Sunday, June 13, 2021

Am I completely finished

‘Do I, or do I not, have the energy to continue? Am I completely finished, or will I feel renewed after a few weeks of rest? It is really not at all easy to say, but it is just as well that Aina gets used to the idea that I don't have the energy to continue. Then, if things go better, no damage will have been done.’ This is Tage Erlander, Sweden’s long serving Prime Minister, writing in his diaries some 15 years before he finally gave up the top job. His diaries were a key resource for Erlander himself - born 120 years ago today - when writing his memoirs, but also for his biographer Olin Ruin.

Erlander was born on 13 June 1901 in Ransäter, Sweden. He studied political science and economics at Lund University becoming involved in student politics, and graduating in 1928. After completing his compulsory military service in the Signals Corps he joined the editorial staff of the encyclopaedia Svensk Upplagsbok while at the same entering local politics. In 1930, he married Aina Andersson, and they had two children. In 1932, he was elected as a member of parliament, and, when, in 1938, he was made minister for social affairs, he left his editorial job. He was one of most senior officials responsible for the establishment of secret internment camps in Sweden during World War II. He was appointed minister without portfolio in the cabinet in 1944, and minister for education the following year. Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson died suddenly in 1946, and Erlander was unexpectedly chosen as his successor and and as leader of his Social Democratic Party.

Erlander continued his predecessor’s development of the country’s model welfare state - a middle way between capitalism and communism. He introduced a very high rate of progressive taxation which allowed him to raise pensions, put in place a child allowance scheme, introduced statutory holidays and medical insurance, and extend social services. He also expanded education for younger children and adults. Having remained in office as Prime Minister for 25 years - one of the longest terms in any democracy - he resigned in 1969, even then the Social Democrats still retained an absolute parliamentary majority. He died in 1990. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the New York Times obituary.

Erlander was a conscientious diarist, often making entries on a daily basis. These diaries became his most important resource when compiling six volumes of memoirs. More recently, his son, Sven, has edited the diaries, in Swedish, for publication in many volumes. Some information about the published diaries can be found here. The only diary extracts translated into English that I can find are in Olof Ruin’s biography: Tage Erlander: Serving the Welfare State, 1946-1969 (translated into English by Michael F. Metcalf). This can be read online at University of Pittsburgh Digital Collections, or borrowed digitally from Internet Archive. According to the publisher: ‘This definitive political biography is both the study of an individual style of leadership and the role of the prime minister in a parliamentary state. It shows Erlander as a complex and engaging intellectual fiercely loyal to his party, agitative yet dedicated to cooperation between parties. [. . .] Ruin is the first scholar to be given unrestricted access to Erlander's diaries.’

Here are several extracts from Erlander’s diaries as translated and found in Ruin’s biography (though without Ruin’s narrative context).

10 February 1950
‘If only it could be. I return to what I wished for so much a few months ago: to find a way out so I could disappear quietly without hurting the party. It would be nothing other than a flight from reality.”

‘I must try to be more careful, more dignified, and more stiff. . . On the other hand, of course, they chose me because I am what I am. And thus my position should not make me change the very character that elevated me to that position.’

12 October 1952
‘Would I regret such a move [to retire]? Yes, in just the same way as one is sorry about some adversity or about an unfavorable article. . . . But no more than that. I felt in 1946 that my election as party chairman was a mistake, although I was exceedingly proud of what had happened. I have changed my mind to a certain extent. Things have gone better than I feared they would. But I will feel no sorrow if I am liberated.’

1 January 1953
‘Do I, or do I not, have the energy to continue? Am I completely finished, or will I feel renewed after a few weeks of rest? It is really not at all easy to say, but it is just as well that Aina gets used to the idea that I don't have the energy to continue. Then, if things go better, no damage will have been done. It is difficult to say how long it will be before others begin to question my abilities. But when [Minister of Justice] Zetterberg told me yesterday that he had not discussed his argument with Skôld with me because he felt sorry for me in view of how tired I've looked recently, then things have gone too far. People cannot feel sorry for the prime minister; it is better to dislike him!’

