Lost in Translation: A Case Study of a Public Debate on Freedom of Expression and a Neo-Nazi Rally

Gareth Thompson. Journal of Public Relations Research. Volume 29, Issue 1, 2017.


The United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 2106 on 21 December 1965, calling on all Member States to take action to prevent all forms of racism. Article 4b stipulates that all Member States:

Shall declare illegal and prohibit organizations, and also organized and all other propaganda activities, which promote and incite racial discrimination, and shall recognize participation in such organizations or activities as an offence punishable by law. (Sohn, 1986)

The Resolution came into force on 4 January 1969 and was ratified by Sweden in 1971. However, Sweden has not instituted any legal measures in accordance with Article 4b to fulfill its obligations under this Resolution, and over the years this has led to criticism of Sweden and critical voices being raised within Sweden (United Nations Association of Sweden, 2018). The official Swedish position is that Sweden has already fulfilled its obligations concerning this issue, referring to a 1948 change in Sweden’s Penal Code concerning ‘agitation against an ethnic or national group’ (SOU, 2000:88). This law constitutes a limitation on freedom of speech and has been revised several times since 1948 in pace with the development of racist practices in contemporary Swedish society. Nevertheless, the law does not prohibit racist organizations, only expressions of racism, such as hate speech. However, racist practices change over time and are expressed in a wide variety of ways, and there are a variety of arenas and channels for distributing them. These practices consist of speeches at rallies, Internet postings, radio broadcasts, written texts on flyers, websites, books, esthetics in the form of symbols, clothing and salutes, and so on. Thus, in legal terms, these ought to be understood as expressions of racist practices intended to be disseminated to a wider audience, which are forbidden by the 1948 change in the Penal Code.

Naturally, racist practices entail disagreement between various actors, ranging from the alleged offender to the target groups, the police, the prosecutors and not least public opinion. During the 1990s, there was an ongoing debate in Sweden concerning how to interpret the law on agitation against an ethnic or national group. During that period, Sweden faced growing activism within right-wing extremist and white supremacy milieus, which challenged the law enforcement authorities and created uncertainty in how to enforce the law in the face of open neo-Nazi rallies, including people wearing clothes marked with various symbols clearly connected to Nazi Germany (Brå, 2001). This period came to a partial end in June 1996, when Sweden’s Supreme Court found a teenager guilty of breaking the law by bearing Nazi symbols in public, doing the Hitler salute, and expressing clearly anti-Semitic ideas as well as extreme racism (Government Bill 2001/02:59, 2001). This verdict has since served as a precedent for situations associated with white supremacy milieus.

The late 1990s saw an outbreak of violence within these milieus, and several leaders were imprisoned. At the beginning of the new millennium, these milieus were pushed back and public attention came to be focused on the rise of jihadist extremism (Lööw, 2015). During this period, white supremacy milieus reorganized and were more or less off the radar until 2013, when the most militant part of these milieus, an organization called the Swedish Resistance Movement (since 2014, the Nordic Resistance Movement or NRM) went on a rampage at an anti-racist gathering in Stockholm. Since that clash, the NRM has grown to become the largest hub for neo-Nazis in the Nordic countries and has made itself publicly known through its regular, provocative gatherings, social events, rallies, website messages and posts on social media. Some NRM members have also been found guilty and sentenced to jail terms for planting bombs close to their adversaries and at the living quarters of asylum seekers. After these actions, the NRM became not only well known to the broader public, but also started causing dissonance between the public view of how the police should handle them and how the police saw the matter. The NRM had changed their rhetoric, clothing, symbols and general esthetics to such a degree that, according to the police and prosecutors, the rulings from the 1990s could no longer be seen as precedential.

This dissonance came to some sort of a head when the NRM applied for permission to march in central Gothenburg on 30 September 2017. The NRM had made their organization well known among the general public as an aggressive National Socialist party, whose aim was to abolish the Swedish constitution and to create a Nordic National Socialist state (Mattsson, 2018). They had successfully provoked the democratic system on several previous occasions, in particular by applying for permission to march in several different cities in Sweden, Finland and Norway simultaneously. The march in Gothenburg was intended to be the NRM’s biggest ever, and they estimated there would be more than 1,000 participants. The slogan for the march was that they had become a mass movement. The march was to take place in connection with the Gothenburg Book Fair, which was experiencing its own difficulties over a debate on whether they should allow a right-wing extremist publishing house and newspaper to exhibit. The issue of the exhibition at the Book Fair had sparked an ongoing debate, lasting more than a year, concerning freedom of speech and zero tolerance for hate speech. This heated situation was carefully chosen by the NRM to get attention and further provoke Sweden’s social institutions? They succeeded in doing both these things: there was a heated public debate about the intolerable situation of allowing a Nazi rally in the heart of Gothenburg on the same day as the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.

