When I learned that Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002), the author of the fictional character Pippi Longstocking, had kept a diary during World War II, I was instantly intrigued. Like millions of others, I remember Pippi Longstocking and the impact it had on pop culture here in America and abroad. But who would have known that the character she created almost remained hidden from the public? The story behind the character is contained within as well as a different view of the war, from neutral Sweden. When I started the book, I had realized that I had forgotten Sweden’s neutrality. But that is not to say the Swedes did not have an opinion of Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) and the Third Reich. In fact, Lindgren is very vocal about the expanding war and the terrors of the Nazi regime. However, there is also another side to the diaries, and that is her family life, which includes her roles as a mother and wife. Her diaries encompass a range of topics but come together to reveal a woman deeply concerned about society and the effects of warfare.
This is the first book that I have read from the Swedish point of view. In contrast to neighboring countries, Lindgren humbly explains that shortage of food and supplies was not a significant issue in Sweden. There are occasions where the author feels guilt for the excesses they have at home, but the nation’s neutrality undoubtedly affected its ability to remain stable. However, the Swedes were aware of the war’s developments, the plague of the Jewish people attempting to flee Germany, starvation across Europe and the monstrous acts committed on people deemed “undesirable” within Reich territories. Lindgren was deeply affected by what she read and carries a heavy heart from start to finish. At one point she sadly explains that:
“Poor human race: when I read their letters I’m staggered by the amount of sickness and distress, grief, unemployment, poverty and despair that can be fitted into this wretched earth”
The wave of terror Germany unleashed across Europe led to Lindgren lamenting the human capacity for war. In one entry she questions why England and France were slow to respond to the growing threat from Berlin. Readers interested in the slow response to the Germany arms build-up will find ‘Why England Slept‘ by John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) to be a thorough analysis of the inaction from London. To be fair, outside of Germany, knowledge of internal movement would have had its limits. But Hitler’s actions building up to the invasion of Poland were no secret. And by the time nations realized how far he was willing to go, the world was at war. For Lindgren, every day became another chapter in a brutal war that claimed millions of lives. The author does her best to remain positive and fills the diary with details about Swedish delicacies, holiday traditions and family matters to which we can relate. But above everything, she desired an end to the war that should never have taken place.
As we move to 1943 in the book, the tide begins to turn in war and a German victory becomes further from reality. The fighting between the Russians and Germans is the focus in this section. And though America had entered the war by this point, the battles across the Soviet Union were of major importance. She clearly wanted the war over, and Germany defeated but she did not ignore the danger posed by the Red Army and wanted no part of Russia’s army in Sweden. And this is a part of World War II often neglected. The Red Army could be as savage as the Germany Army and in some cases, it was far worse when atrocities were committed. Entries in the diaries will clue readers in. The savagery of the war was not lost on anyone in neutral territories, but that neutrality was of the utmost importance as she acknowledges towards the end of the book.
The section focused on 1944 sees an elated author as the Americans invaded and former Nazi territories were liberated. The Soviets are still battling Hitler’s troops on the eastern front and Germany is in trouble. Step by step the allies push back Germany divisions and as 1945 approaches, hope builds for the war’s end. The suspense can be felt in her words as news of Allied victories filter in. And by the time 1945 arrives, the world is waiting for Germany’s collapse which comes at the end of April. She follows the news from Berlin of Hitler’s defeat and demise but finds herself shocked at the introduction of the atomic bomb. She contemplated what she learned and somberly reflects that:
“Nineteen forty-five brought two remarkable things. Peace after the Second World War and the atom bomb. I wonder what the future will have to say about the atom bomb, and whether it will mark a whole new era in human existence, or not. The peace is not much to put one’s faith in, with the atom bomb casting such a shadow over it.”
The war ended but the reality of atomic weapons became very real. There are other entries in the diaries about nuclear weapons and her concern about their place in society. But the sense of relief that the war had ended cannot be overstated. Today it may be hard for us to understand how dark the future looked during her time. But her diaries provide a valuable resource to understand a time when the world was at war. Her family survived the war, and she created a character that still entertains children today. But she also carried with her dark memories of the years in which Adolf Hitler embarked on a quest for world domination. Highly recommended.