A World Gone Mad
The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939-45
Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death
Out now from Pushkin Press, £18.99 hardcover
What was World War II like for the Swedish? The country was neutral, but it was surrounded by besieged nations: wrapped in a bear hug by Norway, to the west, perched on Denmark, just below, and to the east, partly contiguous, partly separated by water, lay Finland. Each of these countries was buffeted by the Germans and/or the Russians, and the reverberations resonated through the neighbouring country.
Lindgren’s name is familiar to anyone raised on the exuberant Pippi Longstocking children’s books, but this is a different work altogether. In the main, it recounts the progress of the war globally and domestically (emphasis on the former), recounting troop movements in one paragraph, and in the next news of food availability, clothing rationing, and the coming and going of hot water and heating. Though domestic details abound, they tend to be lists of foods and their availability, seasonal fluctuations, birthday and Christmas gifts received by her children Lars and Karin, and other practicalities. This is not the place where Lindgren bared her soul or gave up much in the way of emotional revelation. (She’s so circumspect that when Lindgren’s marriage suffered a massive crisis in 1944, we are none the wiser about the specifics of what, why, who, etc.)
This is, however, a concise and intelligent record of current events. The original even contained numerous cuttings, pictures and transcribed letters stuffed into its pages. (They are referenced but not replicated here.)
We are familiar with the histories of Britain and the United States during the war — not only the facts, but also glossier versions presented in films and novels. We have a sense of how Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia fared. The African campaigns have been well documented. But how many, hand on heart, can say we understand that war from a Scandinavian perspective?
Apart from Dunkirk, can we name the major events occurring there? What do we know of Denmark occupied by the Germans? The loss of Sweden’s submarine Ulven, as well as all on board? And Finland, under such intense pressure from Stalin’s Russia that Germany often seemed a preferable overlord?
She describes how Norway was robbed of food and blankets which were diverted to Germans. In Finland, a day’s provisions in a well-to-do home consisted of “rye-flour porridge without bread or milk, for lunch rye-flour porridge with a piece of bread and 1 dl milk, for dinner boiled frozen potatoes with grated swede, for which one has queued for hours, with possibly a little thin fruit soup to follow.”
This is a valuable amplification of the historic record, a sort of beginners guide to another perspective. It is not a view from the sidelines. During the war Lindgren worked at the Postal Control Division — as a censor. She read countless letters, even transcribing some to record in this diary.
The text is peppered with poignant questions hinting at deeper emotions she left unrecorded. In 1940, considering Germany’s view of the Poles, she wonders, “What hatred it will generate! In the end the world will be so full of hate that it chokes us.”
She marvels at the normalisation of war. “I was wondering the other day whether a time will ever come when it strikes us as unnatural to see a ‘Shelter’ sign down in our peaceful entrance halls. . . If only we could hope to hear our grandchildren ask one day: ‘Shelter — what does that mean?’”
Despite the difficulties of her daily life, she regularly counts her blessings, giving thanks to live in relative safety, and relative plenty. She can’t help wondering about her children, envisaging her son among the Ulven dead. Wisely, she knows that peace, however welcome, isn’t a tidy solution. “The hatred doesn’t end the day peace comes.”
This is a disquieting book to read in these post-Brexit, pre-Trump-presidency days. The diary feels even more relevant and portentous, especially sentiments such as: “There’s a current of despair running beneath everything gall the time, and it’s constantly fed by the accounts in the newspapers.” (1942)
Only toward the end of the diary, in 1944, do we hear of Pippi’s birth. She began circa 1941, as a series of stories Lindgren told her daughter when she was poorly, which was often. The tales were committed to paper when the author’s sprained ankle kept her housebound for several weeks. Karin gave Pippi her unforgettable name, while her physical characteristics came, in part, from people they knew. Lindgren’s low key assessment, circa 1945, was, “Pippi is a great little kid who seems to be turning into quite a success.”