Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Historian criticises Queen Silvia’s Nazi investigation

It is now two weeks since the Swedish royal court published Erik Norberg’s investigation into the Nazi past of Queen Silvia’s father Walther Sommerlath, which had been commissioned by the Queen. The investigation mostly confirmed the findings of TV4’s two-part documentary on the topic last year, but nuanced some points, most importantly that Sommerlath had paid for the factory he took over from the Jewish businessman Efim Wechsler, who was forced to sell it by the Nazi authorities, by giving him a coffee plantation in Brazil in exchange, which also made it possible for Wechsler to emigrate to Brazil.
However, Norberg’s report is fiercely criticised by historian Håkan Arvidsson in a long article in Svenska Dagbladet today (external link). As I expected, the fact that Erik Norberg is a Lord-in-Waiting to the King is used to cast doubt over the impartiality of Norberg’s investigation. The report seems mostly solid to me, but exactly to avoid such doubts it would have been better if the task of investigating the issue had been given to someone not bound to the King and Queen by bonds of loyalty.
Arvidsson also criticises the fact that Norberg describes his investigation as a “narration”, arguing that a narration and an investigation are in themselves incompatible. Arvidsson considers the report “a mix of narration and investigation where narration progressively becomes dominant”.
A large part of Arvidsson’s article is a summary of Norberg’s report. He takes issue with how Norberg’s choice of words occasionally appears to try to put a positive spin on things and makes some valid points about certain weaknesses of Norberg’s investigation.
He points out that the report does not say anything about the value of Wechsler’s factory, which Arvidsson estimates at between 55 000 and 65 000 Reichsmark. As the value of the plantation and the stocks Wechsler received in exchange was 25 000 Reichsmark, this was a good affair for Sommerlath, but not for Wechsler.
Arvidsson also points out that the report says that Wechsler immediately after his arrival in Brazil handed over the plantation to Sommerlath’s brother-in-law, but that it does not say at what prize, if any at all. This, Arvidsson suspects, could possibly mean that it had been agreed that Wechsler should return the plantation and that he might not have received any compensation for doing so.
Arvidsson’s perhaps most interesting point is that what Norberg says about Sommerlath’s apparently passive membership of the Nazi party is based solely on Brazilian sources and thus only concerns the years when Sommerlath was living in Brazil. But Sommerlath returned to Germany in 1938, Arvidsson points out, and Norberg has not looked at whether he was an active or passive party member during those years he lived in Germany and thus had more of an opportunity to be active. The way he took over Wechsler’s factory as part of the “Aryanising” process at least shows that Sommerlath knew how to use his position as a party member to his own advantage, Arvidsson argues.
Arvidsson’s view of Walther Sommerlath is harsh. He believes that there are a lot of indications of Sommerlath being “a man without any particular moral conviction, a fellow traveller who seems to have cynically exploited every opportunity to save his own skin even at the expense of others”.
I cannot agree with his conclusion that “this entire sad and tragic story remains as shrouded in darkness as it was before Chamberlain [sic] Norberg’s effort”, but at least he shows that there are still questions which remain unanswered.

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