In my job, I have the good fortune to work in different countries around the world. On one such jaunt, I was asked to run a workshop in Dubai. It was around the time that the USA and UK had invaded Irak and there was, to put it mildly, a great deal of tension in the middle East. Being British was far from popular. There had been a few cases of kidnappings and murders of foreign business people.
With this in mind, my American colleage and I decided to pretend we were Swedish. We spoke only Swedish to each other in public places. We said ‘We’re from Sveden’ if anybody asked us. It worked really well. Being Swedish in the Middle East was not considered provocative. We were able to bask under the long-standing, international reputation of the Swedes as honest, neutral and decent.
And actually, these are three of the stereotypes that other cultures have of Sweden. Years of ‘good behaviour’ has positioned Sweden in the international arena as a decent nation with strong integrity. Except in Poland.
Listening to the radio today, I heard a Swedish correspondent living in Warsaw. He talked about how, until recently, he was proud to say he was Swedish. But lately, he denied it vehemently. Two major things have happened to sully the reputation of Sweden in Poland.
In September last year, Swedish stockpiles of Cold War-era canned meat were sold to Poland. The meat, some as old as 27 years, was sold by a Swedish trading company for use in restaurants in Poland. Experts said the meat should only be used up to 10 years after it was packaged. After tests at the Agricultural College in Warsaw, Poland, the canned meat was found to be turning rancid. Basically, the meat that Sweden had sold was not fit to give to a dog – but fine for Poles.
On Thursday this week, a Swedish man was arrested in Stockholm over the theft of the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign from the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. The metal sign was stolen in December 2009 from above the entrance to the notorious Nazi death camp. It was later recovered, cut into three pieces. The 5m (16ft) wrought iron sign – the words on which translate as “Work sets you free” – symbolises for many the atrocities of Nazi Germany.
The theft caused outrage in Israel, Poland and around the world. More than a million people – 90% of them Jews – were murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz in occupied Poland during World War II.
So Sweden’s reputation is seriously, perhaps irretrievably, damaged in Poland.
It just goes to show that it can take decades to build a credible reputation but only moments to destroy it.