Tag Archives: Cold War

The World of Wars: Risky Systems – A second-order observation of future wars




He’s a real Nowhere Man/Sitting in his Nowhere Land/Making all his nowhere plans for nobody/Doesn’t have a point of view/Knows not where he’s going to/Isn’t he a bit like you and me?/Nowhere Man, please listen/You don’t know what you’re missing/Nowhere Man, the world is at your command/He’s as blind as he can be/Just sees what he wants to see/Nowhere Man, can you see me at all?/

Nowhere Man, John Lennon 1965


Until 1989, the long-term future did not exist and had not existed since the end of the 1950s. After the end of the Cold War, a sudden rise in debates about the future state of Europe and the World took place. On the one extreme, Kantian prospects for a variety of integration policies flourished (Habermas 1992; Held 1995); and with the 200 years festivities of his Zum ewigen Frieden, a whole range of theoretical models of thought about future possibilities appeared in political theories (Kant 1795/1977; Höffe 1995; Rawls 1999). On the other side of the spectre, US military planning had a bath in extremely well-financed investments in a so-called Revolution in Military Affairs, thereby establishing neo-conservative dreams of a unipolar 21st century where the idea of a Pax Americana reigned without resistance, without friction and with even more almighty power than the power invested in the Cold War. To some observers, like Robert Kagan, these extremely opposed visions offered the possibility to revitalise an opposition between idealist liberalism and military realism. Long lists of publications gave intellectual and strategic punch to the almighty dreams and when the US High Court elected the younger Bush as president, the dreams of linear technologically advanced strategy gained supreme political authority (Kagan 2002; Vickers & Martinage 2004).

Today, when the disasters of the neo-conservative Middle East campaigns are well known, especially with the still, at the moment in 2014, un-constrained terrorist Caliphate Islamic State in a far riskier position than al Qaeda ever was, it is amazing to go some years back and check the risk analyses. Warnings dominated strategic discussions and had done so for long (Mack 1975; Lind et al 1989; Shapiro 1999; Echevarria 1996; Tibi 2001a; 2001b). “The strong will lose” according to the more comprehensive strategic thought (Record 2005). Irregular warfare, asymmetric strategies and so-called 4th Generation Warfare can overstretch a superpower (Lind 2004; 2005; Hammes 2006; Thornton 2007). In his well-known magisterial work, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (1988), Paul Kennedy had already warned against such possibilities.

Future prospects come and go, and ideas of almost eternally stable future orders, optimism and pessimism appear and disappear with the same speed as fashions in Paris. The Grand Narratives are certainly not as dead as Jean-François Lyotard observed in La condition postmoderne in 1979; but there are many of them, and the narrative of the Globalisation is probably the strongest and steadiest. Gone are the days when we could easily operate with distinctions between domestic and foreign policy subjects to international politics and international relations. Rob Walker challenges the classic focus with a conception of “politics of the world” (Walker 2010). I am more concerned how such politics are inherent in the social world, i.e. the social systems with which we live. What does it mean to live with military organisation systems and be subject to existing systems of war?

War is about insecurity and risk. Hence, the analysis of future wars could, for some observers, be the strive for finding eternal wisdom, silver bullets or subscribing to myths of genius, perfect planning, technical systems (drones), and the right decision at the right moment. Colin Gray rightly warns against such fixed ideas (Gray 2009b). With Niklas Luhmann’s system theory, I do not subscribe to the sociological popular theory of risk that defines risk as an unpleasant future (Beck 1997; Vedby 2006). Beck’s notion of a worldwide risk society (“Weltrisikogesellschaft”) can, however, be useful as an overall concept of risky system observations. Yet, we should observe that our observations are from the present moment, which is the risk we run that cannot be escaped. But I will not enter a first-order analysis of what substantially could be unpleasant in an unknown future. War systems are too much about innovation, change and transformation to cling to substantial predictions. Hence, per definition, it is a risky business to observe the state of the world in terms of future wars. This invites to methodological reflections that still may use classical observations to observe the future.

In order to analyse the future, I will first analyse the problem of future risks as a problem. Then, in the next section, I point towards some forgotten heritage from the past that still lives for the future to come: the traumas from past wars. Theoretically too, we have a heritage from the past, namely the still vivid strategical lessons from Carl von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu as well as strategies of asymmetric war, which I analyse in the third section. In the fourth section, I apply Luhmann’s theory of differentiated risk systems. The military systems will continue to respond to asymmetric threats and the risk is this form of inadequacy. Hacker wars, drones and private military companies will develop, but increasing numbers of refugees, for whatever reason, will create disasters that cannot find adequate military solutions.



I. Two distinctions: epistemological and temporal

If the aim is to look into the future, we should consider two distinctions. One is about knowledge, another about temporality. First of all, we shall be aware of the distinction ontology/epistemology. We can make some substantial predictions about demography, climate change and even, probably, the rise of China; but a less risky haven is to take a look at future epistemologies: We should hesitate to state what we will observe in two generations from now; rather, we should observe how we will probably observe.

What will be our systems of observation? This question shall not be considered too big in all its dimensions. We cannot observe how all systems will observe, but only some forms of observations in some of the social systems (Luhmann 1986; 1991; 1993). What does that mean, and how can we do that? In this article, I shall only consider forms of war and warfare. How do we probably observe war in the future?

One of the best among the many books and articles on future warfare is probably Colin Gray’s Another Bloody Century (2005a). He establishes a well-founded overview of 12 grand narratives of future warfare: The rise and fall of total war; the obsolescence of major interstate war; ‘old wars’ and ‘new wars’ or Fourth Generation irregular wars; new security agendas; geopolitical transformations (China, India, Russia); revolutions in military affairs (RMA), technology as strategy; expanding spatial geography of war; terrorism; weapons of mass destruction; decline of war; and then finally the, according to Colin Gray, most interesting narrative: Our past as our future. Albeit Gray’s statement was forwarded a decade ago; I, still, held it worthwhile to test its validity as a prospect for the future to come.

I do agree that without historical analysis, our observations of future wars are lost in dreams. Kantian analyses of future networks of trans- and post-national institutions and norms might therefore carry on more realism than (often) poorly financed technological dreams about military revolutions. After all, Kant’s military prospects of a realist peace and Carl von Clausewitz’ Kantian methodology about the form of war are also strongly linked. While peace-semantic stays as an amazingly continuous affair, codes of war and warfare undergo transformations over and over in evolutions and revolutions (Janssen 1979a; 1979b; Harste 2004; 2011; Knox & Murray 2001).

Nevertheless, a number of continuous forms do exist too, for instance in the rather popular, but not always politically recognized, so-called “social cohesion” and corporate spirit among soldiers (Picq 1880/2005; Hansson 2007; King 2007; Harste 2014). Of course, the presence of crusading communication codes in politics, religion and war is another aspect (Roux 2007; Tibi 2001a; 2001b). In the future, we will probably still use Clausewitz, and even the far older Sun Tzu, to analyse war.

Before entering that part of the present analysis, I want to clarify the second distinction as a distinction between the present and the absent. Temporal analysis is an advanced well-known discipline since St. Augustine and, although not overly complex, it is often neglected in social theory. However, the Bielefeld connection between Reinhart Koselleck and Niklas Luhmann has done much to reappraise it (Koselleck 2000; Luhmann 1980; 1990a; 1997: 997 – 1016). Especially, in order to redescribe Clausewitz’ analysis in more recent terms, I have applied Luhmann’s analysis of systems to a historical and evolutionary theory of the functional system of war as distinct from military organisation systems and used it to establish a theory of risky systems (Harste 2003; 2004; 2009b; 2011, 2014).Today we can observe risk structures and temporal bindings inherent to codes and practices of different social systems as law, finance, war, research, politics, mass media etc. They do not operate with identical temporal structures, and we may risk that their temporal bindings are indeed very different (Luhmann 1991). However, for an initial reappraisal of Colin Gray’s point, we should begin the analysis by targeting another set of somewhat more concrete problems.

First, it is well-known that future wars are often planned with past wars in mind. The US army anno 2001 would no doubt be able to win a conventional war against Wehrmacht anno 1941, it might even have built its military organisation and visions in order to do so (Vandergriff 2001; Huntington 1957; Creveld 2007; 2008). Quite late during the Iraq War, US strategists, after a lot of criticism, began to learn from the Vietnam War (Metz 2007; Record 2004; Record & Terill 2004).

Second, history has always been rewritten and will continue to do so in the future to come (Prost & Winter 2004). In a future reaching beyond the present synchronisation of our history into a common story, our past will be transformed to such forms that the medium of history will no longer be the same simple recognisable fact. Gottfried Leibniz proposed that the present “is pregnant with the future and loaded with the past” (cited from Cassirer 1932/1998: 38). Our past will be our future. This wisdom is not abstract metaphysics, but loaded with concrete details that have overwhelmed us beyond our comprehension.



II. The future of the Hundred Years War

That the future will be different from the past has been a promise since the Romans restructured the past as the (re-)birth of Christ in blood and flesh as Jesus, an event that coincided with the heyday of a stabilised Roman celebration of the emperor. Christ also sacrificed his temporal body in order to offer mankind “a difference that gives a difference” (Luhmann 2008: 240).

The sacrificed past is not able to recognise itself, even not as a fact, i.e. as recognised statistics. The body counts of the Three Quarter Century War from 1914 to 1989 are simply beyond a scale that any Hollywood storytelling can represent. The continuation in the Hundred Year’s War, 1914 – 2014 has not established and constituted a penetrating rupture to the dramatic narratives of suffering. During the Three Quarter Century War, three world wars and a “Zwischenkrigszeit” each considered as “wars that could end all wars” including the last one, the Cold War, that had it been warm would probably have succeeded on the worst scale possible. This history is very different from the stories we were acquainted with in schools, in politics, mass media and in the historical records of the past, not only because it ended differently and faster than what we thought for a long time. And once more, in the future, it will be very different, just an example, the stories of body counts in the Second World War. Today, in Ukraine, we are witnesses to demonstrations with an amazing mixture of generations, many seem to have roots in the conflicts of their parents and grandparents. However, the conflicts in Ukraine may be part of a much larger heritage of traumatic conflicts we, in the West, should be extremely aware about. It could easily become a disaster if we ignore the heritage of conflicts embedded into experiences of Russia, Ukraine and Belorussia, the three countries which suffered more than any other during their “Thirty Years War” from 1914 – 1945. The problem with the heritage of war experiences is that people get traumatized; traumatized people, in Ukraine, in Russia, or in Palestine, Iraq and Syria may develop desires for revenge. Sometimes they do not have much to lose.

I take the narrative about the Second World War. Hitherto we all know about one story, somewhat comfortable and also somewhat disturbing, in fact shocking to the degree that is has been difficult to “write poems” (Adorno 1966). Fact finding is a macabre story. The Cold War probably began with false stories about Soviet losses. Officially, of internal as well as external reasons, The Soviet would offer a false idealisation of itself as a strong power able to sustain its gains in Eastern Europe and also deserve them. A power second to US power, who counted losses of 407.300 dead. From an official six and a half million, the number quickly rose to plus nine million. However, at the 20th Party Congress in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev could shock the world with an amazing 20 million body count (Ellenstein 1978). Then, in 1990, Gorbachev – in his speech on the occasion of the forty-fifth anniversary of victory – gave a figure of 26.6 million (Bellamy 2007: 9). Shortly after, in a book on the removal of secret classifications, it was disclosed that Soviet Armed Forces lost 8.668.400 servicemen (Sokolov 2009: 448; Second World War Almanac 2005). The rest were civilians.

Something is very flawed in those analyses, apart from the last number being unbelievably accurate. German generals counted their losses far more accurately than the Red Army, though they could not reckon survivors from the prison of war camps (POWs). The Wehrmacht counted at least 4 million dead, later estimates count 5.3 millions though the added estimates are unclear. Total losses, including Austria, number between 6.3 and 7.8 million. However, careful descriptions of battle dead often describe German/Soviet dead ratios at around 1/10 (Frankson & Zetterling 2003). And about 55-65 percent of (surviving) women born 1905–1915 were widows. In his magisterial description of the Soviet Russian “Great Patriotic War”, English historian Chris Bellamy exposed these flaws in a somewhat simple way. On the one hand, he accurately exposed the body counts officially recognised in 1993; on the other, he described demographic accounts. Demographers calculate the ‘global loss’ of population, including couples who never met and babies not born, to be 48 million, i.e., far above the 26-27 million figure. During the last couple of decades, research and archives have opened up. In autumn 2009, Russian historian Boris Sokolov published a study based on five different entries. First he points to the danger of over- and underestimation for political and normative reasons as well as according to double counts: A Pole, Soviet citizen, soldier, partisan, then soldier again, perhaps Jew, could be counted lost on several occasions. However, all his different entries arrive at the level of 24-27.5 million military servicemen; probably 26.3-26.9 million though a variance of up to 5 million is possible. More convincing is his use of very different calculation methods. I) The Red Army did not register its troops before December 1941 and did not use medallions before that time; however, many soldiers and officers did not use them since they were observed as signs of fatal destinies. II) A few months of fighting, in particular November, fairly well counted the number of dead but, as movements were sparse, additions of those numbers could be used. Thus casualties in those months can be multiplied to the whole war. III) The same applies to the relation officer dead/soldier dead as officers normally were counted much more accurately. The Soviet army lost 784.000 officers (161 officers for every 12 German officers). IV) A list of 19 million names are recorded at the Great Patriotic War Museum that often, however, receive complaints about lacking names, and among the 5.000 servicemen found in 1994-95 approximately 30 percent were not in the Ministry of Defence’s archives. V) Local descriptions of conscripted soldiers include far more soldiers than those officially recorded; often armies simply took those available, enlisted or not. The accounts of soldiers from the Baltic countries and the later Soviet part of Poland are rather unsatisfying. Finally, demographic accounts reckon human losses to 43.400.000 inside the later Soviet territory of which civilian losses were 16.4-16.9 million. The human losses outnumber the entire population in France or England in 1939. To these figures, we should, of course, add wounded, handicapped and mentally ill persons, not to say persons with post-traumatic stress (PTS). The flaws and lack of accuracy seem to be part of the contingencies of Operation Barbarossa. Yet of course, there are other recent analyses, most of them arrive to smaller numbers than Sokolov, but some, as the renowned US Russia expert David Glantz to even more dramatic accounts.

