The Labyrinth

In Berlin before World War II, there was a Swedish colony of residents, people visiting or lingering in the city. How did they relate to the development of the society? Critical media at home, in Sweden, were few and there was no visible anti-Nazism collective. Speaking up, boycotting, departing from the masses, organizing in counter-movements did not become a celebrated generic reaction until after the war.

Today, the developments in Germany would have been questioned by the public. Writers, associations, networks would have written critical articles, made statements, organized travel boycotts, arranged demonstrations outside the embassy, demanded of people to openly take a stand. A solidarity association would have been formed, as well as social media groups; a convoy would have travelled to Berlin to support the country’s democratic forces.

Presumably. Whether people today would have understood what was happening and acted accordingly is not easily assessed.

But Swedish Nazi resistance in Nazi-German did exist. A clear and teeming testimony is found in the historian, cultural writer, and cultural personality Vilhelm Scharp’s memories of Germany and Nazi Germany in the 1920s and 30s, collected in Labyrinten [The Labyrinth] and edited by historian Andreas Åkerlund.

Vilhelm Scharp, born in 1896 in Stockholm, was only ten years old when, after the family split, he was placed at Lundsberg’s boarding school. Recurrent depressions led to writer’s block, self-sabotaging perfectionism, and interrupted studies. Despite failing health, Scharp managed to get a bachelor’s degree in literary history and history – followed by a degree in poetics and history.

This kind of exam, a master’s degree, earned Scharp the professional title historian and the right to seek positions at universities. On recommendation, he was offered a position as a foreign lecturer at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin, at the time one of the world’s prestigious universities. From Berlin, Scharp described what happened in the streets, in parks and at election rallies where Nazis gave public propaganda speeches.

He gained insight into and participated in the verbal and strategic battles among foreigners in Berlin, at the embassy, and in the Church of Sweden, where he was chairman of the youth association.

A second home was the Italian restaurant Taverne on the corner of Courbière-Strasse. Various Nazi critics and other skeptically minded personalities met here between 1930 and 1938. The regulars at the tables under the obligatory portraits of Mussolini and Hitler – expanded by the restaurant owner with a cosmopolitan selection of other portraits – consisted of students, university teachers, diplomats, artists, art dealers, foreign journalists, film, and theatre people.

The restaurant milieu included Arnold Zweig, author of the first great war novel Sergeant Grischa, and friend of Freud, who called Scharp ‘the prevented writer’, and singer Ingrid Wiksjö from Frösön in Jämtland, then celebrated soprano, ’Die schwedische Nachtigall’, who entertained Taverne’s guests with her knowledge and stories.

As a good listener, Scharp became closely acquainted with Jakob Bollschweiler, better known as the artist Bollsch. Acute financial problems had contributed to the artist’s assumption of office, gaining Hitler’s favour and a rapid career. Something he did not want to discuss, but rather told the anecdote about a rich lady’s assertion of dogs’ natural play ability. The artist had countered the lady by placing himself at the lady’s feet, barking, implying that dogs could not play; after all, they were predators who practiced for the natural hunting deprived of them by their matron.

Of course the artist’s argument and act says more about the Nazi-infested artist than about the lady and the dog. And it shows the Nazis’ questionable perception: the phenomenon of ‘play bow’ in dogs – the ability to play physically and mentally, to fight playfully and not seriously – was verified, symptomatically, not by Nazi German quasi-research but by American ethologists (much later).

According to Scharp, Bollschweiler, like many artists of the time, was ’politically clueless, but responsive to flaming appeals and promises’, unable to withstand ‘a giant wave of audiovisual propaganda that washed over Germany and especially its capital’ after the half-takeover on January 30, 1933. Fortunately, Bollsch’s art was not affected by ‘the muscularly heroic aesthetics of the Germans’, ‘pre-buried Baroque, a woody Düsseldorf romanticism, postcard-dry act models’, as he died in a plane crash in 1937 and was thus saved ‘from withering away among the court decorators of the Third Reich’.

