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'Brown Shirts in Suits': How the Far Right 'pro-Israel' Sweden Democrats Dishonestly Deny Their Antisemitism

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Protesters show placards as Sweden Democrats party leader Jimmie Akesson gives a speech to campaign in Malmo, southern Sweden, on August 31, 2018
Protesters show placards as Sweden Democrats party leader Jimmie Akesson gives a speech to campaign in Malmo, southern Sweden, on August 31, 2018Credit: AFP
Mikael Nilsson
Mikael Nilsson

At first glance, the statement made by Israel’s new ambassador to Sweden, Ziv Nevo Kulman in his first interview with a Swedish newspaper, that the Jewish state and its representatives would not engage with parties with neo-Nazi ideologies, or with a government that went into coalition with them, hardly seems controversial. 

But the ambassador’s comments are more consequential than they might seem, as the Swedish neo-fascist party to which Kulman was referring, the Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna, or SD) is rising in the polls while continuing its mendacious efforts to rebrand itself as both ‘moderate’ nationalists – and ‘pro-Israel’ to boot. 

Naturally, Kulman received a slew of hateful and openly antisemitic comments on Twitter from SD supporters who did not, apparently, realize that they were proving his point.

This isn’t the first time Israel has made its strong antipathy towards SD known. In 2016, its foreign ministry refused to allow the party’s European Parliament representative, Kristina Winberg, to participate in a meeting of conservative parliamentarians in Jerusalem with then-Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely. The boycott, Hotovely explained, was because Winberg was a member of a party "with neo-Nazi tendencies."

Indeed: The SD was founded in 1988 by a number of veterans from the Swedish neo-Nazi and white supremacy movement, such as the Nordiska Rikspartiet (Nordic National Party), Bevara Sverige Svenskt (Keep Sweden Swedish), Framstegspartiet (Progress Party), and Sverigepartiet (Sweden Party). 

SD’s first leader, Anders Klarström, came from the Nordic National Party, and one of the older founding members, Gustaf Ekström, had been a volunteer in the Waffen-SS during the war; his role, for part of the time, was to churn out antisemitic propaganda. Ekström’s later (in)famous comment on his Nazi role? "I regret nothing." His assessment of the Holocaust? Just "war propaganda."

Gustaf Ekström, bottom right, in his Swedish Nazi Party uniform in the 1930s.Credit: Bosse Schöns Archive, Sweden

The current leader of SD, Jimmie Åkesson, joined the party in 1994, a time during which party members were still wearing SA-style uniforms and openly fraternized with neo-Nazi movements such as Vitt Ariskt Motstånd (White Aryan Resistance).

In 1997, leading SD representatives gathered in a church in Stockholm together with members of Nationalsocialistisk Front (National Socialist Front) to celebrate the 17th century Swedish warrior king Karl XII, and in 1998 SD’s election campaign was co-financed by Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen’s far right National Front. 

The party has since ostensibly severed its ties to neo-Nazi and openly fascist organizations, and adopted a cutesy blue and yellow flower as its logo. However its party cadre has an unfortunate habit of serially getting caught in compromising situations where it’s clear they support the neo-Nazi far right. 

Just in the last few years, since SD’s ‘moderate’ reinvention, its finance spokesman Oscar Sjöstedt was heard in a recording re-telling with a laugh how his far right German co-workers in an abattoir in Iceland kicked around sheep carcasses shouting: "Die Juden!" No less than 11 party members have been linked to online purchases from stores that sell Nazi memorabilia and racist goods. 

One regional candidate bought items from the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement; his Facebook account featured posts praising Hitler, calling Arabs rapists and pedophiles, as well as a photo calling Anne Frank "the coolest Jew in the shower room." One of its parliamentarians has declared, referencing a media group with Jewish roots, "no family or ethnic group should be allowed to control more than five percent of the media." 

No wonder the president of the Swedish Jewish community’s council warned that they remained a neo-Nazi party, but made over: "Articulate, talented and very dangerous." She went on: "They are Nazi sympathizers who, under their jackets, are still wearing their brown shirts."

Daniel Bragman's caustic take on SD's rebranding: 'Some roots are browner than others'Credit: Daniel Bragman/Facebook

In fact, while I was writing this article, Saga Sievert, a representative from the media council of SD’s youth organization, Ungsvenskarna (Young Swedes), published an opinion piece in the online libertarian/conservative newspaper Bulletin in which she endorses the Nazi idea of "entartete Kunst" or "degenerate art," the phrase used by the Nazis to designate and effectively outlaw cultural works by Jews and anti-fascists, as a role model for how Sweden should act with regard to Swedish gangster rap. 

The neo-Nazi website Nordfront was impressed: "It is a wise parallel [Sievert] draws, but it could also be the last she writes as a member" of the SD’s media council.

The Nordfront writer then speculates that, "deep down," Sievert "does not like the liberal democracy that pushes cultural Marxism and on us, but that she would prefer a National Socialist society." He enjoys Sievert’s use of term "National Socialist" rather than the "Jewish pejorative 'Nazi'" when describing the Hitler regime. Ambassador Kulman’s understanding of the Sweden Democrats is thus entirely on point.

Ungsvenskarna, incidentally, was formed in 2015 after SD cut off its previous youth organization due to ideological differences. Its former chairman, the pro-Putin and vehemently anti-immigrant Gustav Kasselstrand, who led the youth wing’s first major demonstration, against what he called "anti-Swedishness," had long argued against the "unconditional" pro-Israel party line, and particularly its rejection of a Palestinian state, claiming that it both conflicted with nationalist values and that it did not actually reflect the views of the party’s members or the electorate. 

Together with two other disaffected SDU officials, Kasselstrand then formed the more openly fascist party Alternativ för Sverige in 2018. The similarity to the name of Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland was, of course, no accident.

In Stockholm, a woman arrives to cast her vote in 2018 elections dominated by a stormy debate on immigration, a scenario that the far right hopes to replay in 2022Credit: AP Photo/Pietro De Cristofaro

Racist extremism and fantasies of mass violence against immigrants and political opponents are common themes among SD politicians and supporters alike. 

During the migration crisis in 2015, SD politician Gunilla Schmidt wondered on social media if somebody could not get up on the bridge over Öresund (the strait which forms the Danish–Swedish border) to greet the refugees with an automatic rifle.

Just recently, Stockholm police arrested a 61-year-old engineer, radicalized online, who had become a fervent SD supporter. In his home the police found guns, knives, ammunition, plenty of ingredients to make explosives, a kill-list of journalists, university researchers, and politicians and plans for committing acts of terrorism. He expressly wished to become a Swedish Breivik. Yet, he didn’t face terrorism charges, but was instead convicted of lesser offenses, and was jailed for only three and a half years.

Back in 2006, the Sweden Democrats won only three percent of the vote and didn’t even make it into the Riksdag. Today, however, it claims around 20 percent of the popular vote.

The mainstream parties on the right already know that, following the 2022 elections, their only hope to form a government will be in coalition with SD. Already, the four-party Alliance, a conservative and liberal coalition (in government 2006–2014) has split over this issue: the liberal Center Party refuses to sit in government with SD. 

One of SD’s leading officials and the second parliamentary Deputy Speaker, Björn Söder, infamously stated in 2014 that Jews cannot be full members of the Swedish "nation" if they also want to retain their Jewish identity. Four years later, he reiterated the same thinking: Jews and other minorities such as the indigenous Sami community may have Swedish citizenship but they "are not Swedes."

Bombproof glass shields the Jewish community center's reception area in Malmo, Sweden, part of the extraordinary measures needed to protect Jewish community institutions against antisemitic attacksCredit: AP Photo/Pamela Juhl

Söder’s justification of such blatantly antisemitic statements were especially revealing. He distinguished between "membership of the state," a bureaucratic term indicating only citizenship, and "belonging to the nation," a kind of metaphysical category with almost religious overtones. 

This is, by the way, the same stratification as that expressed in the NSDAP party program, and which Hitler argued for in "Mein Kampf," expressed as the semi-citizen category Staatsangehörig and the full-citizen category Staatsbürger (or Volksgenosse). 

Reflecting that, Article II of the Nazi Reich Citizen Law of 15 September 1935 stipulated that a citizen of the Reich was someone, in addition to being of pure German blood, "who, through his behavior, shows that he is both desirous and personally fit to serve [the nation] loyally.

The same idea, albeit without the explicit reference to blood and race, is expressed in the SD party program where it says that a person born into another "nation" can opt into the Swedish nation by showing loyalty to Swedish traditions, culture and history.

Far right Sweden Democrats party leader Jimmie Akesson, before his personal rebranding, interviewed in a basement in Stockholm, Sweden in 2010Credit: AP Photo/Niklas Larsson

And just as in the Nazi case, made explicit by Gottfried Feder in his 1923 pamphlet Der Deutsche Staat auf nationaler und sozialer Grundlage, a native member of the nation can also prove himself unworthy of membership in the "nation" by showing a corresponding disloyalty. 

This is not a democratic ideology. It is an expression of deeply racist, anti-liberal, and anti-democratic ideas, and it is only a small step between creating the concept of a two-tiered citizenship to proclaiming that only those belonging to the ‘higher’ one of these categories should enjoy full legal and voting rights. 

The idea that citizenship should be conditional on behavior or loyalty is already part of conversation in the parties looking to cooperate with SD in a future government. Their iteration is that citizens who are immigrants (ie not ‘real’ and ‘inalienable’ Swedes) should have their citizenship revoked and expelled if they commit a crime. 

This is indeed implicit in the dichotomy itself, since a citizen who "chooses" to remain outside of the "nation" constitutes a potentially subversive element, and thereby an active threat, to the state that represents it and, perhaps even more so, to the mythic "nation" itself.

Söder, by the way, has a history of fraternizing in neo-Nazi circles himself, once posing with the Waffen-SS veteran and postwar extreme right politician Franz Schönhuber.

Sweden Jewish Youth: Björn Söder, we remember & will always remind you how you've cozied up to Nazis

For the sake of its past and its present, SD is greatly invested in an intense disinformation campaign intended to re-write 20th century Swedish history. A central part of this narrative is to blame the Social Democrats for the shameful eugenics and race biology in Sweden during the first half of the 20th century, its forced mass sterilization program, and perhaps most importantly: to pin responsibility for "collaboration" with Hitler and Nazi Germany during WWII on the centrist Social Democrats.

That contention completely ignores the fact that Sweden provided massive amounts of help to Finland, Norway and the Allies, as well as being the only nation in the world that had a government plan to save Jews from the Holocaust (in the end saving tens of thousands of Jews from certain death). It also ignores the fact that nothing in Swedish policy was motivated by sympathy with Nazi Germany.  

The Social Democrats, so the SD propaganda says, are in fact the real Nazis and antisemites. The rationale is as simple as it is moronic: If all parties have an equally problematic past, then either everyone or no one is guilty. In other words: "Nothing to see here."

This historical revisionism is clearly not motivated by a genuine, high-minded desire to elucidate modern Swedish political history. It is entirely driven by the wish shared by both mainstream parties and the Sweden Democrats, to whitewash SD’s sordid attributes in order to legitimize a joint coalition after the next election. 

The huge problem with the Sweden Democrats, however, is not only what the party was founded on back in 1988, but what its foundations are today. 

Sweden Democrats celebrating during Sweden's election night in Stockholm, September 14, 2014.Credit: AP

Up until a couple of years ago, SD still talked about different nationalities having different biological "essences." The phrasing in the party program was only changed in 2019 after heavy criticism of this blatantly racist nonsense from political opponents and journalists alike.

However, the meaning is the same: there are fixed and fundamental differences between e.g. white Christian Europeans and non-white, especially Muslim, non-Europeans, even if the current SD language chooses to couch that in ‘cultural’ rather than ‘biological’ terms. 

SD’s ideology is clearly fascist. It expresses a culturally and socially revolutionary, conservative ultra-nationalism that envisions a national re-birth, or palingenesis, led by the visionary extreme right vanguard. 

According to this narrative, the nation, indeed Western civilization as a whole, is on the verge of implosion after a long period of decline. The once proud, masculine nation is now rife with feminized men, liberal-Marxist gender ideology, multi-culturalism and Islamization, with a concomitant epidemic of violent crime. The nation, just like its women, it is said, are under threat from the barbaric horde of "others."

In contrast to traditional conservative prognoses, SD wants to construct a new nation and a new human on the rubble of the old.

Ironically, despite this fascist worldview, to which antisemitism is innate, and with the serial, storied antisemitic behavior of its activists, it should not be surprising that SD is a noisily self-declared supporter of Israel. Its supporters commonly sport Israeli flags in their social media profiles. Söder has himself posted a selfie wearing a T-shirt with the Israeli flag on it, wishing "victory" to Netanyahu's Likud, the SD's "sister party." 

'[W]e are keeping our fingers crossed our sister party Likud with Benjamin Netanyahu will win!'

Lest anyone still thinks, after at least a decade of far right gaslighting about how being pro-Israel must mean a genuine concern for Jews: No, this is absolutely not proof that SD are not antisemitic. What SD is doing is from the same playbook at the Alternative for Germany, a far right party with similar trouble keeping its in-house antisemites under control. Antisemitism does not look like it did a hundred years ago, or even 50 years ago. It is an ideology that evolves, adapts, and changes with the times. 

Today it is not all that uncommon for white supremacists and even outright Nazis to express support for Israel as a state. One example is U.S. neo-Nazi leader Richard Spencer who calls himself a "white Zionist." That support is predicated on seeing Israel as a model militant ethno-state that these extremists long to implement in their own countries, and that Israel is part of the bulwark against the ‘Muslim invasion’ threatening the West.

Placard at a Berlin protest against anti-Semitism adopts the language of the far right AfD: To stop the 'Islamization' of GermanyCredit: FABRIZIO BENSCH/ REUTERS

A performative pro-Israel stance is an obvious shortcut for far-right parties embedded in antisemitism to ‘prove’ that they’re not antisemites, after all. These are not the kind of friends that Israel wants to have, but that offer of support is nonetheless often welcomed with alacrity on the Israeli right. 

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enthusiastically collected ‘pro-Israel’ hard right populist allies, part of a "Judeo-Christian" bloc, who adamantly refused to criticize Israeli policies on the Palestinians, from Trump's GOP to Brazil’s Bolsonaro to Hungary’s Orban.

And the Israeli newspaper that serves as Netanyahu’s megaphone at home, Israel HaYom, predictably slammed the Israeli ambassador’s rejection of the Sweden Democrats as "controversial," giving a concise, but telling, explanation: "In the past, the Sweden Democrats did adopt far-right positions, including sympathy for fascism and Nazism. However, in recent years it has become a staunch supporter of Israel" (my italics). 

Election poster of Jimmie Akesson, right, leader of the far-right Sweden Democrats in Flen, 100 km west of Stockholm, Sweden in the lead-up to the 2018 electionsCredit: AP Photo/Michael Probst

The mainstream conservative and liberal parties (and sadly even the Social Democratic Party, which considers it necessary to portray itself as taking an increasingly harder line on issues of immigration) in Sweden have opted to adapt to SD’s ideology and rhetoric to such an extent that two of the three parties have essentially committed political suicide and are unlikely to make it into parliament again. 

The reason being, of course, that you cannot beat the fascists on their home turf: Why would anti-immigrant voters choose a party that adopts only parts of the SD program when they can go directly to the source and have the whole package?

Recent polls show that both the Liberals (Liberalerna) and the conservative Christian Democrats (Kristdemokraterna) currently run the risk of not passing the electoral threshold of 4 percent. In fact, the Moderates (Moderaterna) is the only traditional conservative/liberal party that still has a large following (above 20 percent).

So then: is SD an antisemitic party? Not in the sense that antisemitism is openly expressed in its party program. SD is a mass party and antisemitism is not an ideology one can build a mass movement on in a Scandinavian country in the 21st century. 

The Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism (SKMA) has noted that SD is "flexible" in its position on antisemitism: Against it when it suits the party – especially when it serves its mainly Islamophobic agenda – but also flirting and fraternizing with openly antisemitic views, people, and organizations in other instances.

What is clear is that Israel and Jews are only an instrument for the Sweden Democrats to be weaponized for its war on Muslims as citizens and on immigration. In calling out SD as a neo-fascist party with roots in Nazism, Israel’s Ambassador Kulman has read the party correctly and the Israeli government, and other Western governments, would do well to stay away from it.

Mikael Nilsson is an historian based in Stockholm, Sweden, specializing in Hitler and National Socialism. His latest book is "Hitler Redux: The Incredible History of Hitler’s So-Called Table Talks" (Routledge, 2020). Twitter: @ars_gravitatis

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