Swedish Comics during the Second World War
Comics on struggle for hearts and minds

It is very "non-Swedish" – to not be neutral. During the Second World War, Sweden tried unsuccessfully to support political neutrality through its comics. By MICHAEL F. SCHOLZ

Translated by Christine Crawford and Carola Leyendecker.

"Psychological Operations" (PSYOPS) have grown in importance. This type of propaganda, initially known as psychological warfare, has a long tradition. PSYOPS has always been about influencing the thoughts, feelings and habits of a specific target group, however nowadays the terminology, methods used and level has changed. Since 1900, comics have been known for their careful combination of images and text, psychologically targeted at both children and young adults.

Psychological warfare reached its climax during the Second World War. Initially it was all about psychological defence, as populations needed to be convinced of the validity of government policies, both intellectually and emotionally. A research project carried out by the University of Uppsala, is alleged, to state this is true not only for the US, but for Sweden too.1

During the Second World War, readers of popular and wide spread comics were presented with a rogue combination of entertainment and propaganda, for Swedish children and teenagers. Propaganda seesawed between the justification of Sweden's neutral politics and the pro-war propaganda related to the western powers. Illustrated magazines contained comics of up to six pages, each week.

By the end of the war, daily newspapers printed up to eight "comic strips" per day. By the end of the war, approximately one-third of the Swedish population read comics on a regular basis, irrespective of their age, education or social status.2

Reverence for traditions
When the Second World War began in autumn 1939, so did the struggle for people's hearts and minds. Sweden pursued a policy of neutrality. Its psychological defence was coordinated by an Information Office. The media were supposed to encourage "reverence" for the traditions of "old historical freedom and independence", as well as emotions felt by the population connected to their country's past.

"Bonniers", the publishing house, supported this policy by promoting comics, which featured issues based on the templates of Swedish national epics. Some examples of such comics are: "Erzählungen eines Feldschers" by Zacharias Topelius, "Karl XII. und seine Krieger" by Verner von Heidenstam and "Die Abenteuer des Röde Orm" by Frans G. Bengtsson.3 These comics were available in the spring of 1942. During this time, an appeal to the great Swedish power was quite difficult, because Russia was the main enemy.

Despite being unavailable across most of Europe, US comics were still sold in Sweden. Skillful bargaining between Bulls Press and German, as well as US media offices saved the distribution of US comics across northern Europe.

Cultural import from the US
At the beginning of 1943, the situation had turned in favour of the Anti-Hitler Coalition, at every frontline. Almost no one doubted the defeat of the Third Reich. Post-war perspectives concerning Sweden's external trade had been a topic of discussion for six months.

In spring 1943, a public commission advised the extension of cultural relations with the US. This meant that the Information Office no longer defended "Non-Swedish propaganda". Until then, all efforts to pull Sweden into the military controversy or the powers that actually fought the war, were considered "non-Swedish". From this point onwards, all censorships as well as reflections on western propaganda stopped, and the former nationalistic propaganda strategy was discarded. Cultural imports from the US were now sanctions that helped to promote trust.

This should have bore consequences for comics in Sweden. Not only that, but Swedish hero storylines disappeared and they became inferior to US adventure comic imports. It was a more serious concern, that the content of US comics had changed so dramatically over the months.

Even though comics distributed by Bulls Press already dealt with war-related events in 1940, they were basically about issues concerning the daily routine during war. Topics such as vigilance towards operatives, were also topics the Swedish propaganda supported. When the US entered the war, most comic heroes had experienced some kind of "military make over" and were subdued by reckless schematism. One of Bull's censorships tried to cancel out this trend. Even inoffensive comics, free from ideology, turned out to be useful for US propaganda.

The comic adventures of a young, independent and very successful reporter called Brenda Starr, promoted an image of modern American women combined with praise for the "American way of life". This was in favour of the US's psychological warfare aims, which included the spread of cultural traditions as well as achievements.

