K. Braskén u.a. (Hrsg.): Anti-Fascism in the Nordic Countries

Anti-Fascism in the Nordic Countries. New Perspectives, Comparisons and Transnational Connections

Braskén, Kasper; Copsey, Nigel; Lundin, Johan A.
Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right
London 2019: Routledge
290 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
David Featherstone, University of Glasgow

This volume brings together an important set of essays engaging with different aspects of opposition to fascism/ the far-right in the Nordic Countries. Through doing so it provides a welcome contribution to the renewed interest in antifascism, particularly through its transnational perspectives and its attentiveness to different articulations of anti-fascist politics.1 Divided into four key sections around ‘Anti-fascism beyond the far left’, ‘Anti-fascist youth activism and militant resistance’, ‘Cultural fronts and anti-fascist intellectuals’ and on ‘Post-war anti-fascisms’ the essays foreground the multi-facetted and diverse aspects of opposition to fascism in the Nordic countries.

A key contribution of the essays is to unsettle easy assumptions about the forms of social democratic engagement with anti-fascism. As Kasper Braskén and Johan Lundin note in their helpful introduction the book builds on the ways in which “Swedish historians have identified fissures and cracks in the image of the homogeneous welfare state and “rediscovered” a past filled with social conflicts and contentious politics” (p. 4). In this way key chapters in the book contribute to a broader revisioning of aspects of social democracy in the Nordic countries and provide really interesting accounts of such contentious forms of anti-fascist, often constructed ‘against the grain’ of mainstream social democratic parties.

Thus Charlie E. Krautwald’s chapter traces forms of militant opposition to the “very limited fascist movement like the Danish one” (p. 92). Krautwald notes that “For some of the young social democrats, a parliamentary response to fascism based on militarily enforced neutrality, appeasement towards Germany and legalistic measures was not enough”(p. 101). He engages with the prominent role of Sergei Tschachotin, who was exiled in Copenhagen as a refugee from Nazi Germany in energising such radical antifascisms. Symbolic innovation such as the “three arrows symbol” which continues to be part of the lexicon of antifascism and articulated in his book Three Arrows Against the Swastika which was published in Copenhagen in 1933 and helped to catalyse a following of “young radical academics in the DUS and the social democratic student organisation” (pp. 101-102).

In similar terms Johan Lundin’s chapter on the relations between Social Democratic Youth (SSU) and antifascism in Sweden provides an important lens on aspects of contentious opposition to fascism. Thus Lundin discusses the role of SSU clubs in shaping a substantial agitation against fascism through leaflet handouts, billing, speeches and meetings’ (p. 118). These chapters don’t gloss over the important tensions between Communists and social democrats which, as elsewhere, exerted significant pressures on formations of durable left alliances against fascism. They also suggest, however, the importance of going beyond straightforward characterisations of different left traditions as either ‘moderate’ or ‘antagonistic’.

In this respect the chapters offer significant perspectives on some of the different modalities and spaces of anti-fascist politics. Thus in their chapter Ragnheidur Kristjánsdóttir and Pontus Järvstad note how after the Nazi takeover in Germany in 1933 Communists in Reykjavik urged workers to intercept the loading of the German ship Diana which was ‘sailing under the Nazi flag’. Holger Weiss’s chapter develops an engagement with such maritime antifascisms in depth through a detailed discussion of the campaigns of the Communist-affiliated International of Seamen and Harbour Workers against Nazism. Weiss notes how such antifascisms were conducted despite the opposition of mainstream Swedish and Norwegian seafarer’s unions who saw boycotts and actions ‘against German ships in Scandinavian ports’ as disruptive tactics. Thus he notes that in Norway “boycotts were declared breaches in the industrial peace” and Swedish unions leaders saw such action as “nothing more than an unauthorised ‘wild’ strike and an illegal protest” (p. 135).