Even compared to more recent, rather bluntly described, overviews such as Colin Gray’s War, Peace and International Relations (2007), this altogether tells us quite another story of not only the war but also its aftermath, the Cold War and the history of Eastern Europe, as well as the reasons behind success and failure of East and West. The East sacrificed so many lives compared to Nazi Germany (part of the West) that the First World (including post-war Germany) was far more successful than the Second World. The biggest historical catastrophe since the Thirty Years War resulted in the most prosperous era of mankind.

Such paradoxes are still beyond reach for normal evaluation; nevertheless, our factual history of the past has to judge and “stay cool” as a Danish-German POW in Arkhangelsk once ironically reported to me about surviving the Siberian Winter. The extremely cruel and cynical Soviet sacrifices under Stalin, Beria and NKVD were part of a struggle to survive a past Soviet dream of future life and/or a future regime against a pure destructive Thousand Year Reich. The figures could indicate that Nazi-Germany could have succeeded, for instance if the winter 1941-42 had been a little milder (December the 6th General Guderian measured minus 63 degrees Celsius; Clark 1965: 181; about 10 degrees below normal records), or if the Soviet regime had been less despotic and totalitarian, though perhaps not against a completely modern and functionally differentiated Soviet Union disposing of immense Soviet resources in the most utopian, rational and well educated ways, but anyway out of reach.

Let the lonely Jesus, but the more than 40 million Soviet citizens were paradoxically sacrificed in an extremely uncivilised way in order to save civilization. By any account, the West would never have gone that far. The Eastern hemisphere including the Persian Gulf could have turned subject to the Nazi Regime and would then probably have suffered even more had it tried to rebel. This is not counterfactual history but factual history about the past by means of standards that is and were recognised in the West. This account furthermore suggests that, conventionally, the West is less capable of suffering human losses than other kind of regimes, perhaps even so when the West had a far more heroic self-esteem than at present and in the future. As Herfried Münkler states with Edward Luttwak, we live in a post-heroic age; and the sacrifices of earlier generations will be still less possible to understand along with the growing costs of PTSD among veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq (Münkler 2006: 310-354). Millions of disabled young, mainly, males will be unproductive for generations to come and be extremely costly to the US and the rest of the West, as Philip Stiglitz predicts in his The Three Trillion Dollars War (2008) about the Iraq War, to which costs for Afghanistan and to allies will follow (Swofford et al 2009; Korb 2009; Shinseki 2013). The unipolar power-structure of the world transformed incredibly fast into a predictable financial crisis. Wars are always extremely manifold more costly than optimist warfare planners hope for (Kindleberger 1984; Frieden 2006; Harrison 1998; Strachan 2004; Rockoff 2012).

The Second World War was beyond any comparison more expensive than any other war and would have led to a comparable financial crisis as most former wars, just more far-reaching. Apart from the overwhelming Soviet costs, the war was financed by transformation of classical gold standard to a dollar = gold standard. Dollars could be printed in unlimited numbers and could purchase, purchase and purchase. Gone were the hundreds of years when international trade depended on the production of silver and gold (Germain 1998). As long as the US did not enter into the repeatedly unfinanced practice of warfare, the credit system functioned. However, after the Korean War, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars destroyed the credibility of US finance. Dollars printed to finance wars without a substantial export but too much import and tax decreases did not increase credibility (Eichengreen 2007).

The structure moving financial strength from US to China is certainly strong. The dollar as monopolised reserve method of payment probably suffers although the Euro-zone also has some problems with a public debt. Commentators continue to claim that US military spending is nine times to the Chinese; but American salaries are ten times higher than the Chinese! Military transformations can take an incredible speed as is well-known from the American explosion in military investments and corresponding capabilities during the First and the Second World Wars. However, the more important question is whether future wars will take the structure of conventional warfare. Probably not. Thus, we have to take a long-term second order view on wars and observe our past as well as our future.



III. Forms of war: Sun Tzu, Clausewitz and Lawrence of Arabia

Strategic theories of war are an amazing field of studies for many reasons. One is that very old treaties are indeed still used as classics necessary to understand modern warfare as another branch of war studies, at the same time, concerns sometimes very celebrated military revolutions that “forever will change the form of warfare” according to their proponents (Owen 2001; 2002). Tactical warfare undergoes incessant transformation while the strategic form of war fights the same problems of ungovernable contingencies, friction, planning turned into surprise, moral despair, public impatience and, above all, exhaustion in protracted wars of attrition (Gray 2005b). Hence strategy is not about meeting the future chaos or panic, but about using reflection; i.e., historically speaking to replace future war with a functional equivalent to Fredrick the Great’s brain, and future peace with a reflection capacity similar to Immanuel Kant’s (Paret 1976/2007; Pellegrini 1997).

Already Sun Tzu, reflecting on the Chin wars 400 hundred years before B.C., described the unavoidable occupation with the economy of resources in a more detailed sense than how economy is normally understood. The scope of involved resources is the weak point in protracted wars. Thus all major wars concern a scope of material resources including moral and public resources of will and motivation as well as a scope of temporality. According to calculation theory of fire power, many resources used in a short period of time are much easier to handle than the complexities involved if they were to be handled for a longer period (Biddle 2004). However, the longer period also leads to processes of professionalization and the evolution of learning (Bailey 2001: 154). Modesty in recognizing own weaknesses, blind spots and flawed cognition is decisive in order not to overstretch the use of armies. Later we have seen how Louis XIV, Charles XII, Napoleon, Hitler, Johnson & Nixon, and Bush the Younger overstretched their armies with too many campaigns, too far, for too long a time with too sophisticated materials and, in the offensive, too little public backing.

The false view on linear input-based technologically planned military revolutions is that these conditions change with insurmountable speed and firepower (Beckerman 1999). The weakness is that they invest too much for too long a time, since complexities in unknown countries destroy planning. As Harry Yarger from the US Army War College forcefully underlined in his The Strategic Theory for the 21st Century, strategic planning is about how to plan when plans are broken (Yarger 2006; 2010). The military organisation system does not enter the functional system of war before that moment. Sun Tzu’s advice is that


those skilled in war avoid the enemy when his spirit is keen and attack him when it is sluggish and his soldiers homesick. This is the control of the moral factor. In good order, they await a disorderly enemy; in serenity, a clamorous one. This is control of the mental factor. Close to the field of battle, they await an enemy coming from afar; at rest, they await an exhausted enemy; with well-fed troops, they await hungry ones. This is control of the physical factor. They do not engage an enemy advancing with well-ordered banners nor one whose formations are in impressive array. This is control of the factor of changing circumstances (Sun Tzu 400 b C/1998: 35).


Troops are never prepared to receive an attack. In that sense, one of the main principles of asymmetric warfare has always been part of warfare. The speed and strength of one part may be met with withdrawal, dispersal and slow-down. A peculiar battle of intelligence takes place and one of the most well-known phrases of Sun Tzu is the following résumé:


Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles, you will never be defeated. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or loosing are equal. If ignorant both your enemy and of yourself, you are sure to be defeated in every battle (Sun Tzu 400b C/1998: 26).


The problem is that the strong part relies on its strength which of course is important to induce moral self-reliance to soldiers and officers, especially if they have to go abroad in some kind of offensive. They trust their strengths instead of doubting their weaknesses, their false opinions, their flawed knowledge not to say empathy of their enemy situation, language, history, religion, norms, everyday life. An even worse problem is that wars are not about “winning” and “victory” in battles and in warfare, but about winning the peace in such a way that their “present enemy must be seen as a future associate” (Rawls 1999: 101). On this point, Sun Tzu’s thought is not on the level of Carl von Clausewitz’. Tactics might be about winning a battle, but if there are no battles such forms of victory make no sense and communicating about them only offers false viewpoints, and failed communication codes thus weaken the stronger part to the point of deception and even moral dissolution. To know about knowledge is to preserve a clear judgment and what Clausewitz calls prudence (“Weisheit”) referring to Fredrick the Great as the greater strategists compared to the tactician Napoleon, “to bring peace about was his goal” (Clausewitz 1832/1952: 246). From Napoleon over his historian and general chief of staff, Antoine-Henri Jomini, the generals of the First World War and to the US way of warfare, this lack of reflective long-term strategic prudence and their first order observation of warfare might be their weakest point (Record 2006). As the distinguished scholar Martin van Creveld has said remarkably precise, “For a decade the US armed forces had talked about the Revolution of Military Affairs until they were blue in the face” (Creveld 2007: 246).

This tradition of introvert observation has been inherent in nationalist warfare policies and is surely backed by the blind spots of the military-industrial complex and interests in its own continuous growth (Eisenhower 1961). But we have to distinguish between military organisation and the functional system of war. As many revolutions we might have in the first one and maybe even in warfare, from an inductive and abductive point of view, not a deductive point of view, it will still be possible to observe the form of war (Gray 2009b). Despite this we cannot be sure that Sun Tzu’s insights in every respect will not be challenged in the future to come. But we cannot only rely on our own transformations in order to understand future wars. Wars are always about double contingencies, i.e., how one part tries to disturb how the other part tries to disturb and how both parts absorb contingencies. The difficult tactics of warfare is to imagine the imagination of the other.


An army may be liked to water, for just as flowing water avoids the heights and hastens to the lowlands, so an army should avoid strength and strike weakness. And as water shapes its flow in accordance with the ground, so an army manages its victory in accordance with the situation of the enemy. And as water has no constant form, there are in warfare no constant conditions (…)The enemy must not know where I intend to give battle. For if he does not know where I intend to give battle, he must prepare in a great many places. And when he prepares in a great many places, those I have to fight will be few (Sun Tzu 400b C/1998: 31, 30).


Whereas Sun Tzu here used water as a metaphor in order to show the form of dissolved forms and contours, T.E. Lawrence used gas which of course was a provoking metaphor after the First World War. In his fiction- or faction-like description of the Arab insurgency against the Turks in 1916, he reflected upon his own ideas about a successful insurgency against a military stronger enemy, and he established a description of irregular warfare that has been one of the most successful lessons over the last hundred years, a lesson often judged to be one of two strategies for warfare in the 21st century. After few reflections regarding the use of Clausewitz, Jomini, Guibert and Moltke that was “making me [Lawrence] critical of all their light”, he reconstructed the spatial scene using Jominian – or one might even say Kantian – variables of contingencies in space and time, since space and time are not absolutes; rather, they are contingent on their observers. Military forces depend on space and time, which in turn are contingent on the observing system bringing them into use:


The Algebraic element looked to me a pure science, subject to mathematical law, inhuman. It dealt with known variables, fixed conditions, space and time, inorganic things like hills and climates and railways, with mankind in type-masses too great for individual variety, with all artificial aids and the extensions given our faculties by mechanical invention. It was essentially formulable.

Here was a pompous, professorial beginning. My wits, hostile to the abstract, took refuge in Arabia again. Translated into Arabic, the algebraic factor would first take practical account of the area we wished to deliver, and I began idly to calculate how many square miles: sixty: eighty: one hundred: perhaps one hundred and forty thousand square miles. And how would the Turks defend all that? No doubt by a trench line across the bottom, if we came like an army with banners but suppose we were (as we might be) an influence, an idea, a thing intangible, invulnerable, without front or back, drifting about like a gas? Armies were like plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. We might be a vapour, blowing were we listed. Our kingdoms lay in each man’s mind, and as we wanted nothing material to live on, so we might offer nothing material to the killing. It seemed a regular soldier might be helpless without a target, owning only what he sat on, and subjugating only what, by order, he could poke his rifle at.

Then I figured out how many men they would need to sit on all this ground, to save it from our attack-in-depth, sedition putting up her head in every unoccupied one of those hundred thousand square miles (…) If so, they would need six hundred thousand men to meet the ill-wills of all the Arab peoples, combined with the active hostility of a few zealots (Lawrence 1935/1997: 181-182).


Asymmetric warfare is as old as warfare based on military revolutions. They are almost all based on evolutionary reforms on one side of a conflict and the experience of something sudden and revolutionary by the inferior part (Murray & Knox 2001). In his important analysis, The Sling and the Stone, Colonel Thomas Hammes therefore does not define the form of asymmetric warfare as “revolutionary”: it was hardly possible to predict that the technologically superior Western forces would meet a superior form of warfare, which was not about winning tactic battles but about creating fear and a sense of hopelessness among military actors. Inferior forces quickly learn to cope with superior forces – otherwise they lose (Record 2005). Already the Spanish insurgency, the so-called guerrilla or “little war”, imposed a kind of military revolution on Napoleon’s army.