After the seizure of power in 1933, uniformity began through bootstraps, military music, and the songs of the youth movement the Wandervogeler movement, obligatorily placed flagpoles on homes, balconies, and balustrades – an ‘operatic decoration effect in the cool spring breeze’, ‘a numbing mass wave of mass suggestion’, testifies Scharp. How Nazi propaganda could be experienced by people unaccustomed to advertising is illustrated by how a Jewish lady, a relative of Arnold Zweig, and friend of Scharp, despite her rejection of Nazism, during a passing Nazi parade, had to put a handkerchief in her mouth so as not to tune in to the cheers of the crowd.

Among the 60 percent eligible who did not vote for Hitler in the 1932 Reichstag elections were those who felt both despair and hope. And among those who experienced the latter, there were many who wanted to keep themselves unaware of the fact that the party atmosphere was being paid for with brutal abuse and hate campaigns. Foreign tourists reported home that the Germans had rallied behind Hitler. Thus, it only took a few years for Hitler to stage the rearmament, violate the Treaty of Versailles, and occupy the Rhineland.

The European parliaments, horrified by the Bolsheviks in Russia, buried their heads in the sand – or, secretly, preferred Nazism to communism. For the establishment, Nazism could emerge as a useful tool against the ‘red threat’. The combat pilot Göring made many visits, behaved believably, and was admired by chivalrous English opponents as a guarantor of Hitler’s nobleness.

The Chancellor of the Weimar Republic, Frans von Papen, the man who persuaded Hindenburg that Hitler could be controlled, ambassador in Vienna in 1938 and in Ankara from 1939 to 1944, also participated with charm in international hunting parties – also in Sweden, Scharp says. Not many managed to see through the intricate deceptions of the Nazis. For example, one of the more reputable newspapers in England, the London Times, in a high-profile editorial hailed Hitler ‘as an honest guardian of justice and moderation’.

Journalists who wrote from Berlin to wake up the non-vigilant could be called ‘horror painters and churnalists’ and were dismissed as hysterics and victims of the ‘greuel propaganda’. Some sought to reach out to the public using irony, but many were censored by their editors. Critical journalists reporting from Nazi Germany had their articles rejected, Scharp recalls. The exception was the American editorial boards.

American journalist Edgar Mowrer reported analytically and with knowledge on the political situation in a series of articles in the Chicago Daily News in 1932, whereupon he was ousted out from the Third Reich – and awarded the Pulitzer Prize in the United States in 1933. The American Hubert Renfro Knickerbocker, journalist, and author, nicknamed ‘Red’ (because of his hair colour), wrote cluelessly about Italian fascism and Mussolini – however subsequently showed insight with revealing and well-written reports about Nazi Germany, a series that, unsurprisingly, led to his deportation.

But most English-speaking journalists were not in the right position to understand what was happening, Scharp says. William Shirer came to write an extensive and widely circulated historical work on Nazism – The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960) – in which the Nazi ideology is portrayed as unique to Germany; this interpretation of uniqueness was, according to Scharp, a delusion: Nazism was rather one of several cases of totalitarianism that arose in several European countries.

In this context, Scharp mentions the often-overlooked Swedish advertising cartoonist and sports journalist Rune Carlsson; as very knowledgeable he, according to Scharp, authored ‘the best introduction to the rise and world of ideas of Hitlerism in Swedish’: Tredje Rikets herrar och andra, 1945 [The Lords and Others of the Third Reich]. It may be added that Rune Carlsson is featured in Barbro Alving’s (the signature Bang) documentary book Det kom aldrig i tidningen (1963), in the chapter ’I skuggan av en stövel’ [‘In the shadow of a boot’], p. 52, about reporting from Nazi Germany in 1937.

In the spring of 1933, cultural celebrities from other countries were invited to testify to the supposedly positive development of society. Some were pre-excluded, including Elsa Björkman-Goldschmidt, Swedish Red Cross delegate in Russia 1916–1918, director of Save the Children’s activities in Vienna 1919–1924, journalist in Vienna 1928–1938. Elsa Björkman-Goldschmidt later became a member of the Samfundet De Nio in 1950 and editor of the Swedish Literary Journal in 1958.

