Luleå Biennial 2018
I byn Storsien satt under krigsåren 350 svenskar internerade - i ett svenskt koncentrationsläger. De hade kallats in enligt värnpliktslagen. Men de fick inga vapen. Bara spadar. Och fastän de inte hade gjort något brottsligt betraktades de som landsförrädare.
Originally published in Folket i Bild/Kulturfront no. 19/1972
During the war in the village of Storsien, 350 Swedes were interned - in a Swedish concentration camp. They had been enlisted in accordance with the military conscription act. But they did not get any weapons. Just shovels. And even though they had not committed any crimes, they were considered traitors.
The establishment of the camp in Storsien was the culmination of a comprehensive anti-communist smear campaign in Sweden at the beginning of World War II. A communist psychosis that was particularly widespread in Norrbotten.
The Winter War persisted in Finland. Leaders in the military demanded that Sweden should secede its neutrality and enter the war. There were even plans to initiate a coup d’état in order to implement the idea. The chief of staff in the Defence, General Major Axel Rappe, was appointed leader of this circle of activist officers. During the civil war in Finland he had served as chief of staff for the white eastern army. The plans for the coup are documented in, among other places, the diary of Lieutenant Commander Stig H:son Ericsson. And it was from this group that the initiative for the camps sprung. General Archibald Douglas, Chief of Staff of the forces in Norrbotten, the so-called Other Army Corps, commends himself on also being among those who took the initiative. In his memoirs - "I became an officer" - he tells the story:
"Ever since autumn 1939, the danger of communism in Norrbotten had caused a stir. I had tried to acquire as much knowledge about communism up there as possible [...] However, our various proposals to achieve real sanitation encountered continuous legal resistance. But they did result in some action eventually. First, a record listing the communists was made. After that, the mail service and the railroad carried out some staff relocations, so that the worst Bolsheviks were sent south and replaced with trustworthy people, and finally, the government implemented the so-called transport ban on communist newspapers, which caused some difficulties with the distribution. But how to deal with communists organised into troops? We discussed this issue in depth and the result became the well-known camp in Storsien. The most dangerous elements were tracked down, separated from their troops and brought together under special command to the remote village of Storsien.”
THE NEWSPAPER SMEAR-CAMPAIGN
So who was it that was interned at Storsien? The overwhelming majority were organised communists. Above all, they were people from the cadre of leaders and from the newspapers. But there was also the odd radical social democrat. In some cases, it was enough that the detainees had expressed doubts that "Finland's cause was ours" (in the sense that it could jeopardise our peace and neutrality).
The Swedish military played a leading role in the emergence of camps such as the one in Storsien. But the press had also run a hard campaign against the communists. In the far north, the right-wing outlet Norrbotten-Kuriren was at the forefront of that campaign.
But the northern Social Democrats also did theirs to incriminate the communists of Norrbotten: "Everything must be done to incapacitate the communists," wrote the newspaper in an editorial on January 13, 1940, "They are not people in usual sense. Even in the most hardened criminals, one can normally find a trace of decency. But in the true communists, you seek in vain for just one ounce of it. "
It was in this zeitgeist that the Swedish detention camps came into being. Among those detained, were many who had played an important role in forging solidarity with the Spanish. Several of the detainees had also participated as volunteers on the Republican side and fought against Franco's insurgency generals. One of them wrote a letter from Storsien to the Social Democratic member of parliament Georg Branting, demanding that he use his influence to have the detainees released: "When we came home from Spain, the Swedish newspapers wrote that it was the flower of the Swedish labour movement’s youth that had participated in the war against Franco. Now, we have been locked up in camps without weapons, with organised Nazis in command ... “.
THE CAMPS WERE THE FIRST STEP
Eight years later - in the state-sponsored so-called Sandler Commission - Georg Branting wrote in a private utterance (SUO 1948: 7) that “the disqualification by the Swedish army of major civil groups throughout the emergency standby period had no equivalent in comparable foreign armies (France and England) ".
The Swedish detention camps became a parenthesis in Swedish defence history. But what would have happened if the war had gone differently? In that sense, the Swedes who were detained in camps such as Storsien can be considered guinea pigs. The Swedish authorities gave these people the first lesson in what would become the policy of the Swedish puppet government. The order, as it was understood, sounded: "Disarm the left, because the friend and protector will come from the right ...".
In the following, we will reproduce some of the voices of Swedes who were detained in Storsien during the war.
"You will never come home ..."
The first narrator wants to be anonymous. It is not for his own sake, but for the sake of his children that he does not want to appear with his name. Getting work in Norrbotten can be a problem. And times can become harder. He has experienced himself how communists were deprived of their work during the war:
Of the 80 men that were gathered, none of us knew where we were going, but some rumours circulated about a camp. We had nothing to report home. The one who drove the bus said - Norra Bredåker.
"You will never come home again," they said to us in Bredåker.
