“He who lives will see.”

Book review: War Diaries, 1939-1945, by Astrid Lindgren, translated by Sarah Death

Astrid Lindgren, the beloved author of the Pippi Longstocking series, lived through the Second World War with her family in Stockholm, Sweden. She was just beginning her writing career, and in wartime got a job in the censorship office.

Lindgren began recording daily life with “Oh! War broke out today. Nobody could believe it,” on that historically pivotal day, September 1, 1939. Her diaries are laced with the anxiety and tension of the stresses of everyday life coupled with wartime shortages and rations, and the looming, ever-present fear of the unknown that any ongoing war brings. Lindgren dutifully records events as all the countries around her fall to Germany or the Soviet Union, and despite Sweden’s neutrality, the fear of what could be coming, especially with neighboring Norway’s installed puppet government under the infamous Quisling is palpable. It is, in her own words, “a world gone mad.”

Her journaling is erratic, sometimes long stretches of time are missing as she grapples with personal problems, raising her children, marital issues, etc. People are continually reassured that peace will soon come, with lines like “He who lives will see.” She repeats this often and despairingly, but despite her frustrations, she stays wonderfully positive. Maybe because Sweden got off relatively easy, all things considered, in WWII. War was never directly at her door. It’s odd to read her descriptions of luxurious meals while we know that others were starving or being murdered. She’s aware of and humble about her lucky circumstance, and I don’t mean to downplay her stresses, as they’re clearly very real. It was a time when the whole world was hurting. Lindgren painstakingly marks every birthday and holiday, wistfully remembering where she was and what she did the year before, and how she thought that the war would’ve ended by this next milestone. Yet it continues.

It’s interesting to follow the events of the time, gifted as we are with the hindsight of history. Lindgren can only chronicle them as they unfold, with what information and speculation were available, and we get a rare glimpse of how the news of the day filtered through in bits and pieces. So landmark occurrences like Rudolf Hess’s flying to Scotland appear in all their shock and surprise as the news breaks.

These wartime years also included Finland’s Winter War with Russia. She chronicles this too, concerned at this breakout of even more fighting, especially so close to home. Her commentary on war’s progression ping-pongs back and forth between the rumors of horrors committed by all involved nations, but especially by Germany and the Soviet Union. She writes hilariously, “National Socialism and Bolshevism – it’s rather like two giant reptiles doing battle.” She has a lively sense of humor, not surprising for the writer who gave voice to Pippi Longstocking, and its appearances throughout the entries is much-needed. As she writes exasperatedly of more news of German atrocities, “In the end the world will be so full of hate that it chokes us.” We made it through the Second World War, but I still think that line is hauntingly relevant nowadays, sadly.

Just a few lines are devoted to Pippi Longstocking, despite the character being “born” during this time, as she works on the book while laid up in bed with a sprained foot. She writes that she’s having fun with her, so at least it was a bright spot in Lindgren’s wartime life.

Finally both 1945 and the war are over, and alongside her clear exhaustion and relief, the world is beginning to heal and rebuild. Her humorous, shining optimism, so evident in Pippi, closes out her wartime experiences poignantly and hopefully: “All the best for the New Year to me! To me and mine! And ideally to the whole world as well, though that’s probably asking too much. But even if it can’t be the best New Year, perhaps at least it can be a better one.”

War Diaries, 1939-1945
by Astrid Lindgren, translated by Sarah Death
English edition published in America November 22, 2016 by Yale University Press
first published in Swedish April 2015 by Salikon Förlag

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.

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