Clausewitz wrote about guerrilla warfare and about asymmetries in warfare, since warfare is always, to different degrees, asymmetric (Thornton 2007; Chaliand 2008). The myth of symmetry was probably morally perfected with warfare of knights, heroised and honoured beyond any real warfare experience and established as a form of communication important to diplomatic affairs. Conventional experiences as the West Front 1914–1918 did certainly also do much to establish the longevity of the myth.

I will neither repeat Clausewitz’ famous phrases on politics and war, the trinity of war nor his accurate analysis of asymmetries in attack, defence, and abstract and real war. The above discussion of Sun Tzu’s conception could very well have been about Clausewitz’ notion of centres of gravity (“Schwerpunkte”) (Echevarria 1995; 2003; 2007). To fight the opponent’s centre of gravity is not only, for a first order observation, to fix a certain target or threshold but to put into the move and disturb the opponent’s second order observation:


Alexander, Gustav Adolf, Karl XII, Friedrich der Gro?e hatten ihren Schwerpunkt in ihrem Heer, wäre dies zertrümmert worden, so würden sie ihre Rolle schlecht ausgespielt haben; bei Staaten, die durch innere Parteiungen zerrissen sind, liegt er meistens in der Hauptstadt; bei kleinen Staaten, die sich an mächtige stützen, liegt er im Heer dieser Bundesgenossen; bei Bündnissen liegt er in der Einheit des Interesses; bei Volksbewaffnung in der Person der Hauptführer und in der öffentlichen Meinung. Gegen diese Dinge muss der Stoß gerichtet sein. Hat der Gegner dadurch das Gleichgewicht verloren, so muss ihm keine Zeit gelassen werden, es wieder zu gewinnen; der Stoß muss immer in dieser Richtung fortgesetzt werden, da Ganze nicht gegen einen Teil des Gegners richten (Clausewitz 1832/1952: 874-875).


Clausewitz based his theoretical conception of such considerations on Kant’s analysis of forms, and his teacher in methodology was Kant’s assistant Johann Kiesewetter. The distinction form/matter concerns questions of what and where, of who, and of when and how long time, beginning and end. Ever since, form analysis has been used by sociologists as Georg Simmel (1908/1923), Pierre Bourdieu and most elaborated, Niklas Luhmann (2002: chap. II, 2; Baecker 2005). The social bond is also temporal.

In its first material dimension, form analysis is about reducing complexity as to what will matter as place, territory, materials, troop strength, losses, logistics etc. In its second social dimension, it concerns the observation of double contingencies about the conflict between the partners, how the conflict conception is if compromises, alliances and cooperation can be established, what is hatred and enemy perception etc. The third dimension concerns temporality: How will the conflict evolve, is the war one of attrition and exhaustion; what is the speed and the importance of speed, penetration, halt and rest; when does war begin and when does it end? Compared with contract theory, we may describe the material, social and temporal form of contracts. The difference between forms in law and in war is that in law contracts establish binding expectations, while in war they disrupt and destroy expectations. Surprises may follow, not only in the subject of conflict (from territory to water, air, credit of course and as usual, churches and graveyards as usual etc.), but also the dimension of alliances and opponents (networks, private military companies), and the speed and length of wars (minute short; generation long).

Now this triple conception is only the first order observation established by Clausewitz. In his philosophy of war, his abductive use of a reflective judgment (Kant) sends him searching towards a form of war that handles its own form: Wars may be wars about the form of the war, i.e. about the material, social and temporal form of the war. That is why he is occupied not only with tactics but with the strategy of will formation and re-formation of such will formations. At that point he is a real Kantian, searching for a form not of autonomous will formation, but of heteronomous will formation; this form analysis is also behind his conception of floating centres of gravity: The centre of gravity may change as the form of the conflict re-enters as medium and subject for the conflict itself. Hence, even the idea of the form and the form of the idea turns into a conflict dimension (Dobrot 2007; Echevarria 2008).



IV. The present risk system of temporal bindings

Clausewitz’ point is that the form of conflict about matter might turn into a conflict about temporal dimension and from there on again into logistics and supplies, but often public opinion and morality is as important. The point is that everything that seems safe might be false. Tactical linear warfare is embedded in myths about own power, about calculated use of resources used in an isolated act, implemented in a single or a short series of blows with a decisive victory, final results and clear costs (Watts 1996: chap. 2; Fleming 2004). The problem with these myths is that not only are they false and obsolete, mostly stemming from Napoleonic warfare and inherent in Jomini’s linear conception of warfare (Jomini 1838/1855/2001), but also that such myths of storytelling and imaginary realities go for real among soldiers, public media, movies and entire populations; even officers can be endowed with such myths if the very same officers are central to enormous investments in a military-industrial complex with thousands of jobs, family lives, careers, regional growth and political ambitions (Smith 2005; Record 2010). Those myths have a “second nature” (Hegel) to such a degree that military organisations even continue to develop a “new speak” about abbreviations as if they could professionalise a rationalisation of scientific warfare even in organisational, political and social systems where they were inadequately overexposed as if the military organisations knew exactly what they were talking about. The extreme manifold use and abuse of military acronyms is only the most visible sign of a communication form comparable to Admiral Nelson using a telescope as a technological tool to observe, but what is it worth if the observer observes with eyes that are unable to observe. Telescopes and satellites can be tactically useful. But for strategic purposes translators and interpreters are often more useful.

According to Luhmann’s theory, the first risk of any social communication system is that it observes its environment with its own codes of communication and not with those immanent in the environment. Those codes might be more or less adequate, but foremost, they are established in order to facilitate the system’s communication with itself. It might inform itself about the environment, and even send or receive messages, but it interprets according to its own codes and facilitates those codes reproducing the self-reference of the system communication historically well known since the semantic of “reason of state” established sovereign forms of communication in state building. In the case of ISAF and the US forces entering into Afghanistan penetrating analyses show that the coalition tactics of usual American way of warfare ruled for so long time that it was too late to coordinate another form of counterinsurgency (Irwin 2012; Grissom 2013).

More dramatically, the respected war historian Gabriel Kolko states that “at no time has the United States entered a war aware of the time, material, and tragic human costs it would have to pay or demand of others” (Kolko 2002: 53). I have mentioned the asymmetric losses of the US and Soviet forces in the Second World War. The three wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan suffers from the same casualty ratio (1/50–1/200), not to mention “clean” high tech aerial attacks (drone, missile etc.).

Hence, such coded communication systems suffer from lacking recognition of own weaknesses. Their blind spots were that they did not know themselves and their own lack of capacities. This is the second risk and corresponds to Sun Tzu’s warning against the failure to know oneself. In fact, the military organisation system is also quick to learn from its failure and new counterinsurgency strategies (COIN), and civil-military cooperation (CIMIC) has developed (Patreus 2007; Nagl 2007; Cerami & Boggs 2007; Jalali 2009).

The third risk is that war systems operate wars in a world with very conflicting temporal bindings. Most famously, the asymmetries of speed and slow-down display the conflict between short-term bindings and investments on the one hand and long-term protraction on the other. The “nowhere man” (John Lennon, 1965) is also the “now here” and the “no-where?” whether he is a soldier, partisan, strategist or political observer; inside or outside. The ontological insecurity (Giddens 1984) and existential dissolution in Lennon’s text very well resembles the despair in asymmetric war. Military systems try to control wars through warfare, but they are themselves subject to political control and financial, moral, educational, scientific and all kind of logistic supplies. Therefore Clausewitz can say that “war is nothing else than the continuation of political interaction mediated by other means” (Clausewitz 1832/19952: 888). However, each of those supplying functional and organisation systems operate with very different and often opposed temporal bindings. The temporal horizons for their future transformation into other temporal bindings might be very different. For some, the reality of the mass media, the temporal horizon can be a few days, as their “raison d’être” and code of communication is “news”, and their function is probably to synchronise the society with itself as a present Gesellschaft able to include itself here and now and exclude everything “irrelevant” to that perspective. Political systems have longer temporal bindings, e.g., four years. Financial systems of credit, interest and rent, say seven years. Organisation systems of careers and reforms, say 20 years. Paradigm shifts, a generation of university careers, from 10 to 40 years; education, socialisation some 10-20 years, but childcare and care for grandchildren’s old age, the long perspective of say 100 years. These temporal bindings operate for real; they dissent and cannot establish any consensual complementarities perceived in an objective or absolute harmonious spirit (Hegel). According not only to Luhmann, but also his sociological predecessors Marx, Simmel and Weber, they follow their own self-referential logics.

Even in remote futures, such temporal bindings will probably still oppose each other, their temporal codes might alter a bit, and quite a few organisation sociologists propose that post-bureaucratic network organisations may shorten their temporal bindings from Weberian bureaucratic long-term career planning to short-term “projects” (Boltanski & Chiapello 1999; Rosa 2005). Furthermore, in the future, we will probably still operate conflict perceptions using a complex set of functional, organisational and network interaction systems. Some systems could be more advanced, more developed with more codes and more self-referential internally closed codes (of their own codes); for instance a garbage collection system, which will structurally be still more coupled to for instance legal, economic, transport, aesthetic, political and war systems. In the future, we may observe both garbage and water wars (important to the Palestinian and Syrian/Israelian conflict) as we historically have experienced supply wars way back.

Since the Cold War, the US military organisation system and its followers, allied as well as the political and the mass media system perceived how the war system unipolarised power. However, its conception of power was flawed by misconceptions of power. I can only shortly state the problem here. As is well known from Weber’s conception of domination and force (“Herrschaft”, “Gewalt”), Talcott Parsons’ reconstruction of the concept of power, Bourdieu’s and Foucault’s theoretical and genealogical analyses of power, and Luhmann’s theory of self-referential power, political science has absorbed a simplistic uni-linear zero-sum game conception of one actor’s transformation of will caused by another actor’s behaviour. This reductionist conception originated from Weber and Clausewitz, but neither of them meant anything more than that the initial conception of a will determination ran opposite to a Kantian moral philosophy of will formation. That would never suffice to analyse complex societal power conceptions. “Power” has been a concept historically established in order to let communication systems organise and “empower” themselves and communicate about power (Quillet 1972; Thornhill 2008). The linguistic origins in the Latin verb potere can be expressed as for instance “Macht macht Macht”, “le pouvoir de pouvoir”, “Almighty might might …” etc.

The problem is that the reductionist misconception lead to the extreme false perception of what “power” was able to handle after the Cold War. The US military power never got hand on the metaphysical power of the cold conflict nor of the Soviet power. The power inherent in the risk of a nuclear disaster was an indeed “Almighty” power comparable to Medieval conceptions of God’s Almighty power. From say 1957–1989/1991, Almighty power was all over, in every act, every person’s opinion, on every spot on earth, and all communication was coded as left/right, pro/contra. But its metaphysical and even meta-biological and meta-social power was so penetrating that it even escaped our risk perceptions and reflexive apperception capacities. Afterwards, having escaped the Plato cave of possible disappearance before we could even perceive it, it took time to rediscover the blind spots of that Almighty power. In her book, The Mighty and the Almighty (2007), Madeleine Albright has correctly, with Clinton, observed the subsequent neo-conservative misconceptions. The metaphysical power inherent in the Cold War was indeed difficult to handle in a reflexive thinking that had a hard time to think about long-term possibilities. The World as we knew it could disappear from one moment to the other, and, as Raymond Aron recognised, we could not think about our last thoughts without theological conceptions of souls, almightiness, eternity etc. Now, we may think about that.

Thus, US power thought much too easily that it could penetrate everywhere and learn normal behaviour as even former unipolar proponents admit (Kagan 2007; Ikenberry et al 2009). To follow Gabriel Kolko in his concluding sentences in Another Century of War?: “It [US] cannot. It has failed in the past and it will fail in this century; and attempting to do so will inflict wars and turmoil on many nations as well as on its own people” (Kolko 2002: 150). The disappearance of the Soviet and the dissolution of the Cold War was, according to military observers, if anything, a consequence of the digital revolution and its so-called revolution in military affairs, but also because of its additional financial and military overstretch in Afghanistan. “It was a great victory” according to Bill Casey, the former director of the CIA (Kolko 2002: 50). As Kolko explains, Afghanistan is “the trap” to both Soviet and NATO power, as US financed and trained the Mujaheddin to fight asymmetric war against the Soviet intervention and since paid the multi-doubled bill. But the trap also appears on a second order level.

If we apply Luhmann’s general theory of a risky relation between system and environment (“Umwelt”), we will turn up with the scheme shown in Figure 1. I have identified six risks belonging to the particular military system described in Figure 1 (Harste 2003). The basic observation is the distinction between social systems and environment. The social system communicates above all with itself, and only with this epistemic background it can open its observations to get informed by events in its environment.

Figure 1. The six risks of systems – in general and in particular

General theory about system risks

The military system

1. The risk not to observe the environment

1. The military system cannot observe the environment as it is, in its complexity and own dynamics. The system primarily observes its own narratives and interpretations (whether military analyses or propaganda).

2. The blind spot of the system and its limits to self-correction: It cannot observe that it cannot observe what it cannot observe


2. Internal to the military system, there are conflicts between observers and those who make decisions. There are limits to self-corrections of this differentiation.