Because Sweden’s constitution requires that a formal application be submitted to the police to get permission for a public gathering, the NRM did so. The police came to the conclusion that the NRM march and rally met all the requirements for being granted permission. The public debate, as it played out in the editorial pages of Sweden’s leading newspapers, thought differently. With reference to the UN ban on racist organizations, the idea that the police had used better judgement in the past, and a call for a general moral mobilization against neo-Nazism in Swedish society, leading journalists from three of the biggest newspapers in Sweden accused the police of not doing their job and of jeopardizing democracy in Swedish society. The police, on the other hand, defended their decision, claiming that they were defending democracy. This article thus presents a case study of the dilemma that emerges when freedom of speech clashes with hate speech and it becomes difficult to choose sides.

Purpose and Research Questions

The purpose of the present study was to scrutinize the arguments put forward by leading Swedish journalists against the actions of the Swedish Police Authority after they gave the NRM, an outspoken Nazi organization, permission to march in central Gothenburg in the fall of 2017. In addition, the study looks at the Swedish Police Authority and its logic and reasoning in this situation. This is not the first debate of its kind to occur in Sweden; on the contrary, this debate has recurred regularly since the end of the 1980s. However, this time the police were open about their own reluctance to grant permission for a march by an outspoken, hate-mongering Nazi organization involving individuals who had repeatedly committed crimes of agitation against an ethnic or national group. The focus of the present study is to shed light on the underlying reasons why Swedish society seems to fall short of its commitment to push back Nazi organizations and violent racist groups, and the limitations on how occurs in practice. Even if the debate during this particular event was short-lived, heated and generally not conducted eye to eye, it provided a unique opportunity to follow the debate and argumentation offered concerning a specific dilemma. The debate contributes to our understanding of a social practice in which society in general, and the National Socialist movement in particular, tried to push their respective rationales for limitations on freedom of speech on the one hand, and the right to hold public gatherings on the other. Moreover, it improves our understanding of what discursive orders structure the logic underlying public debates on extreme racism and neo-Nazism.

The research questions that guided this study are:

  1. In the debate over freedom of speech, how was the dilemma articulated by the journalists?
  2. What arguments did the police commissioners in charge put forward regarding their decision to grant NMR permission to march?
  3. How can the clash between freedom of speech and neo-Nazi hate speech be discursively understood and interpreted?

Mapping the Field

This study was not conducted in the field of legal research, but within the tradition of the discursive analysis of how racism can be manifested within a society’s language and discursive practices.

Critical studies of racism using multi-disciplinary approaches to reveal discursive practices that structure the racist ideas hidden in language have been conducted for over 25 years (van Dijk, 1992, 1999). One of the main aims of the present study was to investigate how racism is shaping societies, not only from extreme positions, but in the form of intellectual artifacts integrated into the society which are reproduced through discursive practices. Doane (2006) points out that racism is an integral phenomenon in society that cannot be understood as something that occurred in the past or in particular groups or movements. Doane states:

Racial discourse does not occur in a vacuum: it is shaped by the changing structure of racial conflict and racial ideologies in the larger society. (p. 257)

Consequently, it is difficult to argue that the open and aggressive racism expressed by neo-Nazis, right-wing extremists and similar groups can be investigated as a deviation from the society at large. Rather, it ought to be investigated from the perspective of how these groups are related to or relate to the society at large. In Brake’s (1974) classic study on the skinhead movements, he suggests that the core values that make up the skinheads’ subcultural position, in terms of its expressions, tastes, esthetics, etc., are represented in all classes and groups of society. What makes the skinheads culturally deviant is their need to be true to their ideals? And that this is accomplished through the extensive use of violence perpetrated on their claimed enemies. It is, in other words, the behavior that is deviant, not their racist minds. Inspired by Blake, Johansson, Andreasson, and Mattsson (2017) examined how subcultures such as the skinhead movement can merge into the mainstream. They concluded that:

In a similar vein, the core values and sentiments of skinhead and right-wing subcultures—xenophobia and nationalism—are currently becoming part of the political culture in many European countries. At the same time, xenophobia and nationalism are often framed in terms of racism and, thereby, excluded from the public culture. (p. 8)

It is well known that, in order to shape their identity, subcultures need to put up some form of resistance to mainstream society. As we can see from the previous research, this does not mean that racism as it is expressed in its subcultural form is all that different from the racism that is part of the dominant discursive practices in the society at large. It could even be argued that society makes use of extremists and extreme expressions of racism to mitigate their awareness of prevalent racist discourses within the society. Swedish society has been challenged by neo-Nazi and white supremacy groups since the end of WWII, but this has caused problems and concerns mainly since the 1980s, not least in relation to legislation (Brå, 2001). During the 1990s, the Swedish neo-Nazi movement caused significant challenges for the society in general, and the police in particular. The combination of constant hate speech and ostentatious acts of violence, including several murders, called for firm action. It became clear that their violent acts also amplified the need to deal with their hate speech, as it was evident to the public that there were a connection between their speeches and their acts. After the turn of the millennium, the violence waned, in particular as a consequence of many of the movement’s leaders serving time in prison or becoming disengaged from the movement. Less attention was given to the movement in public debate then, and this was understood as the movement having been curbed. In reality, the biggest right-wing extremist and neo-Nazi manifestations in Sweden took place during this period, but public attention was now focused on violent jihadists. Consequently, the violence among neo-Nazis slipped off the radar, and so did political interest in dealing with hate speech. During the same period, we saw a steady growth in populist, far-right movements, which has also contributed to a different focus on what ought to be understood as right-wing extremism (Lodenius & Larsson, 1994; Lööw, 1999, 2004, 2015).

