Sweden’s nazi sympathiser, secret agent, communist spy, musical diva!!

ZarahLeander

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!!!

Great Swedish Women -Part 5 – The Legend 

Since March 8th was International Women’s Day, I  am writing a series on Great Swedish Women, past and present: women with strength and passion, women who create change. For seven days, I am writing about these women, one per day. I hope you want to join me in celebrating them.

Part 5 – the vengeful Viking Blenda.

In the county of Småland in Southern Sweden, there is a legend about a brave Viking woman named Blenda. According to legend, the menfolk of Småland were at war in Norway, leaving the women and children alone and defenceless. The Danes learned of this and chose this moment to invade and attacked the region.  Blenda was a woman of noble descent and she decided to rally all the womenfolk in the hundreds of Konga, Albo, Kinnevald, Norrvidinge and Uppvidinge. The women armies assembled on the Brávellir, which according to Smålandish tradition is located in Värend.

The women approached the Danes and told them how much they were impressed with Danish men. They invited the men to a banquet where they were provided with food and drink. After a long evening, the Danish warriors fell asleep and the women killed every single one of them with axes and staffs.

When the king returned, he bestowed new rights on the women. They acquired equal inheritance with their brothers and husbands, the right always to wear a belt around their waists as a sign of eternal vigilance and the right to beat the drum at weddings amd wear armour.

There have been various disputes about the validity of this legend, if and when it happened. One theory is that it happened around the year 500. At this time, female soldiers existed in Sweden. Called Shieldmaidens, three hundred are known to have fought during the great Battle of Bråvalla in 750.

Blenda is perhaps the first known woman in a long line of strong Swedish women who defend themselves from aggressors and contribute to better equal rights between the sexes.