A World Gone Mad
By Astrid Lindgren
Translated by Sarah Death
Pushkin Press, 2016
Astrid Lindgren will likely be known to many readers as the author of the series of children’s books featuring Pippi Longstocking, however her fame lay far in the future when she wrote the wartime diaries which have been collected and published in this book.
The diaries span the whole of the Second World War and a while afterwards, from 1 September 1939 to 31 December 1945 (VE day was on 7 May of this year), and while the book didn’t radically alter my understanding of World War Two it did enable me to view it through Swedish eyes. I now realise that, during those years, the existential threat to Sweden came from the Soviet Union, which had invaded and conquered Baltic states like Latvia and Estonia and had long been engaged in a fractious war with Finland, so Germany always looked like a lesser evil: ‘God preserve us from the Russians!’ Lindgren writes when tens of thousands of Polish dead are discovered in Katyn. Mind, her entry of 10 May 1941 has this to say about the nation that kicked it all off:
Germany is like some malevolent monster that emerges from its cave at regular intervals to pounce on a fresh victim. There has to be something wrong with a people that finds itself pitted against the rest of humanity every 20 years or so.
We experience the war as it happens, filtered through the sensibility and prejudices (there is, for example, a noticeable scorn for Italian soldiers) of an intelligent and compassionate and, it should be said, fairly comfortably situated woman. She lives with her family in neutral (or near-neutral: Swedish iron-ore supported the war effort of Nazi Germany) Sweden. There are moments of suspense: in Spring 1941 she writes of an impending invasion of Britain, something which did not come to fruition in the end, but you are held captive in in the fraught and terrible moment. And she has a lifeline to the world, through her job working for the Swedish security service, reading and censoring letters coming to and fro from abroad, which is where she learns of the deportation of Jews from Vienna to Poland.
As well as the war, Lindgren writes about her children – how they are doing at school, their growing pains as they hit adolescence – and her husband – his promotion at work, their days out. There is a suggestion of marital discord in 1944, possibly a trial separation.
The entry for 8 May 1945, the day after VE day, describes a speech by Queen Elizabeth II’s father: ‘He spoke better than I expected. Slowly and with only a couple of slight stammers.’ The speech, a powerful instance of moral courage, can be seen and heard online. One could say even that his stammer gave the King’s speech a force it wouldn’t otherwise have had: like his subjects, he was damaged but resolute and determined to go on.
Lindgren makes mention of the Nuremberg trials but not the expulsions of ethnic Germans (the so called Volksdeutsche and Sudetendeutsche) from Eastern Europe happening around that time. Perhaps they were not reported in the Swedish newspapers.
These diaries are fascinating documents and, taken as a whole, A World Gone Mad is a compelling read, on a par with Naples ’44, though there are significant differences and areas of experience between the two diaries. The publisher’s description of the book can be read here.