To conclude this section, it is important to bear in mind that this study was undertaken in a particular national context, i.e. Sweden, which is perceived as colorblind, and where ideas about whiteness and race are seldom deemed acceptable in public debate (Hübinette, Hörnfeldt, Farahani, & Rosales, 2012). According to Hübinette, this colorblindness is likely to miss nuances of racism, and instead focus on the manifest, outspoken racism of the race ideological domains, making the political perception of racism black or white. Ahmed (2004) provides a theoretical concept for critically examining the colorblindness among the dominate white population. She argues that racist acts and expressions are not understood as racism by the actors for to two main reasons: firstly, racist individuals do not understand that they are racist; and secondly, because whiteness is invisible to those who are understood as white. However, whiteness should not be understood as a fixed category or a stable pattern. Webster (2008, p. 296) states that: ‘Whiteness is fluid and contingent rather than an essential or reified category’. Webster goes on to claim that the dominance position created by the implicitness of whiteness is understood as neutral or normal. Nonetheless, whiteness has to be created discursively in relation to social practice. In other words, whiteness is not based on an ontological category of ethnicity but, as Ware and Back (2002) argue, whiteness is produced by discursive assertions of power and norms that ultimately strive to neutralize the relationship between ethnicity and power. In an outspoken anti-racist society like Sweden that is colorblind, it is likely, as Ahmed (2004) puts it, that there is no connection between the anti-racism policies produced and anti-racism political statements—in other words, no connection between what is said and what is done.


To orient the reader, some basic, brief information about the national context is given here. According to Swedish law on public gatherings such as marches, demonstrations, and rallies, the organizer is required to apply for permission from the local police authority. It is understood that the police will give permission, as public gathering is one arena covered by Sweden’s constitutional right to exercise freedom of expression. The only grounds for the police to decline permission are if it is anticipated that the gathering will seriously jeopardize public safety or order. If the requirements in the law are met, it is the duty of the police to ensure that the gathering can be held in order to safeguard the organizer’s right to freedom of expression. Even if an organizer were to decide to hold a public gathering without asking for permission, the police would still be required to ensure freedom of expression and protect the gathering, again unless it could be deemed to seriously jeopardize public safety or order. The organizer in the latter case may be fined afterward for not having sought permission, but the police are not authorized to obstruct a demonstration for reasons other than safety and public order. It should also be understood that hate speech in itself is not enough to either decline permission or to interrupt a meeting, unless it may be deemed to constitute a serious threat to public order. Hate speech can only be prosecuted retrospectively, and a prior conviction for hate speech does not necessarily constitute a basis for declining permission to hold future public gatherings.

To further help the reader understand the context, there is a need for some basic information about the newspapers that have been analyzed in the study and why they were selected: Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet and Göteborgs Posten. By way of reference, the largest newspaper in Sweden at the time of the study, measured in circulation, is the free paper Metro, which has a circulation of 525,000 copies daily. Dagens Nyheter is an independent, nationwide politically liberal newspaper with a circulation of 347,000 copies per day. Svenska Dagbladet is an independent, nationwide politically conservative newspaper with a circulation of 193,500 copies per day. Göteborgs Posten is an independent, politically liberal local newspaper for western Sweden with a circulation of 242,700 copies per day. All three newspapers should be understood as important voices of opinion in Sweden, due not only to their circulation size, but also to their political and cultural heritage and presence. Dagens Nyheter was founded in 1864, Svenska Dagbladet in 1884 and Göteborgs Posten in 1813, and in this sense, they have been part of the public political discourse in Sweden since before the introduction of democracy and are still at the center of Sweden’s political debate. How the event was reported on television and radio was of less interest for this study, since those reports did not take a stand on the matter; they merely reported the event neutrally. Blogs and social media discussions were not included for methodological reasons. It is difficult to determine whether views in blogs and on social media are influential, and it would require a much more technically complex sampling of data. The three selected newspapers are key platforms for anyone who wants to enter into public debate in Sweden. However, it is not meaningful for the present study to try to define how important they are in relation to other platforms. Nevertheless, the other platforms in printed media are either local/regional (and thus did not cover the event in Gothenburg) or are tabloids.

The journalists included in this study were either political or cultural editors of one of these newspapers and thus strong representatives of the liberal or conservative stance of their newspaper. Other journalists included were either researchers who chose to participate in the debate, or individuals representing Sweden’s Jewish community.

