Across Sweden, young Viking enthusiasts have been angered by the actions of some far-right organisations who have adopted Viking iconography to represent white supremacist propaganda. One, in particular, is the Nordic Resistance Movement, known as the NRM.
Viking enthusiast Robin Lundin is the co-founder of an association called Vikingar Mot Rasism (Vikings Against Racism, or VAR). The group was formed on Facebook to combat the conflation of Viking enthusiasm with neo-nazism, and it has more than 1,500 members.
The NRM hold a rally in Robin’s hometown of Kungalv. He uses the rally as a chance to challenge one of the NRM’s leaders face-to-face about their misappropriation of Viking symbols. NRM’s rallies frequently become violent, but Robin remains undeterred in his bid to expose the NRM’s ignorance and reclaim his Viking identity, without being branded a neo-Nazi.
By Nicholas Ahlmark
Although I am a British national, my last name is Swedish. That is because my great grandparents were economic migrants from Sweden to the US in the early 1900s. I never met or knew much about them and, apart from my surname, I have never had a connection or anything more than a passing interest in the Scandinavian country. In fact, before this film started shooting, I had never even visited. In recent years, however, my interest in Sweden has grown, perhaps because as I get older I think more about my heritage, but also because of the substantial shifts currently occurring in the country’s demographics and politics.
My interest began to peak during the 2015 refugee crisis, when the eyes of the world focused on Sweden, as a record-breaking 163,000 people applied for asylum in a country that, at the time, had a population of only 9.6 million. This influx meant that in 2015, Sweden had a higher refugee intake per capita than any other country in Europe.
In subsequent years I had noticed more and more stories popping up on my news feeds, pertaining to racial tensions and integration issues in Swedish towns and cities and, worryingly, an increase in homegrown far-right, racist and xenophobic groups.
Most of my work tends to be focused on the Asia-Pacific region, but with Brexit happening in my own country, and the rise of populist politics across Western Europe, it seemed an apt time to re-engage with the continent, and so I decided to hone in on stories to tell in Sweden. I came across a Facebook group called Vikings Against Racism, and a world that I knew nothing about was opened up to me.
This is the world of hardcore historical enthusiasts who participate in a Viking-themed Live Action Role-Playing game better known by the acronym LARP. While not all LARPs are exclusively focused on Vikings, recent years in Sweden have seen a heightened interest in Viking history and culture, with LARPing events becoming commonplace across the country. A LARP is something distinct from a straightforward re-enactment, which tends to happen at one-day events with members of the public dressed in modern clothes watching from the sidelines. In contrast, most LARPs happen off-grid in remote locations, including the LARP we filmed, which took place in a replica Viking village called Bergham Vanner, deep inside a forest, around a three-hour drive southeast of Gothenburg.
These LARPers have taken it upon themselves to form the Vikings Against Racism movement. This group is born out of the Viking community’s frustration and outrage that far-right hate groups – such as the Scandinavia-wide Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM) – are using Viking symbols and mythology as propaganda to further their white supremacist agenda. The most prominent symbol is the Viking Rune which the NRM uses as a centrepiece for its flag and branding.
Formed in Sweden in 1997, the NRM is famous for harassing journalists and politicians physically and online and were recently linked to the bombing of a refugee centre in Gothenburg. As a result of the NRM’s association with Viking symbols, the average member of the Swedish public, who knows nothing about fact-based Viking enthusiasts, now categorise this community in the same box as neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Thus, if you have a visible Viking tattoo, you may get double takes walking down the street from members of the public who think that must mean you are also a fan of Hitler. Many Viking lovers told me they had even been confronted by strangers on the street and been accused of being racist, simply because they were wearing some kind of Viking symbol.
Having embedded with the Viking community at a LARP for the purpose of making this film, I can say with confidence that linking these two groups is misguided at best. Viking LARPers are overwhelmingly an inclusive group of social liberals who believe in equality across all spectrums of race, class and gender. They want Viking culture to be accessible to everyone. My encounters with Swedish neo-Nazis, on the other hand, showed me that they tend to be primarily young white men with a rigid world view based around the idea of the superiority of the white race. They see Viking culture as something that is the preserve of white Northern Europeans only – a distant era whose people symbolise white power.
Neo-Nazis will often turn up at Viking fairs, seeking Viking paraphernalia. During my research phase, I even talked to one Viking enthusiast who recounted the story of a group of neo-Nazis leafleting at a Viking fair. They were chased out by LARPers who protected themselves with shields. Online as well, fascists are also eager to infiltrate Viking groups and platforms. The Vikings Against Racism Facebook group has a stringent vetting process to ensure NRM members and other racists cannot join.
“But wait,” I hear you say, “Vikings were a bunch of totalitarian, nationalistic thugs who invaded, raped and pillaged their way through Northern Europe and beyond. Of course neo-Nazi values align with Viking values!”
Well, not quite.
Firstly, Vikings did not see themselves as a coherent culture attached to any “nation”. Sweden was not even formed as a country until 1397. That is 331 years after 1066 – the year that the Vikings ceased to exist, according to most credible historians. In fact, far from being attached to one particular country, the Vikings were a loosely connected group of tribes and family dynasties who did not adhere to the concept of nationalism.