10 April 1954
‘He apparently found me to be all too exaggerated and eager. I should calm down. At first I thought he meant that my workload was breaking me down, but when he described how I racked my brain on Sunday by rattling off rapid replies, I understood what he was getting at. He’s probably right.’

30 October 1957
‘And what is it that you lust after so much? To have the pleasure of wrestling with unpleasant and complicated issues every day? To be subjected every day to a shower of insults and more or less hidden criticism from those who should support you? What is it that drives you? Is it a sense of duty, as we like to think it is? Nature must have some other strategem to get people to trick themselves into doing the necessary job.’

12 January 1959
‘The opening of the Riksdag is always tiring, although less so now than before. But all this swinging and swaying and standing at attention is more exhausting than a major political speech. I am interested in the latter and it prods me into formulating what I have to say. But an empty ceremony and the subsequent small talk over lunch at the Palace require continual activity. All to no purpose.’

Thursday, June 10, 2021

To feel like a human being

‘I should have gone “up there,” into the mountains, to be with them [the Yugoslav partisans]. Definitely. Of course, there too, over time, you would have noticed some conflicts, some petty disagreements, some minor inconsistencies in some people, a lack of conviction or principles in others ... and it would have been even more painful, more bitter, perhaps. But at least you would feel like a human being . . .’ This is from the concentration camp diary kept by a young Balkan woman, Hanna Lévy-Hass, who survived the war, relocated to Israel, and died 20 years ago today. Though the diary was first published while she was still alive, a more recent posthumous edition contains a substantial foreword by her daughter.

Hanna Lévy was born in 1913 into a large Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jewish family in Sarajevo. She, her mother and one sister moved to Belgrade in the early 1930s, where, thanks to a scholarship, Hanna completed her studies. Another scholarship enabled her to study at the Sorbonne in Paris for a few months. She left Belgrade for a teaching position in Montenegro, ending up in Danilovgrad a small Jewish community. During the war, the area was taken over first by the Italians, and, when Italy surrendered, by the Germans. She intended to flee to the mountains to join the partisans, but friends - scared of retaliation if she did - appealed for her to stay. 

Hanna was eventually captured in 1944 by German occupation forces and spent a half year in a Gestapo jail before being sent to Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in Germany, where mass deaths resulted from starvation and disease. Before the British liberated the camp, Hanna had been put on a train with thousands of other Jews destined for Czechoslovakia. At some point in the journey she escaped, but the war was over and she found herself wandering along roads with many other liberated prisoners of different nationalities. She ended up in Dresden, before finally returning to Belgrade.

Hanna had hoped to go back to teaching, but the new Yugoslav government asked her to supervise the French broadcasts of Radio Belgrade. Later, still working for the government, she acted as a French translator. In 1948, she emigrated to Israel. She immediately joined the Israeli Communist Party, a decision which meant she was continually in opposition to the country’s prevailing Zionist ethos, and that she could not work as a teacher. She married Abraham Hass, a Romanian-born Ashkenazi Jew, and they had one daughter, Amira. From the early 1970s, Hanna gave up communism and channelled her energy into feminism. In late 1982, she revisited Europe. She died in Jerusalem on 10 June in 2001. 

There is very little further information about Hanna online, other than that connected with her diary. This was first published in 1982 by Harvester Press as Inside Belsen (translated from the German by Ronald Taylor); and was republished in 2009 by Haymarket Books as Diary of Bergen-Belsen: 1944–1945 with a long introduction by her daughter, Amira. Haymarket calls the work ‘a unique, deeply political survivor’s diary’. Jacqueline Rose, a feminist writer and academic, said this of the work (see the Roam Agency website): ‘A compelling document of historic importance which shows, with remarkable composure, that ethical thought about what it means to be human can be sustained in the most inhuman conditions. Hanna Lévy-Hass teaches us how a politics of compassion and justice can rise out of the camps as the strongest answer to the horrors of the twentieth century.’ Some pages from the modern edition can be read online at Googlebooks or Amazon.

