STOCKHOLM – The four police officers showed up at the building, located in a commercial area of south Stockholm, shortly after 9 A.M. this past June 11. Several of the officers, dispatched by the international and organized crime division, were armed and wearing protective vests. They took the elevator up and found the storeroom, which contained about 150 cartons. Wasting no time, they loaded the cartons onto a waiting truck and drove off. Now all that is required is a court decision to pave the way for the destruction of the contents of the cartons.
This could be the opening scene of a Nordic-noir crime story if, say, the cartons were packed with drugs or if a crime syndicate was involved. But this is a story of a different kind: The items in question belong not to a mobster, but to a comedian. And instead of dangerous substances they are packed with history books.
Aron Flam is a 42-year-old Swedish Jewish comedian who does stand-up, appears in film and on TV, radio and podcasts, and writes books. The subjects he tackles are often complex (such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). He is drawn to slaughtering sacred cows and enjoys spouting controversial political and cultural criticism (especially when it comes to ideas and ideologies that are popular in Sweden, such as feminism and socialism). He has frequently been accused of having ties to the Swedish alt-right and to populist groups, although he presents himself as a liberal and a democrat.
He’s a free-speech advocate who likes to discuss what he calls “culture-specific taboos,” and though his subject matter is often very serious, he’s better known on social media than in academic circles. But the book he published this year took his controversial persona a step further. Its title, “Det här är en svensk tiger,” translates as “This Is a Swedish Tiger” and it deals with, among other subjects, Swedish policy during World War II. In the book, Flam puts forward a radical argument to the effect that Sweden collaborated with Nazi Germany from start to finish. Most historians, in contrast, depict Sweden as a neutral country that leaned toward Germany until 1943, then tilted toward the Allies as the war wound down.
The first two printings, of a total of 5,000 copies, sold out completely, and now, in a highly unusual move, the third print run, of 2,000 books, has been confiscated by the police. Formally, the reason is not the book’s content, but rather a lawsuit over an alleged copyright infringement, centered around the illustration on the cover. But the fact that the author’s claims are controversial and embarrassing to Sweden, as well as perceived as an effort to undermine the country’s national heritage, immediately ignited a trenchant public debate and fierce criticism: Why did the state prosecution take such an extreme step? Is censorship alive and well, even in a free, liberal country like Sweden?
It all started almost 80 years ago, during the war. In 1941, the Swedish authorities commissioned the illustrator and author Bertil Almqvist to design a poster showing a tiger painted in yellow and blue, the colors of the Swedish flag, with the slogan “A Swedish tiger.” This is a play on words, as “tiger” in Swedish can also be a verb meaning “to keep silent.” In other words, the “Swedish tiger” is not only a predator in the colors of the national flag, it is also a sort of sly directive meaning, “A good Swede keeps his mouth shut.” The wording recalls wartime field-security slogans from many countries, such as America’s “Loose lips sink ships” or Britain’s “Careless talk costs lives.”
“During the war that symbol was everywhere – on pencil cases, on T-shirts and on lunchboxes,” Flam says.
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The tiger appears on the cover of Flam’s new book, but unlike its original wartime iteration, his tiger is winking and stretching its right front leg upward, as in a Nazi salute, while the left leg is adorned with a swastika. The animal casts a long shadow behind it.
In Flam’s telling, the tiger is the symbol of a Swedish culture of silence and functions as a kind of joke about that silence. The Swedes, he explains, are strong, silent types.
“Sweden is the only country that takes pride in its silence,” Flam tells Haaretz in a phone conversation, referring to the first lines of the national anthem, lauding the land of the northern hills, which is “joyful, fair and quiet.” “We like silence so much that we sing about it.”
“In contrast to the Americans, we had no ships in danger of sinking in World War II – we were ostensibly neutral,” he says. “That makes one wonder about the purpose of the Swedish silence, and that is exactly what my book is about. The cover is a parody of the tiger, which is to say, a parody of a joke. I deal in the book with psychology, law, politics and philosophy, and it all starts with that joke. Today’s Swedes aren’t familiar with the historical context. They don’t get the joke, precisely because their grandparents got it so well, and maintained absolute silence about what happened in Sweden during the war. To understand a joke, you need to understand the references. The book explains them.”
There’s at least one body that doesn’t appreciate the joke: the Military Readiness Museum, a private institution in the country’s south that owns the rights to the original illustration by Almqvist. According to the museum, the Almqvist tiger is “part of the Swedish cultural heritage,” and no one was authorized to make use of it.
“Their response was very emotional,” Flam explains. “I got a call from a lawyer who is one of the museum’s owners. She screamed at me over the phone and said that I should be ashamed of myself for undermining our cultural heritage.” He adds that “she told the police that she wants every copy of the book, including those that were already sold, to be destroyed.”
After the museum filed a complaint of copyright infringement (in February 2019, after the book’s release), the police entered the picture. They contacted the printer, summoned Flam for an interrogation and seized the entire third print run.
“One morning,” Flam relates, “I suddenly received a text message from the office building where I rent a storeroom. The message stated, ‘The police are here.’”
In contrast to the Americans, we had no ships in danger of sinking in World War II – we were ostensibly neutral. That makes one wonder about the purpose of the Swedish silence.Aron Flam
The police continue to hold onto the cartons, and now the Stockholm District Court will have to decide on the conflict between the principles of freedom of expression and copyright considerations. A trial is set to open September 24. If the prosecution triumphs, all remaining copies of the book will be destroyed and Flam will have to pay the museum 1.5 million Swedish crowns (about $171,000).