During the first days, most of us were made to dig graves. They were not trenches - 2 metres long, 50 cm wide and with 60 cm between each grave. We were, of course, thinking about what this might mean, but no one was talking about it, or even speculating. Everyone was prepared for anything to happen. It was a great deal of abuse against the communists at the time because the warmongers wanted for Sweden to participate in the Finnish Winter War at any cost. They were open about this to the regiments - even in front of the troops.
Nobody was allowed to go home over Christmas and new people came all the time.
On New Year's Eve we were transported to Boden again. By this time, we were several hundred. There we got hacks and spades. They told us to get toiletries because where we were going, there wouldn’t be such things. It was Storsien.
There were no barracks. We lived in small houses usually only used for baking bread, outbuildings and sheds. Cooked in stoves and fireplaces. Slept on bunks with straw. The commanders lived in a farmhouse. Eventually, we mounted barracks, but before that it was terrible. Constantly between 30 and 40 degrees freezing.
Most of the interned people worked on road construction, but I trained as a carpenter, so I had a lot of other jobs. The commander was Captain Berner, a teacher from police school in Stockholm.
Most of the people in Storsien were communists, and the leadership of the entire district were there. Then, the registration of people’s political persuasions was by no means perfect, so I would think that they primarily picked out the communists who had the greatest opportunity to influence other people. For my part, I sat in the municipal council and was also involved in other things. And connected to the party.
There were also those who came through snitches. People reported communists.
And then there were those who were not communists at all but were opposed to a Swedish participation in the Finnish war.
We were traitors of the nation, they said.
We had no legal rights, and could not take any action whatsoever.
We were not allowed to carry weapons, received no permission to leave, and were engaged in completely meaningless work. Constructing a road under one and a half metres of snow. That road must have cost 7-8 kroner per millimetre.
We listened to the radio and had good contact with the people in the town. In that sense, it was not difficult. The difficult thing was that we did not know what would happen. And if Sweden had entered into Finland, or if the Germans had won the war, the intention would have been to execute us.
In the morning when Berner greeted, he never said “Good morning soldiers", which is custom in the military, but “Good morning, gentlemen." One day he was hung over and the greeting became instead “Good morning, gentlemen, traitors and threats to civic society".
There was a lot of discussion in the evenings. Of course, we had a lot to talk about, and much in common. And we had professional politicians with us, so in that way it was educational. The letters we wrote and the letters we received were to go through the registry where they were opened. If we made a phone call, someone would always be there, listening.
Not everyone managed to escape Storsien for good – some were called upon to return. Storsien in itself, as you hear, was not that dangerous, it was more the uncertainty as to what was going to happen. We knew how fascism worked and we knew that if the Germans won, then we would be shot there. That knowledge was hard to bear.
But we also knew that we were right. And when I eventually returned home, the communists here were proud of me. People do not say as much, but you feel it. So actually it was worse for those waiting at home.
“I’d prefer to forget”
His wife narrates:
– Yes, it took a good while before I was told where he was. The others came home for Christmas, but nobody knew where he was. And rumours were abound. That the communists were on a deserted island and the whole lot of them would get shot. These kinds of rumours. I guess I did not believe them to be true, but, at the same time, I didn’t have any information.
On Christmas Eve, I got a phone call from Bredåker. But we spoke in Finnish so they broke off our conversation.
At this time, we had three children as well as cows in the barn. And I took care of cleaning at the school. Our oldest boy helped me and thought it was strange to also be in school at night.
Then I got sick, double pneumonia. That's when he was allowed leave.
There was a terrible aggravation towards communists during this time. Here in the village, I didn’t notice much. People were mostly helpful. But there was talk behind our backs and some people stopped saying hello.
Really, I’d prefer to forget about this time.
"This pit will be your grave ..."
Sture Henriksson is a painter decorator and resident of Tärendö. He worked as a freelance writer for Norrskensflamman, the communist media outlet for Norrbotten. He also had various municipal duties.
– They picked me up as if I’d committed a crime.
I used to work as a carpenter in the winters, and on February 8, 1940, I was doing a job in a small town called Kainulasjärvi. Late one evening I was counting my earnings when I heard a man come in and ask in a loud voice: "Is the Bolshevik Sture Henriksson here?". My host on the farm replied that "We have a Sture Henriksson here, I do not know if he is a Bolshevik, but he is a very nice guy.”
I was ordered to immediately follow the man, dressed in civilian clothes, but he never said why. In the car outside were two uniformed men. It was dark, so I never saw what kind of uniform they were wearing, and I did not see their faces. They tried to ask me about different communists in the area but I refused to answer. That night I had to spend in my home after signing a document promising not to leave.
Early in the morning I was picked up and driven to Pajala. There, I was given something to wear, but no rifle, no ammunition. We were a 10-12 guys from Tornedal and we were shuttled by bus to Övertorneå. And then on the train to Vitvattnet. There we all climbed onto a fleet of trucks. It was minus 30 degrees cold and we were driven to Storsien.
I had not received any call-up warrant.