22 August 1944
‘The very limited space and the even more limited possibilities of keeping it clean - it’s enough to push anyone to the brink. Rainy days transform the entire space into a mud pit, which farther increases the overall level of filth as well as the vermin. And it’s all accompanied by interminable squabbles systematically encouraged by the common enemy, the Nazi. It’s only the first month and already, depressed, we can foresee endless misery.

I should have gone “up there,” into the mountains, to be with them [the Yugoslav partisans]. Definitely. Of course, there too, over time, you would have noticed some conflicts, some petty disagreements, some minor inconsistencies in some people, a lack of conviction or principles in others ... and it would have been even more painful, more bitter, perhaps. But at least you would feel like a human being, free to think, to express yourself, to act. And you would be surrounded by human beings, by real men, who say human things to you, men who, today, are the only ones who deserve respect and whose words and deeds matter. Only “up there” could I know my reason for being, my true worth, and what I am truly capable of contributing, or not contributing.

Only there does suffering have meaning. Only there do faults become more obvious and easier to correct. Only there does man learn to know himself and to devote himself. And to the extent that, there too, the verdict would indicate that I am a failure ... It would only be for the better. Everything would be clearer: the only thing left for you now is to drop, like an overripe fruit that decomposes of its own accord. Why not? Such is the world. But I suspect vaguely, yet deep within me, that once “up there,” I would not necessarily have been destined to total ruin.

Maybe it’s precisely this dilemma that landed me here in this wretched camp; it’s been tormenting me for some time. On the other hand, because of it many things within me and in others have been clarified. And today I can state without fear of inaccuracy that I was made - if not absolutely then decisively - to be there with them, rather than here. In a sense, this evolution hasn’t been totally worthless to me: I came out of it hardened in my convictions, having gotten to know the enemy better and having learned more thoroughly what we must fight in the future. The knowledge acquired was worth it.’

23 August 1944
‘That’s not entirely true. I had this knowledge before, complete and alive in my consciousness. And I didn’t have to wait until my thirties to become “more hardened” at the cost of such infamous ordeals ... since so many others were able to resolve this crucial question so much more quickly and positively. That’s what’s hard. That’s what’s behind this dissatisfaction with myself that often, very logically, throws me into despair.

This struggle between two worlds being waged within me and within many others like me - will it last forever, to mortify us throughout our entire existence? Or is there some hope that it will end favorably? It seems as though it’s inevitable, like a natural phenomenon that occurs in people whose lives have unfolded in circumstances I have known, a phenomenon that most likely will not fail to manifest itself in us again in the future, on the threshold of a new life, like it does in the world described by P. Romanov, Gorki, Gladkov [Soviet novelist]. These external signs of private battles and moral suffering that destroy and consume. And struggle - the only way of life capable of putting an end to these unhealthy thoughts in an evolving man ... struggle, nothing but struggle.’

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Mobocracy is rife

Today marks two hundred and twenty years since the birth of the famous Mormon, Brigham Young, who founded Salt Lake City, and who was the first governor of Utah Territory. Sometimes called the American Moses, because of the way he led Mormon pioneers to settle in the arid region, he was also a polygamist who married over 50 times. Although several of Brigham’s journals are known to exist, only one - relating to 1857 - has been published.

Young was born on 1 June 1801 into a Vermont farming family; as a young man he worked as a travelling tradesmen. After converting to Mormonism in the early 1830s, he helped establish a community in Ohio. He was ordained into the church hierarchy; and then, in 1838, he organised an exodus of Latter Day Saints from Missouri to Illinois. The following year, he went to England, where a mission he launched was instrumental in bringing European converts to the church.

