I met Ingvar Kamprad, the Ikea founder who died on Saturday at 91, just once.
It was in August 2010 at Ikea’s head office, in the small town of Almhult, Sweden. (The address is 1 Ikea Street.) I was writing a book about his closest friend, Otto Ullman — a Jewish refugee from Austria hired as a farmhand by the Kamprad family during the war — and had asked for a meeting. Once we’d introduced ourselves Mr. Kamprad took hold of me by the waist, as if we were on the dance floor and he wanted to check out my figure. Then we sat down, my recorder went on, and an interview of two and a half hours began.
It is hard to overstate the size of Mr. Kamprad’s empire. Stepping off the train at the Almhult station, you have two pedestrian bridges to choose from: One takes you into the town itself, with a population of around 10,000; the other takes you to Ikea — or, to be more precise, to the Ikea Hotel, Ikea Tillsammans (a cultural center), the Ikea Museum and the Ikea Test Lab, along with a sprawling complex of corporate departments. And while most of the world knows Ikea solely for its inexpensive furniture and giant blue stores, in Sweden its image is inextricable from the life of Ingvar Kamprad. In the museum, design history intermingles with family snapshots.
As with the bridges at Almhult, there are also two ways into the Ikea story. One is uplifting and inspirational: A young man from a modest background, but with more than the usual dose of business acumen, builds an empire. Although the hero of the story makes the occasional mistake, that is precisely what makes him human and such a treasured symbol of Swedishness.
The other story leads from Mr. Kamprad’s childhood and adolescence in a Hitler-loving family, Germans who had immigrated from the Sudetenland, in Czechoslovakia, where both his paternal grandmother and his father were Nazis; his long-lasting commitment to the Swedish fascist movement; and his membership, during World War II, in Sweden’s Nazi party, Swedish Socialist Unity. Both stories are equally true.
The 1990s brought two major news reports pointing to Mr. Kamprad’s involvement in the Swedish Nazi party and his lasting affinity for Per Engdahl, who led the country’s anti-Semitic fascist movement after the war. The articles attracted attention at the time, but the whole thing blew over quickly. So strong was the Ikea brand that nothing seemed able to affect it.
But after my interview with Mr. Kamprad, I continued to investigate — and there proved to be more. In the Swedish Security Service’s archive, I found his file from 1943, labeled “Memorandum concerning: Nazi” and stamped “secret” in red letters.
Ingvar Kamprad, then 17 years old, was Member No. 4,014 of Socialist Unity, the country’s leading far-right party during the war (Sweden remained neutral during the conflict, but pro-Nazi sentiment remained high). Sweden’s general security service had apparently kept him under surveillance for at least eight months, confiscating and reading his correspondence.
In November 1942 he wrote that he had recruited “quite a few comrades” to the party and missed no opportunity to work for the movement. The memorandum about his correspondence reached the Sixth Division of the Stockholm police on July 6, 1943. Six days later Mr. Kamprad sent an application to the county administrative office in Vaxjo to register his new company, Ikea.
In the immediate postwar years, people weren’t interested in revisiting these stories; maybe they still aren’t. Mr. Kamprad has come to symbolize the driven Swedish entrepreneur, the artful trend spotter, the strong, enthusiastic leader — the man who gives the consuming masses what the masses yearn for. He is a role model as well as a reflection of the Swedish image. Ikea markets Sweden, which in its turn markets Ikea, and so nation and company become images of each other, while their respective self-images expand.
When I published the new information in my book about Mr. Kamprad and his Jewish friend in 2011, news organizations around the world picked up the story. It took a month for Ikea to respond, and when it did it was by way of a $51 million donation to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, the single-largest donation in the agency’s history. The bad news paled in the light of this huge gift.
Seven years later, Sweden still hasn’t answered the question: Who was Ingvar Kamprad? How could he remain loyal to the fascist leader and Holocaust denier Per Engdahl, belong to a Nazi party and, at the same time, be so fond of his Jewish friend, Otto Ullman? Otto, whose parents were murdered in Auschwitz?
When I repeatedly asked Mr. Kamprad for an answer in my interview with him, I finally received a shocking reply: “There’s no contradiction as far as I’m concerned. Per Engdahl was a great man, and I’ll maintain that as long as I live.”
Since my interview in 2010, neither I nor any other journalist has had an opportunity to ask about Mr. Kamprad’s membership in Socialist Unity or his tribute to Engdahl. The Ikea museum mentions that Ingvar’s grandmother was very close to her grandson, and that she saw Hitler as Germany’s future. That is all.
Ingvar Kamprad’s image and Sweden’s continue to reflect each other: without shadows, without disgrace, and without any ambition to come to terms with their past.
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