A terrible despondency weighs on everything and everyone. The radio churns out news reports all day long. Lots of our men are being called up. There’s a ban on private motoring, too. God help our poor planet in the grip of this madness! – A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939-45
On September 1st, 1939, Germany began its invasion of Poland, marking the beginning of WWII. As Hitler and his Nazi troops proceeded to ravage much of Europe, Sweden was one of only a few countries to claim neutrality. While its neighbors Norway and Denmark fell to the Nazis and suffered brutality and starvation, life in Sweden seemed unchanged and unaffected by the chaos happening outside of its borders. Astrid Lindgren, a former secretary who would later find success as the author of the beloved Pippi Longstocking series, was living in Stockholm with her husband Sture and her two children when news of the German invasion of Poland broke out. The first line from her diary reads, “Oh! War has broken out today. Nobody could believe it.”. Lindgren would continue to document the course of the war in her diaries until the end of 1945, the same year her first Pippi Longstocking book was published.
In 1940, Lindgren found a job at Sweden’s secret Postal Control Division as a censor of military and personal mail coming in and out of country. Lindgren’s work enabled her to glean what information she could about the state of the war and the conditions of those living in nearby German-occupied countries; sections that interested her the most were copied into her diaries, and she included press cuttings from newspapers and magazines.
Lindgren’s account of life during wartime is an interesting one, written during a time of great upheaval and uncertainty, with Europe struggling under the German advance. Sweden’s neutrality put the country in a unique position, as Lindgren saw it, “to help”. Sweden took in Jewish refugees from both Norway and Denmark, and donated vital supplies to Finland during The Winter War against Soviet Russia. And although Sweden’s neutrality was tenuous at best, with its government having to make concessions to both the Axis and the Allies, life in Sweden was far, far less affected by the war than its neighbors. In her diaries, Lindgren writes of her feelings of despair and frustration over the brutality of the Germans and the terrible loss of life, and at the same time doesn’t take for granted how fortunate she and her family is. Interspersed with stories reports of starvation and daily executions in Norway are domestic scenes of a family enjoying cycling trips in the countryside, celebrating Christmas and birthdays with gifts and smorgasbords. Lindgren is never boastful; with Sweden in a constant state of readiness, the fear of invasion or an attack is never far from her mind.
As far as historical accounts go, A World Gone Mad is a fresh perspective of life during WWII. Lindgren’s diaries reveal how conscious she was of the world in the grips of war, primarily in Northern Europe. Lindgren is remarkably thorough in her entries concerning The Winter War between Finland and Soviet Russia, and of the closeness shared between Sweden and Finland. On the domestic side of things, she writes affectionately of her family, especially her children Lars and Karin, whose birthday serves almost as a sort of marker for each year of the war. Lindgren’s husband Sture, who was the managing director for the Swedish Motorists’ Association appears now and then, and there is a hint of some marital discord in two or three of Lindgren’s later entries, but afterwards is never alluded to again. In her last two diaries, we begin to see Lindgren’s emergence as a budding children’s author, and the eventual publication of her first children’s book, Pippi Longstocking.
I enjoyed this book immensely, and as soon as it comes out in paperback, I would love to have it sit beside my copy of Vere Hodgson’s Few Eggs and No Oranges. It’s a slim read, just a little over 230 pages, not what I expected from a diary compilation, but it’s seriously engrossing and relevant, especially in today’s world. I highly recommend it.