3. Conflicts between the different temporal horizons of functional systems

3. The military-industrial complex stays committed to inertia of armament and the economy in jobs and investments as well as their programmes and codes of observation

4. Dissent in communication between functional systems: Functional systems do not communicate with each other

4. The war system does not communicate with the political system that addresses itself only to the military organisational hierarchy. Structural couplings, as between electoral groups and lobbyists, do only reinforce miscommunications in other areas.

5. There is no recursively entrance to a system of total vision that morally transcends and visualises everything totally. The whole is less than the sum of its parts.

5. The prevailing military system still observes itself as almighty on the level of the total power that reign conflicts in the years around 1956-1991. The prevailing system did not observe that this metaphysical form of power has escaped its power. Still, for some time, this exaggerated power perception might stay in power and strategists conflict about this.

6. In modern society there are only those systems that operate and no other. All observations and possible reforms only establish meaning by and through the systems.

6. There is no other military superpower than that of the US and its organisation of the military system is structurally coupled to other functionally differentiated subsystems. But the US military system has overstretched its manpower resources and financial supplies.


During the Cold War, the long-term future was dissolved by the short-term suspense. Apart from a few lunatic utopians, the future did not exist in the present: not as planning, not as will, not as long-term forecasts, but mostly as myths of revolution. Economic macro models established the so-called “wisdoms” of the future since anyway no view beyond a few years could be taken seriously. Short-term strategic conceptions of war ruled among tacticians, for instance known from John Boyd’s – in military circles – rather famous Observation-, Orientation-, Decision-, Acting-cycle the OODA-cycle, prevailed and dominated the so-called strategies (Osinga 2006). But after the Cold War, the long-term future was reinvented. long-term strategic considerations were reinvented. Asymmetric wars are not about winning battle space, but about not losing in terms of long-term exhaustion and “the strong losses” (Record 2005). The US has no strategic interests in Afghanistan and cannot – in terms of military social cohesion nor financially – afford that war and will retire together with the coalition forces which will establish a major moral-political blow to NATO (Gray 2009a). As the veterans and winter soldiers will remain a burden in the risk structure of future welfare systems for a long time, and as their traumatic experiences will claim further expenditures, the long-term costs of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, though nothing compared to the exhausted populations of those countries, could sufficiently cover the costs of the Iraq “Three Trillion Dollars War” several times (Stiglitz & Bilmes 2008).



V. Conclusion and paradoxical perspectives

By now we can return to the long-term risk structure and take a look back on the future history of Soviet Russia in the Second World War. If Stiglitz’ conservative estimates of the long-term costs of the Iraq war is used to characterise the Soviet costs in the Second World War according to different criteria, we approach astronomic figures as 150-350 years of Soviet BNP. Payback time is long, long and long, and path dependencies are beyond imagination. If US forces should have fought the Wehrmacht alone, it would only have been able to do so after the invention of the atomic bomb. We also now know why Soviet could not by any means succeed in the complex construction of a modern society. Hannah Arendt is surely right that Stalinism anyway, beforehand, was disastrous to the Soviet people, and the Red Army could have done much better without the horrible cleansings of about 80 percent of the officers in 1937-38. The afterthoughts of the Second World War have not ended yet. On the contrary, future generations sufficiently emancipated will ask questions about their lack of emancipation and about the heavy path dependencies put on their shoulders. If we compare with the repercussions of, probably the best example, the Thirty Years War that by any measures was disastrous to especially the German Empire (Rystad 1994), we can observe a range of temporal bindings stretching well into the late reign of Fredrick the Great more than four generations later, when the reform fever of Enlightenment finally took over from despotically enforced armament policies, fear, asceticism, pessimism and depression.

Today, the temporal bindings in the Middle East endure generations. I have focused on the temporal bindings of functional systems. However, one of the longest and most enduring bindings can be found in the socialisation of generations which apparently remains a much too remote and marginalised part of sociology and political science. Traumatized populations may give birth to terrorists.

The consequence is that the military organisation systems do not respond adequately to the war system, when wars turn radically asymmetric. The tragedy of the so-called “peace dividend” after the Cold War is not only that it was difficult for military organisation systems to decrease their activity levels (also because Russian fascism could turn into a real threat). But that they for almost two decades succeeded to convince that RMA-investments were necessary to a take-off for the West and for an unchallenged monopolized uni-polarity; they were so convincing that when once the financial crisis came because of financial overstretch, it was not possible to make cut downs in those employments sectors. The “peace dividend” turned out to be a “wartime surplus”, and military budgets grew as never before since the Second World War. But the economic and moral disaster is that only few surplus innovations have followed from those last decades of military investments. Internet, mobile phones etc. was invented in the last decades of the Cold War. The World Wars offered extreme diffusion of usable innovations, not only in technology, but also in organisation, politics, morality, law, research etc. (Rogers 1961; Burns & Stalker 1962). Innovation followed because its back was to the wall. This was somewhat, although probably also somewhat falsely, believed to be the case during the Cold War. But the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT is here used as a professional/dilettante abbreviation) has not yet lead to any usable innovations. Anyway, of course technological innovations cannot in any way at all justify war or even increased armaments. Drones, very much used by US Air Force since a decade, were invented after the First World War and do, by the way, not represent a sustainable strategy since they are cheap and easy to copy for about everyone.

As the opposite, peace constructions can be observed as self-referential and self-organising systems. (Harste 2013). We cannot escape how communication systems have evolved and still will evolve. When military systems and the diabolic war system pave the way for peace and federalism, it is because war systems induce and oblige forms of convergent practices. Kant describes how a rather complex network of con-federal, federal and treaty organisations could evolve in the future, and this, still, is probably a quite adequate prospect of what is on the way and will happen in the future. If military competition, trade spirit (“Handelsgeist”) and overloaded credit systems, as Kant thought, will continue to lead world development, then functional differentiation of systems and separation of powers will follow as implied developments, and we will observe convergences between USA, Europe, China, Russia and even Brazil and India. The states do as the other states in about every functionally differentiated detail, hence we may question whatever could be meant by sovereignty in such a world; but anyway freedom, autonomy and will-formation is in any Kantian or post-Kantian conception impossible if not headed by obligations and rule-following.

To such a picture “new wars” (Münkler 2007), civil wars, terrorism and irregular warfare will not change as much as Jürgen Habermas suggested in his 1995 reappraisal of Kant’s theory of roads towards perpetual peace. His 2004-reconstruction of a Kantian road to convergence and cooperation is more probable. Future warfare is about compromising and ruling regular warfare and about how to avoid political utopian or rather strategically dystopian dreams about how to rule in nowhere lands. Even the US national strategies become normal (Korb & Bergman 2007; White House 2010). Yet, this, let us call it Chinese challenge of normal responses will maintain symmetric answers, also to be taken in use in asymmetric wars. The Middle East and Africa will develop still growing numbers of refugees, because of past and present disasters, repressive regimes, and especially scare ressources for populations that may double in a few decades. The West, probably will not be able to admit and to handle its responsibilities for present and past disasters in the Middle East. This entire region is still embedded in the First World War’s “peace to end all peace”, when the Ottoman Empire was dissolved with the Sevres and Lausanne Treatises in 1920 and 1923 (Irwin 2012; Kamolnick 2014; Fromkin 1989).

Another development might be more risky from the point of view of this political, legal, financial, public and moral accountability that is so important to Clausewitz’ dictum about war as a continuation of politics. Several authors point towards the commercialisation of war in the form of private military contractors or PMCs (Singer 2004a; 2004b; 2008; Leander 2004; Rosén 2008a; 2008b). The failure of the United States to intervene in Iraq and Afghanistan has resulted in a steep growth in privatisation and the practice of outsourcing warfare and logistics into private companies (Blackwater; Halliburton etc.). This could display another vision than a Kantian network of federal and confederal governance, NGOs and lex mercantoria (Verschraegen 2010; Teubner & Fischer-Laescano 2007). If the trends continue, a serious futurology enters a paradox. The future we face is as close to the military contractors or condottieri well-known from Machiavelli and the early renaissance (Rogers 1995; Machiavelli 1521/1991) as the internet is in its capacities to synchronise information to the capacities of the Holy Spirit in the high medieval era when it should synchronise interpretations. If the “next society” (Baecker 2008) is a network society, we should carefully study the medieval network, corpus spiritus, in order to find out what forms of communication, power and corporate spirit such a society could display (Quillet 1972; Spruyt 1994; Thornhill 2008; Harste 2009c).




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“Karlson” – A Stasi “Kontakt Person”. An episode of Iceland’s Cold War legacy



Iceland’s geographical position gave this small nation a special strategic importance in the political and military chess game between east and west during the Cold War era. Placed in the mid Atlantic, Iceland constituted an important post for the NATO defence forces and surveillance activities. This importance can be seen in the presence of American troops at a NATO base in Keflavik from 1951 until 2004. The military base and the NATO alignment created stark divisions among the population and was one of two major cleavages that characterized Icelandic politics throughout the post- WWII era, especially during the Cold War. The other cleavage that marked Icelandic politics of the time was the left-right dimension. The four traditional parties of the Icelandic party system ranked in a different order on these two continuums, with the right wing Independence Party allying with the Social Democrats in its support for NATO and the military base, while the centre agrarian Progressive Party supported NATO membership but joined forces with the Socialist Party in the opposition to the military base. The Socialists however were stern opponents of both the base and NATO membership, while they expressed sympathetic views for the People’s Democratic Republics in the eastern bloc.[1] Left wing socialists held up ties with their sister parties in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, while bourgeois politicians cultivated their links with western or mainly American liberal democracy.  The political discussion was framed in terms of the Cold War and the press, which throughout most of the 20th century was a party press, continuously suggested that the political motives of their opponents were conspicuously linked to or derived from either the interests of Soviet or Eastern European communism or US capitalist imperialism.

It was in this circumstances that in the fifties and sixties young left wing people sought to undertake their university education in the Eastern block and more often than not the Socialist Party in Iceland (SEI) was in one way or another the go-between in arranging for such student positions. Many of these left wing students kept contact with each other even though they did not study in the same place or country. At a point in the late fifties these students had formed an organisation, SÍA, Sósíalistafélag Íslendinga Austantjalds (The Society of Socialist Icelanders in the Eastern Bloc) that had considerable influence within SEI, the Icelandic Socialist Party.[2] In 1962 members of the youth organisation of the conservative Independence Party managed to get hold of – in fact steal – some of the internal correspondence of the SÍA group and subsequently the correspondence was published letter by letter in the daily newspaper Morgunblaðið along with some political explanations from a right wing standpoint. The correspondence was also published by the Conservative youth organization, Heimdallur, in a special booklet labelled the “Red Book”. Remarkable as it may sound, the correspondence between the Icelandic students in SÍA shows a great deal of criticism of the socialist system as practiced in the Eastern bloc, though in general of course their views were very sympathetic to the People’s Democratic Republics. From the standpoint of the conservatives in Iceland the purpose of the publication of the SÍA correspondence was to show that the students in Eastern Europe, along with the Socialist Party of Iceland, were plotting a communist takeover in cooperation with their communist allies in the east, even though they knew that the system was not working well and had all sorts of flaws.[3] This whole affair exemplifies the frenzy and the tone of the political discussion in Iceland during the Cold War and the suspicion that was created around the students that studied in the Eastern Bloc.

The legacy of heated feelings of the Cold War has in many ways survived the Cold War itself. The demand for some sort of reckoning or historical rectification has frequently come up, particularly in relation to the publication of documents that have become accessible after the fall of communism. This has been felt in Iceland mainly at a general political level but its implications have also been personal – putting the spotlight on the individuals that supported communism and in particular those who studied in the Democratic People’s Republics, not the least the German Democratic Republic. This paper will examine to what extent demands for a historical reckoning are relevant by looking at a particular case that can be found in the Stasi archives. By conducting a case study of this kind, a light is shed on important factors that tend to be lost in the more ideological and normative public political discussion. The case examined is the one of a young student who became a Stasi informer in the early 1960s, know as “Kontakt Person Karlsson”.


“Kontact Person (KP) Karlson”

According to the archives of East Germanys State security service (Stasi) one Icelandic student cooperated with the Stasi while studying in East Germany.[4] His name was Guðmundur Ágústsson, who after returning to Iceland became a bank manager. In 1959 he arrived as a young student via Vienna in East Germany, where he first attended a language course in Leipzig before taking up his studies at the University of Economics in Berlin-Karlshorst. Later his sister followed him to East Berlin.

On the 9 February 1963, four years after entering East Germany, a note is found in the Stasi files concerning “making contact with the person”.[5] Before this remark in the files, the Stasi had already gathered information about Guðmundur Ágústsson , since a report explains that he seemed to be “open towards our problems”.[6] In this first description of Guðmundur Ágústsson to be found in the files, his appearance is described as “modest and dutiful”, also his “perfect moral conduct” is underlined,[7] contrary to the one of his sister who, according to the report, is “in some cases very impulsive”.[8]

According to the minutes of the first meeting between the Lieutenant Koch as representative of the Stasi and Guðmundur Ágústsson, Koch explained to the Icelandic student that lately pubic disorder in East Germany was increasingly initiated through West Berlin and therefore it was necessary for GDR “to take measures against the enemy’s intentions. In order to do so we have to involve foreigners, and since we knew that he [Guðmundur Ágústsson] was a member of our brother party SEI, we have turned to his person”.[9] According to the minutes Guðmundur Ágústsson answered positively to the request of the Stasi; he agreed to visit West Berlin and establish contacts with students there as well as to report on activities at the University of Economics where he studied.

