Scandinavia’s largest literary festival has become the unexpected center of a fierce debate about the boundaries of free speech, after organizers decided to allow a far-right publication to take part and a neo-Nazi group announced it would march through the city to coincide with the event.
Swedish intellectuals are divided over how to respond to the far right’s latest publicity stunt. Where some claim the movement constitutes a major threat to the country’s democracy, others insist the impulse to restrict its freedom of expression is anti-democratic.
The Gothenburg Book Fair caused a stir last year, when it opened the door for the first time to Nya Tider, an extremist publication that counts some 7,000 subscribers. News that the publication would attend again on Saturday dominated national coverage and prompted a host of literary figures to boycott the festival. The far-right Nordic Resistance Movement’s (NRM) decision to hold a rally during the book fair — capitalizing on an already contentious situation — has thrown fuel on the fire.
The controversy is putting a strain on Sweden’s understanding of itself as an open and tolerant society. Now, with anti-fascists expected to stage counter-demonstrations, Sweden’s second largest city is bracing itself for a weekend of confrontations and mass arrests.
Controlling the narrative
Over the past 18 months, the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement has applied for demonstration permits on symbolic dates in Swedish society, such as International Labour Day on May 1 and the iconic Almedalen politics week in July on the Baltic island of Gotland.
Last November, the group gathered 600 demonstrators in Stockholm to coincide with the remembrance of Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, when the Nazis arrested 30,000 Jews and looted and burned Jewish businesses, synagogues and homes across Germany. Like its other well-timed rallies, it drew significant media attention.
But the group — which says it espouses National Socialism, wants to “repatriate” non-European migrants and “reclaim power from the global, Zionist elite” — has no more than a couple of hundred active members, according to Expo, a magazine and foundation that monitors racist and far-right organizations.
Local rallies have drawn significantly fewer participants. Only 80 people showed up at an unauthorized event in Gothenburg earlier this month. The group doesn’t have the reach or mass appeal to muster many more for regular events, according to Daniel Wiklander, Expo’s stand-in editor-in-chief.
Beyond the far-right fringe of Swedish society, open support for the group’s cause is rare. The question, for many Swedes, is to what degree it should be taken seriously.
A small organization can constitute a big problem if it has disciplined, devoted followers that are ready to resort to violence, said Wiklander, referring to a series of explosions at asylum centers in Gothenburg that have been linked to the group.
The group’s media savviness also heightens the threat, according to Wiklander.
“In the past, it was more important for them to show that they were willing to ‘take the fight’ with the left on the streets,” Wiklander said. “Now it’s also about controlling the narrative, getting press coverage and using the media to their advantage.”
If the NRM is “playing the media,” the Swedish press has made it easy for them by giving them airtime. “But,” Wiklander conceded, “one can’t just give them the silent treatment and pretend they’re not a problem … The media do have a duty to monitor such a militant movement.”
Others aren’t so sure. “I believe it is reasonable to argue that we, in fact, have a democratic duty to turn our backs on them,” said Johan Hakelius, editor-in-chief of Fokus, a current affairs magazine.
Hakelius was accused of trivializing the threat of the far right after he wrote an opinion piece that poked fun at the intense focus on the NRM’s presence at this summer’s “politics week.”
“We are allowing them to set the agenda. It is we who are giving them power,” Hakelius said of Sweden’s media and “chattering classes.”
“The whole point of the book fair is that you should be able to find a diversity of opinion under a single roof” — Elisabeth Åsbrink, chair of PEN International’s independent Swedish chapter
Ahead of the annual political event, he said, “the only thing everyone talked about was the fact that Nazis were coming. Then, during the event itself everyone talked about the fact that they were there. When the event was over, all we heard about was the fact that they had been there.”
As a result, Hakelius said, the media paid little attention to other important discussions about democracy and politics at the event. That pattern is now repeating itself ahead of the four-day book fair in Gothenburg, he warned.
‘Afraid of the truth’
For the second year in a row, the fair’s organizers decided to allow Nya Tider (New Times) — a far-right publication that receives state subsidies — to participate.
Between January and August, Sweden’s six biggest newspapers published nearly 300 articles, op-eds and readers’ letters about the book fair, according to a survey by Swedish Radio. Nine of out 10 mentioned Nya Tider.
Lisa Bjurwald, editor-in-chief of the Swedish Writers’ Union magazine Författaren, was among the first to call for a boycott. She is also behind an initiative gathering a number of cultural figures and church representatives at the Gothenburg Cathedral on Saturday to read aloud from anti-Nazi texts.
