Illustration Ragni Svensson

Reviews Writing history politically. A safe haven for war criminals?

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds pages 43-45, Vol 4:2010
Published on balticworlds.com on januari 11, 2011

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The tension among politics, justice, and history lies at the heart of the recent book Purgatorium by the Swedish historian Mats Deland. Even though Sweden was formally neutral throughout World War II, it was still intimately drawn into many aspects of the conflict. A neutral state, it was also the destination of choice for many refugees both during and after the war. Among those who sought refuge in Sweden were not only the victims of various persecutions, but, indeed, also persons who had been complicit in persecuting others. Deland’s interest is in exposing how the Swedish state handled this situation.

Within the framework of a government funded “Svenaz” research program initiated by the Social Democratic Prime Minister Göran Persson, a number of projects aimed to shed new light on the relations between Sweden and Nazi Germany, and, more broadly, Sweden and Nazism. One of the research projects in the program was Deland’s investigation of Sweden as the destination for alleged Nazi war criminals in the final phases of the war and its immediate aftermath.

Due to his “Svenaz” affiliation, Deland was able to access certain classified files and documents closed to other researchers, although this did not prevent him from feeling thwarted at times by the overly bureaucratic procedures that hindered his progress. Despite this, after some years Deland managed to amass an unparalleled body of source material on war criminals in Sweden after World War II. The results were far too much to be contained in a single volume. Aside from Purgatorium, which runs to over 560 pages, Deland has also published a separate report1, magazine articles2, and appendices on his Web site3 based on this research.

In Purgatorium, Deland focuses primarily on one group of suspected Nazi war criminals who came to Sweden, the Latvians. Other groups — Germans, Estonians — are mentioned as well, but mainly to contextualize the general historical trends described. Although not the largest refugee group in postwar Sweden, nor the group with the most (in absolute terms) suspected war criminals among them, Deland lets the case of the Latvians exemplify the moral, legal, and political factors that shaped Sweden’s problematic history of dealing with war crimes since World War II.

The occupied Baltic states were the locus of some of the earliest mass atrocities of the so-called Einsatzgruppen phase of Nazi genocide. During 1941 and 1942, hundreds of thousands of Jews, as well as Romanis, Communists, Soviet POWs, and the mentally ill were executed en masse in the Baltic region by the SS men of Einsatzgruppe A and their helpers: German soldiers, German policemen, and local auxiliaries.

These tragic circumstances thus contributed to a sizeable group of perpetrators, both German and local, in the Baltic states. Sweden’s geographic proximity made it an ideal escape route for those who sought to avoid the retribution that could be expected with the collapse of German power and the return of the Soviets to the region.

The book opens with the story of a German policeman who served with an SS unit that swept through small-town Lithuania in 1941, leaving behind a trail of mass graves. This German, who fled to Sweden after the war, was later extradited to face charges relating to his complicity in wartime Nazi crimes. After serving a short sentence in a West German prison, he returned to his family in Sweden, where he remained to the end of his days. As it turns out, he was the only foreigner ever who was extradited from Sweden to a non-Nordic country.

Throughout the Cold War, Sweden never assisted other countries in prosecuting alleged war criminals who had sought refuge there, but nor did it actively pursue prosecuting these persons itself. Deland offers several explanatory factors for this, some legal, some pragmatic, some political. Most significant, however, would seem to have been the political ones.

To set the scene, Deland presents a great deal of detail regarding the situation in German-occupied Latvia during World War II, including the types of atrocities committed there, and by whom. The reader is left with few illusions about the implications that complicity in these crimes would entail.

To his credit, Deland also does a commendable job of portraying the Latvian resistance networks that allowed refugees to escape to Sweden from their Soviet-threatened homeland. Current Latvian historiography has a tendency to emphasize the Latvian National Council (LNC) and its boatlift operations as heroic democratic resistance (as opposed, for example, to the Red Partisans lionized during the Soviet period). This picture of the LNC is, however, incomplete, since it does not adequately deal with the geopolitical realities on the ground at the time. Deland, using Swedish sources heretofore unutilized by historians of Latvia, demonstrates not only the extent to which LNC operations were determined by the support of American and Swedish intelligence priorities (something also discussed by Lena Einhorn previously4), but also the degree of Latvian collaborators’ infiltration of this resistance project for their own getaway purposes. This nuancing of our historical understanding of the LNC offers food for thought to those who would make it the central element of a new, more positive — and democratically teleological — national narrative of Latvia in World War II.

