the road to academia
Heléne Lööw is a researcher and university lecturer in the history department at Uppsala University, as well as the deputy director of the Centre for Police Research. She writes prolifically and enjoys it, currently on her third book in the series Nazism in Sweden during the period 2000−2014. It is hard to believe that Heléne Lööw has dyslexia.
“I throw letters and words all over the place when I write, but now I know what I generally get wrong and what I need to correct. When I read I have no problem understanding the content, but I cannot read aloud. I can’t link between text and speech and I always have to memorise all my lectures beforehand. With time I have found strategies that work,” says Heléne Lööw.
It was more difficult when she was a child. Heléne Lööw was put into special education and not many of her teachers could have believed she would make it this far. On the other hand, she had a different attitude and was very single-minded. When she was around ten or twelve, she decided to become a history researcher.
“My parents were not exactly surprised, even though they were not academics themselves. I was always a little odd and as a teenager I read scientific dissertations instead of girls’ books. In upper secondary school I decided that my thesis would be about Nazism.”
Said and done. Heléne Lööw began studying history and archaeology at Gothenburg University, she was decisive and took no breaks. When she was 28 she had finished her thesis on national socialism in Sweden during the period 1924-1950.
The war felt close while she was growing up
Heléne Lööw thinks her interest in national socialism came from growing up on the west coast in the 1960s. The second world war felt recent.
“I heard stories about the war and the refugees throughout my childhood. I was very taken up with events that occurred during the war and I thought a lot about what made Nazism possible. I was also curious about what people thought, believed and did in my home town, and I had heard about conflicts with the national socialists who lived there.”
After defending her thesis at Gothenburg University in 1990, Heléne Lööw had no idea what she would do next. Her thesis had always been the goal and she had never really considered what would happen after it.
“At about the same time, national socialist and white power-oriented movements came up to the surface again in Sweden, with conflicts in local communities and attacks on refugee camps. The fact that they had returned made me interested in following up what happened to the movements I had studied in my thesis.”
Wanted to examine the role of women
Heléne Lööw applied for funding to examine the role of women in these movements and to study racist violence and attacks on refugee camps. She continued to carry out research at Gothenburg University, but after a few years she moved to Stockholm University.
During most of the 1990s she spent time in the field, travelling around and interviewing people who were or had been members of the fascist movements.
To get people with fascist opinions to open up has never been a problem.
“Like all other movements, fascists want their history to be written down. I treat the interviewees like I would any other person, and they are polite and well-mannered in return. Some people make fascists out to be stranger than they are.”
Quickly became an expert for the media
Already during her PhD, Heléne Lööw was often chosen by journalists when they wanted expert comments on Nazism.
“Before I really understood what was going on I was playing the role of expert. It happened very quickly . At that time I was only familiar with the old fascist movements, but it seems that once you are in the press archives the journalists don’t let go.”
Being an expert for the media has been very stressful at times, she says.
“Journalists want simple answers, but often I don’t have any. Traumatic events have resulted in my involvement in television debates for days at a time, such as after the murders in Malexander and then Breivik’s attack in Norway. There have been many events like that over the years, but you get used to it. I am accustomed to the situation now.”
Contrary to what you might suppose, Heléne Lööw has not been subject to many threats.
“Of course, there are some individuals who can be a bit of a problem at times, but they generally belong to the fringe of different organisations. I seldom have a problem with the organisations themselves.”
We may need to accept fascism
Heléne Lööw’s research is important and relevant, but she does not believe it affects political decisions any longer.
“Back in the 1990s I felt that politicians listened, but now we seem to live in a world of short-term policies without any time for complexity or reflection. Politicians want check lists and high-profile campaigns, but if you want to change structures something else is needed.”
There is no quick fix for fascism and Heléne Lööw does not believe it will disappear.
“One insight you have as a historian is that fascism will always be around in some shape or form. You can’t “cure” fascists. There will always be anti-democratic movements. We have to get used to living with them and learn to manage them.”
Over the years, Heléne Lööw has also devoted her time to other issues such as discrimination, hate crime, female criminality and intelligence and security services. Among other commissions she has worked as an investigator for the government offices, as head of the Living History Forum and a researcher for the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention.
“My job interview for the National Council for Crime Prevention was a bizarre experience, because I hadn’t understood that they wanted to employ me. It took several days before I realised that they were offering me a normal, permanent job! I worked there for a few years and had great fun and a fantastic manager,” says Heléne Lööw.
Important to cooperate with practitioners
Heléne Lööw returned to the academic world in 2007,this time at Uppsala University. For some years she worked at the Swedish National Police Board, participating in an EU project on riots.
“Researchers and police officers collaborated in the project, which was hugely exciting. It is important that we researchers get involved in this sort of project with practitioners, both because we have a lot to give and to improve our own research. We get challenges, new perspective and understand processes much better. The first thing you must remember is to keep mutual respect.”
Heléne Lööw is back at the campus in Uppsala now, and very pleased about it.
“It is great fun to be back at the department. I am working with the development of different master’s programmes, including a course on extremism, social unrest and protection of society. We are testing a module now, and that is really fun!”
In the future, Heléne Lööw would like to research more about riots, waves of violence and political violence, among other things. Refugee camps are now being set on fire again and Heléne Lööw compares the current attacks with those in the 1990s. There are many impulses for research and she is very motivated to write on the subject.
Footnote: Heléne Lööw was awarded the Martin H:son Holmdahl scholarship at the end of 2015. The scholarship is Uppsala University’s most prestigious award for efforts to promote human freedoms and rights. The prize was awarded at the university’s winter conferment of doctor’s degrees on 29 January 2016.