In May, more than 200 authors, publishers and translators, including five members of the Swedish Academy — the body that awards the Nobel Prize in Literature — signed a boycott petition.
But with the Swedish Academy and Swedish Writers’ Union split over the question of whether or not to attend the event, authors and organizations scrambled to take sides.
Several organizations — including Expo — chose not to attend. Nobel-tipped Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o canceled his appearance after the Swedish socialist poet Athena Farrokhzad urged him to withdraw. Prize-winning Indian author Arundhati Roy is among the high-profile authors who have said they will show up.
Nya Tider had come under fire when its deputy editor allegedly helped record footage outside the home of a Swedish newspaper editor and encouraged viewers to go to journalists’ homes and show them that they are “not untouchable.”
Elisabeth Åsbrink, chair of PEN International’s independent Swedish chapter, signed the petition but changed her mind about boycotting the festival after the video was released and the editor targeted in the video said his publication would not withdraw from the book fair.
“I reached the conclusion that it is, in fact, my democratic duty to be there,” said Åsbrink. “Those of us who are for democracy should not cede ground to anti-democratic forces. Besides, I don’t agree with those who say that you legitimize extreme opinions simply by sharing a room with people who hold them.”
That kind of attitude only polarizes the debate further, according to Åsbrink, who said the boycott issue was causing authors to fall out with one another. “Some are afraid to say openly what they think for fear of being accused of ‘normalizing’ the far right.”
“They are afraid of the truth and therefore all it takes to turn the debate upside down is a small newspaper” — Vávra Suk, Nya Tider’s editor-in-chief
“The whole point of the book fair is that you should be able to find a diversity of opinion under a single roof,” she said.
Alternative events taking place over the weekend, and organized by those boycotting the main fair, are no solution to the problem, she said. “These events are being presented as ‘safe spaces,’ but in fact the real threat to freedom of expression is when only one view is allowed or regarded as acceptable.”
“They can no longer pretend that we don’t exist,” said Vávra Suk, Nya Tider’s editor-in-chief, who in 2001 co-founded the far-right (and now defunct) National Democrat Party. He objected to descriptions of his publication as “extremist” and insisted that mainstream media systematically silence issues and views that “do not fit their political agenda.”
“They are afraid of the truth and therefore all it takes to turn the debate upside down is a small newspaper,” he said in an email, after declining to be interviewed over the phone.
An exaggerated threat
As distasteful as observers like Åsbrink and Wiklander find the small far-right publication, they are wary of conflating it with the violent neo-Nazi group NRM.
But they do have something in common: Both want to disrupt, in different ways, Sweden’s status quo, and are capitalizing on the fact that the Gothenburg Book Fair is a high-profile event to advance their agenda.
The problem is that Swedes are tackling the issues in the wrong way, Hakelius, the editor of Fokus magazine, insisted.
The far right’s presence at major public events shouldn’t be considered an existential threat to the Swedish establishment, but rather a public nuisance.
“The NRM uses violence and are clearly a threat against individual people’s ability to express themselves … That is serious and should not be downplayed,” he said.
“But my point is that this is first and foremost a problem for the police to handle, just like they deal with violent gang members.”
“It is astonishing that this tiny publication has managed to create major rifts within the Swedish establishment” — Elisabeth Åsbrink, chair of PEN International’s independent Swedish chapter
As Hakelius sees it, the NRM is made up of “a couple of hundred nutters” and Sweden “is not on the brink of a Nazi takeover.”
When it comes to freedom of speech, the more serious threat comes from the Swedish mainstream, which, according to Hakelius, has adopted tactics of the far left by exaggerating the Nazi threat “to mobilize and organize politically.”
The political center is being erased as a result and people considered to not be “upset enough” over neo-Nazi activities are “demonized and shunned from polite society,” he said.
“There’s a polarization going on that’s not caused directly by the neo-Nazis themselves, but by mainstream society’s reaction to them,” he added.
“I must say there’s a lot of nagging here about the 1930s,” said Åsbrink, who is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and argued that the Swedish debate lacks historical perspective.
“But our society bears no major resemblance to the ’30s,” she said, adding that drawing such parallels is “unhelpful” and affords extremist fringe groups more significance than they deserve.
“It is astonishing that this tiny publication has managed to create major rifts within the Swedish establishment,” Åsbrink said of Nya Tider.
“The people behind this small publication that, until recently, almost nobody had heard of, have carried out a unique propaganda victory and with hardly no effort at all,” said Åsbrink. “They can just sit back and laugh. And the establishment gave them that power.”