Photo by Christian Storm
Last November, the Swedish newspaper Expressen published a leaked video that showed neo-fascist members of Swedish parliament running amok through the streets of Stockholm, wielding pieces of scaffolding pipe and shouting slurs like “Paki” and “little whore” at innocent bystanders. They are members of the Sweden Democrats, a political party that was a marginal outlier ten years ago with no hope of ever getting elected to parliament. But in a 2012 opinion poll, the Sweden Dems came out with 11 percent of the vote—which would make them the third most popular party in the country.
At first glance, the upswing of fascism and racism in Sweden appears surprising. The nation has no long-lasting history of colonialism, and far-right movements played a relatively insignificant role in 20th-century Sweden. So how did this ragtag group of anti-immigrant nationalists rise to such a prominent place in Swedish politics? And what made the Swedish people vote these hooligans into parliament?
Fascism seems totally out of place in Sweden, an affluent country with a well-functioning welfare system. But in the past couple of decades, xenophobia has festered under the surface of prosperity. Starting in the early 1980s, a handful of racist groups emerged, the most notable among them Bevara Sverige Svenskt (Keep Sweden Swedish). Distributing flyers that instructed Swedish girls to “avoid unprotected sexual intercourse with Negroes with deadly AIDS” and demanding “repatriation” of non-Nordic immigrants, the BSS functioned as a breeding ground for far-right activists. In the mid-80s, fascist rallies were held in central Stockholm to commemorate the death of the 18th century’s King Karl XII, a figure they positioned as their founding father. These rallies, which included hundreds of drunk skinheads communing with sweater-wearing fascist grandfathers, often ended in street fights and wanton violence. Swastikas and Hitler salutes were common sights.
The Sweden Democrats rose from the ashes of this milieu. Formed in 1988, the party was a coalition between ex-members of the BSS and leading figures of Nazi organizations like Nordiska Rikspartiet (Nordic Nations Party). The party spent the early and mid-1990s mobilizing the far right against the Swedish political establishment.
Although sectarian Nazi parties formed in Sweden as early as the 1920s, their “national movement” never gained much traction. The country’s postwar economic boom was made possible by large-scale immigration. In the decades after WWII, the number of Swedes who immigrated from foreign countries increased from about 100,000 to almost 600,000. The Social Democrats’ ideological vision of folkhemmet (the people’s home)—an exclusively Swedish community that spanned all social classes—involved eugenics programs and oppression of the Romani and Sámi people; however, the bulwark of Swedish socialism largely kept the nationalists at bay until recent times.
In 1992, after the serial killer and bank robber John “the Laser Man” Ausonius shot 11 immigrants in Stockholm, the Sweden Democrats arranged a march during which participants screamed that he should have shot more foreigners. A year after, police arrested the leader of the party’s youth wing at a Communist May Day demonstration for possessing a hand grenade.
In the late 90s, however, the leaders of the Sweden Democrats began to methodically sever their far-right connections. Skinheads were excluded, explicit anti-Semitism was dropped, and references to race were discouraged. By cutting its umbilical cord to Nazism, this violent party whitewashed itself into a softer, more respectable opponent of multiculturalism. In 2001, the party split in two, with the anti-Semitic and more militant factions founding the ultranationalist Nationaldemokraterna (National Democrats). The Sweden Democrats strategically presented themselves as invandringskritisk (immigration critical) and socially conservative rather than explicitly fascist. Led by Jimmie Åkesson, a respectable and smartly dressed young man with a self-proclaimed interest in “history,” the party received 160,000 votes in the 2006 parliamentary elections.
Aware of the increasingly anti-Islamic sentiments in Europe, the Sweden Democrats shifted their demonization to Muslim immigrants and scapegoated them for what the party alleged to be social decay in Sweden. They went so far as to appoint Jewish members to top positions and began to aggressively push a pro-Israel foreign policy. As Åkesson put it, Islam was the “biggest foreign threat [to Sweden] since the Second World War.”
With their carefully calibrated underdog image, the Sweden Democrats gained significant support over the next few years. Some former Social Democrats, discouraged by their party’s involvement in dismantling the welfare state, found the Sweden Democrats to be a source of stability, community, and tradition. The party appropriated the Social Democratic vision of folkhemmet and turned it against its designers, accusing the Social Democrats of having betrayed the Swedish people by submitting to multiculturalism, feminism, and “mass immigration.”
In the 2010 election, the Sweden Democrats finally garnered the votes necessary to enter parliament. They received 5.7 percent of the popular vote, becoming Sweden’s sixth-biggest party. Not only did the party win 20 seats in parliament, they were also rapidly assimilated into the public sphere. Right-wing pundits argued that the rise of the party provided a reason to “debate immigration.” At the same time, many journalists didn’t know how to classify them—some commentators on the left argued that the Sweden Democrats should be described as fascists. The mainstream media took a more neutral stance, calling them “immigration critical.” This was a significant understatement, given that the Sweden Democrats have essentially advocated stopping immigration altogether.
Key to the Sweden Democrats’ credibility was the civilized and cultured appearance of their party’s elite. All of the young men who served as members of parliament looked proper, dressed in suits (often with a little handkerchief in their chest pockets), and were well-spoken. Over and over again, they claimed that the Sweden Democrats were not a racist party per se; they were only advocating a “restrictive immigration policy.”
Statements made by party members regularly contradicted this claim. “For many thousands of years, the Negro could chill out in the heat, munch some bananas, rape some passing woman or child, fight with other Negro males, and eat them,” one local Sweden Democratic politician, Per Wahlberg, wrote on his blog in September 2010. Some months later, another local Sweden Democrat named Isak Nygren said that he opposed “race mixing” and that Swedes should not have intercourse with “Asians” or “Negroes.” In May 2012, Solveig Renhammar-Metus left the Sweden Democrats, infuriated by the fact that “the Jews control the party.” The same summer, local politician Pär Norling said that practicing Muslims should be deported and Islam should be banned in Sweden. Member of parliament Stellan Bojerud, author of a book called Nazism in Sweden 1924-1945, claimed that scientific research shows that immigrants have a “lower IQ” than Swedes.
Eventually, the party elite had to clamp down on the racist rants. This past October, party leader Jimmie Åkesson sent a letter to all elected Sweden Democrats announcing that the party would enforce a zero-tolerance policy against racism and extremism. Åkesson asserted that instances of racism and extremism were “exceptional cases” within a party made up of “engaged, intelligent, and lovely persons.” According to his letter, a few bad apples were spoiling the serious work of all the other devoted critics of Islam and immigration. Unfortunately for Åkesson, it would be less than a month before the iron-pipe scandal unfolded in the news, and the respectable veneer of the party was quickly buffed away by the naked truth.