Wennerström the Spy

Wennerström the Spy, by H.K. Rönblom

My beloved saw this in a secondhand shop (a hardback from 1965) and bought it for my birthday. She recognised the name as Sweden’s most notorious spy. For about 15 years, late 1940s to early 1960s, Colonel Stig Wennerström of the Swedish Air Force was routinely funnelling western military secrets to the Russians. Early on in his career he gave the Russians the template for Sweden’s entire defence policy, which was the master coup that earned him respect in Moscow. After that he mostly stuck to American secrets – things the Russians needed to know, as opposed to Swedish secrets which were just useful to know. He was a political animal, used to moving in high social circles as a military attaché, so despite Sweden not being in NATO he frequently mixed with high ranking Americans and managed to wheedle titbits out of them. His heyday was when he was appointed as defence attaché to Washington but his notoriety comes from the declining years of his career when he was back in Stockholm, routinely bunging everything he could get hold of to the Russians on the grounds that, well, he had to give them something. It later turned out that he had been suspected of dodginess as far back as the 40s, but they couldn’t prove anything until the 60s.

The book foresees the modern post-Tarantino trend of telling a story from one point of view, bringing it to a conclusion, then revisiting it from different points of view to fill in the gaps and show how the conclusion was actually reached. It describes his career up until his arrest, then revisits it showing where the suspicion began to set in and crystallise. If this ever gets made into a movie, a key moment will be when he goes up to the attic to retrieve some hidden film rolls, onto which he has photographed secret documents … and finds one of them missing. His maid had been recruited by the security services and had taken one to show them. After that, he knew he was a marked man but, being Swedish, just accepted it with a philosophical shrug and went on about his normal business until he got arrested.

The book can’t be too insightful, as it was written within a year of his arrest, but there are interesting early chapters showing how he came to maturity at a fluid time: politically, militarily and socially, Sweden was transitioning from a legacy nineteenth century way of doing things to the much more modern outlook that we know today, with the result that he never really put down any solid anchors in his own character. He wasn’t a Philby or Maclean – he was in it purely for the money, and he didn’t betray any individuals. He didn’t have access to that information. So, no one died as a result of his actions, as far as we know.

Bizarrely, looking back at it over 50 years later, I’m wondering if he didn’t inadvertently do the world a favour. He was by no means the sole actor in preventing World War 3, but by streamlining the communication process between Washington and Moscow, did he help more than he realised?