The state prosecution insists that no censorship of content is involved in the case, only the issue of rights. “The books were impounded because the cover is inseparable from the book itself,” a press communique stated.
Flam: “The chief prosecutor in the case claimed I was ‘desecrating’ the original work by placing a swastika on it. If they think my work desecrates Swedish heritage, that is their right, but satire is not supposed to be polite and respectable.”
Both the Swedish prosecutors and the museum turned repeated requests from Haaretz to speak with their representatives.
The Swedish public has not been indifferent to the state’s dramatic action against Flam. “It’s scandalous,” Thorsten Cars, a senior jurist, wrote in the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. “It is difficult to understand what interest the copyright holders – they are not even connected to the artist himself – have in the prosecution and the confiscation of the books. It is even more difficult to understand how the harm done to the state, the people and its ‘national symbol’ is so severe as to justify prosecution and confiscation.” Like other legal and media observers, Cars characterizes the actions of the police and the prosecution as “gross intervention in freedom of expression.”
The journalist Nils Funcke, who deals frequently with the issue of freedom of expression, found it “strange that the prosecution is taking such a drastic step.” Seizure of the entire inventory of a book is a rare event, he added.
Colleagues of Flam’s – well-known Swedish comedians – also rallied to his defense. “Comedy and humor are a very important part of freedom of expression and public discourse, even in Sweden, a country that lacks humor,” the comedian Sandra Ilar said with a smile, adding that one must not be silent in the face of such a threat.
“It is wrong to prosecute a comic and a writer because he casts doubt and creates satire,” comedian Özz Nûjen said. “That is exactly his job.”
Others go farther in their criticism, accusing the Social Democratic Party establishment of taking action against Flam in order to conceal its own dark history. Even if there is no proof to back up this allegation, it is gaining traction because of the silence of the political establishment on the subject.
The Social Democrats were in power during most of the 20th century, and led a national-unity government during the war. It is still in power today and though it has recently renewed its commitment to combat anti-Semitism, some still accuse it of hiding its dark past.
Writer and musician Jens Ganman had harsh words for the government and the state-owned media in a Facebook post he called, “How can we sleep while our books are burning?” Why wasn’t the justice minister invited to the country’s major news studio to comment on the subject, he asked, and went on to wonder rhetorically, how it was possible that the Swedish police were sent to impound a book, whose author is a Jew, about the Social Democratic Party and its ties with Hitler.
So much for rescues
Flam’s thesis deals with the depth of cooperation and collaboration between the Swedish authorities and the Nazis.
“I maintain that the Swedish Social Democrats [the ruling party in Sweden then and now]started to work with Hitler even before he rose to power,” he says. “The Swedish account of history leaves out the fact that Sweden was dependent on Germany and collaborated with Berlin before and during the war. Most Swedes today don’t know this, but Sweden was Germany’s ally from 1933 until 1944, by which time the war was already very much over. Only then did Sweden announce that it would cease to do business with Germany.”
Flam, who has a master’s degree in economics, also addresses that aspect of the story. “The Germans needed weapons, Sweden had the materials to manufacture weapons (iron and ball bearings), and the Swiss banks were able to launder the money that changed hands in these transactions. Sweden supplied Germany with the components without which no modern army can operate.”
When it comes to the results of Sweden’s policies during World War II, Flam goes so far as to maintain that the Swedish welfare state “is built on gold that was stolen from Jews and other European peoples.”
He also greatly minimizes Sweden’s vaunted rescue operations on behalf of Jews in the war: the saving of the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, the asylum granted to the Jews of Denmark and the so-called White Buses operation involving the Swedish Red Cross, which extricated refugees from concentration camps in areas under German control during the final weeks of the war.
“I would say that none of it is significant,” he says provocatively. “The goal of Folke Bernadotte [the Swedish diplomat, who negotiated the release of thousands of Jews from the camps, became the United Nations mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict and was assassinated by the Lehi pre-state underground, in Palestine in September 1948] was not to save Jews. He collected Jews along the way and then wrote a book explaining what a hero he was. The case of Denmark’s Jews [who were smuggled into Sweden by the Danish underground] is similarly complex. They placed the Swedish government in an embarrassing position and were taken in for reasons of public image. Regarding Raoul Wallenberg, as far as I understand he was a hero – there’s always an exception.”
Though Flam’s claims in the book are debatable, it’s a fascinating project, which jumps between disciplines and historical periods. He draws a line and demonstrates connections and similarities between Sweden’s policy in World War II to the Swedish establishment’s attitude toward Israel and toward antisemitism in Sweden itself, before, during and after the war. Not everyone will agree with Flam’s conclusions, but even many of those who don’t are convinced that the mobilization of the police and the state prosecution against him is both extreme and unwarranted. His book, they say, should be debated, not destroyed.
“You don’t have to agree with Aron in order to support him,” says Nûjen, the comedian.
We ask Flam, who says he will appeal the case if the court rules against him, if he thinks there’s an effort afoot to silence him.
“If that’s what they’re trying to do,” he says, “they’re doing a very bad job of it. I insist on my right as a satirist to make fun of things that people think are sacred. Does freedom of speech exist without the right to parody? I think not, but I’m not objective. I’m only a comedian.”