The bulk of Deland’s analysis focuses on the historical, political, and legal context in Sweden. He presents an overview of the development of Swedish legislation concerning immigration, political asylum, and the deportation and extradition of undesirable foreigners. The modern political debate in Sweden on asylum and expulsion was triggered largely by the arrival of political activists (called “terrorists” by some) fleeing Tsarist Russia following the failed Revolution of 1905.

As Deland notes, imperial Russia at the time was generally considered in Sweden to be a “semi-civilized” state without the rule of law. Thus, even though these asylum seekers may well have been guilty of criminal acts in their home countries, this opinion made it politically awkward to justify sending anyone back to an unfair trial. It was therefore eventually decided that persecution by a politicized legal system could be grounds for granting asylum in Sweden to a foreigner, even if their alleged crimes (e.g. robbery or murder) were not “political” per se. Whilst formulated in a Europe of empires that was sliding into World War I, this Swedish law and practice was to live on into the era of totalitarianism.

Deland also gives the reader a good introduction to the history of international criminal law concerning war crimes and genocide. He discusses the Swedish legal and political establishment’s engagement in the issues surrounding the workings of the Nuremburg Tribunal and the negotiation of the UN’s genocide convention. Opinions diverged and there was thus no united Swedish stance on these developments.

Deland defines the two possible approaches that Sweden could adopt as being the “legalistic” and the “realist”. The former is based on a dispassionate application of established legal tradition and practice, whilst the latter is more flexible and pragmatic, with an eye to political expediency. Deland favors the “legalistic” approach as the only one truly compatible with the legal concept of justice; however, as he clearly shows, the weight of Swedish historical developments supported the adoption of the “realist” approach to Nazi war criminals. As with the Tsarist-era revolutionaries, Sweden was loath to extradite persons accused of Nazi crimes to countries whose legal systems it did not view as fair (in practice this meant any non Nordic-country). In order to avoid embarrassing legal situations, the decision of whether to allow extraditions or not was left to be taken at the political level. Another dodge was to allow certain persons with sinister pasts to be naturalized, for the extradition of Swedish citizens was simply not allowed.

At the same time, Sweden lacked the prerequisites to prosecute extraterritorial crimes. Offenses committed outside of Sweden could only be tried in Swedish courts if they involved Swedish nationals or Swedish interests. Even if these criteria were to be met, there was no specific legislation on war crimes or crimes against humanity that could be used. Instead, such acts would have to be classified as murder, manslaughter, and the like — all crimes subject to a rigorous statute of limitations.

As a result of all these factors, no suspected Baltic war criminal was ever extradited from Sweden. After the war, the Soviets were quick to present a list of Baltic suspects for extradition, but again the Swedish authorities could in good conscience refuse on the grounds that the Soviet legal system was as “semi-civilized” as its Tsarist predecessor. By the 1950s and ’60s many Balts who had sought refuge in Sweden were granted Swedish citizenship, thereby closing the door permanently on the issue of extradition to the USSR, or anywhere else.

The terms of the statute of limitations in Sweden also precluded the trying of Baltic suspects in domestic criminal courts by this time. As such, the question of a Latvian refugee’s culpability for Nazi crimes was considered by a Swedish court on only one occasion, in a libel case. The Swedish Communist daily Ny Dag, based on Soviet information, published an article that called the former Latvian police officer Kārlis Lobe a “mass murderer”. Lobe responded by filing for libel. The defense team received legal support from the Soviet Latvian authorities, which provided copies of archival documents that not only implied that Lobe was in charge of the Ventspils police during the massacre of local Jews in 1941, but also that he commanded a unit of Latvian police auxiliaries during brutal SS-led “anti-partisan” operations in Belarus. In the end, the court was convinced that there had been ample evidence to support the newspaper’s statements of opinion about Lobe. Nevertheless, this had not been a criminal case, so Lobe’s actual guilt was thereby never proven.