The female names are otherwise not many in Scharp’s memories, which is why those mentioned should be remembered: Helga Stene, lecturer in Berlin, rock-solid against Nazi overtures, resistance woman and feminist during the war, is one such person. She lectured in Sweden and Berlin and fought against the Nazis in the characteristic organization Parents resistance. The Swedes Sven Hedin and Fredrik Böök, on the other hand, served, Scharp argues, as calming ‘reconciles for those Germans who, out of their own eyes’ testimony, had begun to doubt the pentecostal gospel speakers, swastika banners and bootstraps’.

Since his years in Uppsala, Scharp was friends with Karin Boye and Herbert Tingsten; all had been active in the Clarté movement. Scharp, Karin Boye, the sisters Märta and Ulla and a number of other intellectuals published the magazine Spektrum in 1931–1933, in which Scharp introduced André Gide and Gunnar Ekelöf’s translation of his play Falskmyntarna [The Counterfeiters].

In January 1932, Karin Boye visited Scharp to engage in psychotherapy; during the stay, Boye and Scharp, and a couple of other friends, went to listen to Göring’s propaganda speech for Hitler as a presidential candidate. Swedish tourists in Berlin, clueless or positive about what was really going on, could then be seen strolling around with blue-and-yellow swastika buttons on homemade ill-fitting SA uniforms, and appeared ridiculous even to those who wore the original.

All the while circles in Sweden, for instance the newspaper Dagsposten, to which the German state provided financial support, and with the Swedish-German Association as a platform, prepared for accession to greater Germany. Scharp experienced how Nazism grew and sought to sound the alarm in Swedish newspapers. In Nya Dagligt Allehanda he described 1934, under a pseudonym, since he was then a state employee in Hitler’s Germany, the seizure of power and ‘the night of the long knives’ (June 30 and July 1, 1934).

Public opinion in England and Sweden were thoroughly affected by Hitlerian human discrimination. Swedish cultural life was well infiltrated; in October 1935, the Berlin University Chorus was welcomed at the Stockholm Opera, citing ‘noble German theatrical traditions’. The choir played Aeschylus The Persians, the classic drama of the victor’s compassion for the defeated – ‘a cynical and planned cultural political hoax action’, ‘a deceitful celebration of the victor Hitler’s noble courage against his beaten enemies’, comments Scharp.

This occurred three weeks after the executioner’s cut in the Nuremberg Law’s Aryan clause when Germany’s Jewish population was excluded from civil rights, and this ‘in a country’, Scharp writes, ‘where they, for generations, have made contributions to cultural and social life’.

The production at the Stockholm Opera literally played into the hands of the Nazis. There was also a micro level of cultural propaganda: German language teachers were sent as fellows to Scandinavia and England to spread Nazism in an appetizing and deceitful way with language examples à la ‘The Führer has created order’ (in German). The fellows then reported home on various social circles and their attitudes towards the Hitler Empire. As Scharp writes, the system was carefully thought out. For the propaganda, ‘grammar examples had a higher coefficient than swastika pamphlets’.

William Scharp and other Nazi critics in Berlin behaved professionally; sometimes spectator-wise, sometimes with direct protest. At first, Scharp sought to maintain strategic contacts within the Nazi Party, and in 1931 he tried to get an interview with Goebbels and sketch out a study plan for Göring’s son, which, however, resulted in Göring trying to get him removed from the lectureship. Herbert Tingsten shared Scharp’s opinion on Hitler’s Germany and visited the friend in Berlin until 1936. Through contact with Göring, Scharp was able to arrange a meeting between Tingsten and Göring, according to Tingsten in an article in Dagens Nyheter 8/7 1962, ’Möte med nazismen’ [‘Meeting Nazism’].

Although Scharp’s teaching at the university was supervised by a uniformed SA student, it seemed, by its own admission, as ‘fresh air vents for responsive misfits in the realm of the new community of people’. In Scharp’s eyes, Germany was a problem child of Europe whom it was dangerous to allow to isolate, and he warned against abandoning the democratic forces in the country.

