“What you each have in common,” said Per Ahlmark to a hall filled with several dozen of his friends from the Swedish Liberal Party, intelligentsia and media, invited to a January 2009 Stockholm conference celebrating his 70th birthday, “is that you are all defenders of democracy and freedom, enemies of totalitarianism and tyranny, and supporters of Israel. Of course, you also happen to be the only public figures in Sweden who think like this.”
When my friend Per passed away in June, at the age of 79, the free world lost an eminent writer, poet and pro-democracy activist, who served Sweden in the 1970s as deputy prime minister and head of its Liberal Party. The organization that I direct, United Nations Watch, lost its European co-chair; and Israel and the Jewish people lost one of their most devoted defenders.
“The best lack all conviction,” wrote Yeats, “while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” With Per Ahlmark, however, it was the exact opposite. Per stood out brilliantly for the passion of his convictions, and for his extraordinary courage. In a country that, in his words, “did next to nothing to contribute to the defeat of Nazism and Communism,” Per swam against the tide. In his charismatic presence, one immediately felt his sense of purpose and the force of his moral commitments; he was part Churchill, part prophet Jeremiah.
Over five decades, Per Ahlmark was a singular voice of moral clarity against not only tyrants and totalitarians who threatened life, liberty, and democracy, but also against their fellow travelers in Sweden and throughout the West.
This “treason of intellectuals,” he argued, was committed not just by lesser-known writers or thinkers, but by leading personalities such as prime ministers and other cabinet ministers, ambassadors, newspaper editors-in-chief and high-profile scholars.
Seduced by radical politics, they turned into apologists for Communist repression – for Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba, even Pol Pot’s Cambodia. In Sweden alone, Per showed, these fellow travelers published thousands of articles and hundreds of books and pamphlets to “explain” third world dictators or even terrorism against the West and Jews.
These intellectuals accepted dictatorship in faraway lands out of an inverted racism: oppression that they would never tolerate in Sweden was somehow acceptable for others. “The totalitarian temptation,” he wrote, “is one of the saddest human follies of the last century.”
For Per, history revealed three empirical rules that proved why liberal democracy was vital for all of humanity. First, “no democracy has ever gone to war against another democracy.” Second, democracies rarely commit genocide or mass murder against others or their own. Third, “famine has never occurred in a democracy.” Why not? “The crucial factor is freedom,” wrote Per. “Where there is an active opposition and a free press, governments cannot neglect tens of thousands of people starving to death.”
As a believer in freedom and democracy, Per became one of the early leaders of UN Watch, the first non-governmental organization dedicated to monitoring the world body. In contrast to his compatriots like Hans Blix, Carl Bildt and Jan Eliasson, he refused to be silent when the UN betrayed its own values. “Why is it,” he wrote in a 2005 op-ed, “that tyrannies like Cuba, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe are members of the UN’s Human Rights Commission?”
As an enemy of fascism, he was an early opponent of Iraq’s Ba’athist dictator Saddam Hussein. After France built a nuclear reactor for the mass murderer, Per was one of the few in Europe who, in his words, “openly, repeatedly and wholeheartedly” defended Israel’s 1981 destruction of that death machine. Only a decade later, when the US, Britain, France and 25 other countries sent 670,000 troops into the 1991 Gulf War with Saddam, did the free world understand why.
Per was equally prescient on Iran.
“What sort of world is imaginable,” he asked the UN Watch board in October 1995, “if the mullahs get hold of the most devastating weapons?” He spoke of an intuition – that “this might be the most acute danger to humankind that we have faced since the Cold War.”
What made Per exceptional, perhaps above all else, was that he was one of the few non-Jewish members of his generation who devoted much of his life to fighting antisemitism.
In the early 1970s, he raised international awareness of Soviet repression of Jews and Jewish life.
In a 1972 photo, Per is seen carrying a torch at a Stockholm rally to protest the murder by Palestinian terrorists of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.
in 1983, he founded the Swedish Committee Against Anti-Semitism, whose work was instrumental in ensuring the closure of one of the world’s most virulently antisemitic radio stations, broadcasting from Sweden. Per would go on to play a vital role in convincing the Swedish government to convene the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust in 2000.
“The astonishing thing with antisemitism is its flexibility,” wrote Per. “It cannot change its goal of attacking the Jews. But it can change its face, its strategy and part of its vocabulary.” In a 2002 address to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, Per noted that as Israel has become “the center of identity and source of pride and protection for most Jews, it is Zionism which has become the target and object of slander as a racist ideology.”
Per saw how “the old-new antisemitism has again become a plague.” Its “breakthrough” was the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. “That war did not create antisemitism,” Per told a McGill University conference in 1992, “but it did release it. It gave the Jew-haters a feeling that now they could go public again, or launch their terror.” In Europe, he noted, “bombs have been thrown at synagogues, Jewish schools and institutions. Jews and Jewish shops and restaurants have been attacked by extremists of different political colors. Again, Jewish cemeteries are being desecrated. This has happened in many European cities. Jews are killed or frightened just because they are Jews.”
Sadly, since Per wrote those words 25 years ago, attacks on Jews across Europe have only increased.
Per’s values were not found only on paper. They were set by his personal example, which radiated warm friendship, modesty and kindness. I had the privilege to know him after I joined UN Watch as director in 2004. I was only a few years out of law school, but Per always treated me with great respect. He was enormously supportive of our work, and would often write, call and visit us in Geneva to encourage us.
When we would invite him to speak at the United Nations, Per would always caution me that his remarks would be candid and sharp. I would smile and say that we expect nothing less.
If only the UN and its member nations heard more of Per Ahlmark’s righteous words – and listened – the world would be a much better place. The writer is executive director of UN Watch. A Swedish version of this article appeared in the magazine
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