Thursday, May 26, 2016

T H E  V I S I B L E  W A L L

Jews and other ethnic outsiders in Swedish film

Rochelle Wright

Though virulent or violent anti-Semitism has been rare in Sweden anti-Jewish sentiment has nevertheless been evident at least from medieval times. As in the rest of Europe, it may ultimately be traced to religious and clerical sources though in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, opposition to the Jewish presence was also widespread among merchants and craftsmen who saw them as competitors. 

The influx of Eastern European Jews moreover coincided with the national romanticism of the 1890s, a movement that fostered ethnocentricity by idealizing Sweden’s glorious past, by regarding provincial, agrarian society with nostalgia, and by promoting insular values.

Negative depictions of Jewish characters are not uncommon in Swedish literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; August Strindberg’s Röda rummet published in 1879 (The Red Room 1967) and Det nya riket (The New Kingdom), published in 1881, both contain portraits that a present day reader would likely find offensive. 

The anti-Semitic views of fellow writers Bengt Lidforss (1868- 1913) and Ola Hansson (1860-1925) were emphatic and well publicized. Lidforss in particular attacked the poet and critic Oscar Levertin (1862-1906) claiming that as a Jew he was constitutionally incapable of appreciating Germanic (that is Swedish) values. Literary scholars Henrick Schück, Karl Warburg and Martin Lamm were similarly subjected to anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Popular literature and art of the time mirrored the attitudes of the culture that produced and consumed it. Albert Engström’s widely circulated weekly humor magazine Strix, published from 1898 to 1924 featured numerous cartoons that caricatured Jews in an especially blatant manner. 

They are depicted as ugly hunched over and hook nosed; they are greedy, calculating, unscrupulous and often stupid; and they are foreign-born, as indicated phonetically in the dialogue captions. At the turn of the century such cartoons appeared as often as every other issue. Though the frequency of the motif declined in later decades, the coarseness of the caricature remained fundamentally the same.

Anti-Semitism in Sweden had little impact as an organized political movement, but beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing through the 1930s the pseudoscience of radical biology provided additional ammunition. Since proponents of the doctrine believed that Jews constituted a separate race the negative characteristics previously attributed to them on religious grounds now were proclaimed to be hereditary and hence immutable. 

In Uppsala, Herman Lundborg at Rasbiologiska Institutet (the Institute for Racial biology), founded in 1921 expounded racial theories that incorporated moral as well as physical characteristics and distinguished between various social classes of ethnic Swedes as well as different non Swedish groups. His formations included pronounced elements of anti-Semitism and xenophobia and during the 1930s his view came more and more to reflect those of German National Socialism.

Through the Swedish Nazi Party never played a significant role in politics, its racial tenets - the belief that Germanic or Aryan peoples were intrinsically superior to other ethnic groups - had considerable appeal to isolationists, agrarian interests The 1933 platform of Bondesforbundet (the Farmers Party codified this presumption in the following passage:

It is a national task to protect the Swedish people from admixture with inferior foreign racial elements and to oppose immigration to Sweden of undesirable foreigners. The preservation and strengthening of our distinct ethnic characteristics are of vital importance to our development as a nation.

During the 1930s, furthermore, propaganda directed against individual prominent Jews or Jewish families and against Jewish owned business became more virulent; it was claimed, for instance, that the Bonnier family, owner of Sweden’s largest publishing house, exerted an undue, pernicious control over Swedish cultural and literary life. 

As Hitler’s anti-Semitic campaign intensified, the possibility of mass immigration of continent Jews to Sweden aroused widespread opposition because it was perceived as both an economic threat and an assault on racial purity.

Swedish legislation and official policy of the 1930s promoted social justice and equality as the foundations of the Welfare State. Governments cannot, however, regulate social attitudes. Though it may seem odd, given their small numbers, that Jews as a group would be viewed as a threat, there can be no doubt that in the decade or so before World War II, anti-Semitism increased and became, at least in its milder forms, more acceptable to broad segments of the Swedish population. 

In Judarna i Sverige (The Jews in Sweden), historian Hugo Valentin presents a convincing case that this development corresponded with the increasing dominance of Hitler and the dissemination of anti-Semitic propaganda that was generated or influenced by Nazism. Valentin concludes:

“It is certain that millions of eyes, and not only benevolent eyes, were turned to the county’s Jews and that people were widely inclined to magnify their faults and ignore their virtues.”

Valentin is discussing social attitudes in general rather than their specifically filmic representations, but his visual metaphor is nevertheless telling, for the evidence demonstrates that cinematic anti-Antisemitism also intensified during the same time period the fact that films before and after the 1930s do not reveal the same concentration of the motif, suggests a correlation to contemporary events.

Published with kind permission from
Southern Illionois University Press
Rochelle Wright