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Experience | Wartime Diarist

By Astrid Lindgren
Summer 2018 • MHQ Magazine

For seven years Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren, who would become world-famous for her Pippi Longstocking books, kept notes on “a world gone mad.”

In 1939 a 32-year-old secretary, mother, and aspiring author living in Stockholm with her family began keeping personal journals, augmented with pasted-in newspaper clippings, that she would maintain through the end of World War II. Her name was Astrid Lindgren, and amid the convulsive tensions of the war the fearless, freedom-­loving character of Pippi Longstocking—who would come to be adored by children the world over—emerged. Lindgren’s diaries, stored for decades under a wicker laundry basket in her home in Sweden, chronicle the daily realities and horrors of the war and the maturation of one of the world’s most beloved writers.

Lindgren’s books have been translated into 97 languages and have sold some 150 million copies worldwide. Following her death in 2002, the Swedish government instituted the world’s largest monetary award for children’s literature in her memory.

Lindgren’s diaries, posthumously published in Sweden to international acclaim, were recently translated into English. The following entries, excerpted from the 17 slim volumes Lindgren filled over seven years, trace her attempts to make sense of a horrific conflict.

1939

1 SEPTEMBER. Oh! War broke out today. Nobody could believe it.

The Germans bombarded several Polish cities early this morning and are forging their way into Poland from all directions. I’ve managed to restrain myself from any hoarding until now, but today I laid in a little cocoa, a little tea, and small amount of soap and a few other things.

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!

2 SEPTEMBER. People look pretty much as usual, only a bit more gloomy. Everybody talks about the war all the time, even people who don’t know each other.

3 OCTOBER. There can be no doubt that Germany is waging war on us, the neutral countries. All our ships in the North Sea are being captured and sunk. They’ve got spies in the ports checking up on cargoes and destinations, and we’re not the only neutral country whose ships are being sunk. I can’t see what they hope to achieve.

Lots of people are now unemployed as a result of the crisis. It’s a shame nobody’s shot Hitler.

1940

9 FEBRUARY. What a world, what an existence! Reading the papers is a depressing pastime. Bombs and machine guns hounding women and children in Finland, the oceans full of mines and submarines, neutral sailors dying, or at best being rescued in the nick of time after days and nights of privation on some wretched raft, the behind-the-scenes tragedy of the Polish population (nobody’s supposed to know what’s happening, but some things get into the papers anyway), special sections on trams for “the German master race,” the Poles not allowed out after 8 in the evening, and so on. The Germans talk about their “harsh but just treatment” of the Poles—so then we know. What hatred it will generate! In the end the world will be so full of hate that it chokes us.

10 MAY. In the whole of Northern Europe Sweden is now the only nation that is neither currently at war, nor has been. But it could be our turn next.

Germany is like some malevolent monster that emerges from its cave at regular intervals to pounce on a fresh victim. There has to be something wrong with a people that finds itself pitted against the rest of humanity every 20 years or so.

25 MAY. Our blackout was lifted yesterday, for the time being. In Britain they’ve more or less imposed a dictatorship. The British are finally starting to realize it’s a matter of life and death.

5 JUNE. Churchill made a speech in the House of Commons, admitting that the Allies had suffered huge losses of equipment. But at least most of the British Expeditionary Force managed to get back across the Channel in one piece. In the nick of time.

Dunkirk has fallen and the last Allied soldier has left the bloodiest battlefield in world history to an occupying enemy.

21 SEPTEMBER. The air war continues and is horrendous! Ten thousand civilians killed by air bombardments in London alone, Churchill said in a speech the other day.

On the 15th of the month I started my secret “defense work,” which is so secret that I daren’t even write about it here. I’ve been in the job for a week. And it’s become completely clear to me that, as things stand, there’s no country in Europe left so untouched by the impact of the war as here, in spite of a considerable rise in prices, rationing, and increased unemployment.

13 OCTOBER. Words can’t express how pitiful it is to read letters every day containing desperate pleas from the poor Jews for visas and entry permits to one country or another. They roam the globe, forever rootless and homeless, from what I can understand. So many are writing just at the moment with New Year wishes, enquiring after relations who have settled in Buenos Aires or died when a bomb hit Tel Aviv.

And it feels strange to read letters from people who are writing about women and children they know personally who have been killed in bombing raids. As long as you’re only reading about it in the paper you can sort of avoid believing it, but when you read in a letter that “both Jacques’s children were killed in the occupation of Luxembourg” or something like that, it suddenly brings it home, quite terrifyingly.

1941

9 FEBRUARY. What will Germany do? The whole world is in suspense, waiting for the invasion attempt on Britain, which everyone thinks must come this spring. And when it happens—well, then the fate of the world will be decided in a day, a few hours. And then I’ll even bring myself to listen to the news, something I long since gave up doing on a daily basis.