Method and Methodology

The study was guided by Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). CDA, which is rooted in critical realism, divides reality into three levels: the textual level, which refers to texts or semiotic expressions, both verbal and non-verbal; the level of discursive practices, which concerns how texts are structured in accordance with dominant ideological influences and discursive orders; and the social practices level, which constitutes how, through discursive practices, issues may or may not be talked about in a specific social setting. However, changes in discursive practices—i.e. shifts from one discursive order to another, which is termed re-contextualization—constitute these social practices and thus change how issues will be talked about. Therefore, social and discursive practices are both constituted by and constitute each other (Fairclough, 1992, 2010; Fairclough & Fairclough, 2012).

The study followed CDA in the sense that the opinions put forward in the three leading newspapers were analyzed on a textual level, i.e. we searched for the manifest textual content (Fairclough, 1992).

The range of publication dates for the selected articles was between 1 August and 15 October 2017. This period covered the intense phase of the debate, from the point at which the police’s decision became publicly known until the march was over. The chosen articles were either editorials, op-eds or published in the culture section of one of the newspapers. All articles that met these criteria, fell within the date range, and were published in one of the three newspapers were analyzed. A total of 19 articles were included. They were written by opinion piece editors, researchers, culture critics or representatives of the Jewish community, and they were chosen based on the criterion that their voice in the debate was anticipated to represent more than their own personal views. This work helped us answer the first research question.

Furthermore, four police officers (commissioners) in charge of the decision to allow the NRM’s demonstration and of planning police tactics during the demonstration were interviewed. These interviews were guided by a semi-structured approach that focused on the police officer’s own deliberations as well as how they related to the criticism put forward in the newspapers. The informants were given time to reflect, allowing them to construct a chronological narrative (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009). Naturally in this context, extracting information from informants by posing apt questions is not useful, as such statements will always be sanitized (Eriksson-Zetterquist & Ahrne, 2015; Pink, 2009). Therefore, the informants were not interrupted, and no questions were forced on them. Two interviews were conducted before the demonstration with the two commanding police officers, and two more were conducted afterward: one follow-up interview and another interview with a police officer with particular responsibility for detecting hate crimes. Each interview lasted from about one to one and a half hours. Thereafter, an additional follow-up interview was conducted with one of the commanding officers which lasted 20 min. All interviews were conducted individually and audio-recorded. All recordings were then transcribed verbatim and the transcripts constituted the data. The data were first analyzed to identify the manifest textual content—i.e. how did the informants verbally express their main arguments—thereby answering the second research question. Based on the manifest textual content of the newspaper articles and the police informants, following the structure of CDA, the analysis moved on to the discursive practices (Fairclough, 1992). Discursive practices reveal how texts are structured by hegemonic ideological influences, often referred to as discursive orders, and these discursive orders were deconstructed at this stage of the analysis. Finally, the analysis was concluded by interpreting the gap between the discursive orders in operation, and by providing a rationale for the clash between the police’s reasoning and the public debate.

Presenting the Results


The results are presented in three sections. The first section, in line with CDA, investigates the manifest textual content of the public debate, i.e. what dominant arguments were put forward in the debate. In the second section, the manifest textual content of the four police commissioners’ interview transcripts were investigated in the same manner. In the third section, the discursive practices were analyzed, looking for discursive orders that added tension to the debate, provided it with meaning and direction, positioned the event in a broader picture, and reflected on contemporary society. The article concludes with a discussion.

The Manifest Textual Content of the Public Debate

Public debate on the Swedish Police Authority’s decision to allow the NRM to demonstrate started shortly after the decision was made and lasted until a few weeks after the demonstration was over. In the debate, we note that the overall opinion was that the police had failed to do their job. Few attempts were made to understand the reasoning within the police authority, but there was quite a bit of consensus around the idea that the police had done the wrong thing. Using different arguments and citing different reasons, the police were blamed for giving the NRM permission to march in central Gothenburg.

The fact that the Swedish police have failed once again in putting limits on the NRM is incomprehensible and unacceptable. A democracy cannot put up resistance against Nazism unless there is absolutely zero tolerance for even the smallest encroachment. If one [the police] doesn’t react to quite open provocations—what hope remains then … (Pallas, 2017, 17 September).

Nonetheless, the debate was informed about the nature of the Swedish constitution, i.e. even neo-Nazi organizations are allowed to march.

Surely people will be upset by their symbols and speeches, but democracy does not guarantee the right not to be upset (which would be impossible to implement anyway) … Democracy is after all not a repressive system but based on values and convictions (Mudde, 2017, 22 September)

So in the debate, giving permission was not seen as a wrongful act by the police per se—which was the point of departure of the debate—in the sense that the police ought to have stopped the NRM from marching at all. The main focus of the debate was on finding a rationale for the police to act differently, insinuating that the police had been reluctant to do what they did, or at least they had been reluctant with regard to their understanding of the consequences of their decision.

The dominant argument put forward was that the police could have given permission for the demonstration at a different, less attractive site. There were also upset voices raised because the march coincided with the Jewish religious holiday of Yom Kippur, and because the NRM had been routed, by the police, to pass by two blocks from the Great Synagogue in Gothenburg.

