The founder of IKEA, Ingvar Kamprad, was seventeen years old when he started his iconic mail-order company selling goods from his home in Sweden. The year was 1943, and the first employee he hired for his new business was his close friend Otto Ullmann.
Ullmann was about as unlikely a friend to Kamprad as it would be possible to find. A Jewish man from Austria, his parents had sent him to Sweden to avoid the Nazi occupation of their homeland.
Kamprad, on the other hand, was just beginning to get involved in Sweden’s fascist organization. He was a regular attendee at meetings with pro-Nazi groups, was a long-time friend of one of Sweden’s top fascists and some say he was a member of Sweden’s version of the Hitler Youth.
Kamprad died in January 2018 at the age of 91. When he was in his twenties, he rejected fascism and turned his attention entirely to his business, growing it into a multi-billion dollar international furniture powerhouse. It was not until the 1990s that his earlier pro-Nazi sympathies were uncovered and published by a Swedish newspaper. A book in 2011 revealed even more, as it details his relationship with Ullmann.
Kamprad, for his part, seemed to chafe at the constant questioning about that period of his life. In his 1999 autobiography, he asks at what point an old man can be forgiven for mistakes he made when he was young. More than once, Kamprad admitted that he had been involved with fascism in his youth and apologized for it. He called it his “greatest mistake” and blamed it on his youthful “stupidity.”
In 1994 the Swedish newspaper Expressen first published the connection between Kamprad and the Nazi party. They printed a story indicating Kamprad had followed Per Engdahl. He was the leader of a Nazi group that considered Hitler to be the savior of Europe and tried unsuccessfully to convince Sweden to abandon neutrality and enter the war with the Axis.
Kamprad was close to Engdahl at one point. In 1948, Kamprad paid the publishing costs of Engdahl’s book of political opinions. Kamprad even invited Engdahl to his wedding. Later, Kamprad confessed he had become interested in the movement due to the speeches of Sven Olov Lindholm, another Swedish fascist. There are rumors that Kamprad joined the Nordic Youth, but he has repeatedly claimed he does not recall whether he spent any time with that group.
IKEA had a PR disaster with the release of the article in Expressen. Jewish groups cried for a boycott of IKEA – although the result had little effect on IKEA’s bottom line. For his part, Kamprad wrote a letter to his employees, in which he stated that he had not had any involvement with fascist groups since the 1950s and that he bitterly regretted that part of his life.
Still, the accusations of being a Nazi and fascist followed him for the rest of his life. He was accused of hiding the worst aspects of his fascist connections. Elisabeth Asbrink is the author of the 2011 book about Kamprad. She believes Kamprad never entirely came clean.
She said that Kamprad had promised in 1998 to tell everything and keep nothing hidden. But, she points out, he never mentioned that he was a member of the worst of the Nazi chapters and that the Swedish police were concerned enough to keep a file on his activities at the time.
Asbrink’s book, “And in Wienerwald the Trees Remain,” was a strong attack on Kamprad. It focuses on Ullmann and the relationship between Germany and Sweden in WWII.
In the book, Asbrink accuses Kamprad of being a member of the Svensk Socialistisk Samling – Sweden’s version of the Nazi party. Asbrink had found letters in which Kamprad boasts of recruiting new members for the party. She states that, at the time, the authorities believed Kamprad most likely held an official position in the party.
Kamprad never admitted to belonging to Svensk Socialistisk Samling. He spent the last twenty years of his life rejecting fascism and Nazism, but he never dismissed Engdahl, calling him a “great man.”
As for Ullmann, his old friend was one of the first people he called to apologize to after the accusations became public.