Different chapters give a fine-grained sense of how different spaces emerged as sites of claims and counter claims over the rights to assert political presence. A particular vivid sense of these struggles emerges in Martin Ericsson’s chapter on ‘anti-fascist race biology’. The chapter discusses in detail a violent attack by members of the National Socialist Party of Sweden on a lecture on The Nordic Race by Gunnar Dahlberg at the University of Stockholm on 6th December, 1933. Dahlberg was a “race biologist” who had spoken out “against racial hierarchies and explicitly criticised racial policies” (p. 146). In detailing the violent confrontations between fascists and anti-fascists at the lecture Ericsson draws attention to the ‘sonic battles’ that erupted between those singing Nazi songs and the Internationale respectively. Ericsson also provides a nuanced intervention in relation to thinking about some of the dynamics around articulations of race, fascism and anti-fascism in Nordic contexts. Thus while Ericsson discusses the ways in which Dahler challenged key fascist motifs of race, he also notes the ways in which he reproduced problematic racializing logics through his own critiques.

The various contributions make an important contribution to integrating Nordic anti-fascist networks into transnational circulations and articulations of anti-fascism. Through doing so they also offer different viewpoints on existing work on transnational articulations of anti-fascism. Bernhard H. Bayerlein’s chapter offers tantalising glimpses of the ways in which some of Willi Münzenburg’s networks stretched into the Nordic countries through examining the Nordic networks of the Zukunft which shaped “the emergence of currents of a combined anti-fascist and anti-Stalinist resistance” (p. 212). But I think there is the potential here for a more sustained set of reflections on the significance of locating Nordic countries/ actors as part of transnational antifascism.

In this regard the importance of the antifascist internationalist solidarities during and after the Spanish Civil War is discussed in a number of chapters here. Ragnheidur Kristjánsdóttir and Pontus Järvstad briefly discuss the three Icelandic Communists who “volunteered on the side of the Republic”. Mikko-Olavi Seppälä’s account of Workers’ Stage in Finland discusses the impact of the Spanish Civil War in abandoning formerly pacifist or neutral attitudes. He draws attention to Workers’ Stage performances of Bertolt Brecht’s Señora Carrar’s Rifles, which explored these themes, in Helsinki in October 1938. Anders Dalsager discusses the role of the Socialist Youth International in opposing Franco’s regime after the Second World War in an excellent chapter which signals some of the rather neglected transnational solidarities during the dictatorship. A more sustained engagement with Nordic involvement in, and negotiations of, the International Brigades would have further strengthened this collection. It would also have been interesting to know whether the memory of Nordic involvement in the international brigades was drawn on by the Socialist Youth international activists discussed by Dalsager.

In this regard a key strength of the collection is the way that it doesn’t confine an engagement with anti-fascism to the interwar and Second World War period. Rather, it locates both fascism and anti-fascism as part of the contemporary political terrain in the Nordic countries. Thus Andrés Brink Pinto and Johan Pries’s chapter develops a very insightful account of different forms of fascist/ anti-fascist ‘claims making’. They discuss the ways in which “anti-fascists from the region successfully challenged fascist spatial claims in a series of confrontations around a yearly commemorative nationalist march with a strong neo-Nazi presence” in Lund between 1991 and 2008.Through their detailed engagement with the successes and failures of anti-fascist mobilisations in this period they draw out key lessons for contemporary opposition to the far-right.

Anti-Fascism in the Nordic Countries provides a compelling overview of the diverse ways in which fascism and Nazism were contested in the interwar period and signals some of the ways the far right continues to be fought and challenged in the Nordic countries. The essays collected here resonate in significant ways with the current political conjuncture. They also emphasises that engaging with different aspects of anti-fascist politics can powerfully illuminate diverse issues, relating to left political cultures and resistance.

1 This review is based on my contributions to recent debates work on antifascism some of which has been in collaboration with Kasper Braskén one of the editors of this volume. This review, however, brings my different disciplinary location and geographical expertise to bear on my critical engagement with this text.

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