This year, 30th September is the most holy of all Jewish holidays; it is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. A day when many Jews gather in the synagogue. On this very day, the police have decided that the Nazis, the Nordic Resistance Movement, are allowed to march through Gothenburg only a stone’s throw away from the synagogue … during the Holocaust it was common practice for the Nazis to commit their atrocities on the most important days in the Jewish calendar (Verständig & Stutzinsky, 2017, 11 September)

Most of the opinions put forward acknowledged the NRM’s right to have its march, but all were convinced that the police could have routed the march more or less wherever they wished. In other words, the police were accused of being ignorant and perhaps also lazy, by not routing the march outside of the central area.

It is within the power and jurisdiction of the police to regulate demonstrations so as to minimize disturbance of public order. The police are not to pass laws, but enforce them … There is great scope for the police to maneuver within the law to redirect demonstrations … This is what the Gothenburg police failed to do (Cwejman, 2017, 7 September).

It would seem that opinion shapers had convinced themselves and each other that the police had acted more firmly against the Nazis during the 1990s, and an anecdote from a Nazi rally in the city of Lund in 1996 was frequently referred to. The background to this anecdote is an old tradition among nationalists and right-wing extremists to lay flowers at the base of the statue of King Karl XII in Lund on the anniversary of his death: November 30. The neo-Nazis picked up this tradition during the 1990s in both Lund and Stockholm, resulting in riots every November 30 during that decade.

In Lund, there was a wise police commissioner. When the Nazis applied to have a demonstration [in Lund] it was granted. However, the site designated was an abandoned football pitch on the outskirts of town. There the Nazis could not do any harm and, to my knowledge, they got bored. Peace was restored. The police had done their duty (Jeppsson, 2017, 21 September).

Similar examples from the past were used in the debate but sources were seldom checked.

White Aryan Resistance [a neo-Nazi organization in Sweden during the 1990s] were directed to hold their demonstration on the dockside in front of Feskekörka [a local and less central facility, a fish market, in Gothenburg] … [during the 1990s]. Hence it is not uncommon or new that the police can stop high risk demonstrations constituting a threat to public order (Cwejman, 2017, 18 September).

The idea of firmer and proper handling by the police during the 1990s was also sustained on a more general level.

After the extremely violent riots in Stockholm in 1991 [by the neo-Nazi movement] the police tactics started to change—the marches where gone [by police decision]—now only demonstrations standing still were permitted at a particular site enclosed by major [police] barriers (Lööw, 2017, 17 September).

The overall impression, in the debate, is that the police were doing less than they could, and thereby less than they should. It was even suggested that the police were neglecting to prosecute crimes, as the mere presence of the NRM could be seen as violating the law prohibiting agitation against an ethnic or national group.

Nord [police commissioner] is very close to dereliction of his duty, as he is avoiding the prosecution of suspected crimes. However, even worse is that he seems to be indifferent to the horror experienced by those who are subject to the NRM’s hate and who desire police protection. He has accepted the Nazis as part of the public and believes it is the duty of the police to safeguard their right to be there … (Jonsson, 2017, 19 September).

The textual content is quite simple: it concludes that the police acted wrongly. This is based on the same main argument, namely that the law on public order gives the police the ability to impose substantial limitations. The explanations for why the police acted as they did were not very clear, but in general it was understood as some kind of reluctance on the part of the police force. There were few attempt to question the legislation, nor were there any attempts to understand whether there were any other underlying reasons for the police’s actions. The general idea was that, some 25 years ago, the police were better prepared for cases such as these. There was also an underlying line of reasoning claiming that Nazism is in the process of being normalized in Swedish society, and that this explains why the police acted in this particular way. From an analytical point of view, it becomes clear that the opinion shapers did not see, or at least refrained from discussing, the dilemma of freedom of speech in relation to the anticipated hate speech from the neo-Nazis. As we can see, they were eager to instruct the police to silence the neo-Nazis by finding means for them to do so within the legislation. A different attitude might be expected if the question had been posed on a more general level, asking for example whether the Swedish Police Authority should be the judges of what political messages are allowed at what sites and at what times. As shown, the debate did not question that neo-Nazis were entitled to freedom of speech. But through a creative application of the legislation, it was thought that they could have been silenced, in particular by providing unattractive times or places for their marches, or as Gelotte (2017, 15 August) puts it:

… Götaplatsen and Avenyn [central and well know public spaces in Gothenburg] are public spaces and everybody has the right to demonstrate there. There is, however, no law that entitles the Nordic Resistance Movement to access these sites. Those places are the parlor of Gothenburg and Nazis have no business there. We do not have to let them in.

The logic becomes clear here: the constitution permits everybody to exercise freedom of speech. But if you are a neo-Nazi, there ought to be a special law that permits you to demonstrate in central Gothenburg. But since there is no such law, you should be pushed out in some way. This should be understood as a reverse burden of proof.

