In 2006 the Swedish journalist Henrik Arnstad published his biography of Christian Günther, the country’s wartime foreign minister who bears much of the responsibility for the country’s somewhat too friendly attitude towards Nazi Germany during the first years of World War II. This policy has come under debate in Sweden in recent decades, and in his new book, Skyldig till skuld – En europeisk resa i Nazitysklands skugga, Arnstad looks at how the countries which were Nazi Germany’s actual allies have dealt with the question of their own share in the guilt.
He argues that the Axis countries’ collective memories are often very selective and that some of them have chosen to cast themselves in the role as victims rather than facing their own crimes. The fact that Germany has taken on the guilt issue so openly that the collective sense of responsibility is ever present in that country has in Arnstad’s view contributed to making it more difficult for other countries to do so – or easier to avoid doing so.
Finland is the prime example, according to Arnstad. The national hero Marshal Mannerheim was a “war criminal – responsible for concentration camps, ethnic cleansing and mass murder”. The book offers a detailed background for these charges, and Arnstad points out that Finland in cooperation with Germany planned and carried out the attack on the Soviet Union in 1941.
Following the war Finland’s view of its own wartime history has been characterised by concerns for the nation’s honour being put above truth. Rather than taking to task their country’s crimes, the Finns prefer to remember the more glorious Winter War of 1939-1940 and have indulged in debates such as if Finland and Germany were not really allied but just happened to fight a common enemy. Arnstad dismisses such notions and concludes that Finland in reality was Germany’s most important ally.
In Rome Henrik Arnstad found the “Liberation Museum” (Museo Storico della Liberazione) symptomatic of how Italy sees its role in the war. The museum is concerned solely with the allied “liberation” of Italy in 1943 and the German atrocities committed on Italian soil during the next two years. Italy’s own alliance with Nazi Germany before that is simply ignored.
To select only one part of one’s story and thereby being able to cast oneself in the role of victim is something which has also been done in Austria, a country where the denials had to be faced when the old Nazi Kurt Waldheim was elected President in 1986. But the idea that Austria was “Hitler’s first victim” still prevails and as recently as 2008 Otto von Habsburg said that “no country in Europe has a greater right than Austria to call itself a victim”. Arnstad sees these ideas in relation with the growing right-wing extremism in both Italy and Austria.
Henrik Arnstad’s book is thought-provoking and an important contribution to the fight against historical forgetfulness. It might however have been interesting if he had also included Spain and how that country is currently trying to come to terms with its Fascist past.