Guðmundur Ágústsson was, according to the Stasi files, one of 25 Icelandic students studying at the time in the GDR. All were members of the SEI. They all came to East Germany through the mediation of the SEI or the Federation of Icelandic Trade Unions. During their first meeting Lieutenant Koch asked Guðmundur Ágústsson not to talk with anyone about his contact to the Stasi and they agreed to use the codename “Karlson” for him. After this meeting the Stasi run “Karlson” as a “Kontakt Person” (KP) in its files. “Kontakt Persons” were individuals used by the Stasi, sometimes without their knowledge, but also, as in this case, people who knowingly cooperated with the Stasi. “Karlson” knew, as the documents indicate, that his interlocutors were working for the Stasi.

“Karlson’s” first job assignment consisted of establishing a contact with an Icelandic student in West Berlin, “with the aim of assessing if this contact could be further exploited”. In order to do so “Karlson” should find out, “with whom he [the friend] has contact”, and further, he should report about groups and “their participation in actions against the anti-fascist protective barrier” (meaning the Berlin Wall)[10] and evaluate the general mood in West Berlin. “Karlson”, according to the minutes, agreed to do so. But he did not agree to introduce his acquaintances in West Berlin to the Stasi.[11] The reason he gave was that in his opinion the friend “was politically not ready”.[12] However “Karlson” proposed approaching another Icelander in West Berlin who might be willing to cooperate with the Stasi. According to “Karlson” this was a friend who had gotten an invitation from the Free University of Berlin to become a lecturer. The minutes state that at this time it had not yet been decided whether the acquaintance would accept the job at the Free University or not, because in the words of “Karlson”, a “decision on this matter would be made by the SEI”.[13]

Five weeks later at the following meeting “Karlson” could not report much, because he had not traveled to West Berlin. However, he had by now learned that his friend would take the position at the Free University in West Berlin. Until the year 1962 the acquaintance had been working as a lecturer at the University of Greifswald. Both he and his wife were members of the SEI. “The KP estimated the [name blackened] as a very humorous and outgoing person, who sometimes because of his comical appearance, his physique and his facial expressions is viewed as ridiculous.”[14]

Furthermore, “Karlson” reported in this meeting that he had recently received another visit from an Icelander, but he was politically not organized and in “his political development not yet mature”. Therefore “Karlson” declined bringing him into contact with the Stasi. In addition the Stasi noted in the minutes of the meeting that the KP would “soon get his own flat on the basis of his collaboration and his political work.”[15]

In May 1963 Lieutenant Koch gave his first evaluation of his Icelandic spy:

The [Kontact Person] is honest in the cooperation, but had not yet been reviewed. He takes his tasks seriously, makes his own proposals and he is venturous. His [cooperation] is based on conviction.

Control: Regular meetings every 14 days in the CA [Conspiratorial Apartment].

Range of duty: Supply of suitable candidates for recruitment. Naming appropriate candidates, as well as being used on special occasions in West Berlin.”[16]

In the following meeting “Karlson” and his Stasi officer discussed mainly how to establish the actual contact with the Icelandic lecturer at the Free University in Berlin. First of all, it was agreed that there was “no need to pretend to be a member of the press, but the KP should just contact him as an employee of the Stasi”.[17] “Karlson” agreed to organize the meeting. During the meeting they discussed three more Icelandic students living in West Berlin, but the minutes state that “Karlson” did not want to be the person who “arranges the meeting”.[18] Therefore they agreed on a different approach: while “Karlson” would celebrate the moving into his new apartment with the Icelanders from West Berlin, he would contact the Stasi as soon as his Icelandic friends would leave. On the way back to West Berlin the Stasi would have then the possibility “to address” the Icelanders at the checkpoint in Friedrichstraße: “this way the (KP) would be kept out from the conversation and the staff can safely carry out their own conversation.”[19]

At this meeting it was further agreed that “Karlson” would participate at the upcoming regional Social Democratic Party Congress as a member of the media and report to the Stasi about it. Furthermore he should monitor the preparations for the rallies on May 1 in West Berlin. One day before the first of May “Karlson” received specific instructions. In particular, he should find out where the loudspeaker van with the “inflammatory agitation” was stationed that was supposed to “disturb the activities on May 1 in democratic Berlin”.[20]

During this meeting the status of the recruitment of the Icelandic lecturer was also discussed. According to “Karlson” the Icelandic lecturer wanted to find out whether the people whom he would meet were “really from the Stasi”.[21] Furthermore, the Icelandic lecturer informed “Karlson” that the Senate of the Free University of Berlin had told him that they were informed about his membership in the SEI. They also warned him not to get involved with “Russian agents”.[22]

At the next meeting, on the 1st of May, “the Kontakt Person ‘Karlson’ had returned from his excursion to West Berlin and shared his observations about the deployment of the police, the position of the radio car, the tribune and more, which were then immediately submitted to the headquarter.”[23]

According to the minutes of the meetings “Karlson” reported about his intended trip to England, France and Italy. The minutes end with the note that the next meetings will be arranged by phone. Although there are no further minutes of meetings to be found in the archives, one can assume that the contact continued, since a receipt exists for the 28 January 1964 with the note: “The Kontakt Person ‘Karlson’ was given 50 DM for costs.”[24]

On 20th of November 1964, Lieutenant Koch closed the file, since “Karlson” had returned to Iceland. The file contains also the exact statistics of the border crossings by “Karlson” to West Berlin, and thanks to the collection of data by the Stasi, we also know that “Karlson” for example, on the 4th of February 1964, brought “2 nylon shirts; 2 pairs of women’s stockings, 20 PCs. cigarillos (Intershop); 250 gr coffee and 1 kg bananas”[25] from West Berlin to East Berlin.

The Icelandic lecturer at the Free University in West Berlin refused being recruited by the Stasi. On the 19 December 1963 one meeting had taken place between the lecturer and the Stasi at Café Sofia in East Berlin. At this meeting the Icelander stressed the “security of his person”. He said that “if the contact should become known it would have serious consequences for the party and him.” He also pointed out in this context the “unprofessional work of the security organs of the Soviet Union concerning the radar station in Iceland, where arrests had been made and which greatly damaged the reputation of the Soviet Union and caused great dismay for the comrades of the SEI.”[26] Lieutenant Koch was not very optimistic about a possible cooperation, since the Icelandic lecturer said that he “does not want to have anything to do with the secret service”.[27] But at least the reader of the files learns that the Icelander was very “sloppily dressed”, wore summer shoes in December and “a grey suit, a red shirt and a blue tie”.[28]


“Kontakt Person Karlson” revisited

In Iceland a discussion of the relations between Icelanders, Communist parties and secret service organizations in the eastern bloc have regularly surfaced – not only throughout the Cold War but also in the post Cold War era. Several times the issue has come up whether some Icelander had been working for Stasi.[29]

In early February 1995 a documentary film, “Í nafni sósíalismans”, (In the Name of Socialism) by the historian Valur Ingimundarsson and the journalist Árni Snævarr was shown by RÚV, the Icelandic State Broadcasting Television. The film was based on some documents that the authors had had access to after the opening of the Stasi archives in Germany and it spurred some discussion in the Icelandic media.[30] The name of the banker Guðmundur Ágústsson came up, as it appeared that he had been a Stasi agent in the period 1963-1964. The documentary claimed that Guðmundur Ágústsson had the codename “Karlson” in the Stasi files, and that one of his missions was to recruit Árni Björnsson, who at the time was a guest lecturer at the Free University in West Berlin. Árni acknowledges in the film that he had had some encounters with the Stasi, but that he had not answered indirect requests for him to become an informer for the secret organization. He does however mention an incident when his nice had been visiting him and had gone to a theatre show in East Berlin. When she did not return, Árni Björnsson became worried and went to a border control gate to ask about her. There Árni was detained for a while, until a Stasi officer came and asked if he had not received a message from them some while ago. Árni Björnsson acknowledged that and asked about his nice. There were no news of the girl, but in light of the circumstances Árni Björnsson thought it would be wise to agree to meet with the officer two weeks later. He says that he met with a Stasi officer two weeks later in a coffee shop and that was the end of it.

On the other hand, Guðmundur Ágústsson, alias “Karlson”, had refused to talk to the makers of the documentary, so his side of the story appeared in a newspaper only after the film had been shown on national TV. In an exclusive interview with the newspaper DV, Guðmundur Ágústsson explains that he had agreed to do some trivial exercises for Stasi in order to secure his own peace and eventually a safe passage home for him, his German wife and their child. Guðmundur Ágústsson refers to his contact person at Stasi (Lieutenant Koch) as the “young man with the cigarette”. He tells of a “spy mission” to West Berlin in the following way:

I met the young man with the cigarette and he asked me if I could go over to West Berlin and check if there was a military truck convoy in a certain boulevard in the southern part of the city. I was also supposed to stop by the Wall there in the neighborhood and see if a big hole was being dug in the ground behind a hill. I went to these places, but there were no army trucks, no digging and no hole. So I stood there like a fool. I went back and told the young man that nothing was there. That was the last I heard from Stasi. I probably did not pass the test or possibly Stasi was just training the young man in talking to somebody.[31] 

Later in the interview Guðmundur Ágústsson reflects on the documentary value of the Stasi files about himself. “I understand that there is a large folder on me in the Stasi archives. I do not think I want to see it. But the documents are there and people must then remember that the text that is written there is just what a man with a cigarette thought about me. He might even have been trying to look good in the eyes of his superiors. I never wrote a single letter for them.”

As it is apparent by now, two parallel stories have been told of the same course of actions involving  “Karlson”. On the one hand there are the files written by Lieutenant Koch, whilst on the other there are the stories and experiences as these are remembered by both Guðmundur Ágústsson, the student, and Árni Björnsson, the lecturer. Much of the factual evidence comes forth in both stories, but the interpretation and explanations of what actually happened and what it meant is very different.
Whose truth? – a discussion

After the Berlin wall came down and the Stasi archives were opened the news came to Iceland that Guðmundur Ágústsson had been a Stasi informer in 1963-1964. More than 30 years later, in 1995, Guðmundur Ágústsson had to explain to the Icelandic press that by cooperating with Stasi he had “secured himself peace and a safe passage home with his German wife and child”.[32] And still just over ten years after the explanations in the DV newspaper, Árni Björnsson, who was the friend of Guðmundur Ágústsson that worked and lived in West Berlin in 1963-1964, came forth in the scholarly magazine Þjóðmál to explain his involvement with Guðmundur Ágústsson and Stasi. Árni Björnsson was reacting to another article in the magazine where he was named as a likely Stasi informant.[33] The title of Árni Björnsson’s article is “Stasi and I. What is the truth?” He does not takes issue with the Stasi files themselves or even the reports by the Stasi officer that approached him, but points out that they are based on the officer´s personal interpretation, social conditions and circumstances. He therefore asks whether that interpretation is necessarily the whole truth.  In other words, Árni Björnsson is suggesting a cautious approach in interpreting the files and documents that can be found in the Stasi archives.

At least two lessons can be derived from comparing the two different accounts at issue. Firstly, it seems clear that Stasi did not necessarily ask its Icelandic informers to collect sensitive or hidden information, but asked for all sorts of public information, such as reporting about public student meetings and the curriculum of the Free University. This could make the Stasi request for cooperation look almost trivial to the student in question, so much that it would seem irrational to refuse such a small favour and risk being considered uncooperative by such a powerful organization as Stasi was then.

Secondly, the Stasi files give us a fragmented and indeed limited view of what really was going on. This is due to three main factors:

a) The nature of the reports to be filled out gives limited space for accounting for different and sometimes complex situations.
b) The evaluation and interpretation of the writer of the report is subjective and coloured by Marxist ideological phrases. Furthermore the reports are written by officers for their superiors and it can be expected that things that might be thought interesting for the secret police are overemphasized.
c) The fact that some of the files and reports may be missing limits their comprehensiveness.

In light of the latter point, an important lesson can be learned about the way in which documents and reports of official agencies not meant for publication, be they secret agencies or ordinary embassies, should be interpreted. To be sure, uncovering such secret files can provide valuable and important information, as recent WikiLeaks documents on embassies have shown, for instance. However, such documents call for careful consideration of the circumstances in which they were written and of the values and motivations of those who wrote the files. The limitation of the files makes them useful for political polemics, since they leave so much space for interpretation, but not for careful, detailed historical accounts of the past. And last but not the least, one may also just be stunned by their banality.



Guðmundsson, Birgir and Meckl, Markus, 2008, Á sumarskóm í desember. Ísland í skýrslum austurþýsku öryggislögreglunnar Stasi, in Saga, Tímarit Sögufélags, XLVI: 2, 2008, pp. 86 – 113.

Knabe, Hubertus,1999, West-Arbeit des MfS. Das Zusammenspiel von „Aufklärung“ und „Abwehr“Ch. Links Verlag, Berlin

Ólafsson, Jón , 1999,  Kæru félagar.Íslenskir sósíalistar og Sovétríkin 1920-1960, Mál og menning, Reykjavík

Snævarr, Árni and Ingimundarson, Valur, 1992, Liðsmenn Moskvu, Almenna bókafélagið, Reykjavík


[1] Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson (1977) The Icelandic Multilevel Coalition System. Expanded version of a chapter in E. Browne (ed) Cabinet Coalitions in Western Democracies. Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Iceland, Reykjavík.

