Having a founder who volunteered in the Waffen SS, churned out Nazi propaganda and worked out of buildings confiscated from Jews doesn’t sound like a promising pedigree for a political party in one of the world’s most liberal democracies.
And yet these highlights are all part of the CV of one of the founding fathers of the Sweden Democrats – the far-right populist party that made a splash in September’s general election and has essentially deadlocked Swedish politics.
Ever since the party gained 17 percent of the vote, making it nearly impossible for any political force to form a government without it, Sweden and the rest of the world have been scrutinizing the Sweden Democrats over its ties to neo-Nazi groups and fascist ideologies.
A trio of Swedish journalists and researchers – Johan Ulvenlöv, Matti Palm and Anders Larsson – had a head start: They have been investigating the life of party co-founder Gustaf Ekström for years.
“There has been this debate about why the mainstream parties cannot talk with the Sweden Democrats,” says Palm. “People ask, ‘What do you mean by Nazi roots?’ And this is one of the reasons we wanted to find out more about them. This is one of their Nazi roots, and we followed it as far as we could.”
In 2017, the researchers published a book about their efforts, set to be published in English next year. The work’s original Swedish title, “Utan ånger,” means “No Remorse” and refers to an interview Ekström gave to Swedish TV in 1993, two years before his death. In it, he expressed no regrets for his activities during World War II and dismissed the Holocaust as “war propaganda” and “horror stories.”
While his role as a volunteer in the SS was known, the Swedish journalists have painstakingly reconstructed how close Ekström was to the genocide he denied until the end of his life.
Through documents and interviews with people who knew him, they uncovered new details of his wartime past and meticulously traced the fate of the Jewish victims with whom he crossed paths.
The three journalists were in Israel earlier this month to continue their research, and spoke to Haaretz about their findings.
Ekström, the son of a gymnastics teacher, was born in Stockholm in 1907. He became an engineer and worked for a while in the United States, but returned home in the 1930s, where he joined the Swedish Nazi Party.
In 1941, he left neutral Sweden for Nazi-occupied Norway, where he volunteered to join the Waffen SS – one of around 100-200 Swedes estimated to have done so during the war. In that 1993 interview, he explained he felt pressured by hostility toward Nazis in Sweden and wanted to fight for “justice” and a fascist-dominated Europe.
After training in the elite military units of the SS, Ekström was assigned to the organization’s headquarters in Berlin, where he worked as a translator and propagandist.
We don’t know exactly what documents he produced but, as an example, the researchers note that at this time his office published “Der Untermensch” (“The Subhuman”), an infamous pamphlet based on Nazi racial theories that sought to dehumanize Jews and other perceived enemies of the Third Reich.
“It’s easy to say that if you are not at the front you had no connection to the Holocaust, but it’s not that simple,” says Ulvenlöv. “By working on propaganda at this office with the SS, there is no other way to put it: He was a part of the machinery that made the Holocaust possible. Even though he was just a small cog in that machinery, he was devoted to it,” he adds.
Between the end of 1941 and spring 1942, Ekström also spent some time on the Finnish sector of the Russian front, sending back propaganda dispatches on the heroic deeds of his SS comrades.
But it is in Berlin that his path intertwined closely, albeit by chance, with the main victims of the Nazi regime.
The SS headquarters were spread over several locations in Berlin, and Ulvenlöv and his colleagues found that Ekström worked out of a building on Lützowstrasse 48/49.
“One of the creepiest parts of our investigation was when we saw in the old telephone books of Berlin that this was the address of the ‘Jüdisches Altersheim’ – a Jewish retirement home,” says Ulvenlöv.
Documents show that by early 1941, shortly before Ekström’s arrival, the SS had confiscated the building and evicted its elderly Jewish residents. “We understood people must have lived there before the SS came,” the researcher says. “What happened to all those people? We decided to find them and write down their story.”
According to the 1939 census, there were 256 people living in the retirement home. The place was likely overcrowded by then, and housed not only senior citizens and their caregivers, but also families that had been evicted from elsewhere in Berlin or Germany because of Nazi persecutions, the Swedish researchers say.
When the SS took over the building, they had it renovated at the expense of the Jewish community, repainting the walls and removing stained glass windows decorated with symbols like the Star of David and the Ten Commandments.
The evicted residents briefly moved to other properties owned by the community, some on the same street as the former retirement home. Starting in late 1941, most of them were deported, along with over 56,000 other Jewish Berliners, to ghettos and concentration camps in the east.
Ulvenlöv and his colleagues note how it would have been hard for Ekström to miss the columns of deportees – some from the very same street where he worked – that the Gestapo marched through the city to Berlin’s Grunewald station, where they boarded the freight trains that would take most of them to their deaths.
“He may have even met these people in the street, because some of them lived nearby before being deported,” Ulvenlöv says. “He didn’t see them being taken away? He didn’t hear their screams?”
In their attempt to identify and trace all 256 residents of the retirement home, the Swedish researchers confirmed that at least 167 perished in the Holocaust, while only 7 are known to have survived. The exact fate of the rest is still unknown.
As for Ekström, he continued to work at SS headquarters. By 1942, his office was moved to a former sanatorium, also confiscated from Jewish owners, in the Grunewald neighborhood.
By the war’s end, Ekström was living in Nuremberg, studying chemistry, and looking for a way to escape the advancing Allied armies and return to Sweden. In April 1945, with the help of the local Swedish consul, a Nazi sympathizer, Ekström obtained a seat on one of the so-called White Buses.
These were part of an effort by the Swedish Red Cross, which rescued thousands of inmates from concentration camps in the final weeks of the war.
“A new passport was arranged for Ekström, and he took a place that could have been used by one of the actual prisoners,” notes Larsson.
Aiding Nazi war criminals?
Ekström’s good luck didn’t run out when he returned home. The Swedish secret police was aware of his activities and briefly questioned him. However, they quickly released him, even though he admitted volunteering for the SS.
Ulvenlöv notes that as a corporal in the Waffen SS, had he stayed behind in Germany, Ekström would have likely been arrested by the Allies and would have spent at least a few months in a prisoner-of-war camp.
Back in Sweden, Ekström continued to be in touch with former comrades – spending long periods of time in Germany and visiting South America twice. The purpose and exact destination of these two trips are unknown, though the Swedish researchers suspect Ekström may have been involved in aiding Nazi war criminals who had escaped to South America after the war.
During the postwar decades, Ekström – a chemist by profession – was active in setting up or supporting various neo-Nazi organizations in Sweden and what was then West Germany, while also attending rallies of far-right sympathizers and meetings of SS veterans.
In 1988, he was one of 23 people who attended the founding meeting of the Sweden Democrats, becoming the party’s auditor and remaining part of the leadership until his death in 1995 at age 87.
“There is no doubt there is a straight line between the very first fascist and Nazi organizations in Sweden and today’s Swedish political situation,” the authors write in “No Remorse,” adding, “Gustaf Ekström is one of the men who connects everything together.”
The authors are skeptical about the Sweden Democrats’ frequent pronouncements that it has abandoned its extremist roots and become a national-conservative movement. They claim neo-Nazi activists still have a role in the party and that its senior leaders do not shy away from the rhetoric that was common in the propaganda pamphlets Ekström would have translated or written for the SS.
For example, earlier this year, Björn Söder, a leading party member and deputy parliamentary speaker, wrote on Facebook that the country’s Jews and Sami people cannot be considered Swedish.
“They still think in biological terms, they think that you are either a Swede or a Jew,” says Palm. “So, when they denounce their past, do they really mean it?”