Stieg Larsson, the Swedish author of the international best-selling “Millennium” series, 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, spawned three Swedish films and now Hollywood’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”
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 2011 memoir, “‘There Are Things I Want You to Know’ About Stieg Larsson and Me.”
The Millennium 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 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 bullets in the mail.
“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 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,” still playing in several Bay Area theaters, 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.
Her uncle, industrialist Henrik Vanger, hires Blomkvist to find his niece, revealing early on that his family has plenty of racist skeletons in the closet. One of them is Henrik’s brother, Richard, “a fanatical nationalist and anti-Semite … [who] joined the Swedish National Socialist Freedom League, one of the first Nazi groups in Sweden.”
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 traveled to occupied Norway during the war to join the Waffen SS.
Gabrielsson, reached at the Stockholm apartment she shared with Larsson, was soft-spoken and straightforward during a phone interview.
“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.
Blomkvist and Salander discover a mysterious list of names the teenager wrote 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.
In 1991, Larsson published “Right Wing Extremism” with Anna-Lena Lodenius, an overview 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.
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, 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.”