Long before Swedish pop sensation Zara Larsson became famous, she had another famous namesake from Sweden.
Also a singer, Zarah Leander was her name, and she remains an enigma to this day. Active during the war years, was she a source of pride or a source of shame for Sweden? Nobody really knows.
Zarah Leander was born in the town of Karlstad in 1907 by the name of Sara Stina Hedberg. She began her singing career in the late 1920s, and by the mid-1930s she was hugely successful in Scandinavia and in Europe. In particular, the Germans loved her and in 1936, she was contracted to work for the German Film Foundation for whom she made many movies. As her employer was subordinate to the Third Reich, many people viewed her films and her music as nazi propoganda, although Zarah Leander herself never took a public political stance or officially joined the Nazi party. She performed live at many concerts, even after Nazi Germany had invaded Denmark and Norway. She profited from being the biggest, and most well-paid, star in Germany at that time.
After her home in Berlin was bombed towards the end of the war years, she returned to Sweden under much criticism. She was shunned by the artistic community but eventually managed to resume her career. She died in 1981 in Stockholm at the age of 74.
So was Zarah Leander a source of shame for Sweden? Was she a cold-blooded, fame-seeking, profiteering, Nazi sympathiser? On paper it would seem so. But who really knows?
Or was she a source of pride? Was she, as she herself claimed, just an entertainer working to please an enthusiastic audience in a difficult time?
Or was she in fact a spy? Soviet intelligence officer Pavel Sudoplatov claimed, just before his death, that Leander had been a Soviet agent with the codename “Rose-Marie”. He claimed she was a secret member of the Swedish Communist Party and conducted the work for political reasons.
Zarah Leander talked openly about her past and consistently denied that she had any sympathies with the Nazi or the Communist parties or that she worked as a spy for any country. But was she telling the truth? The mystery of Zarah Leander followed her to the grave and today the only legacy we have is her music and her films.
Zarah Leander, 1907-1981. Nazi sympathiser? Communist spy? Secret Agent? Musical Diva!!!