LONDON -- In a holiday season already marked by lapsed security, heightened anxiety and political recrimination, things just got a little bit worse. New developments in the investigation into the disappearance of the entrance sign at the Auschwitz death camp in Poland suggest that the theft was part of a larger far-right terrorist plot in Sweden.
The sign -- which famously read "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work Sets You Free") -- was mysteriously stolen from the entrance to Auschwitz (now a museum) in the early hours of Dec. 18. The Polish government declared a state of emergency, closed its borders and launched a national-level search for the perpetrators of the crime, which was described by the head of the Israeli Holocaust Museum as "an act of war."
The theft was initially assumed to be the work of neo-Nazis, although a number of conspiracy theories also surfaced, pointing fingers at Germany, Russia . . . even Jews. The sign is considered by many to be the very embodiment of the Holocaust itself -- at once a symbol of death and defiance.
Then, just before Christmas, Polish police arrested five men in connection with the theft, after recovering the sign (which had been cut into three pieces). Early reports labeled these men as "ordinary criminals," dismissing the idea that they were "far-right sympathizers." The thieves returned to Auschwitz with the police to demonstrate how shockingly easy it had been to breach security (although they made the fateful error of dropping the "i" in "Frei" on their way out, ultimately leading to their capture). For the moment, at least, the entire affair looked like the work of a bunch of common thugs, out for financial gain.
Over the past few days, however, this eerie and disturbing tale has grown decidedly darker. It now appears that while the thieves were not themselves neo-Nazi sympathizers, their sponsors were. Apparently, the theft was inspired by a far-right neo-Nazi group in Sweden that planned to sell the sign to a collector of Nazi memorabilia, the proceeds of which would then be used to finance a string of terror attacks in Sweden. The Swedish security service has already been investigating an alleged neo-Nazi plot to blow up the Riksdagen (the parliament building in Stockholm), as well as the foreign ministry and the home of the prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt. The aim of that plot was to create as much disruption as possible ahead of the 2010 parliamentary elections.
Swedish officials have not yet commented on whether the sign theft was directly connected to those specific plans. But the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet -- which has been out in front on this story from the beginning -- thinks that there is. The paper has revealed that there is a neo-Nazi group in Sweden -- the financial arm of which has been specializing in this sort of "art" robbery -- which it then uses to help fund its military arm. The militants are believed to have Russian weapons, explosives and machine guns and an assault group of five people to carry out attacks.
As a reporter for The Guardian noted, this whole incident has the feel of a Stieg Larsson thriller. Larsson was a world-famous writer of Swedish murder mysteries who was also an expert on right-wing extremism in his own country. Curiously enough, I just finished reading Larsson's break-out thriller -- "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" -- last night, and I'd have to concur with the analogy.
Tragically, however, this is a case where truth is not only -- as the saying goes -- stranger than fiction, but sadder, too, and much more terrifying.
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