The Manifest Textual Content of the Interviews with the Police Officers

The semi-structured interviews with the four police officers revealed four foci. The first was their perception of the NRM, and the second concerned how they interpreted their role and authority in relation to the NRM’s application to hold a march. The third focus concerned how they related to the public debate, and the fourth concerned their general tactics in relation to the NRM.

Because it was suggested in the public debate that the police did not realize what kind of an organization the NRM is, it was important to discover how the police actually described the NRM.

I would describe them as a rather well-structured organization … out on the very extreme right. They are outspoken National Socialists … They are even more … racially ideological … orthodox … than how I see Nazi Germany. (Informant 1)

Well … Nordic res … I’m colorblind in this matter … As long as they stay within the limits of the law, so to speak … [then] I view them like those [organizations] out on the extreme left flank. My job is to facilitate [the NRM’s application]. At first they had asked for permission to hold their demonstration at a site that was already occupied. Therefore, we helped them find a new one. (Informant 2)

Two different perspectives on the NRM are found in the interviews. The first one describes them as an extreme National Socialist organization that wants to overthrow the constitution. In the second one, we find a neutral tone toward the NRM. They are defined in the same terms as the extreme left. The police officers did not see any particular reason to hold a view on the NRM, as long as they obeyed the law. This becomes somewhat problematic given that the NRM’s basic ideological premise is agitation against an ethnic or national group. On the other hand, the police were quite concerned about the growing activism within the NRM, as well as the messages the group were spreading, and their own efforts to prosecute suspected crimes. There appears to have been a misunderstanding in the debate, according to the police. Claims that the police could have moved the demonstration or even prohibited it were related to a particular part of the law concerning public order.

Then we have this thing you know with disturbance of public order, something we always have to consider. With traffic and everything … Then we have this other part when people apply for permission to demonstrate, since it is important that they stick to the law. And I must say that I am not very proud of how the police have handled agitation against an ethnic or national group. I think that maybe we did a lot better concerning this in the 1990s. (Informant 2)

Already here it becomes clear that the public debate was confounded by the misconception that the police could act based on the law concerning public order to ban the NRM’s application using the argument that the group would spread hate. At the same time, the fact that the police were actually dissatisfied with their work in prosecuting breaches of the law on agitation against an ethnic or national group was missed. As it turned out, the police officers had planned to step up their efforts to prosecute individuals in the NRM’s march for agitation against an ethnic or national group if any messages of hate were apparent. However, according to the legislation on agitation against an ethnic or national group, only individuals can be charged, not organizations. According to the police, to be prosecuted, a person must do more than participate in a Nazi march, each and every one of them has to perpetrate some act or make some statement which would mean that they could be charged under the law concerning agitation against an ethnic or national group. The police officers have requested that the Ministry of Justice change this law.

… the premeditation is confirmed by the individual taking part in this joint activity [the Nazi march]. Then we would also treat the convention on racism [the UN resolution] correctly … something that we have not succeeded with yet. The march? should be prohibited, not because they are Nazis but because they have a racist ideology behind their thinking that in itself constitutes agitation against an ethnic or national group (Informant 1).

From this, what we learn is that the police officers and the public opinion shapers were apparently more or less on the same page. However, there is no passage in the law that allows the police to deny the NRM its right to march. In the interviews, an unexpected theme also surfaced, showing that there were obviously different opinions within the police force concerning how to treat the NRM in general. The police in Gothenburg announced that they would impose a stricter protocol on the NRM during the march if its members appeared in uniform and would prosecute them for agitation against an ethnic or national group. This caused some concerns within the police force.

Yes, this is the thing … you think like … if we … if we now … there may not be too many but you hear it. If we now start putting the screws on agitation against an ethnic or national group, then they [the NRM] will get angrier, our dialog with them will deteriorate, how will this affect the elections [the then upcoming elections in 2018]? (Informant 2)

This statement led to some follow-up questions and interviews. It seems to support some of the claims in the public debate, but from a different perspective.

Interviewer: I have learned that there is an internal discussion within the Police Authority about how to act to reduce conflicts with the NMR. And that this is being done in a way such that it is seen as desirable to reduce provocations of the NRM in order to mitigate the risk of radicalizing them further. Is this a discussion you’re familiar with?

Informant 4: Yes, this discussion exists, I don’t know if it’s in the written protocol on how to treat the NRM. Nevertheless, there has been a clear signal from the national level that this is a guiding factor. The risk of accelerating their radicalization forces us to view them … yeah that we should be helpful toward them, they should be given what they ask for, with all the damage to democracy that comes with that … There was never any opportunity to discuss this within the Police Authority … it was just decided … I do understand that radicalization may happen when you put pressure on extremists, but there are other values that should also be taken into account … and there could be other consequences.

Interviewer: … What consequences?

Informant 4: You know … since we know that the NRM has major latent violent capital, and that many, many people are offended by their symbols and behavior and are intimidated in such a way that we ought to be able to handle this by [prosecuting them for] agitation against an ethnic or national group … The damage to democracy and the rule of law each and every time they march, because at least in some places [municipalities in Sweden] a lot of people are frightened, cowed, and people don’t dare to speak their minds.