[2] Ólafsson, Jón , 1999,  Kæru félagar.Íslenskir sósíalistar og Sovétríkin 1920-1960, Mál og menning, Reykjavík bls. 212-213

[3] Ibid pp. 214

[4] In the archives of the Stasi there are approximately 250 pages concerning Iceland. Among the material is one folder concerning the collaboration of an Icelander with the secret service. A complete overview over the material found is given in Icelandic in the article: Birgir Guðmundsson and Markus Meckl, Á sumarskóm í desember. Ísland í skýrslum austurþýsku öryggislögreglunnar Stasi, in Saga, Tímarit Sögufélags, XLVI: 2, 2008, pp. 86 – 113.

[5] Report on the contact of the person, BStU, central archives, 1496/65, BL. 9.

[6] Investigation report, ibid. 3.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. p. 5

[9] Report on the contact of the person, BStU, central archives, 1496/65, BL. 10.

[10] Minutes of the Meeting, 20. 2. 1963, ibid. 13.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid. 14

[14] Minutes of the Meeting for the 15.3.1963, p. 15-16.

[15] Ibid p. 16.

[16] Assessment of “Carlsson”, dated on the 7.5. 1963, ibid p. 18. In the documents one can find different spellings for “Karlson”.

[17] Minutes of the Meeting for the 19. 4. 1963, ibid. 19.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid. 20.

[20] Minutes of the meeting, 30. 4.1963, p. 21.

[21]Ibid. 21.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Report from 6 May 1963, ibid, page 23.

[24] Recipt, 28.1.1964, ibid., page 27.

[25] BStU 12225/66

[26] Report of the 20 12 1963, BStU, central archives, 1496/65, p. 29 f. The matter the lecturer might be referring to here is an episode often called “The Hafravatns case” that came up in February 1963. Two deputies from the Soviet Embassy were expelled from Iceland for trying to recruit an Icelandic man as a spy. See: “Miklu fargi af mér létt”, Morgunblaðið 28th February, 1963 pp. 23-24

[27] Ibid. 33.

[28] Ibid.

[29] For a discussion of these connections between Icelanders and the Eastern Bloc see e.g.: Árni Snævarr and Valur Ingimundarson, 1992, Liðsmenn Moskvu, Almenna bókafélagið, Reykjavík; Jón Ólafsson, 1999, Kæru félagar, Mál og menning, reykjavík ; Rauða bókin :leyniskýrslur SÍA, 1984, Heimdallur, Reykjaví k; Helgi Hannesson, 1989, “Sósíalistafélag Íslendinga austantjalds og SÍA skjölin 1956-63”, Háskóli Íslands. Sagnfræðistofnun Ritröð sagnfræðinema, Reykjavík.

[30] See Morgunblaðið web page: http://www.mbl.is/mm/gagnasafn/grein.html?grein_id=176466 and DV, daily on the 6th and the 7th of February 1995.

[31] „Fékk frið og heimferð fyrir konu og barn“, DV 7th of February 1995

[32] DV, daily newspaper. 7.th of February, 1995 pp. 1-2

[33] Árni Björnsson, „Stasi og ég. Hvað er sannleikur“. Þjóðmál II:4 (Winter 2006), pp. 28

Olof Palme: One Life, Many Readings

In short, historiographic reflections have been penalized by a kind of personality cult, even if reversed in the case of Palme’s opponents.[1]


1. Literature on Olof Palme


His spectacular political career, on the one side, and his tragic end, on the other side, have nourished – already when Palme was still alive – a thriving and deplorable literary genre made up of speculations on his demoniac nature, his crimes, or at best his inadequacies;[2] as well as conspiracy theories of all kinds and hundreds hypothesis on the murder.[3] . In the end of the 1980s the first biography came out, written by the journalist Björn Elmbrant:[4] it is still an unavoidable reference. It was followed later by the purely political biography written by the journalist Peter Antman and by the Social Democratic politician Pierre Schori,[5] who was State Secretary for Foreign Affairs in the second Palme government. Collective volumes[6] followed too, including contributions that focused on particular aspects of Palme’s politics/policies (first and foremost the foreign one)[7], and memoirs by representatives of the Social Democratic Party.[8]

Due partly to the awareness that much was left to be studied with regards to Palme’s life and political role, and partly to the approaching 25th anniversary of his tragic death, recent years have witnessed a renewed biographic effort, thanks first of all to the monumental work (nearly 900 pages) by Kjell Östberg, a historian who has devoted great part of his scientific production to social movements and to the relationship between intellectuals and politics. One could wonder what was left to be said about Palme after this two-volume biography, published between 2008 (1. I takt med tiden. Olof Palme 1927-1969 – Behind the times. Olof Palme 1927-1969[9]) and 2009 (2. När vinden vände. Olof Palme 1969-1986 – When the wind turned. Olof Palme 1969-1986[10]). Nevertheless, in 2010 two more works were published: the short Palme, by Klas Eklund,[11] who was one of the economic advisors of the second Palme government; and the impressive (more than 700 pages) Underbara dagar framför oss. En biografi över Olof Palme (Wonderful Days in Front of Us. A biography of Olof Palme)[12] by Henrik Berggren, historian but above all leading writer of “Dagens Nyheter”, the most influential Swedish newspaper, which typically endorses “independent liberal” stances.

The aim of this article is not to review the last three biographies mentioned above, but to try to identify their methodology, so to speak, then singling out – in a way which may come across as arbitrary – some of the controversial points in Palme’s political career (leaving out both scandals and vulgar attacks), as they will prove to be good opportunities for comparing the interpretations given by their authors.[13]

2. Different ways to tell a life

Eklund’s book differs from the other two works for it is part of a series devoted to the Swedish Prime Ministers in the last hundred years (i.e. from Karl Staaff to the present PM Fredrik Reinfeldt). Each volume is meant as a quick introduction to a specific PM, and in fact Eklund’s Palme is a fairly simple political biography (with only a limited attention to Palme’s private life). Nonetheless, its final section (Arvet efter Palme, Palme’s legacy) makes it different from a flat list of facts and dates. In a few pages, the author takes indeed a stock of Palme’s outcomes and failures and then even goes so far as to try to imagine what could happen if Palme had not been murdered — a kind of counterfactual history, in other words.

Östberg’s and Berggren’s biographies show at first glance a similar structure, not only due to their remarkable length, but also insofar as both aim at an in-depth reconstruction of Palme’s life and role, as well as of the world around him (i.e. 20th-century Sweden and international, history). The title of the first volume of Östberg’s biography, Behind the Times, summarizes very well the author’s starting point, as it is made clear in the Introduction: first of all, the idea that Palme went across several ages during which history turned more than once to a new direction; secondly, the acknowledgement that Palme showed an extraordinary talent for grasping the Zeitgeist and the changes affecting it, and therefore was in the best position for exerting an effective influence on what was going on.

Östberg’s approach is not at all individualistic.[14] His biography is rather a history of Palme within the history of the Swedish labour movement and of its changing relationship with Capital, with a swinging from collaboration to conflict that took place exactly under Palme’s political apex. That does not imply that Palme’s individuality is sacrificed in the end, but rather that the dilemmas which he had to face and the choices which he made are understandable only in the view of the power relations between classes and of the pressures upon the labour movement and its organizations coming both from the Right and from the Left. That explains why the two volumes of Östberg’s biography represent an imposing picture of 20th-century Swedish political and social history.

To sum up Berggren’s work is a trickier task, because of a kind of paradox which somehow undermines it. The main perspective is definitely individualistic, with regards both to the methodology – Palme’s behaviour (as a person and as a politician) is often, too often perhaps, interpreted from a psychological and philosophical point of view – and to the interpretation – Berggren portrays Palme, whom he states to have voted for in 1982 and 1985,[15] far more as a liberal than as a socialist. On the other hand, it is exactly Palme who disappears eventually in the demanding history of Swedish culture and, in a way, Swedish civilisation in the 20th century, which constitutes the actual core of the book. Though fascinated by the gallery of poets, artists, film-makers, theorists and journalists – besides politicians – that Berggren recalls and outlines with great skill, the reader can not help wondering: “where has Palme gone?”

3. “Class treason”

One of the more investigated turning points in Palme’s life are the reasons that led a talented offspring of one of the most influential families in Stockholm to join the Social Democratic Party (SAP) in 1951 – after drawing attention to himself as student leader on an international scale –, only to be appointed two years later as secretary of the then prime minister, Tage Erlander, at the age of twenty-six years.

All three authors stress the formative impact on the young Palme – until then holder of the conservative vision (even if with social and international openings) inherited from his family – of the journeys made around the USA (1948), Eastern Europe (1949) and Asia (1953). These experiences meant the dramatic discovery of a reality made up of misery and oppression.[16] All three authors refuse the common yet misleading explanations focusing on Palme’s opportunism: a young man with his background could have chosen far more promising careers. Besides, that the Social Democratic Party, in power since 1932, would have kept its position until 1976 was something that no one in the beginning of the 1950s could expect. On the contrary, many took for granted the forthcoming end of the Social Democratic age, as the party, perhaps as a consequence of being so successful, seemed unable to renew itself.[17] Why the labour movement then?

Eklund puts forward the easiest explanation: Palme joined the SAP because of his ideology: anti-colonialist, reformist, anti-communist.[18]

Östberg’s thesis is summarized in a few words in the very last page of the second volume, but his whole work illustrates it. Two were the driving forces which turned Palme into a Social Democrat: the awareness that the world was about to change – and that he was in the best position, with his talent and his social and intellectual network, to contribute to a new age – and what Palme himself called the “joy of politics”;[19] a feeling, the latter, that evokes the portrait of the politician by vocation outlined by Max Weber:

Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth – that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right now, or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today. Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say “In spite of all!” has the calling for politics.[20]

As to Berggren, he argues that one could expect that Palme would choose a career in politics, due to his interest in social problems, as well as in journalism or research, due to his strong liking for intellectual life; but in the former case, siding with the Right; while in the latter keeping a more distanced approach to the public debate. What Palme did was to combine these two alternatives by turning to political engagement in the ranks of the Social Democratic party. Palme’s unexpected choice was therefore twofold, as both an active role in politics and even more so a left-wing position did not belong to his social background, even if Berggren often insists on the continuity between Olof and his grandfather, Sven, the founder of the family fortune, who advocated social reforms.[21] It is noteworthy that Palme’s political radicalism and the reformism that both Eklund and Östberg point out as one of Palme’s main features (with Östberg referring to it in a double meaning: the awareness that reforms were needed and the talent for bringing forth reforms), are kept in the shade in Berggren’s work. Yet, what comes in the spotlight is an overall attitude of cultural radicalism that, in Sweden, is traditionally associated with the Liberal party.

4. Radicalism abroad and compromise at home?



One could be tempted to wonder whether the biographers’ conclusions as to Palme’s joining the labour movement have influenced their interpretation of his politics as a whole; or whether on the contrary the opinions on Palme’s place in Swedish history, developed at the end of their works, have favoured a retrospective reading of Palme’s first controversial step, that is to say, “going over to the enemy”, as his decision was perceived by many of his class peers. Whatever the answer, it is most interesting to see what kind of connection is established in the three biographies between the talented upper-class young man who committed himself to the struggle for the labour movement and the worldwide-known politician who displayed his radicalism in foreign affairs and was nevertheless inclined to compromise in domestic politics, both with the opposition parties and with the business community. What the biographers face here is the debate about Palme’s position within the party, and his role within the history of Swedish Social Democracy as a whole.

4.a Foreign policy

Palme’s radicalism in foreign policy has been related above all to his firm condemnation of the Vietnam War, which created considerable troubles to Sweden in its diplomatic relations with the USA. This was an irony of fate, given that Palme has been defined by many — Östberg and Berggren among them[22] — as the most American among Swedish politicians, due to his education, his journeys and his contacts in the USA.

Palme expressed his contrariety to the American military intervention in Vietnam in a few well-known speeches and articles: the so-called “Gävle speech” delivered in 1965, when Palme was minister of Transport and Communication;[23] the speech held at the Vietnam demonstration on February 1968,[24] when Palme was minister of Education and Culture and marched close to the North-Vietnamese ambassador in Moscow – and the picture came out in hundreds of newspapers all over the world; the article on Song My (a Vietnamese village destroyed by 19-20 years-old US soldiers) published in 1970,[25] when he was already prime minister; and finally Hanoi, Christmas 1972, a speech broadcast on the Swedish Radio and which is worth being quoted:

We should call things by their proper names. What is going on in Vietnam today is a form of torture.

There cannot be any military justification for the bombings […].

People are being punished, a nation is being punished in order to humiliate it, to force it to submit to force.

That’s why the bombings are despicable.

Many such atrocities have been perpetrated in recent history. They are often associated with a name: Guernica, Oradour, Babi Yar, Katyn, Lidice, Sharpeville, Treblinka.

Violence triumphed. But posterity has condemned the perpetrators.

