Spotlight: Fugitive from Utopia

Bertil Sagermark


Generations of socialists have hung their utopian hopes on a long succession of countries, but each time they have had to abandon a failed experiment. Now, Sweden has emerged as the darling of the collectivist set. Especially in universities, Sweden is held up as the perfect example of enlightened central planning. If so, then we may be forewarned of its results in the case of Swedish Bertil Sagermark, who is seeking political asylum in this country from what he describes as an all-powerful, self-perpetuating, and tyrannical bureaucracy. Sagermark, whose political dissent started during the Second World War when he dropped out of the Swedish Royal Naval Academy to protest Swedish ties with Hitler, fled the threat of involuntary confinement in a mental institution in 1969. Americans are now quite aware of the Soviet asylums, he notes, but ignorant of their Swedish counterparts.

Sagermark's real troubles started in Spain as far back as 1961. He had contracted with Linden Cranes, one of the largest crane manufacturers in the world, to establish a Spanish business using Linden's crane designs as the basis. The original agreement was that profits from the business that Sagermark was to establish were to be split three ways, between Sagermark, Linden, and the Spanish company. Sagermark, not an employee of Linden, put up his own time and money to make the deal and modify the Swedish crane to meet Spanish standards.

The trouble came when the head of Linden Cranes, a prominent Communist in the housing industry—an arm of government in every aspect but name—used his connection with the bureaucracy to have Sagermark served with papers that charged him with illegally contracting with the Spanish. Sagermark refused to go back to Sweden to face the charges. Instead, he went to New York, where he was approached by representatives of Linden who told him that charges had been dropped and that Linden was prepared to honor the original contract if Sagermark would go back to Sweden to sign the agreement. He did, whereupon he was arrested, fined, and left without rights to the Spanish business. The laws concerning kidnapping in Sweden define "force or fraud" in the course of moving a person as a basis of abduction; Sagermark therefore charges that he was kidnapped by Linden Crane in concert with the Swedish government.

Sagermark and a group of supporters proceeded to form the Swedish Citizens Committee to bring suit against the Swedish ombudsman for justice and to publicize the fact that the Swedish bureaucracy had denied his rights. After only a few months, the money the committee had paid for advertising was returned, and the major newspapers refused to give any publicity to Sagermark's case. He was told by the editor of a Stockholm paper that the ombudsman had passed the word that Sagermark was an international embarrassment and that, since newspapers are both heavily taxed and subsidized by the government, publicizing his cause could cost millions.

Nevertheless, Sagermark was able to prove in a lower court that the ombudsman had illegally served him papers in Spain. When Sagermark attempted to recover his confiscated business, however, the bureaucracy stalled and criticized him for years until his notoriety started to be a real threat. He was ordered to undergo psychiatric testing and warned that he would end up in an asylum if he continued. He fled to Norway.

Sagermark recounts how all his friends counseled him to drop the matter. "Bertil, you're an engineer, and you're getting old. You can still make a life for yourself," they told him. "But somebody had to show them that they couldn't get away with it," he says. So he returned to Sweden.

According to a 1965 Swedish law, Swedes cannot prosecute bureaucrats for "official crimes," so Sagermark brought suit against the officials for "common crimes," allowing him to live in Sweden until 1974, when the case was dropped—by the same officials he was charging. Once again, Sagermark fled under threat of involuntary commitment. Two months later the Swedish bureaucracy submitted a group of bills to parliament to be voted on as a package. Although most of the package dealt with funding to the political parties, one law that was slipped in made it impossible for Swedes to sue bureaucrats for any crimes committed during working hours, even rape and murder. European journalists labeled the law the Anti-Sagermark Immunity Law, and the Commission on Human Rights of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg has condemned its passage.

Sagermark is in California now. He applied for political asylum upon entering the United States in 1974. The point is not to stay here, he says, but to gain the notoriety and protection necessary to continue his fight for liberty in Sweden without fear of mental asylum. His tourist visa has now expired, and he is presently engaged in a legal battle for asylum status. Supporting him is the exiled Russian dissident Alexander Yessenin-Volpin, who has been called the father of the Soviet civil and human rights movement. Yessenin-Volpin has himself spent much of his life in Soviet mental institutions and has made contact with the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in an attempt to testify at Sagerman's upcoming hearing.

Sagermark does not have kind words these days for the Swedish people, who have allowed the all-powerful bureaucracy to develop. "I know only one people who are more dumb than Swedes; that's the Americans. Their dumbness consists of their high regard for Sweden." The fiery Swede credits his country's relative prosperity with its escape from World War II with industrial capacity intact. Modern Swedish problems, as he sees them, can be traced directly to the tax system that destroys incentive by punishing the productive and prohibits savings and real property that allow individual choice. He also blames gun control. "I think it is very important that bureaucrats live under some kind of deadly threat," he explains.

The Sweden Sagermark describes is one of censorship, repression, government blacklists, vandalism, and long lines—"a warning to the free world." In a letter to the INS, Sagermark wrote: "You Americans are really blind, being so afraid of the Kremlin. What you ought to be afraid of is Big Brother."

But he has high hopes for his homeland. The new generation of Swedes is not as content as the last, he says, so the "downfall of the Swedish welfare state is coming very rapidly now." He wants to go back, to fight the centralized power of the Swedish government. "I suppose," he sighs, "that you can't do away completely with bureaucracy, but if you try to abolish it completely, maybe you can reduce it."

Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer.