Carinne Sjoberg and Hugo Edlund. Kristoffer Pettersson

What Drove This Young Swede to Quit His neo-Nazi 'Cult' and Fight anti-Semitism Instead

Against the backdrop of a surge of anti-Semitism in Sweden, a former neo-Nazi and a former Israeli team up to turn the tide



STOCKHOLM – “I don’t know if you know who I am, so I will start by pointing out that until about a year ago, I was an active member of the Nazi organization the Nordic Resistance Movement,” the message that Carinne Sjoberg found in her email in-box last month stated, by way of introduction.

Sjoberg, a former Israeli who lives in the northeastern Swedish city of Umea, was surprised by the message from a local teenager named Hugo Edlund, but it was clear to her why she had been chosen to receive it. A resident of Sweden since the 1980s, she is a member of the city council of Umea, a city of 90,000 people, only a few dozen of whom are Jews.

About a decade ago, Sjoberg, who is a teacher by training, and several associates established a small Jewish cultural center in the city. The center conducted educational and other community activities with the aim of reviving Jewish life in the area and acquainting the local public with Jewish customs. Jews and non-Jews alike attended the events, which included activities to mark the Jewish holidays, dialogue encounters, lectures and exhibitions.

The center was a success, but at a certain stage, during 2017, it came under a shadow. It was here that Hugo Edlund entered the picture, albeit indirectly.

“One day I found stickers pasted on the center’s windows, with messages like ‘Beware of mixing with foreigners,’” Sjoberg relates. “A photograph of Hitler covered the Star of David on the sign above the door. Afterward, people were observed taking pictures of the area in front of the center and of the cars in the parking lot. We took that as a threat. We didn’t have a fence, there were no security guards. People began to feel stressed.”

Behind the ominous activity was the Nordic Resistance Movement – and worse was to come, Sjoberg says. “They even got to my house. Flyers with quotes from ‘Mein Kampf’ appeared in my mailbox.”

In some cases, members of the neo-Nazi organization approached Sjoberg physically. In November 2017, she recalls, “when I concluded my remarks as the representative of the Jewish community in the memorial ceremony for Kristallnacht, I found myself surrounded by a human wall. Local politicians and others had formed a [protective] circle around me. At first I didn’t understand why, but then it turned out that neo-Nazis had been there all along. Afterward, a police vehicle began to follow me around.”

Sjoberg, a member of the Liberals (formerly the Liberal People’s Party, a center-right grouping), says the developments did not frighten her, but attendance at the center dwindled: “Sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors said there was no one to protect them and simply stopped coming. Parents were afraid to send children, and some said that maybe we should lower our profile in order not to draw fire. My view was that there was no point to the activities if they had to be done in secret.”

In the end, in May 2018, Sjoberg says, it was decided to terminate the activity of the Jewish center. It was against this background that Hugo Edlund’s email arrived. Even more surprising was how its text continued: “A while ago I decided to leave the organization, because I reached the conclusion that it is destructive and has elements of a cult. That is my past, and today I am ashamed of it.”

Kristoffer Pettersson

He added that even though he had not been involved in the activity against Sjoberg, he was distressed by the organization’s actions and was now trying to change and to act more positively and productively. “My personal apology is the first thing I want to send,” he wrote. “Besides that, I would like to know if you would agree to meet and talk.”

Sjoberg used her contacts in the local police and the municipal government to ascertain that Edlund’s message was genuine and that she was not in danger. When she was satisfied with its authenticity, she accepted his invitation to meet. “It was a good meeting,” she says. “I had nothing personal against him. My heart ached for him and for the fact that there are so many others like him.”

Sjoberg says she learned from Edlund that the Nordic Resistance Movement, which is active not only in Sweden, but also in Norway and Finland, attempts to recruit teens from schools in Umea.

“They simply take advantage of their naivete,” she says. “Hugo is a good boy, nice and not aggressive. The neo-Nazis find kids like that and recruit them into their ranks. The society turns a blind eye. In the end, if the adults don’t address manifestations of anti-Semitism and [they continue to] ignore racism – it should be no surprise that youth are easily recruited into organizations like this.”

‘Grotesque “Holocaust” lie’

The Jewish community in Umea is not an isolated case: The Jews of Sweden have been coping with overt anti-Semitism for the past decade. Some of the most widely reported assaults occurred in 2017: Molotov cocktails thrown at a synagogue in Gothenburg while a youth activity was underway inside, extreme anti-Semitic slogans shouted out during a pro-Palestinian rally in Malmö, and a march of neo-Nazis through the center of Gothenburg on Yom Kippur that year. Around the same time, firebombs were thrown at Malmö’s Jewish cemetery, which had also been targeted in previous years, as part of a string of attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions in the city.

The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention last year published a report on hate crimes in the country. In 2018, the report stated, there were 7,090 reported hate crimes (up 11 percent compared to 2016 and 29 percent more than in 2013). The biggest rise was recorded in anti-Semitic hate crimes: 280, a surge of 53 percent from 2016.

In addition to actual cases of physical violence, many reports have recently appeared in Sweden about a threatening atmosphere, harassment and verbal abuse of Jews. One case that was widely reported in the Swedish and international media involves a Jewish physician in Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm.

In an interview with Haaretz last week, the physician said that he and his Jewish colleagues suffered for years “systematic discrimination and injustice” from their department head: “The head of the department created a hostile working atmosphere, published anti-Semitic cartoons in the social networks and made anti-Semitic remarks in the workplace.”

Kristoffer Pettersson

The doctor also related that his superiors and other senior figures in Karolinska had tried to cover up the matter, a claim that was confirmed in January in a report issued by the Swedish Ombudsman’s Office.

Additionally, on the “Big Brother” reality show here, two contestants were thrown off the program for expressing anti-Semitic sentiments during small talk about jobs. When one of them mentioned his Jewish boss; the other responded that she hated Jews. A third contestant, who wasn’t removed, had tattoos of Nazi symbols.

Concurrently, a neo-Nazi was sentenced to a six-month prison term for harassing two journalists and a senior lawyer and for sending threatening anti-Semitic messages to all three women.

It’s against this background that the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement (Nordiska Motstandsrorelsen, or NMR, in Swedish) operates. Officially founded in 2016 on the basis of a previous organization, the Swedish Resistance Movement, it is the latest in a chain of neo-Nazi movements and parties that have been active in Sweden since the 1930s. It is also active in neighboring Norway and Finland. The NRM proclaims admiration of Hitler, disseminates anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, uses Nazi terminology and cultivates hatred of a host of enemies: gays, migrants, Jews, Muslims and anyone who’s suspected of advocating feminism, globalization, multiculturalism and democracy.

Many in the movement have a history of violence, crime and prison time, but there’s a political arm as well. The party received only 0.03 percent of the vote in the 2018 general election in Sweden, but two of its representatives won seats on two of country’s municipal councils. In recent years, under the aegis of the laws of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, the movement has held marches and demonstrations throughout Sweden. In many cases these develop into violent confrontations with the police and with counter-demonstrators.

Hugo Edlund, who’s now 18, joined the movement when he was 15. His texts still appear in his name on the movement’s website. At one stage he referred to those fighting against the organization: “This has included psychologists who try to ‘cure’ us of our worldview, police who play us films of the grotesque ‘Holocaust’ lie, interviews with social services, parents who arrange meetings with ‘defectors,’ Reds who leave us threatening messages, pressure from the Swedish Security Service, expulsion from the armed forces, and so on. The list is long” (from the organization’s English-language website).

“At first, I didn’t take an interest in ideology,” he says now. “I was drawn to the visual side – the flags, the uniform, the shields. The struggle against the police also attracted us, and so did the fact that the organization had a lot of opponents. NRM members see it as a rebellious organization, interesting and cool, which is what made me and a childhood friend start to follow them.”

What did you actually do in the movement? What is the character of the activity?

“The truth is that most of the time it’s just sitting and talking. There’s more internal than external activity. Every week there was a social encounter; we would meet in someone’s house and talk. Once a month there was a meeting in the basement of the district chief, and many times afterward there was an activity such as a demonstration or handing out flyers. Sometimes we would read something or study the movement’s platform.”

Courtesy of Hugo Edlund

The movement’s platform explicitly invokes the term National Socialism and an array of symbols that are evocative of the 1930s. It is replete with racist doctrine (a call to limit immigration to “ethnic northern Europeans”), anti-Semitic conspiracy theories (the need for an all-out struggle against the “global Zionist elite”), Nordic nationalism (a call for unification of the Nordic countries and an immediate withdrawal from the European Union, which is considered an enemy of the people), evocations of fascism (a strong state for the people) and patriotic romanticism (preserving the Nordic essence, being in harmony with the laws of nature, doing compulsory military service and arming the general public).

How many of you were there, and what was your common denominator? Who were your partners in the activities?

MARKKU ULANDER / Lehtikuva / AFP
Kristoffer Pettersson
Courtesy of Hugo Edlund

“In our city, there were seven-eight active members, maybe 25 in the district. Most of them were older, there were only two women. There was a feeling of belonging and of deep partnership. There was an atmosphere that said we needed to defend ourselves, and of course not talk to the police. The district chief would laugh and say, ‘If you talk to the police, we’ll shoot you.’”

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