The story behind this iconic photo of resistance, the emergence of Neo-Nazism in Sweden, and what the image means more than 30 years later.
I think it’s safe to assume that most people wouldn’t react the same way the woman in this picture did if they ever saw a bunch of neo-Nazis marching down the street. Neo-Nazis are not the friendliest of people out there, so most people’s reaction would be a combination of fear, anger, and maybe discomfort. I’m pretty sure that most would avoid the group and take a different street, or at least walk as far away from them as possible. The woman in the picture, though, is not like most people. She saw the group of men marching and chose not to ignore what was happening in front of her, so she grabbed her bag, swung it, and hit the guy with the flag over the head.
Unbeknownst to her, someone snapped a photo of this moment and turned a small, seemingly insignificant action into a symbol of resistance and humanity.
Nordic Resistance Movement marching in Borlange, central Sweden in 2016.
The photo was taken by photographer Hans Runesson in Växjö, Sweden, on April 13, 1985. That day, the Nordic Reich Party was having a demonstration in the city, and the man who was hit on the head was participating in it. The woman who hit him was Danuta Danielsson, a 38-year-old Polish-Jewish immigrant who had recently moved to Sweden. Apparently, her mother had been in a concentration camp, and Danielsson felt very strongly about the presence of neo-Nazis in her neighborhood. And it’s really her anger at this presence what makes the photo so iconic. She looks like any normal woman you’d see walking down the street, but at the moment the picture was taken her face is transformed into a grimace of anger, outrage, and indignation. Her feelings are so strong that she wasn’t able to contain herself, and she had no choice but to act.
Swedish Resistance Front marching in Stockholm in 2014. Source: Aftonbladet
The context that surrounds the image is the history of Nazism in Sweden in the mid-20th century and the rise of neo-Nazism over the last few decades. In contrast to Norway, which was occupied by the Germans in World War II, Sweden always remained neutral. However, many of its leaders adhered to Nazi ideologies and even supported the Third Reich despite Sweden’s alleged neutrality. There have also always been small minority political parties with nationalistic and anti-Semitic views that never manage to dominate the political landscape but are always there in some way. The Nordic Reich Party, for instance (the one who was marching in the picture), was founded in 1956, eleven years after the end of World War II, and became very strong in the 1980s.
Nordic Resistance Movement marching in Falun. Source: Ulf Palm/TT
The reason why this happened after the horrors of the Holocaust is because Sweden never banned Nazism like Germany did. Sweden’s role in the war was, of course, a hundred times smaller than Germany’s, so they admittedly felt a lot less guilty than the latter and didn’t think it was necessary to ban Nazism. However, there’s another reason why Sweden is so tolerant of these groups, and that reason is their self-perception. Swedish people don’t believe that their country has such a big problem with racism. The country is promoted everywhere as a liberal and progressive land of opportunity where immigrants from all over the world can go and create new lives for themselves. The reality, however, is not that simple.
Photo of Tess Asplund raising her fist in protest against the Nordic Resistance Movement in 2016. By David Lagerlöf.
Sweden is still the home of multiple extremist right-wing groups, as well as immigrants and Swedish-born minorities, who are still victims of racism, discrimination, and hate crimes. So, as we look at Danielsson’s photo, it’s important to celebrate her bravery and be inspired by her, but it’s even more important to remember the historical circumstances that led to her actions. No matter how ugly or how painful it can be to think about these circumstances, we need to accept them as our reality, so we don’t forget the long road we still have ahead of us.