Helen R Brown

A bit player in the great drama

Pippi Longstocking’s creator, helplessly trapped between the ‘giant reptiles’ of Germany and Russia in 1941, finds the Nazis marginally preferable

There’s a glorious scene in Astrid Lindgren’s first Pippi Longstocking book in which her fearless, freckled heroine strides to the centre of a circus ring and briskly lays out the World’s Strongest Man. Like most of the adults who expect to control her, he quickly learns that his inflated size, age and title are no match for the child’s bold pin-wielding attitude.

As a little fan myself in the early 1980s I probably giggled as the strongman toppled. But reading it to my own children this summer I also felt a deep lurch of sadness. The strongman’s name was Adolf, and the book (published in 1945) was written as an equally ridiculous Adolf was sending train loads of bright little Pippis to their ‘final solution’.

As a housewife in neutral Sweden, Lindgren could only strike back through fiction. But the diaries she kept during the war reveal the full extent of her frustration at living in a country which continued to do business with the Nazi regime, giving access to German troops and supplying them with ball bearings. ‘A shocking history lesson’ is how the Swedish press described the diaries after they were published across Scandinavia last year, 13 years after the author’s death, at the age of 94. Now translated into English by Sarah Death, they make for crisp, painful and perspective-refreshing reading. We’re so accustomed to our own, retrospectively glorious national war narrative that we can be guilty of forgetting the dilemmas faced by others.

I remember my GCSE history teacher’s easy contempt for Sweden’s neutrality — they didn’t fight the baddies with us! But Lindgren’s diary reminds us that this was a small nation, sandwiched between the aggressive armies of National Socialism and Bolshevism — ‘two giant reptiles doing battle’.

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