In June 1942, comics officially became part of the US's psychological warfare, when the US government founded the Office of War Information (OWI), to coordinate media policies during the war. Statutory provisions stated that these policies were supposed to increase the population's and forces' morale and also to support American war objectives in foreign countries. They were also designed to encourage people to get involved in the war and demonstrate clear images of who the allies and enemies were. They were used to encourage hate towards facism and Nazism and promote the achievements of the allies. Precise instructions were issued by the Writers' War Board (WWB), one of the most important US non-governmental propaganda organisations.

It ensured that there was a pool of authors at the government's disposal for propaganda tasks. Non-fiction American comics, featuring the lives of real life British war heroes, became very popular in Sweden. By mid 1944, readers of family and teenage magazines were able to share in the adventures of Winston Churchill, General Montgomery or Lord Louis Mountbatten. Eventually, even the influential daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, published comics about British war heroes. Sweden also tried to establish in-house productions that were supposed to support western powers against the Third Reich. However, these were basically reproductions of famous American comics.

Racist propaganda comics
In the spring of 1944, an influential US political group began a campaign to enforce harsh peace conditions on Germany and Japan. The Writers' War Board joined this group and assigned comic-publishing companies to concentrate on anti-Japanese, as well as anti-German topics, in order to show readers the shocking reality of how brutal the enemy "really" was. As a consequence, racist displays in comics increased. The Japanese wore huge glasses and had bucked teeth. German officers wore monocles and had cuts on their faces. Soldiers were shown as overweight and sluggish.

The protest from Hitler's Germany against this kind of propaganda in the Nazi magazine "Illustrierter Beobachter", in August 1944, did not impress Bulls too much. They were able to save the distribution of comics from the US, especially racist comics – with the help of western allied offices. This was also valid for Bulls' own youth magazine, which published uncensored adventures of Superman, Jungle Jim or Barney Baxter. Despite most Swedish publications being rather defensive in their description of the German side until then, they changed this by the end of 1944.

This particularly applied to pro-western publications. In one comic, one could take part in the adventures of a young British operative who blew up German troops in Italy. Another one from Sweden, had a Swedish seaman fighting against German soldiers raping and killing in occupied France. Anti-German stereotypes finally found their way into the Swedish daily press.

American comics successfully spread American values throughout Sweden during the war and influenced numerous readers towards democracy.

American comics successfully spread American values throughout Sweden during the war and influenced numerous readers towards democracy. By the end of the war the campaign to educate and inform people about hate, racism and Germany's activities had ended. Studies based on propaganda by the western powers during the war and their influence on Sweden's political culture were rarely carried out and actually ignored pop culture, especially comics.

Yet, comics as "cultural artefacts", say a lot about the time and the society in which they were created and can broaden our horizons on the most recent past. Research should pay more attention to pop culture and comics, and not just film and television.

© Bulls Presstjanst , graphic artist: Frank Miller

[1] Scholz, Michael: Entertainment or Propaganda. Comic Strips in Sweden during World War II, current project (promoted by the Riksbankens Jubileumsfond Foundation; contact: michael.scholz@hist.uu.se).- This study examines how ideological controversies surrounding Sweden's neutrality policy during the Second World War, were reflected in pop culture (unnoticed by research). Changes in perception and the integration of comics, brought with them new incentives and further encouraged press researchers to pay more attention to them.
[2] Comic strips do have a long tradition in Sweden. After a successful American distribution offensive, the US comics that were distributed by Bulls Press Service, became the market leaders of US comics in northern Europe, during the 1930's. Bulls' main customer in Sweden was the illustrated weekly press. Among Swedish publishing companies, Åhlén-Åkerlund also published Swedish in-house productions. The company belonged to the Albert Bonniers Publishing Company, which was already the biggest book publishing company in northern Europe, since 1929.
[3] Original Schwedish titles: "Fältskärns berättelser", "Karolinerna" and "Röde Orm".


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