A World Gone Mad: the wartime diaries of Astrid Lindgren

But still—are we doing as much as we should? Posterity will no doubt be the judge of that.

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It is forgivable, I think, to be slightly fatigued by WWII. Especially in the UK, it represents a time and an atmosphere so deeply romanticised as to be almost fictional. The “Blitz Spirit” is invoked by people who want to take the country back to a status quo that never existed as uniformly as they’d like to think; grainy black-and-white photos of wartorn and occupied nations don’t manage to convey very much in the way of individual characters being formed under horrific circumstances. What I liked about the wartime diaries of Astrid Lindgren, author of the Swedish children’s classic about anarchic redhead Pippi Longstocking, is that this collection gives us a perspective on the war that Anglo-American education often ignores: that of the Nordic countries, sandwiched between aggressive Germany and bloodthirsty Russia, and in particular that of Sweden, which maintained official neutrality throughout the conflict.

That neutrality is a moral stance, although it pretends not to be one. Lindgren is constantly reminding herself of how lucky they have it: there’s very little food rationing, and their Christmases and birthdays often include veritable feasts. In 1940, she writes,

It’s become completely clear to me that, as things stand, there’s no country in Europe left so untouched by the impact of the war as here. …To my mind, our rations are so generous that anyone who bought all that we are entitled to would end up in dire financial straits.

Lindgren is more aware than most, one suspects, but even she isn’t free from complacency. The next year, directly after paragraphs describing the “intolerable food situation” in France and Finland, and the public executions in German-occupied Norway, she describes their new flat:

We now have a lovely big living room, the children each have their own room and then there’s our bedroom. …I really don’t want it to get bombed.

It’s a trifle difficult to summon up any sympathy at this point.

A semi-permanent strain in writing about the war, particularly modern-day writing about the war, is the question of how much people knew about the Holocaust and German/Russian atrocities at any given time. Despite the evident presence of Nazi apologism in the UK during the 1940s, it’s obvious that Lindgren is pretty well aware of what’s going on. This is probably at least in part to do with her work at the official government censor’s office: she has access to letters that demonstrate, first-hand, just how bad the situation is in the rest of Europe. Her growing awareness is painful; here’s a snippet from 1941:

A profoundly sad Jewish letter, a document of its time, crossed my desk today. A Jew who had recently arrived here in Sweden sent a fellow Jew in Finland an account of the transporting of Jews from Vienna to Poland. …Some sort of instruction arrives by post and the individual concerned has to leave home. …Conditions on the days leading up to transportation, during the journey and on arrival in Poland were such that the letter-writer didn’t want to describe them. …It is apparently Hitler’s intention to make Poland into one big ghetto where the poor Jews are to perish.

One big ghetto, or one big concentration camp. And here is a section from early 1943:

I wonder what the German people really think and feel, faced with the ‘blessings’ of National Socialism. A deadly war killing the flower of youth; the hatred and loathing of virtually all other nations; horrific assaults on defenceless people; torture both mental and physical of the populations of occupied countries; the informer system; the demolition of family life; ‘euthanasia’ for the incurably ill and mentally deficient; the reduction of love to a matter of basic procreation; and—unless all the signs are deceptive—total breakdown of the German people in the not-too-distant future. It’s simply impossible for many Germans not to have realized how royally duped they’ve been by their Führer.

The euthanasia bit is particularly striking; I wasn’t aware that many people outside of the Nazi regime knew about that at the time, particularly not as it related to the murder of differently-abled people and homosexuals. It’s a clear-eyed and condemnatory paragraph, making it even more horrifying to think about the widespread defense of eugenics in Allied countries.

It all seems so terribly relevant to 2016 in many ways. Here’s Lindgren celebrating a Churchill speech:

So different from a Hitler speech! You’d think everyone would realize that only a man with some kind of mental defect could stand up and make speeches like Hitler.

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ANYWAY.

And this, too, rings true, especially when she writes about the tens of thousands of Finnish, Danish and Norwegian refugees pouring into Sweden, and the anti-Semitism that sometimes greets them:

Recently I’ve been reading in Grimberg’s history of the world about ancient Rome and all the bloodbaths and atrocities, proscriptions and wars of conquest. Reading the papers and coming across the same geographical  names, one simply despairs at how little humanity has learnt in the intervening centuries.

So this is, after all, a useful and interesting addition to the panoply of World War literature published in the West. I only have two complaints about the editing of this particular edition. The first is that Lindgren’s diaries included a lot of press cuttings, newspaper articles, cartoons and the like. In this volume, these are not reproduced; instead, we get italicised précises of their contents. For instance: “Press cuttings. One undated and unidentified: ‘The Allied message to the people of Italy’. Roosevelt and Churchill appeal to them to surrender. …Dagens Nyheter, same day: After the bombing of Rome, petrol is free and loaded vehicles stream out of the city.” It’s not clear why these aren’t simply translated from Swedish like the rest of the book; maybe Pushkin thought that would make the whole thing too long, but at 218 pages it wouldn’t be damaged by a little more bulk, and might help to give the reader a better sense of the timelines of the war on various fronts. The other option would have been to reproduce the articles as facsimiles, though I suppose even in black and white this might have been considered prohibitively expensive.

The other issue, which is more confusing for the general reader, is the lack of footnotes. Lindgren writes about her family without explaining background, which is natural in a personal diary, but when personal diaries are published, explanatory notes are usually included. There are at least two instances where this would have been helpful: at one point she mentions her son’s 17th birthday, then writes of her 13th wedding anniversary a few pages later. This seemed unusually liberal, even for Sweden, in the 1940s, so I had to check out Wikipedia (where I discovered that Lindgren was rather a minx: Lars was fathered by her employer when she was nineteen. She refused to marry the man, and instead married another employer, Sture Lindgren, who was eleven years her senior, in 1931.) A brief footnote would have taken five minutes to write and saved the confusion. Likewise, in 1944 she drops several cryptic hints about having “lost everything”; her marriage seems to be going through a rough patch. The two likeliest explanations, to me, are a miscarriage, or Sture’s infidelity, but again, no note, and this time Wikipedia is no help: they never divorced, and no mention is made of relationship troubles. It’s possible that Pushkin thought Lindgren’s marriage woes simply weren’t relevant to the war, which is what the diaries are mostly about—but they were clearly important enough for her to mention in the diaries in the first place, so I think a reader is owed a little bit of explanation.

Those two niggles aside, this is a wonderful and, in places, heart-rending account of World War II, from a perspective not usually prioritised in historical retellings. Neutrality gives Lindgren an unusual objectivity, while Sweden’s geographical position means her account retains a sense of real urgency and investment in the war’s outcome. (Also, it’s delightful to catch her little asides about the invention of Pippi Longstocking!) Definitely one to look out for, especially as this year of global madness winds down.

Many thanks to Mollie Stewart at Pushkin Press for the review copy. A World Gone Mad was published in the UK on 27 October.

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6 thoughts on “A World Gone Mad: the wartime diaries of Astrid Lindgren

  1. ian darling says:

    This sounds absolutely fascinating. Some of the best writing about the war is arguably in the diary genre or in memoirs – Viktor Klemperer, Nella Last, Primo Levi and Lindgren.

    • Yes, I agree – that first-hand perspective is so important in bringing the past to life. My mother, who’s a social historian, got two volumes of Nella Last’s diaries for Christmas a few years ago 🙂

  2. What a shame it doesn’t reproduce the clips and other items. And I’m with your regarding footnotes for published diaries, little explanations are immensely helpful. Still, it does sound like a good book.

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