Review of Sverigedemokraterna och nazismen [”The Sweden Democrats and Nazism”] by Maria Robsahm (2020)

Reproduced by kind permission from Daniel Bragman, Stockholm, Sweden

For some decades now, it has been a tradition that Swedish parties have chosen a flower for their logo. In 2006, Sverigedemokraterna (SD, Sweden Democrats) changed their party symbol from a flaming torch in the form of a Swedish flag to a flower, Hepatica nobilis. The change marked a symbolic transformation from the parties Neo-Nazi origins in the 1990s and its populist adaptation to the Swedish party landscape, rewarded in 2010 with entry into the Swedish national parliament, Riksdagen. A year earlier, SD released a campaign song, “Blåsippans väg” (“The Way of the Hepatica”), which hails the flower as a symbol of resistance: “[…] where almost everyone sells almost everything to come to power / I turn my back / and look to the ground / there is a little flower, so simple in its glory.” Stepping down from the paved driveway everyone follows slavishly, the first-person narrator goes on to describe the Hepatica: “By the little flower / standing alone and glowing / the threads of which go down in the soil thousand years or longer / I see a little trail.” This is the challenging, steep and narrow “Trail of the Hepatica” which we have to choose even in rain and storm in order to overcome our cowardly enslavement and which finally will lead us to success.

Given the prominence of Swedish botanist Carl von Linné (1707–1778) who introduced the binary nomenclature of naming species in nature, it comes as no surprise that the Hepatica of SD sooner or later would be categorized more carefully. In 2018, artist Daniel Bragman designed a botanical poster titled “Swedish Plants” picturing the “SD-Hepatica with its characteristic brown roots”. Above soil, the Hepatica blooms beautifully, but its invisible roots (according to the SD-campaign song “thousand years or longer”) are formed as a swastika, nurturing what is visible to all. Despite desperate attempts to distance the party from these roots, the relationship between Nazism and SD is now explored in a book written by journalist and former EU-parliamentarian Maria Robsahm (previously Carlshamre), Sverigedemokraterna och nazismen (Vaktel: Eskilstuna 2020, pp. 106). To make it clear from the beginning, the book is not written with academic pretensions but provides an overview of available facts based on available sources. This is its major advantage and ties into Robsahm’s tireless efforts of public enlightenment, very unpopular in our era of alternative facts. Livia Fränkel and Emerich Roth, Swedish Holocaust-survivors have written two engaging prefaces to the book, reminding us of that those who experienced the true consequences of Nazi politics are legitimate voices of political analysis in our own times.

The first and largest part of the book (until p. 65) is devoted to SD and Nazism. It starts off with the argument that the SD is in active denial and ignorance about its own historical origins and what is done to deflect and suppress this memory. Even SD party members are not aware of the immediate history of its formation and the official party line is one of denial. Robsahm carefully recalls the establishment of SD in 1988 as a bizarre collaboration between surviving Swedish Nazi sympathizers (such as the Waffen-SS veteran Gustaf Ekström) and skinheads, a tension between low and high culture right-wing extremism that has survived in the party to this day and makes it attractive to large segments of the electorate. Already then, SD proclaimed that open references to the Nazi-era had to be disguised (even if as late as 1995 images show party members dressed in uniform, raising their right arms and posing in front of the swastika-banner of the ‘Third Reich’).

But although the party officially denies or deflects its Neo-Nazi origins and organizational continuity back to the interwar era, party members still continue to express sympathy with historical national socialism, anti-Semitic positions and conspiracy theories or with more radical Neo-Nazi organizations, such as Nordiska Motståndsrörelsen (NMR, the Nordic Resistance Movement) in Sweden. In part 3 of the book (pp. 89–104), Robsahm has assembled no less than 88 media and social media references, neatly tagged with QR-codes to make it easier for the reader to directly access them.

