Stieg Larsson, the Swedish author of the international best-selling “Millennium” series, including “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” died in 2004 at age 50 of a heart attack, before the publication of his crime thrillers made him one of the most famous writers of the decade. They have sold tens of millions of copies worldwide, already spawned three Swedish films and, on Dec. 21, fans will no doubt be lining up for the opening of Hollywood’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” directed by David Fincher and starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, with a screenplay by the Oscar-winning “Schindler’s List” scribe Steven Zaillian. (The film opens in selected theaters on Dec. 20.)
But amid all this “Stieg industry,” as the late author’s life partner, Eva Gabrielsson, put it, a crucial element often has been overlooked: Just how much Larsson embedded in his novels a fundamental passion of his life — his crusade against neo-Nazism and violent far-right movements, which he viewed as anathema to Sweden and to all modern society.
“Those who see Stieg solely as an author of crime fiction have never truly known him,” Gabrielsson writes in her memoir, “There Are Things I Want You to Know About Stieg Larsson and Me” (released last June by Seven Stories,and due out in paperback on Jan. 10). The “Millennium” series, she said, “is only one episode in Steig’s journey through this world, and it certainly isn’t his life’s work.”
“The trilogy is an allegory of the individual’s eternal fight for justice and morality, the values for which Stieg Larsson fought until the day he died,” Marie-Francoise Colombani wrote in the foreword to Gabrielsson’s book.
An abiding part of Larsson’s mission was researching and exposing Sweden’s Nazi past (even though the country was officially neutral during World War II), and, more urgently, the resurgence of violent racist groups in Scandinavia in the 1980s and ’90s, during which time Larsson wrote for the anti-racist British magazine Searchlight and, in 1995, co-founded a Swedish equivalent, Expo. For those efforts, Larsson and Gabrielsson — an activist in her own right — received death threats and even bullets in the mail; their answering machine, set permanently on “record,” archived messages such as “You Jew f——- … traitor, we’ll tear you apart … and we know where you live.” In evidence collected after the murder of a trade unionist who had exposed a neo-Nazi secret, police discovered photos of Larsson and Gabrielsson.
“Stieg was absolutely the real deal — he was an expert on the neo-Nazi movement in Europe, and particularly in Scandinavia,” said Marilyn Mayo, co-director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “We relied on his information in terms of tracking the movement in Europe — its growth, activism and various players. And we often shared information on the overlap between the neo-Nazi movement in Europe and the United States.”
Nazis and anti-Semites lurk throughout Larsson’s “Millennium” trilogy, which includes “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played With Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” “Tattoo” introduces the odd duo of Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist and co-founder of a magazine called Millennium, and Lisbeth Salander, a pierced, punk, antisocial computer hacker, who team up to solve a decades-old mystery involving the disappearance of a teenage girl.
Blomkvist was hired to find the now middle-age Harriet Vanger by her uncle, the industrialist Henrik Vanger, who reveals early on that his family has plenty of racist skeletons in the closet. One of them is Henrik’s brother, Richard, described in the book as “a fanatical nationalist and anti-Semite … [who] joined the Swedish National Socialist Freedom League, one of the first Nazi groups in Sweden.” Richard later joined the Swedish Fascist Battle Organization and there “got to know Per Engdahl [a leading Swedish far-right leader] and others who would be the disgrace of the nation,” Henrik said.
Spoiler alert: There’s also a serial killer whose targets turn out to have been Jewish women. In “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” the chief villain is not only a sex-trafficker but also a Jew-hater, who uses as his alias the name of a Swedish Nazi, Karl Axel Bodin — a real historical figure who, during World War II, traveled to occupied Norway to join the Waffen-SS.
Gabrielsson, an architect now in her 50s, was soft-spoken and straightforward during a phone interview, reached at the Stockholm apartment she once shared with Larsson. Because Gabrielsson was not legally married to the author at the time of his death, the “Millennium” property and profits went to Larsson’s father and brother. Since then, media outlets have extensively reported her battle with the Larssons over how his legacy should be presented and involving a fourth “Millennium” novel that the author reportedly was writing on his computer when he died.
Our conversation focused on how Larsson’s politics come through in his novels.
