Obituary: Sven Lindqvist
Swedish author who argued Germans had become scapegoats for crimes which had a common European heritage
Sven Lindqvist, who has died aged 87, was a Swedish writer of more than 30 books in a wide range of genres, but best known in English for controversial histories of genocide and aerial bombardment which challenged European, and in particular British, beliefs about their share of responsibility for the millions of deaths caused by such campaigns in the 20th Century.
Lindqvist was described, not inaccurately, by the London Review of Books in 2000 as a "citizen-writer with socialist roots", but his work nonetheless resisted easy categorisation. It often included, and mixed together, elements of travel writing, reportage, history and autobiography, albeit frequently in the service of polemic.
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He first began to attract notice in Britain in the 1990s when championed by Granta, the publisher owned by his fellow Swede, Sigrid Rausing. Exterminate All the Brutes (1996; 1992 in Swedish), its title taken from a phrase uttered in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness by the vile Mr Kurtz, argued in contentious fashion the case against Nazi exceptionalism.
For Lindqvist, "the Germans were made sole scapegoats of extermination that was actually a common European heritage". He posited that Hitler had been influenced by a colonial mindset which could trace its origins to Victorian eugenicists and which believed lesser races would inevitably be eradicated by greater ones.
Auschwitz was thus only the continuation of an imperial tradition of genocide outside of Europe, whether in the Congo or Bengal. Similar accusations lay at the heart of Lindqvist's history of the impact of the white races on Australia, Terra Nullius (2007).
Lindqvist's most original work was perhaps A History of Bombing (2001), which was set out in 399 short but not consecutive chapters. Its fragmentary form alluded to the disruptive consequences of bombing from the air, first practised by the Italians in Libya in 1911 but, thought Lindqvist, rendered an instrument of policy by the RAF during colonial revolts in places such as the North-West Frontier in the 1920s and 1930s.
Arthur "Bomber" Harris had experience of such operations in the Middle East - in 1936 he had recommended suppressing Arab dissent in Palestine with "one 250lb or 500lb bomb on each village that speaks out of turn" - and Lindqvist believed it was the British who had first made bombing civilians acceptable.
Arguably, this somewhat overlooked Nazi aggression in the chain of causation which led to Dresden, but Lindqvist nevertheless had a gift for raising uncomfortable ideas.
Sven Oskar Lindqvist was born in Stockholm on March 28, 1932. His parents were teachers and he was educated at the Sodra Latins Gymnasium and Stockholm University.
By the early 1950s, he was writing regularly for a newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, and creating a modest stir with his first books. A Proposal (1951) was a long essay recounting his time working in a creosote factory. Soon after his marriage in 1956 to Cecilia Norman, a photographer, he published Advertising is Lethal, an attack on the consumer society.
This, together with the influence on him of Hermann Hesse's novel The Glass Bead Game, whose intellectual protagonists withdraw from the world, prompted Lindqvist to move to China in the early 1960s. Out of this came The Myth of Wu Tao-tzu (1967), based on the legend of the artist so content with the picture he had painted that he walked into it and disappeared. The book made Lindqvist's name in Sweden and has never been out of print.
During the 1960s, Lindqvist travelled with his young family in Latin America, Afghanistan, Africa and Russia.
Dig Where You Stand (1978), inspired by his grandfather's time in the cement industry, was a handbook for workers on how to research the history of the companies which employed them.
Its aim was to overturn assumptions as to whose interests in the business should prevail (shareholders or labourers) and whose judgments (management or shop floor) had been correct in the past. It became an unexpected bestseller and led to 10,000 research projects in half a dozen countries.
In the 1980s, Lindqvist went through something of a mid-life crisis, and in 1986 he and his wife divorced after three decades together and that same year he married Agneta Stark, an economist.
Following a conversation with a skinhead, he took up weightlifting as a way of reshaping himself literally and metaphorically, a journey recounted as Bench Press (1988). He turned over in it his adolescent longing for strength. This led him to recall in Desert Divers (1990) another teenage interest in those who maintained wells in the Sahara.
He had been suffering for many years from Parkinson's Disease. He is survived by his wife and by the son and daughter of his first marriage. Sven Lindqvist died on May 14.