I think that generally, in the contemporary Europe of today, when we think about the fates of the refugees, we are not sufficiently aware, we do not realise that we could also find ourselves in the same position one day, that we could be the ones needing help.

The interview was conducted by Agata Szwedowicz for the Polish Press Agency

Source: PAP Polish Press Agency,

Edited by Mikołaj Gliński, 24/05/2014

Translated with edits by Paulina Schlosser, 26/05/2014

Language & Literature
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