Now a new name will be added to the list: Hanoi, Christmas 1972.[26]

Östberg presents the reader with the diverse reactions raised by Palme’s statements. For most of his party fellows his engagement on such an issue not only was absolutely sincere, but also in line with the labour movement tradition of internationalism; right-wing representatives complained his home (ab)use of foreign policy, aiming at opposing the growing influence on social movements gained by the New Left in the 1960s; others have seen in his position a sign of his opportunism and careerism: he benefitted from the solidarity movement with the Vietnamese people and strengthened his position within the party and/or consolidated his reputation as international politician.[27]

Eklund maintains that thanks to Palme’s Gävle speech “it became legitimate to criticize the USA”, and that his statements shifted the whole Swedish debate on international affairs to the Left. At the same time, he notes that the Vietnam issue strengthened Palme’s political identity, anointing him once and for all as an icon of the new time; because of his age (38 when the War started), no one among the Social Democratic representatives was more suitable than him to undertake the task of competing with the New Left for the “hegemony” on the new social movements.[28] Berggren shares this analysis, emphasizing furthermore Palme’s skill in awaking a kind of national feeling, a sense of honour which moved a little country like Sweden to express its indignation in an unusually plain language. The words “Swedish neutrality” – which under the Second World War had got a quite bitter taste – came to be related to the solidarity with the struggle for independence of Third World nations. That is why Berggren refers even to a paradigm shift, as Palme introduced an interpretation of what was going on in Vietnam which challenged the one up to then prevailing, i.e. that the USA fought always and only for democracy, yet without embracing a Communist perspective.[29]

The home impact of the debate on the Vietnam War is also the focus of Östberg’s chapter Vietnam!.

The starting point whereby to explain Palme’s behaviour is the same, i.e. the Social Democrats’ awareness that they were in danger to lose support from the Left, and that the person in the best position to try to resist that trend was Palme, whose anti-communism was well-tested. Unlike Eklund and Berggren however, Östberg is more sceptical about the outcomes of this strategy: if Palme succeed in keeping the party together around the Vietnam issue, the SAP lost nevertheless the battle for the hegemony on the Vietnam movement. It was not devoid of significance that business – including trade of military technology – and intelligence relations between Sweden and the USA were not affected by the turbulence roused by Palme’s vehemence, and that did not increase the SAP’s credibility among the New Left activists. Östberg’s conclusion is that the Vietnam War did not ruin at all Palme’s attachment to US liberalism, with its belief that the best way to resist Communism was to gain influence on radical social movements. But Palme was in no way a pure pawn in the party’s hands (as Eklund and Berggren, too, acknowledge); he did not hesitate to make statements that in few hours could compromise years of careful diplomatic relations. It was not Palme to create the Vietnam issue; but his role in putting it on the agenda can not be underestimated.[30]

On the occasion of the Portuguese Revolution (1974) some of the core values in Palme’s view of international affairs came again in the light, according to Östberg: colonialism vs liberation struggles, poor countries vs rich ones, democracy vs fascism as well as communism, great powers vs small States. In the neutralization of the pressures aiming at questioning the Western Order, the Socialist International played a crucial role, and Palme, thanks to the influential example of his country, was in the forefront – in his own way: not by clash but by dialogue, favouring a reformist outcome of the Portuguese revolutionary phase.[31] Eklund discusses shortly the event, by writing that Palme contributed to avert the danger of a too radical shift to the Left and secure the establishment of a Democratic government;[32] while Berggren puts the accent on the rapproachement that took place on that occasion between Sweden and the USA, as both countries feared  revolutionary developments in Europe.[33]



4.b Home politics

It is a widespread opinion that Palme, in spite of his radicalism in foreign policy — which however, as we have seen, is to be understood in the light of his effort to put forward Social Democracy as a successful alternative to Communism — showed a willingness to compromise when domestic policy was concerned that often aroused dissatisfaction in his own ranks. If there is a wide consensus on the wave of reforms passed by his first government (1969-1976) – on gender equality, Welfare State, labour markets – that consolidated the notion of Sweden as a “model” country, other issues were highly controversial, both within the labour movement and in the relationship with the opposition. Here the focus will be on Palme’s line with regard to the wage earners’ funds, a cross which went along with him from the middle 1970s to 1983, and the so-called “Third Way”, the economic policy introduced by Kjell Olof Feldt, minister of finance in the second Palme government (1982-1986). By examining these issues it will be perhaps easier to understand Östberg’s, Eklund’s and Berggren’s concluding remarks on Palme’s role in the history of Swedish Social Democracy.

Between 1975 and 1983, under the influence of the radicalization of society and of the debate of the perverse effects of the solidarity-focused wage policy[34] – a cornerstone of the Rehn-Meidner model, i.e. the Swedish model for economic policy from the late 1950s onwards – the Swedish labour movement discussed the proposal put forward between 1975 and 1976 by the leading economist of the General Labour Confederation (LO), Rudolf Meidner, so as to establish employee funds (löntagarfonder) that would gradually shift the ownership in medium to large companies from employers to workers.[35] The principle “equal pay for equal work”, aiming at avoiding inequalities among employees, caused that profitable companies, not being required to pay wages commensurate with their higher profits, found themselves with a surplus that was not being redistributed among the workers, thus ultimately widening the gap between capital and labour.[36]

The debate on Wage Earners’ Funds turned into a hot potato for the Social Democrats, who were about, in 1976, to face an uphill general election. Certainly, these funds did not help; the right-centre parties and the Employers’ Association charged the labour movement with the will to introduce in Sweden a socialism of the Eastern kind.

The question which is interesting to raise when comparing different interpretations of Palme’s politics is not so much why he was against the funds – his whole political education and experience led him to oppose socialization – but rather why the prime minister managed the issue in a way which has been blamed either as ambiguous (by the supporters of the Meidner plan) or passive (by his opponents). Eklund and Berggren focus on the latter problem, the more “tactical” one, though not leaving out entirely the ideological dimension. Eklund’s starting point is his own personal thesis, whereby Meidner’s plan went far beyond what up to then had been discussed within the labour movement – and what in fact was needed – in order to resist the concentration of property; as it aimed at socializing the Swedish economy, it was not consistent with the Swedish model, which – as Eklund recalls – has identified in taxation, legislation and the Welfare State the counterbalance to Capital. On the other side, however, Eklund acknowledges that Palme was aware of the discussion which was going on within the LO, even if he expected that at the end the Union leadership would invite its activists to a realistic approach. But it did not go this way. As to the party leadership, after the 1973 general election, even if still in power, it had to face the “lottery-parliament” (the seats in parliament were equally divided between the two blocks) and it seemed not particularly interested in the issue; that is why Palme and his colleagues in the government did not follow it close up from the beginning.[37]

Berggren agrees on the idea that Palme, reluctant to interfere in the debate within the union, relied on the LO chairman, Gunnar Nilsson, in order to neutralize the funds; the latter nevertheless had to take into account the appreciation which the funds enjoyed among the workers. Furthermore, the personal relationship between the two labour leaders was not so good. Berggren points out as well that Palme had difficulty in understand the plan’s core in itself. It seems that Palme said, referring to the LO’s support to the plan: “They have gone further than what I had thought in my most unrestrained imagination!”[38]

Eklund discusses also Palme’s political calculations: besides the workers’ support to the project, it must be borne in mind that when the confrontation on the funds actual set up took place, between 1978 and 1980, the SAP was in opposition and for the first time Palme’s leadership was questioned, not so much because of the electoral defeat in 1976, but due partly to his “flirt” with the Liberal party (then in power by a minority government), and partly to his intense engagement in international affairs (e.g. the Socialist International, the commission on disarmament, the Iran-Iraq war). Additionally, his upper class background could expose him to criticisms from the labour movement, if he dared go against the union on such a crucial issue. Finally, though against the funds on principle, he could not but support them in the face of the opponents’ attacks: the enemy was not allowed to settle the labour movement’s programs.[39]

Compared to Berggren’s and Eklund’s, Östberg’s work devotes more attention to the ideological implications of Palme’s dilemma. In the author’s view, the wage earners’ funds were the major issue among those which forced Palme to take a definite position between market and planning: it was unthinkable under that circumstance to keep the balance peculiar to the Social Democratic Third Way. Meidner’s Plan was – this is Östberg’s view – perhaps the most ticklish question Palme had to face. Paradoxically, the challenge – to question private property – did not come from the Left, but from the pillar, together with the SAP, of the Swedish way to reformism, that is to say, the union.

Whose influence on society was, in the first half of the 1970s, at its peak; but at the same time, the Swedish Employers’ Confederation started right then its ideological and political counterattack. Palme’s strategy was first to postpone the issue (after the 1976 general elections) and then to neutralize the most “subversive” elements in the plan, stressing from the beginning its compatibility with a market economy. And at last the aim – to reassure the business circles – was achieved by adding a fourth goal to the three formulated by Meidner (to transfer a quote of profits from capitalists to workers; to oppose property and wealth concentration; to establish workers’ influence on the economy through property): to favour capital formation, for the benefit of industrial investments. This was not exactly what had aroused, in 1975-1976, the union activists’ enthusiasm. In the early 1980s, the Meidner plan, then completely perverted, came to be incorporated into the program against the economic crisis worked out by the SAP.[40]

Noteworthy is that while the three biographers agree that the law on funds passed by the parliament in 1983 and introducing a pension funds scheme, had nothing to do with Meidner’s original plan, they differ as far as the effectiveness of Palme’s line is concerned. For Eklund, the whole discussion on the wage earners’ funds was one of Palme’s worst failures from an ideological point of view, as he stayed all the time on the defensive and contributed to a deep demoralization in the labour movement’s ranks.[41] On the contrary, Palme’s strategy seems to Östberg to have been successful, in terms of impact on the public opinion: he could neutralize the plan, without provoking too serious inner splits.[42] Berggren is more neutral, just joining under the category of “symbol-politics” the impressive demonstration against the funds held by the Employers’ Confederation on October 4, 1982 and the passing of the law few weeks later.[43]

The program against the ongoing economic crisis implemented by the second Palme government and to which, as we have seen, the wage earners’ funds were utilized, is considered as well one of the most controversial chapters in his political career.[44] In 1982 the minister of finance Kjell Olof Feldt presented three alternatives: an expansionist policy; a restrictive one; and what he called “the big bang”, that is to say, a policy aiming at stimulating investments and production, but at the same time squeezing domestic demand by means of devaluation. The last one was accepted. On this point, it is of particular interest to read Eklund’s points, as he was one of Feldt’s staff members. According to him, Palme and Feldt failed in the task of curbing the spiral of inflation, provoked by unrestrained wage claims by the unions. Palme showed once again – this is Eklund’s thesis – his weakness before the unions, portrayed by the author as a short-sighted organization, unable or unwilling to grasp the requirements of the economic system.[45] However, in the pages dealing with the “war of the roses”, that is to say, the unions’ dissatisfaction with the SAP’s profit-oriented economic policy, the author recognizes that the labour movement had to accept major changes in the Swedish model yet with no return (e.g. an active industrial policy or wage earners’ funds worthy of the name).[46]

Berggren is content with reporting Palme’s satisfaction for the economic recovery, which he comments upon in an interview given on February, 28 1986 (mind the date) when he declared, with a tragic irony of fate, that 1986 was a year full of opportunities,[47] thereby acknowledging that Feldt’s policy was effective and that the Social Democrats had once again fortune on their side.[48] Yet, the long-term consequences, both economic and political, of the shift begun under Palme are not deepened by Berggren. They come instead in the forefront in Östberg’s work, where it is pointed out that the real nature of the ”Third way” (as the new economic policy was called, i.e. neither expansionist nor restrictive) was bound to be widely discussed. Was it consistent with a Social Democratic orientation or did it mean the surrender to Neo-Liberalism? Certainly Palme supported his minister of finance, and he did so by arguing that the new economic policy was a condition for preserving the Welfare State.[49] Nevertheless – and this is one of the crucial points in Östberg’s biography – Palme accepted it as a necessary evil, while to Feldt’s eyes the policy was dictated by a long-term adaptation, perceived as unavoidable, to a more market-oriented political climate. As a sign of the ideological disagreement between the two leading Social Democratic politicians, Östberg brings forward Palme’s disappointment when Feldt made a statement in favour of the privatization of Swedish pre-schools; also in his last interview, few hours before being murdered, Palme confirmed his strong support to the public sector, which he regarded as a key aspect of modern civilisation.[50]

Berggren too reports Palme’s firm reaction to the openings to neo-liberalism made by his minister of finance, but the interpretation of their relationship is definitely different. Palme was moved, Berggren argues, not so much by the concern of safeguarding a distinct Social Democratic platform, but rather by tactic calculations: a breakdown in the labour movement tradition would have caused inner splits and favoured the building of a competing party on the Left. Berggren agrees that Palme was against privatization, but at the same time the author believes that the prime minister shared many of Feldt’s viewpoints and perhaps that is why he reacted so firmly. With a member of the government staff Palme indeed seems (Berggren unfortunately does not refer to any source) to have made clear his awareness that increased competition, effectiveness and freedom of choice within the public sector (a condition that Berggren should have emphasized) were needed.[51]

Eklund’s version is somehow in the middle: he recognizes an ideological gap between Palme and Feldt, but reduces it essentially to a matter of make-up: the former kept a more traditional rhetoric when arguing in favour of the new economic policy, while the latter made no secret of the fact that the “Third way” was part of a process of “modernization” of the national economy.[52] Palme’s early and vehement condemnation of the dangers inborn in Neo-Liberalism – social atomization, destruction of the environment, democracy turned into an empty box – is not mentioned here.

5. Continuity or breakdown?

Maybe Palme was only tired or even depressed because of the long time in the frontline, the many troubles that he had to face from the very beginning since coming back in power in 1982 (the U-boat affair, the Bofors and the Harvard scandals, incessant union unrest), and the many personal attacks that he suffered from; maybe he was planning to leave, perhaps accepting an appointment as United Nations (UN) Commissar on Refugees, or staying on for a while.[53] What is certain is that everything was shattered by the shots which echoed in the evening of February 28, 1986.