One reason Deland gives for the lack of prosecution of suspected war criminals in Sweden is based on the poor record Sweden has for incorporating international norms into domestic law. To this day, Sweden regularly receives criticisms for the flawed way in which it applies international legal instruments ranging from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to the EU’s Dublin Convention. Deland shows how slow Sweden was to adopt war crimes legislation and amend its statute of limitations and extradition laws. Only after the end of the Cold War and the wave of genocidal conflicts in the 1990s did Sweden begin to embrace real change in its approach to prosecuting crimes against humanity.

Another reason Deland gives for the Swedish reluctance to prosecute suspected Baltic war criminals stems from the fact that several of them were important for the building up of postwar Swedish intelligence services. As in other Western countries, Balts who had collaborated with the Nazis were seen as unwavering anti-Communists. Furthermore, they had language skills, cultural competence, and even first-hand experience of living under Stalinism and fighting the Soviets in combat. They also had networks that extended into postwar German society. All of these qualities made some refugees highly valuable intelligence assets. Deland describes how the Swedish police and military intelligence services utilized a number of former Baltic collaborators as informants, agents, and analysts. He even goes so far as to call one group he documents an autonomous “Latvian intelligence service” operating from Swedish soil.

Such phenomena were not unique to Sweden; for example, the Americans are known to have acted similarly. Nevertheless, that Swedish intelligence also employed Nazi collaborators during the Cold War is probably difficult for many Swedes to accept.

It is findings like this that make Deland’s book such a trying read for a Swedish audience. A country used to seeing itself as a moral superpower is exposed to tu quoque critique, as time and again political expediency is shown to have taken precedence over historical and legal justice with regard to the question of suspected Nazi war criminals. Indeed, given the way the international human rights conventions are so poorly anchored in Swedish domestic law and practice, Deland is somewhat pessimistic about the future.

There are, however, some grounds for optimism. On the one hand, Sweden actually does have war crimes legislation now, and for the first time it will be tested in the case of a Bosniak former camp guard accused of crimes dating from the war in 1992.5 On the other hand, Deland’s book has been published, making a valuable contribution to the historical debate. It is a good example of what Deland himself calls “writing history politically”: while his personal moral position is clear, he is nevertheless scrupulous in his scholarly, non-polemical treatment of the alleged perpetrators he describes.

Purgatorium is a wide-ranging book that tries to cover a number of complex topics down to the level of individual actors. This, too, can make it a difficult read, as not all the sections are as cogent as others. Nevertheless, those who persevere will be rewarded with many new, reflection-provoking insights. Ideally, it would also be translated for the benefit of a non-Swedish readership. ≈


  1. Mats Deland, En godtycklig historia: Om Sveriges behandling av tyska och svenska krigsförbrytare efter andra världskriget [An arbitrary history: On Sweden’s treatment of German and Swedish war criminals after World War II], Stockholm 2010 (Forum för Levande historias skriftserie [Forum for Living History Series] 9:2010), available online at http://www.levandehistoria.se/files/Skriftserie%209.pdf (accessed 2010-11-02).
  2. For example Mats Deland, “Svensk polis dolde sanningen om Förintelsen” [Swedish police concealed the truth about the Holocaust], Expo, no. 3 (2010), pp. 52–55.
  3. Mats Deland, “Esterna” [The Estonians], available online at http://purgatorium.se/wp-content/Esterna.pdf; “Litauerna” [The Lithuanians], available online at http://purgatorium.se/wp-content/LItauerna.pdf (accessed 2010-11-02).
  4. Lena Einhorn, Handelsresande i liv: Om vilja och vankelmod i krigets skugga [Traveling salesman in life: On will and indecision in the shadow of war], Stockholm 1999.
  5. Swedish Prosecution Authority, “Pressmeddelande: 43-åring åtalad för krigsförbrytelser” [Press Release: 43-year-old charged with war crimes], 2010-10-05, available online at http://www.aklagare.se/Media/Nyheter/Pressmeddelande-43-aring-atalad-for-krigsforbrytelser/ (accessed 2010-11-02).
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Mats Deland, Purgatorium: Sverige och andra världskrigets förbrytare[Purgatory: Sweden and the criminals of World War II] Stockholm: Atlas 2010 568 pages