What we learn is that the police did see the NMR as a radical and potentially violent group of hardcore Nazis. Even so, they expressed their attitudes in two different ways with regard to granting the group permission to march. In one case, the NMR and their participation in public arenas was described as some kind of anomaly. This was based on the fact that people have been prosecuted for doing the ‘Hitler salute’, but not for participating in a march with hundreds of neo-Nazis expressing the same views as expressed by the Hitler salute. The other case talked about being colorblind to the NMR and just sticking to the relevant sections of the law. In both cases, there was agreement that the NMR had the legal right to march and that the public debate had misunderstood the practical nature of law enforcement. However, we also learn that the police were experiencing mixed messages about what their tactics should be internally, which is quite different from granting permission to march. The mixed messages concerned how the police should operate during a permitted march, and also how they should act in the long run concerning giving permission for the NMR’s public gatherings.

The National Police Commissioner in Stockholm (the capital of Sweden) appears to have applied the idea that it is better to give the NRM some slack to avoid the group becoming further radicalized, thus posing a more serious, violent threat. On the other hand, the local police authority in Gothenburg, faced with the concrete task of dealing with the NRM, could also see how other interests were compromised by this strategy. These interests concerned the well-being of the individuals and groups who are the targets of the NMR’s hate speech, the issue at the local level obviously being not only to maintain law and order in the strictest and most physical sense, but also to uphold people’s right not to be slandered or verbally harassed by neo-Nazis. Therefore, at the end of the day, a point was made in the public debate, even if it was aimed in the wrong direction and used superficial arguments based on an anecdote from the 1990s.

The Discursive Practices—Analyzing the Loss in Translation

Moving from the textual content to analytic conclusions within CDA means pinpointing what discursive practices have been influential in structuring the texts. What we have here is more or less a public outcry from the community represented by opinion shapers in the public debate and demanding that the NRM be prohibited from marching in central Gothenburg. As shown in previous research, since the 1980s, Swedish society has had difficulties in dealing with Nazi parties and white supremacy groups. Members of these parties are both part of society and deviants who wish to overthrow the system. This means that they know how to operate within the society, making use of its democratic institutions, and at the same time how to deliberately provoke society through their mere presence. It is also clear that both public opinion shapers and the police are well aware that the NRM’s strategy is to gain attention by provoking the system. In the public debate, however, there is a misunderstanding regarding what the police are allowed to do and how they have acted in the past. This is also likely connected with the inaccurate notion that Nazism was successfully fought in the 1990s and has recently returned—that it now needs to be fought once again. What is missing from this picture is that the growth in extreme nationalism and racist movements has been steady for the entire period, and that these movements are becoming normalized in the Western world. The NRM and its Nazi counterparts around the world are adding to this normalization simply by being an example of what kind of racism society cannot tolerate. The colorblind society, talked about by Hübinette et al. (2012), is helped in maintaining its colorblindness by pointing at the extreme racist expressions of the NRM and portraying them as the racists and as the racist problem in contemporary Sweden.

Through this, the discursive practices operating in the public debate can be understood as part of the normalization of racism, making use of the NRM as a projection of the distress that liberal society must show in reaction to an openly racist organization. This does not mean that all those who took part in the debate would neglect other forms of racism, but that is not the point when one is analyzing discursive practices. The debate lasted almost a month, was truly heated, and involved a significant number of participants and media channels. Even so, no one was able to bring proper facts into the debate, check whether the anecdote about the firm handling in the 1990s was correct or not and, more problematically, no one ever looked into the internal disagreement within the police force concerning how to deal with the NRM. I would argue that the reason for this is a discursive practice that consists of two crucial components. Firstly, we have the normalization of racism, i.e. the racist discursive practice that emerges, as Doane (2006) states, as a result of racial conflicts in a society that are structured by the dominant forces in that society. The normalization of racism tends to minimize the presence of racism as an everyday experience among dominated minorities, and to put the spotlight on racist deviants such as skinheads, neo-Nazis or other white supremacy groups. This becomes crucial when the far right movement is expanding its power in the Western world and is gradually becoming a potential partner in political coalitions with traditional, non-racist parties. The traditional non-racist parties have not given up their anti-racist doctrines but by reinterpreting the meaning of racism, as has always been done within the whiteness camp, as Ware and Back (2002) state, racism among the politically attractive far right parties is being discursively absorbed and neutralized. This process constitutes a further call for a firm stand against Nazism, not least in order to uphold the image that the society is tolerant and non-racist; i.e. the imagined colorblind society. In this way, the NRM contributes to the normalization of racism, in that anything to the left of them tends to appear as relatively normal.