In her article Vikings were never the pure-bred master race white supremacists like to portray, Clare Downing from the University of Liverpool argues that rather than the marauding smash-and-grab thugs portrayed in popular culture, Vikings sustained long-term peaceful interactions with foreign peoples, based on trade. A big part of Viking success was “their ability to embrace and adapt from a wide range of cultures, whether that be the Christian Irish in the west or the Muslims of the Abbasid Caliphate in the east”.
This is backed up by recent historical finds that include artefacts from central Europe, Turkey and the Middle East. “Viking crews would frequently lose members and pick up new recruits as they travelled, combining dissident elements from different backgrounds and cultures,” writes Downing. “An analysis of skeletons at sites linked to Vikings using the latest scientific techniques points to a mix of Scandinavian and non-Scandinavian peoples without clear ethnic distinctions in rank or gender.”
On the question of Viking brutality, the hero of our film Robin acknowledges that “of course the Vikings were capable of violence as well”. When going into battle they often used small groups of Viking mercenaries also known as “berserkers”. These elite warriors were a kind of Special Air Service or SAS for the Middle Ages – albeit far less organised – who would strike fear into their foes with their ferociousness and disregard for their own lives.
However one must see Viking aggression within the context of the European Middle Ages, one of the bloodiest periods in human history. Were Vikings any more violent than anyone else during this time? Probably not. Directly after the Viking demise, negative portrayals of Vikings have come mostly from the point of view of Christian monks who labelled them as one-dimensional savage heathens that needed to be converted to Christianity. Norwegian historian Kim Hjardar, author of the book Vikings At War points out that Viking aggression was “matched or exceeded by other groups during this period” citing the genocidal actions of the Christian Emperor Charlemagne as an example:
“In the ‘Massacre of Verden’ in AD 782 his army murdered more than 4,500 Saxons who had been given to him by an ally. This was violence at its most stark. And yet, because Charlemagne had a Christian biographer writing a favorable account of his life, was killing pagans and was seen as ‘father of the church’, his place in history was secure.”
Hijacking Viking heritage
As keen and committed students of medieval history, Robin and his fellow Viking LARPers know all these things. So how and why do far-right groups like the NRM continue to use Viking symbols in the face of widely accepted assertions about Vikings made by respected historians, and hard facts ascertained from archaeological sites using the latest technology, that all point to a much more multicultural and peaceful group of people than the classic perception of Vikings would have us believe?
The 1800s were a time of rampant colonialism by European powers. Sweden looked across the waters to smaller nations with similar populations such as Holland and Belgium, and debated if the Swedes should also try to colonise far-away parts of the world, or risk being left behind. Nationalism was a growing trend across the continent as European countries used it to justify their invasions of territories in Africa and the Middle East, and so at the same time, Swedish nationalism also began to rise. One common way for nationalists to unite the Swedes was to tap into a romanticised version of their Viking ancestors, who themselves had successfully invaded and colonised many parts of Europe. This image of Vikings was also when one of the most famous misconceptions, that they had horns on their helmets, became a widespread notion. This idea was primarily due to costume designer Carl Emil Doepler who decided to put horns on the helmets of characters in the 1876 performance of Wagner’s classic Norse opera Der Ring des Nibelungen.
In her paper: The Invention of the Viking Horned Helmet, academic Roberta Frank from Yale University, connects Nordic nationalism to this revised image of who and what the Vikings were:
“Until the viking age was invented, there was no horned-helmeted viking, and vice versa: the two go together like Easter and bonnet. A ‘viking age’ is first mentioned in 1873, in two independent Danish and Swedish articles; the period gets its first monumental write-up in Johannes Steenstrup’s four-volume Norman-nerne (Normannerne And Danelag) published between 1876 and 1882. Perhaps only an expansionist, empire-building era could have thought up an age that began with naval attacks on foreign shores and ended when these attacks ceased. The horned viking helmet was just one of countless colourful items in the armoury of a fin-de-siecle Europe fascinated by war and its tools.”
Moving onto the 1930s and ’40s, German Nazis continued to perpetuate these themes, using Viking iconography and images as part of their propaganda to create the historic notion of an all-conquering, ethnically pure group of powerful Germanic warriors. This portrayal dovetailed perfectly with Hitler’s war-mongering and genocidal agenda.
Flash forward to modern-day Sweden, 140 odd years after Scandinavian nationalists reimagined the Vikings, and it is the NRM, who also see themselves in a perpetual state of war against Jews, Muslim immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees, that are still tapping into that now debunked concept of the Viking age, by claiming the “Tyr Rune” symbol as their own.
My hope is that this film, and the story of Robin’s quest to bravely confront an NRM leader, will help to dispel these misconceptions about Vikings and thereby take away a powerful propaganda tool from white supremacists, by making that tool impotent and redundant. If people can understand how utterly ridiculous it is for racists to use a Viking symbol as their main logo, then perhaps potential new recruits will begin to question and pick apart other aspects of the NRM’s world view and ideology. Neo-Nazis should not be allowed to misrepresent Nordic history and hijack Viking heritage.