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
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
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.