One prominent rhetorical strategy of SD is to shift blame on other parties (“We are as little or as much Nazis as the others”). This was, for instance, explored in a SD-documentary produced in 2018, blaming the Social Democrats for complacency with the Hitler regime and for introducing Nazi-style politics in Sweden. Another strategy frequently referred to is the ‘zero tolerance’ of racism (“Everyone who is openly racist is excluded from our party”). This position has led to quite a number of exclusions and has also nurtured the formation of splinter groups to the right of SD such as the right-wing populist party Alternativ för Sverige (AfS, “Alternative for Sweden”). Robsahm claims that this strategy, however, rather must be understood as a method of power-preservation from the side of the party leadership who understands that the image of a properly dressed ‘social conservative’ and trustworthy politician must be upheld at any price. The third strategy is that of blunt denial (selective memory or willful amnesia) both of the party’s Neo-Nazi origins, controversial statements and of any resemblances of political positions with historical Nazism or fascism (“We have never had anything to do with the past and our policies cannot be compared to other periods of history”). Thus, SD navigates a course of considerable ambiguity related to the past and to the analysis of its contemporary ideological positions, which is well documented in chapter 1.

Chapter 2 is a reckoning with a typical position in the Swedish national debate, in which it is claimed that SD has nothing to do with the German Nazi past, since “nothing is written in the party program about extermination camps.” Robsahm reminds us that this was not the case in the NSDAP and presents a Swedish translation of the 1920 version of its party program without further analysis. In part 3 she returns to 88 references in both traditional and social media that prove that Nazi sympathies of SD-members are not a matter of the past nor of a few ‘nutters’, as it frequently is stated. The amount of references is indeed overwhelming. It is also obvious that Robsahm’s references potentially could be expanded into a more thorough search.

In the age of disinformation, fake news, conspiracy theories and alternative facts, Robsahm’s book comes as a healthy reminder that available information from time to time has to be gathered and documented. As such, her book operates from an overarching epistemological assumption that facts are able to persuade in their own right due to their very facticity. While this partly is true, neither production nor presentation of facts are of course completely neutral. From a strictly academic point of view, it would have been desirable to document the reference section in part 3 more carefully since no distinction is made between the type and trustworthiness of quoted media, nor are dates given for original publication and retrieval. It is also not entirely clear how these sources have been selected apart from “more or less [at] random” (92). Nevertheless, they are extremely significant for a proper assessment of the actual and factual right-wing discourses SD is a part of.

Sverigedemokraterna och nazismen is clearly a book directed towards a general audience. It addresses an urgent need to provide solid references concerning the tainted history of SD, its official strategy of denial and its party culture, persistently enabling more or less open Nazi sympathies to be aired – at least in private. Thus, ample evidence is presented that confirms how SD (similar to its radical right-wing populist sister parties in Europe) is engaged in front-facing and back-facing rhetoric displaying a significant tension between the official party line and representatives of the ‘grassroots’. Robsahm also points at that this dualism even is exploited in a plethora of (more or less officially) SD-managed social media accounts in which true members of the party’s followership and fake accounts outperform each other in aggressive and abusive language. For sure, Robsahm’s book fills a void somewhere between academic research and ardent activism.

However, some levels of analysis cannot be presupposed among a general readership, for instance how many of the original 25 points of the NSDAP program from 1920 have morphed into the party program of SD in its contemporary rhetoric of ‘calculated ambivalence’ (Wodak 2015). The issue of historical comparison, although bitterly needed, is tricky and contested. Some parts of the book rather read as historical accounts of the cruelty of the Waffen-SS than that we understand how the raw brutality of direct violence of the past is translated into more subtle positions of indirect and cultural violence of the present. Nevertheless, in times when the mainstreaming of SD in Swedish politics has arrived at a zenith and the conservative parties more or less entirely ignore the toxicity of a political ideology with obvious Nazi roots, Maria Robsahm has written a book that serves as a memento: no one who reads it can ignore the warning signs. And those who read it and continue normalizing the SD are complicit in a strongly undesirable political development from which we should learn from the past.

Dr Andreas Önnerfors is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Associate Professor of History of Ideas at University of Gothenberg. See his profile here.

© Andreas Önnerfors. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).