When the Mormon leader Joseph Smith was murdered in 1844, Young took command of the church; and, in 1846 faced with mob pressure, he led his followers out of Illinois. It took well over a year before they settled on a site that would become Salt Lake City. In 1849, the Mormons established a provisional state called Deseret with Young as governor; the following year this became Utah.

Although Young was appointed to a second term as governor of Utah in 1854, friction between the Mormons and the federal judiciary led President James Buchanan to replace him in 1857, and an army was sent to establish federal rule in Utah. Young never held office again, but as president of the Mormon church, he effectively ruled the people of Utah until his death in 1877. He married once before converting to Mormonism, but his wife died young; and after his conversion he became a polygamist and had well over 50 partners and as many children. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, or Encyclopaedia Britannica.

It appears Young kept journals for much of his life though only the earliest ones were written in his own hand, the others being dictated or kept by his sons or close associates. Almost all are held in the Mormon Church Archives in Salt Lake City. A full listing can be found in Leonard Arrington’s Brigham Young: American Moses published by University of Illinois Press in 1986 (available to read at Googlebooks).

One of the journals, though, is held by the University of Utah, and this was edited by Everett L Cooley, and published in 1980 as The Diary of Brigham Young, 1857, by the Tanner Trust Fund. It was only printed in a limited edition of 1,250 copies, but the text is available on the website of the university’s J Willard Marriott Library.

Cooley, in his introduction, says the diary is ‘rather brief’ and contains very little new material, and lacks anything personal and intimate. Nevertheless, he adds, it does mark the first printing of a complete diary by Young, and provides ‘a good insight’ into his many interests and activities.

Here is an entry from the 1857 diary considered to be of some importance. Cooley’s notes relating to this entry in the published edition suggest that Brigham Young was already in possession of the information - about approaching troops and the cancellation of the mail contract - and that the arrival of the messengers was staged ‘for dramatic effect - to impress upon the assembled Saints that momentous events were in store for them.’

24 July 1857
‘This day 10 years ago the Pioneers entered Salt Lake valley after a pilgrimage and Search of nearly two years to find a place where the people of God might rest from persecutions for a short time. How cheering were the prospects on that day. They had at last reached a place 800 Miles from where a Settlement could approach them. The country was so barren that none would covet it. 500 of our best men had marched 3000 miles to conquer a title for it. And on every Side were Scores of miles of mountains, which must be past ere our Settlement could be appro[a]ched. Here we have dwelt in peace and prosperity. The Lord has blessed the earth for our sakes. And the ‘Desert’ has ‘truly blossomed as the rose.’

All was hilarity and mirth the morn[in]g guns had been fired 3 rounds in honore of the first presidency - three times three groans were uttered for the Mysouri - the guards & my son John W.[’]s company had been paraded, three ‘rounds’ for the hope of Isreal. The bands were playing and every one at peace, when the news came that A O Smoot, Judson L Stoddard, O P Rockwell William Garr & Judge Elias Smith would be in camp in a few minutes. They came, and were welcomed by the band, & 3 deaf[e]ning cheers.

They were ushered into the Lewt General’s (occupied by my family) Marquee. found that Bros Smoot & Stoddard were from fort Leavenworth 20 days. They informed [me] that a new Governor and entire set of officers had been appointed, 2500 troops with 15 months provision. Sup[p]osed That General [William S.] Harney would commany - to support the officials in their position. I said if General Harney came here, I Should then know the intention of [the] gover[n]ment; And it was carried unanimously that if Harney crossed the South Pass the buz[z]ards Should pick his bones. The feeling of Mobocracy is rife in the ‘States’ the constant cry is kill the Mormons. Let them try it. The Utah mail contract had been taken from us - on the pretext of the unsettled state of things in this territory.

The news helped the people to enjoy themselves. Dancing and mirth continued until a late hour.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on I June 2011.