Storsien was absolutely a concentration camp. We were not allowed to carry weapons and were never given permission to leave. The work we pretended to perform was a road construction between Storsien and Klinten. The trees had been cut down, so we searched out stumps under the deep snow in order to blow them up. It was really just a camouflage job. Our letters were opened and we could telephone only when supervised. If anyone wanted to prove that they were not a communist, they could have a hearing scheduled with Captain Berner. But we who were communists and knew that socialism is the only form of society that serves the cause of the working class, would of course say that, yes, damn it, we stand by our beliefs. It was really those who put us in Storsien that ought to be interrogated.
In the evening a guard came and made sure all the beds were occupied, but otherwise we did not see them so often. The food was good and in general I have to say that we received the same treatment as most others in the standby forces. But for sure - we always had to line up by a pit and Captain Berner could say, "This pit will be your grave" or “you’ll never leave this place, goddamnit”. This we were often told.
I was a communist then, and to this day I remain a communist still. I was on the school board and in the general council. There were plenty of snitches in Tärendö during the war.
Once, the camp superintendent Captain Berner said to me: "You are an unnecessary being in this society. If I wanted to, I could shoot you by my own hand”.
We could not understand this in any other way than that, if the Germans had won the war, we would not have left that place alive.
I first got to leave the camp in connection with the occupation of Norway and Denmark. But I had not been home for more than a couple of days when I received a telegram that said I had to go back. It didn’t say whereto, but I was taken straight to Storsien. This time we were just 155.
Colonel Sandahl held a "welcome speech" and said, "The first time we took suspicious people here it was a mistake, but this time there are no mistakes. Among you there are only real communists and traitors and you will damn sure never get out of here.”
These were his words, and he was serious.
So one thing is true: Storsien cannot be called anything but a concentration camp. And we would have gone the same way as the Jews and communists in the countries occupied by the fascists.
SWEDISH SUPPLIES TO THE GERMAN NORTHERN FRONT
Helmer Persson from Kalix was one of the more prominent party members interned at Storsien. He also sat in a few other camps later on. At the outbreak of war, he worked for the worker’s publication Norrskensflamman:
– On the 5th of January we came to Vitvattnet, then marched to Storsien about eight or nine kilometres, and more than thirty degrees cold.
The buildings were cold wooden outhouses, but the fire burned day and night, and in time we arranged our facilities better than the men in the regiment had done.
What did we do there? A winter road was to be built that would connect Klint with Storsien. And we would since build a more permanent road, the work on which would keep us busy until about mid-April 1940.
At the end, we were 370 men, of whom about 250 were communists, and 90 percent of them were from Norrbotten. The rest were people with mixed social backgrounds and political views. There were students who had uttered some viewpoint, or had published articles that were sceptical about the reports of Finnish victory in the war, or expressed that scepticism in letters they sent home – letters were censored, and on that basis, many of the students came to Storsien. There were also a lot of Social Democrats.
We felt most sorry for these students who lacked ideological ground to stand on. Many of them would cry. But we taught them to work, how to drill into stone - hit the hammer on the drill while holding it. We treated them well. Many of them said, “when the time comes when we have to engage in politics it will be on the side of the communists because they have proved to be the most consistent.”
And the people who bombed the offices of Norrskensflamman also visited Captain Berner wanting to kidnap some of the more prominent communists, including Helmer Holmberg, the editor in chief of Flamman, and drive them to Finland to release them there. But Berner refused to do this. It would have actually meant them being released into a country at war - and then establishing contact between the war activists here and the men of the Finnish Lapua Movement.
During the second half of July, the summer camp was dissolved. The second line of defence was to be drawn through Storsien, so naturally they couldn’t have us remain there.
After that, I served in different security forces. In the autumn of 1941, when the Germans were outside of Moscow, I was sent to Niemisel. When on guard there, I saw for myself how the Swedes supplied the Germans troops on the north front with houses, furs and shoes. In the summer of 1943, the Germans prepared their biggest offensive. The plan was to strengthen its war potential by moving into Sweden from Norway, should become necessary. The resistance at home had probably not been particularly strong given the men in charge of Swedish war relations. And now the concern was to weed out the communists from Norrbotten.
We were called to the Boden in July 1943. We were among two platoons that were sent on to Västerbotten. One platoon was stationed between Stensele and Storuman, the other between Vindeln and Hällnäs.
Here they tried to mask the camps by equipping us with rifles without ammunition. We were tasked with blowing up shelters and ammunition space. We were only communists there, and I met many comrades from the time in Storsien.
From that camp we wrote to MO and to the secretary of defence, but received no response. At the time, I was an elected representative to the regional council, but was not granted leave in order to attend meetings. But when, after a few months, the Germans were driven to the other side of Dnjerpr, and they saw which way it was going, we were sent home.
After all, the cruelest aspect of the war for the communists was not these detention camps. More brutal was the fact that communists and sympathisers lost their jobs. Orders came from the Swedish Security Service. Honourable people, and people who had to provide for their families were left with nothing.
The material about Storsien is compiled by INGRID ERIKSSON, KARL-ERIK LARSSON and KERSTIN WIXE. Information has also been gathered from GUNNAR KIERI’S and IVAR SUNDSTRÖM’S "1. Arbetskompaniet Storsien”.