- - Monday, November 28, 2016


WAR DIARIES 1939-1945

By Astrid Lindgren

Yale University Press, $30, 235 pages, illustrated

It’s no accident that the publisher of this book saw fit to put “Author of ‘Pippi Longstocking’” after Astrid Lindgren’s name, for that classic children’s book is not merely the chief, but perhaps the sole, reason she is known. Translated into nearly 100 languages, it became an instant best-seller and remains so to this day. Although it was written toward the end of World War II and thus while Ms. Lindgren was busy with these diaries, published for the first time in America its composition and reception get few mentions here; and then only with a detached, rather arch attitude reminiscent of her famous creation.

There is nothing detached about Ms. Lindgren’s attitude toward the global conflict swirling around her native Sweden, which was officially neutral throughout the war but nonetheless affected in countless ways, ranging from the quotidian to the emotional. Before the United States entered World War II, President Roosevelt famously stated that, despite the legislation mandating neutrality, he could not ask Americans to be neutral in mind and heart. Well, there is absolutely no doubt as to Astrid Lindgren’s sympathies: they are wholeheartedly with the Allies and against the Axis.

She agonizes over the travails suffered by Londoners being bombed and, indeed, about all victims of Nazi vileness, even before the Holocaust got going in earnest. Writing early in 1941, she says she’d “almost forgotten the existence of Poland. But when I read about these poor Jews, I’m seized by a hatred of the Germans, who think they have the right to trample peoples underfoot.”

If she has put Poland onto the back burner, it is doubtless because of the particular anguish she felt at the Nazi occupation of neighboring Norway and Denmark the previous year. Although the extent of her sympathy is worldwide, there is a special sense of kinship when she writes about what is happening in those countries, as there was in late 1939 and early 1940 when Finland was waging a gallant but doomed war against the USSR.

But just because we know with hindsight that it suited both sides for Sweden to remain neutral throughout World War II, Ms. Lindgren and her compatriots could not afford to be complacent. She goes to work at a job so secret that at first she doesn’t even confide what it is to the diary. Her husband has to go off to regular military exercises, although she knows his grousing about inconveniences pales beside what men elsewhere are enduring. Similarly, although she occasionally complains about shortages of staples like butter and coffee, she is always careful to add how well-off she and other Swedes are, a fact borne out by the many sumptuous meals she describes preparing and consuming.

On Christmas Day 1943, she writes: “This is the fifth war winter — and we have more food than ever. In my refrigerator I’ve got two big hams, liver pate and pork ribs, herring salad, two pieces of cheese and some salt beef. Besides that, all my tins are full of home baking: ginger snaps, oat biscuits, brandy rings, almond fingers, gingerbread and meringues.”

An entry from October 1942 shows how acutely she feels about the contrast between her life and that of fellow Scandinavians and other Europeans: “No, no the Germans mustn’t starve! And if the Norwegian workers, who haven’t set eyes on potatoes and vegetables for I don’t know how long, refuse in their desperation to load the Germans’ railway trucks full of food, then they get sent to concentration camps. And it’s the same in all the occupied countries, of course.”

Even after V-E Day has come and her neighboring nations liberated, Ms. Lindgren still maintains her keen interest in world affairs: “I finish my ‘sordid job’ [at the censor’s office]. I shall miss the company of my colleagues — and the income. But now the war’s over, and there’s no need for state security any more. Things don’t exactly seem quiet, if you ask me. The San Francisco Conference isn’t getting anywhere and the Russians have made new demands. The Poland question is causing problems and the Russians have occupied Bornholm, which I doubt they’ll let go of, so that will give them mastery of the whole Baltic Sea. I’m scared of the Russians.”

You see here the familiar mixture of global-concerned vision heightened when confronting matters closer to home, which we witnessed with her anguish at Finland’s attacks by the USSR and the Nazi subjugation of her Scandinavian neighbors. There is no doubt that, although she was a mere spectator of the terrible events she is describing — and an admittedly privileged one at that — her worldview has been immeasurably sharpened by living through the years 1939 through 1945. Indeed, the central insight I brought away from reading these diaries is that no one, no matter how fortunately situated, could escape being affected by that terrible time.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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