Berggren, with a choice that can be disappointing to the reader and nonetheless reveals some elegance, stops his long story then, when the Swedish prime minister died in the heart of the city where he had spent all his life, not far from his childhood home, close to the SAP building, next to the wife he had been married with over nearly thirty years.[54] Nothing is said on the inquiry that followed.

Eklund shortly summarizes what happened in the aftermath: the widespread belief that a murder of a prime minister can not but be the outcome of a plot; the only person ever charged with the crime (and then released) being a single and violent individual, Christer Pettersson; the kind of private investigation (backed by the SAP leadership) which did its best to confirm the PKK (the Communist party of Kurdistan) hypothesis.[55] Eklund writes nothing about the tremendous failure of the Swedish justice in an inquiry that has exceeded even the one on the murder of US president John F. Kennedy.

Östberg’s second volume takes up in the end an epic style: on the one hand we follow a man and a politician who was fed up, worried for the world and for his own safety, getting older and no longer as unquestionable as he had been in the 1970s;[56] on the other hand, we enter the opaque area of hate campaigns arranged by a blend of different groups, ranging from the extreme right of the Employers’ Confederation to unaffiliated anarchic psychopaths, affecting Palme in his last years more than ever before.[57] In other countries the relationship between a murder and the preceding hate campaign against the victim has been regularly scrutinised, apart from the person who materially committed the murder; in Sweden this scrutiny has been less common. Under this perspective, Östberg definitely contributes a significant study. Besides, his chapter devoted to the murder and the ensuing inquiry is a useful and involving reconstruction of what happened and what ought not to happen, yet without trying to add one more Truth about the murder to the long list of hypotheses – some of them pretty fanciful – formulated until now.[58]

After twenty-five years the murder is still unresolved, the SAP has lost two elections in a row (2006 and 2010), and Palme remains a controversial issue. Who was Olof Palme? Which was the connection between the Olof Palme who made the US government fly into a fury due to his condemnation of Imperialism and the Olof Palme who backed the business-friendly “Third way” in economic policy?

It has to be noted here that the three biographers are all fascinated by his talent, meant both as intellectual brightness and as ability in problem-solving (hence Palme’s success in bringing forth actual reforms); yet they acknowledge too that this talent could turn into a double-edged weapon in the relations, both political and personal, with others.[59]

In Eklund’s final remarks, Palme appears as the highest expression in Sweden of the 1950s and 1960s Zeitgeist: the commitment to achieve demanding and long-term reforms; nevertheless he is also described as unlucky, for his appointment as prime minister in 1969 took place at the same time when the Golden Age ended, and he was not inclined to face a downward age.[60] What has been perceived by someone as Palme’s ambiguity or contradiction, or, worse, opportunism, depended instead on a diverse approach to the different fields of reality: Palme was left-wing as far as social, educational and foreign policy were concerned, but he was right-wing as to economic and security policy. He personified the unending swing in Swedish Social Democracy between Democratic Socialism and Social Democracy.[61]

Berggren’s interpretation is equally continuity-oriented: Palme was a democrat, moved to politics more by an “existential” choice than by an ideological conviction; along his whole life, he remained a pragmatist. As such, his role can not be defined either as a Cold War soldier (under the 1950s standard banners) nor as an anti-imperialist (under the 1960s and the early 1970s ones). Rather, Palme showed the typical Social Democratic ability to achieve viable arrangements. After tracing Palme’s relationship with politics back to his existentialist philosophy – a puzzling thesis broadly developed in the book– Berggren goes further in his accentuation of Palme’s individualistic dimension – and in the removal of the socialist one. The other distinguishing features that he singles out are indeed, besides the international perspective, Palme’s belief that the individual has a duty to pursue what he maintains to be Truth and Justice, and Palme’s strong volunteerism.[62] In the end, according to Berggren’s biography, Palme seems to have shared with Swedish Social Democracy only an attitude to compromise, on one side, and to modernization, on the other side; the latter element implied also to improve people’s living conditions, but more in a liberal perspective (i.e. to give everybody the chance to lead his own existence) than in an endeavour to make society more equal.[63] According to Berggren’s analysis, Palme’s awareness that society can safeguard freedom only by securing equality (and in a substantive meaning) is negligible.[64]

Östberg’s conclusions are more complex with regard to the dilemma continuity vs breakdown. Palme was behind the times until the Golden Age went on; in the mid-1960s he was able to understand, thanks to his good relationship with intellectuals and young people, that the Zeitgeist was changing. That favoured the portrait of him as a radical, but also the disappointment of those who had misunderstood Palme’s position. He was not a radical, Östberg stresses; rather he took his place in the party centre-wing. His condemnation of colonialism and violence was sincere, and at the same time perfectly consistent with his reformism: he hoped and believed indeed that sooner or later the countries fighting for their liberation would have followed the Swedish way, that is to say, the achievement of political, social and economic democracy by reformist politics. Somehow he contributed to the radicalism of that age without being a radical.[65] The impact of the reforms passed under his first government was such as to raise in many (both sympathizers and opponents) the question: are the Social Democrats about to reverse the Swedish system?

To this climate Palme contributed by the radicalism accompanying the passage of the reforms. But – Östberg insists on this crucial passage – when the borders of Swedish reformism were questioned, e.g. on the occasion of the debate on the wage earners’ funds, he refused to go over. He lost touch with the Zeitgeist, as the historical phase when he had developed his ideas and approach – the age of the trust in never-ending economic growth and therefore in an increasing Welfare State– was over. This loss was not Palme’s failure, but the result of the challenge issued by the ongoing economic crisis and the spreading of Neo-Liberalism to the whole Swedish Social Democracy. From the 1950s to the 1980s Palme maintained a unitary vision, although trying to tailor it to changing conditions: the task was to extend democracy from the political dimension to the social and economic one, yet without questioning private property.[66] Such was Olof Palme in fact: when blaming the USA and the USSR for their arrogance and oppression, when putting gender equality on the agenda, when flirting with the Liberal Party, or neutralizing the more demanding union claims; he was a Social Democrat, who experienced the shift from an age when everything seemed possible to a crisis undermining all the certainties and requiring new answers.

How and whether Palme’s heirs have succeeded in this hard task: to be up to the new challenges without getting rid of the Social Democratic tradition – hence of Palme’s legacy too – is today, at least apparently, matter for discussion, in one of the toughest phases of the party’s history.

[1] See Å. Linderborg, Socialdemokraterna skriver historia. Historieskrivning som ideologisk maktresurs 1892-2000, Stockholm, Atlas, 2001, pp. 108-111.

[2] See B. Östergren, Vem är Olof Palme? Ett politiskt porträtt, Stockholm, Timbro, 1984; Claes Arvidsson, Olof Palme. Med verkligheten som fiende, Stockholm, Timbro, 2007. Noteworthy is that the publisher of both these highly polemic works, come out at a distance of twenty-three years, is the same, the new-liberal think-tank “Timbro”.

[3] Among the many possible references, K. and P. Poutiainen, Inuti labyrinten: om mordet på Olof Palme, Stockholm, Grimur, 1995 (on the domestic track); J. Bondeson, Blood on the Snow. The Killing of Olof Palme, Ithaca, Cornell University, 2005 (on the track related to the traffic in arms); H. Hederberg, Offret & gärningsmannen: en essä om mordet på Olof Palme, Stockholm, Atlantis, 2010 (guilty: Christer Pettersson, the only person sentenced, yet then released, for the murder).

[4] B. Elmbrant, Palme, Stockholm, Fischer&Rye, 1989.

[5] P. Antman, P. Schori, Den gränslöse reformisten, Stockholm, Rabén Prisma/Tiden Debatt, 1996.

[6] See E. Åsard (ed. by), Politikern Olof Palme, Stockholm, Hjalmarson & Högberg, 2002, focusing on Palme’s view of politics, massmedia, foreign policy and rhetoric.

[7] See for instance A. Kullenberg, Palme och kvinnorna, 1996; U. Larsson, Olof Palme och utbildningspolitiken, Stockholm, Hjalmarson & Högberg, 2003;  A.-M. Ekengren, Olof Palme och utrikespolitiken, Umeå, Boréa, 2005; G. Björk, Olof Palme och medierna. Umeå, Boréa, 2006.

[8] See I. Carlsson, Ur skuggan av Olof Palme, Stockholm, Hjalmarson & Högberg, 1999 and T.G. Peterson, Olof Palme som jag minns honom, Stockholm, Bonnier, 2002.

[9] K. Östberg,  I takt med tiden. Olof Palme 1927-1969, Stockholm, Leopard, 2008; see, on this e-journal, IV, 2009, 1, my review.

[10] Id., När vinden vände. Olof Palme 1969-1986, Stockholm, Leopard, 2009; I have reviewed both the volumes in Olof Palme e i venti della storia, “Meridiana”, 2008, 62, pp. 233-243.

[11] K. Eklund, Palme, Stockholm, Bonnier, 2010.

[12] H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss. En biografi över Olof Palme, Stockholm, Norstedts, 2010.

[13] In order to accomplish such a task, I will profit by the “confrontation” among the three biographers arranged by the “Liberala Klubben” at the ABF (Arbetarnas bildningsförbund, Workers’ Educational Association) in Stockholm, on December 8, 2010, which I attended to.

[14] See K. Östberg,  Inledning, in Id., I takt med tiden cit., pp. 13-14.

[15] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, p. 8.

[16] See K. Östberg,  I takt med tiden, pp. 61-68 (on the USA), pp. 74-76 (Eastern Europe), pp. 104-106 (on Asia);. H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, pp. 111-141 (USA), pp. 156-159; K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 22-23.

[17] See K. Östberg,  I takt med tiden, pp. 108-112; K. Eklund, Palme, p. 24.

[18] See K. Eklund, Palme, p. 24.

[19] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, p. 421.

[20] M. Weber, La politica come professione, in Il lavoro intellettuale come professione (1919), Torino, Einaudi, 1983, pp. 120-121; for the English translation, see www.sscnet.ucla.edu/polisci/ethos/Weber-vocation.pdf.

[21] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, p. 109.

[22] See K. Östberg,  I takt med tiden, p. 394; H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, pp. 313-315.

[23] One month after the speech, the USA embassy in Stockholm sent a report to the State Department in Washington where the event that Palme would be appointed as the next prime minister was faced with anxiety. Cfr. K. Östberg,  I takt med tiden, p. 279.

See the English translation in http://www.olofpalme.org.

[25] See O. Palme, For My Lai in our hearts… (1970), and a partial English translation of it in Olof Palme speaking. Articles and Speeches, ed. by G. Banks, Stockholm, Premiss, 2006, pp. 137-141.

[26] See O. Palme, Hanoi, Christmas 1972 (1972), in Olof Palme speaking, pp. 141-142.

[27] See K. Östberg,  I takt med tiden, pp. 165-166.

[28] See K. Eklund, Palme, p. 43.

[29] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, pp. 355-357.

[30] See K. Östberg,  I takt med tiden, pp. 309-311.

[31] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, pp. 131-139.

[32] See K. Eklund, Palme, p. 64.

[33] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, pp. 517-518.

[34] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, p. 527.

[35] See the English translation of the 1975 Report, R. Meidner (with the assistance of A. Hedborg and G. Fond), Employee investment funds : an approach to collective capital formation, London, George Allen & Unwin, 1978.

[36] See K. Eklund, Palme, p. 72.

[37] See K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 72-75.

[38] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, pp. 529-532; Palme’s quotation p. 531 (the Author yet does not refer the source of Palme’s statement).

[39] See K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 76-77.

[40] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, pp. 247-256.

[41] See K. Eklund, Palme, p. 78.

[42] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, pp. 258-259.

[43] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, pp. 627-628. The confrontation on the wage earners’ funds, that is, the inner splits between the LO and the SAP and within the SAP, and the bourgeois mobilization, is however reconstructed quite hastily by the author.

[44] According to Östberg, it is one of the most controversial issue in the whole Swedish contemporary history. See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, p. 299.

[45] See K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 91-92.

[46] See K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 103-104.

[47] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, p. 655.

[48] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, p. 617.

[49] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, pp. 301-304, within the chapter on The War of the Roses.

[50] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, p. 312.

[51] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, pp. 639-640.

[52] See K. Eklund, Palme, p. 93.

[53] Eklund’s idea is that Palme would have left in 1987, or perhaps two years later (after the 1988 general election), and that his successor would have been Anna-Greta Leijon; in other words, the SAP would have elected its first female party leader in the late 1980s, and not in 2007. Paradoxically, Leijon’s political career was damaged due right to a scandal involving the party leadership which had to do with the inquiry on the murder of Palme. See K. Eklund, Palme, p. 123.

[54] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, p. 657.

[55] See K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 106-107.

[56] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, pp. 366-385.

[57] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, pp. 362-365.

[58] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, pp. 386-405.

[59] See K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 108-109; K. Östberg, När vinden vände, passim; H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, passim.

[60] See K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 108-109 and 113.

[61] See K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 120-121.

[62] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, p. 179.

[63] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, pp. 333-334.

[64] See P. Antman, Arvet efter Palme , in P. Antman, P. Schori, Den gränslöse reformisten, pp. 45-48.

[65] See K. Östberg,  I takt med tiden, pp. 394-396.

[66] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, pp. 417-418.