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by Cecilia Ekbäck
Harper Perennials, January 2021
464 pages
ISBN: 0063043009

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Although current readers may be vaguely aware that Sweden was a neutral country during World War II, they probably have given little consideration to how neutrality was maintained during the war, especially in those countries threatened with a German invasion. Neutrality was no guarantee of safety and every neutral country in Europe found it had to maintain an exquisite sensitivity to the demands of both Nazi Germany and the Allies if they were to remain free of foreign occupation. Regardless of how delicately they trod, some countries, like Denmark and Norway, were abruptly seized early in the war and both Sweden and Switzerland were threatened with a similar fate.

Cecilia Ekbäck, born in Sweden but now living in Canada, was intrigued by how little she knew about that perilous time for the country of her birth. Intrigued when she learned that Sweden was the first country to establish a "racial institute" dedicated to the study of eugenics, she began to wonder where it all could have gone if worse came to worst.

To examine the worst-case scenario, she constructs a group of young graduate students who enjoyed a special closeness to one of their history professors just before the war. They would meet together, discuss theory, and have supper, all under the eye of their mentor. When they left university, they drifted apart. Now it is 1943, and they are brought back together when one, Laura Dahlgren, tries to rally them to investigate the brutal death of one of their early group, Britta Hellman, whose mutilated corpse Laura had discovered while looking for her absent friend.

There are three alternating narratives. We begin with Laura's dogged attempt to find out what happened to Britta, a quest which becomes increasingly dangerous. Chapters dealing with Laura's investigation alternate with those describing Jens's shock at the suicide of a colleague, which inevitably leads to his attempts to discover what went on behind closed doors at a pre-war meeting of the Three Kings (Sweden, Denmark, Finland). In turn, a third narrative, set in Lapland at an iron mine at Blackåsen, where indigenous Sami are employed and where Britta's father is a foreman. But something sinister is also going on there and some Sami are disappearing. The more traditional think that they might have been taken by the spirit of the mountain, others believe they have wandered off and died, but the brother of one of them is convinced his sister is still alive and does everything he can to rescue her. Ekbäck satisfactorily connects all these stories, demonstrating how they interconnect and reveal something seriously wrong in Sweden, something so frightful that those involved do not hesitate to kill anyone who threatens exposure.

It should be understood that these are all fictional events. Certainly eugenics was viewed as "modern," rational, unsentimental, and many thought it could only lead to the improvement of mankind. It was a widely held theory that was finally only shaken by the uses to which it was put by the Nazis. But it is also true that the idea of race improvement captured the imagination and then the conviction of a wider audience. (Some prominent feminists, for example, fell under its spell.) Thus the first country in the world to establish an institute to study human genetics and the social application of eugenics was Sweden. True believers could be found across Europe and in North America who embraced the cause with a religious fervour and their zeal did, at least for a time, modify social thinking to a striking degree.

Ekbäck explores the potential for great harm that cultic commitment of this sort can give rise to, even in so moderate a country as Sweden. And she produces a convincing scenario to demonstrate how the most intelligent and well-dispositioned might be seduced to embrace it. A weakness of the book is that the young historians strike me as products of the present moment rather than as people born in 1920 or so. But the advantage is that the reader of today may be more prompted to examine its relevance to our present circumstances than if the issue raised could safely be consigned to the sad old days.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, February 2021

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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