The other component is the individualized society and the juridification of social problems (juridification in the sense of increased conflict resolution with reference to law). On the one hand, it is reasonable to have a discussion about the police and how they reason, as the police are the authority that issues permits for public gatherings. However, and once again, whether there was any substance to the allegations against the police could have been speedily investigated. In the individualized society and through the juridification of social problems, we assume we can call on the police to resolve problems that are not necessarily resolvable through law enforcement. It may very well be that there is a desire to act against Nazism by implementing stricter and more forceful legislation. On the other hand, this is precisely what Sweden has refrained from doing since 1971, when the Swedish parliament (the Riksdag) ratified Resolution 2106, but did not pass any new law to ban racist organizations. The argument at this time was that agitation against an ethnic or national group was already a criminal offence. Therefore, Sweden had a tradition whereby it preferred to view racism as an attitude of the individual.

Agitation against an ethnic or national group can only be proven if an individual singlehandedly expresses racism in such a way that it fulfills the criteria for prosecution. Thus, according to the legislation, several hundred marching Nazis are not seen as an instance of agitation against an ethnic or national group. This seemingly distorted way of understanding the presence of hardcore racism, which cannot be prosecuted, can be argued as being the result of a normalization process. In this process, the Nazis become the hateful others who are needed to convince society that they, the NRM, are the racists but the society per se is tolerant. However, these discursive practices are also guided by a belief in the use of harsh measures, by the police, to mitigate social problems. In this case, the Nazis are not necessarily a social problem, but surely an undesirable phenomenon that ought to be pushed back forcefully. The discursive practices in this case lure the public debate into focusing on the police’s decision-making processes, instead of raising questions about why we have an active Nazi movement in Sweden and how to deal with it, for instance through more forceful legislation; and about how these movements are rooted in racist discourses in the society at large.


Beneath the surface of the debate on the NRM’s right to demonstrate, the police were having internal disagreements of great significance. Because of the fear of pushing the NRM towards more violent action, the police did not want to use the tough measures called for in the media debate. This is tantamount to hoping and praying for maintenance of the status quo within the NRM as regards their use of violence. The police were aware that the NRM possessed latent violent capital, which could be unleashed if they became discontented. The police were also aware that allowing the NRM to do as they wished jeopardized the sense of security of minority groups, their right to not be subjected to racist attacks, and the security of those who the NRM views as its enemies. This internal debate within the police could have been a highly relevant component of the public debate. When the police expressed that they are colorblind in relation to the NRM as a political organization, and at the same time fear further radicalization of the NRM, this ought to be understood in a wider context. As one of the informants put it:

And then I think, when ISIS or some other Islamist terror organization in the future asks for permission to hold a public meeting in Sweden, will we treat them like any other political party … That is pure bullshit. No one will allow them … It would be too provocative and too frightening. (Informant 3)

The NRM are seen as the deviant hateful others, and we need to convince ourselves that they are the racists, but that we do not need to fear them as long as they are given permission to march in the streets. Within social psychology, the term fundamental attribution error is used to explain how individuals tend to overestimate the role of the circumstances when they themselves act wrongly and to overestimate the role of character in others who act wrongfully. This obviously also operates on a collective level. For instance, when an individual from one’s in-group acts immorally, it is more likely that he or she will be seen as deviant than as representative of the group. If, in contrast, a person from an out-group acts immorally, it is likely that the person will be seen as representative of the entire group. When the Nazis marched in Gothenburg, they were not understood as representatives of Swedish society: on the contrary, they were viewed as deviants who remind us that we are a non-racist and tolerant society. In this sense, the NRM is needed to shift our gaze away from the internal problems in Sweden associated with a growing racist discourse and the normalization of right-wing extremism. Without any conscious intention to contribute to the normalization of racism, it becomes clear that the debate over the NMR’s rally did just that—it helped normalize racism.

Through its resigned verbal attacks on the police in the context of the public debate, mainstream society, represented in this study by the op-ed articles, reassured itself that the problem of racism is always serious, should always be dealt with firmly, and is currently grounded in a police force that has degenerated since the 1990s. This is quite the opposite of what the police intended with their planning and actions. They were prepared to step up their efforts to prevent the NMR from spreading messages of agitation against an ethnic or national group. The real problem was the central directive from the National Police Commissioner in Stockholm, which was to keep a low profile in relation to the NMR so as to avoid their further radicalization toward violent action. This is an unexpected strategy, as work to prevent violent extremism otherwise continues to call for stricter, firmer handling of extremists, and as stated by one of the police officers, it is unreasonable to believe that the same directive would have been applied to a jihadist march. Unfortunately, this highly relevant angle did not surface at all when the public debaters competed with each other to condemn the march without digging deeper into the available facts. Overall, the general conclusion to be drawn is that the public debate studied here had some potential to explore the changes occurring in the society, but that this was lost in translation. This resulted in the colorblind anti-racist doctrine directing its gaze at a few hundred neo-Nazis, however frightening they might be, and away from the growing co-operation between former anti-racist parties with the far-right movement. It is hard to predict what the longterm effects of this development will be. It should be considered, however, that the normalization of racism could ultimately lead to the implicitness of whiteness becoming as explicit as it is among movements like the NMR who are mobilizing to save white people from a claimed extinction and calling for total segregation from and deportation of non-white people.