Together with the Vicar of the Church of Sweden, Scharp acted against the Ministry of Propaganda, and especially two Swedish-German friendship associations that conspired to make a Nazi coup in the Church of Sweden in Berlin. Daringly, Scharp also sought to correct Nazis. In 1933–1934, he published three articles in their own periodicals with content that runs counter to the view the Nazis often had of Sweden. The message is directed against racial ideology and the right of the strong and advocates a Swedish democracy practice with roots in Engelbrekt.

The lectureship in Berlin lasted until Scharp was fired by the Nazis in 1936. The dismissal was preceded by the interruption in 1933, when, on Göring’s initiative, he was to be replaced by a Nazi, but after critical publicity in Swedish newspapers was allowed to keep the position. When he finally lost it, he had experienced the Weimar Republic for five years and the transition to the Nazi dictatorship for three years. Back in Sweden, Vilhelm Scharp took the position as grammar schoolteacher at the newly built Sveaplan gymnasium for girls in Stockholm.

With anti-Nazi purpose and on behalf of the Foreign Ministry, Scharp made eight trips to Berlin after his repatriation. He became involved in the anti-Nazi associations Nordens Frihet and The Tuesday Club – one of the lectures he gave at these associations is included in Labyrinten [The Labyrinth]– and participated in helping exiles, including his wife Isabel Neuberger, who at the end of the war fled Berlin with her valuables sewn into her clothes.

Scharp acted as a reporter and consultant to the Swedish government on Nazi German propaganda in Sweden and on the Swedish Nazis’ contacts with the country and he became active in the governing body of the Cooperation Board for Democratic Construction Work (SDU), founded in 1943 by Alva Myrdal, Torgny Segerstedt and Herbert Tingsten. On the board, he was active with study circles, courses and lectures that taught Swedish-style welfare state democracy to refugees in Sweden.

After 1945, Scharp took a seat as a member of the Swedish Institute’s lecturer council and in the 1950s he wrote several articles for Dagens Nyheter, such as ’Hitler som fredsängel’ [‘Hitler as angel of peace’] and ’Gäster hos diktaturen’ [‘Guests of the dictatorship’]. Scharp also criticized Swedish historical research for a lack of interest in the refugees, the German emigrants to Sweden must be interviewed, he said, as they had gained insight into ‘the most skilled and effective political counterfeiting workshop that has existed to date’.

In 1944, Scharp began working on a retrospective documentary book that would depict the memories of the rise of Nazism and its ideological roots, a book on the historical evolution of Nazism: How could a civilized, liberal, and democratic country like the Weimar Republic become Nazi?

The thesis Scharp wanted to champion highlighted, among other things, the importance of Wandervögel – the youth movement that propagated independence, against discipline in school, against nationalism and chauvinism, but which after the First World War began to celebrate the opposite: honor, duty, uniforms, and obedience, as well as learning to use weapons as toys at an early age. The movement developed rapidly in an anti-humanist, primitivist direction and turned into easy prey for Nazism.

That’s how Scharp understood the development of Nazism, says Andreas Åkerlund. The publisher Wahlström & Widstrand expressed interest in publishing the script, but sadly Scharp died (1978) before the project was completed. Andreas Åkerlund further believes that Scharp’s position was indeed actively anti-Nazi – but based on what we know today about Nazi German policy and its methods, it can still be called naïve.

It should be borne in mind that it is only in the late 1960s and in the 1970s that to openly take a stand on burning international issues becomes an exemplary compassionate attitude. And then partly as a reaction to the general appeasement during World War II.

The collection contains, in addition to the essays, an extensive interview from 1929 with Vilhelm Scharp’s generational comrade Erich Maria Remarque, the author of the soldier testimony of World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929).

  • Vilhelm Scharp, Labyrinten, Minnen från Tyskland under 1920- och -30-talen och andra skrifter, utgivna av Andreas Åkerlund, Stockholm: Kungliga biblioteket, 2016.
  • Föredrag av Vilhelm Scharp, Sveriges Radio, 1963.
  • Barbro Alving, Det stod aldrig i tidningen, Stockholm: Bonniers, 1963, se Litteraturbanken.
  • Rune Carlsson, Tredje rikets herrar och andra, Stockholm: Sohlman, 1945.

Originally published in Swedish 5 December 2021 AAM #18


© Arimneste Anima Museum # 21/22