“What you see in the first ‘Millennium’ book is what a Nazi past does to a family, and to its family members: the kind of structures that are built up, based on who has the power,” she said. “What you especially see is how the women are affected. You can only survive in that family if you submit to your lower status and do what you are told. The only one who escapes that fate is [spoiler alert] Harriet Vanger. She flees and takes on a new identity.”
Similarly, Jewish children who were hidden during the Holocaust were forced to take on non-Jewish identities.
As Blomkvist and Salander investigate Harriet’s disappearance, they discover a mysterious list of names the teenager wrote down in her journal. When they figure out that the names refer to Jewish victims, they are on the path of a Nazi serial killer.
“It was a natural thing for Stieg to make them Jewish,” Gabrielsson said. “This is a killer who is acting for political reasons, within the Nazi ideology, so he is actually committing political murders. … The first book shows the effects of an ideology on a family and its women.”
In a way, she said, Larsson was commenting on current events: “It took all of the 1980s and ’90s until the Swedish police, prosecutors and politicians understood that the extreme right wing here were not criminals in the ‘normal’ sense, but were committing criminal acts because of a political ideology,” she said. “That’s why they attacked immigrants and made their bank robberies, to finance weapons and explosives, and why they killed police officers who tried to capture them. And that’s why Stieg made this parallel to the political agenda: He meant that these kinds of acts don’t just come out of being an evil person or a psychopath, but from a political point of view.”
In 1991, Larsson published a book, “Right Wing Extremism,” with Anna-Lena Lodenius, the first comprehensive work ever published on the subject, Gabrielsson said. He was already an expert on each group’s political affiliations, the members’ accomplices, milieus they frequented and how the then-flourishing white-power music industry financed extremist groups throughout the world.
One of the groups mentioned in the book was White Aryan Resistance: “Seven of its members had amassed a total of 20 convictions among them for crimes such as armed robbery, stealing weapons from military depots and homicide,” Gabrielsson said. The group’s magazine, Storm, published photos of Larsson and Lodenius, along with their addresses, Social Security numbers and phone numbers, and text that concluded of Larsson: “Never forget his words, his face and his address. Should he be allowed to continue his work — or should he be dealt with?”
Like his character of Lisbeth Salander, Larsson had to become an expert on personal security: “Stieg knew everything there was to know about tracking people, all the methods used by journalists, by the police … by extremists and criminal gangs,” Gabrielsson said.
Why did Larsson persevere with his work, despite the danger?
“I trace it back to something personal,” Gabrielsson said. Larsson’s beloved maternal grandfather, Severin, who had helped raise Stieg when the boy’s parents could not care for him, was an anti-Nazi activist who had been imprisoned in a little-known concentration camp in northern Sweden, set up to appease the Nazis. “The stories of these prisoners until recently have been wrapped up in a blanket of silence,” Gabrielsson said. “It wasn’t until five or six years ago that a film was made about these camps, and afterward researchers began to explore Sweden’s true past during the second world war. For Stieg, his work was the defense of the man who brought him up.”
Ironically, Larsson died on Nov. 9, 2004, the 66th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the date commonly considered the beginning of the Holocaust. “Stieg always commemorated this Night of Broken Glass by participating in public events,” Gabrielsson said.
His death was not only a shock to Gabrielsson, but to his fellow crusaders.
“In this house we still mourn and miss him,” Gerry Gable, the editor of Searchlight, wrote in an e-mail. After Larsson co-founded Expo, Gable participated in exchange visits to Sweden and joint investigations: “Over the years [Stieg] kept the flame alive at Expo; it stopped once but his drive brought it back. … He was also my friend as is Eva, who has the same tenacity and courage as Stieg.”
“We were all shocked and saddened by Stieg’s death,” said Leonard Zeskind of The Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, author of “Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement From the Margins to the Mainstream,” who lives in Kansas City, Mo., and knew Larsson from the early 1980s until his death. Zeskind recalls visiting Larsson’s apartment and drinking coffee late into the night with the affable writer, who smoked cigarettes, expressed a wide range of interests, including crime fiction, was phenomenally bright and appeared to work 20 hours a day. “He once asked me to tell the [Jewish-American mystery novelist] Sara Paretsky that she should write a book about the Ku Klux Klan,” Zeskin recalled.
“There was so much grief when he died, because he was someone to us who felt like a brother.”