21 MARCH. Britain has suffered its most intensive bombing yet, these past few nights, and this is seen as a prelude to the long-anticipated total invasion. Thousands of fatalities. The Germans say they’re going to reduce England to a heap of rubble.

11 DECEMBER. At work today I also saw some awful pictures of Finnish children who had been carried off to Russia and had now come back. I haven’t seen anything as horrifically emaciated and deformed since the days of the World War, sorry, I mean the First World War. But this is how all the children of Europe will look by the end of it all.

1942

5 SEPTEMBER. The war is three years old and I have not celebrated its birthday. We’ve all found our attitude to the war gradually changing. We used to talk about it all the time; now we see it as a necessary evil, to be thought of and talked about as little as possible.

1943

29 JANUARY. Today the Nazis marked the 10th anniversary of their coming to power—without a speech from Hitler….[Hermann] Göring made one instead, more than an hour late. Imagine having the gall to stand up and tell the poor, tormented German people that “the past 10 years have demonstrated the innate power of our world view and the blessings it is able to bestow.” I wonder what the German people really think and feel, faced with the “blessings” of National Socialism. A deadly war killing the flower of youth; the hatred and loathing of virtually all other nations; want and misery; horrific assaults on defenseless people; concerted brutalization and deculturing of its citizens, especially young people; torture, both mental and physical, of the populations of occupied countries; the informer system; the demolition of family life; the destruction of religion; “euthanasia” for the incurably ill and mentally deficient; the reduction of love to a matter of basic procreation; the news blackout shielding them from the rest of the world and—unless all the signs are deceptive—total breakdown of the German people in the not-too-­distant future. It’s simply impossible for many Germans not to have realized how royally duped they’ve been by their Führer and other leaders.

26 JULY. On the radio this morning we heard the really sensational news: Mussolini has been dismissed by [King] Victor Emmanuel and Marshal [Pietro] Badoglio has been appointed his successor. Hey ho! Tiddley pom and fiddle-de-dee! The hydra of Fascism has lost its head….They say he’s ill, stomach cancer, and if anybody deserves stomach cancer, it has to be him.

So that was Benito Mussolini! Could it be Hitler next please?

11 NOVEMBER. The First World War ended 25 years ago today. Does anyone hold a minute’s silence any more, like they used to between the wars? I don’t think so. And all the little “unknown soldiers” around the world, buried with such pomp and splendor, is there anybody who remembers them? Or are they forgotten on a day like today in favor of all the unknown soldiers confronted daily and hourly with [the realities of] life at the various fronts. Dear Lord Jesus, can’t it be over soon?

1944

6 JUNE. INVASION—finally! Allied troops, with support from the air, have landed in northwestern France. Thousands of troopships and thousands of planes crossed the Channel early this morning.

1945

29 APRIL. This Sunday morning, when we were woken by the sound of the rain gushing in the gutters, the huge headline in the paper read:

the germans surrender!

Germany surrenders—finally! Why not earlier, before the whole of Germany was reduced to a pile of rubble and so many children aged 10–12 were sent to their deaths?

1 MAY. This is a historic moment. Hitler’s dead. Hitler is dead. Mussolini’s dead, too.

7 MAY. It’s VE Day! The war’s over! The war’s over! THE WAR IS OVER!

Oh, oh, now it’s over, all the torture and concentration camps and bombing raids and Ausradierung [eradication] of cities, and perhaps battered humanity can have a little rest. Germany and the Germans are hated—but one can’t hate all Germans, one can only pity them.

The war is over—it’s the only thing that matters at the moment.

The war is over!

8 MAY. It’s one historic moment after another. I just heard Winston Churchill inform the world of the unconditional surrender of all German forces in Europe and announce that we can finally celebrate VE Day, Victory in Europe Day. He made the announcement with the radio microphone used by [Neville] Chamberlain to declare war on Germany in September 1939.

Good old Winston, he’s really the one who won the war.

Hostilities will end at one minute after midnight, Churchill said. How must it feel to that vigorous old man of over 70 to announce that to the British Empire? He spoke like a man in his prime, in resounding tones, and I liked him more than ever. Then they played “God Save the King” and its surging majesty almost made me cry.

20 NOVEMBER. I just heard a live transmission from Nuremberg. I heard all those butchers stand there and declare themselves nicht schuldig [not guilty]. [Hans] Frank—the butcher of Poland, [Julius] Streicher, persecutor of Jews, GÖring, [Rudolph] Hess, the whole lot were as innocent as lambs and assured the court of the fact in steady voices.

NEW YEAR’S EVE. So another New Year is almost upon us! They come round so quickly.

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. MHQ

Excerpted from War Diaries, 1939–1945, by Astrid Lindgren, translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death (Yale University Press, 2016).

This article appears in the Summer 2018 issue (Vol. 30, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Wartime Diarist

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