In 1943, Ingvar Kamprad was a 17-year-old budding entrepreneur selling udder balm, picture frames and other small-town wares from his home in rural Sweden. That year, he founded a mail-order company called Ikea, initials taken after his name and that of his family’s farm. His first employee was his close friend Otto Ullmann, an Austrian Jew about his age whose parents had sent him to Sweden to escape the Nazi takeover in their home country.
Kamprad and Ullmann’s camaraderie was an unlikely one. Around the same time he started Ikea, Kamprad joined Sweden’s fascist movement. He regularly attended meetings with pro-Nazi extremist groups, maintained a long-running friendship with a leading Swedish fascist and, according to some accounts, was an active member of the Swedish version of the Hitler Youth.
By the time he was in his mid-20s, Kamprad, who died Saturday at 91, quietly abandoned his fascist activism and focused on his business, which eventually grew into the multibillion-dollar furniture empire that it is today. His earlier Nazi sympathies weren’t exposed until the 1990s, when a Swedish newspaper published evidence of his role in the fascist movement. Further revelations came to light in a 2011 book by journalist Elisabeth Asbrink that discussed his relationship with Ullmann.
On numerous occasions, the Swedish billionaire admitted his role in the movement and apologized, blaming his involvement with Nazis on youthful "stupidity" and calling it his "greatest mistake." But his past dogged him until the end of his life. Some detractors accused him of trying to conceal the uglier aspects of his affiliations. Among them was Asbrink, whose book offered evidence that Swedish law enforcement had identified Kamprad as a Nazi.
"He said in 1998 that he would get everything up on the table and that there would be nothing hidden," Asbrink told the Telegraph in 2011. "Why then didn’t he tell us that he was a member of the worst Nazi party, and that the police found it serious enough to create a file on him?"
Recurring questions about his prior nationalist, anti-Semitic views seemed to frustrate Kamprad and his allies. A chapter in his 1999 autobiography asks, "When is an old man forgiven for the sins of his youth?"
"How long should he suffer for these 50-years-ago happenings," Lars Göran Petersson, an Ikea employee and friend of Kamprad told the Guardian in 2004. "Is it a lifetime penalty? Is it 50 years? A hundred years? How long?"
The Swedish newspaper Expressen was the first to publish an account of Kamprad’s involvement in Swedish fascism during World War II. In 1994, when Kamprad was in his 60s and long after Ikea had burgeoned into a global business, Expressen ran a series of stories reporting that he had been a follower of Per Engdahl, the leader of a fascist movement that called Adolf Hitler "Europe’s savior" and urged Sweden to enter the war on the side of the Axis Powers. Sweden remained neutral.
Kamprad and Engdahl became close over several years. In 1948, Kamprad bankrolled a book of Engdahl’s political screeds, and two years later, he invited Engdahl to his wedding. Kamprad would later admit that he was lured into the movement by the speeches of another Swedish fascist, Sven Olov Lindholm, according to the Guardian. He was also reported to have been involved with the Nordic Youth, a Swedish pro-fascist group, but has long said he couldn’t recall whether he spent time there.
Expressen’s articles caused a public-relations nightmare for Ikea. Some Jewish groups called for boycotts of the company, although the efforts had little effect on its business. In response, Kamprad wrote an apology letter to the company’s 25,000 employees, saying he had severed ties with fascists by the 1950s and calling the period "part of my life which I bitterly regret."
"You have been young yourself," Kamprad wrote. "Perhaps something happened during your own youth which you now, a long time afterwards, think was silly. In that case it will be easier for you to understand me."
He also said that he was enticed by Engdahl’s vision of "a non-Communist, socialist Europe," according to the New York Times.
A few years later, Kamprad offered an apology in a chapter in his autobiography titled "A Youth and His Errors." He wrote that he was influenced by his grandmother, who hailed from the Sudetenland, the ethnically German region of the former Czechoslovakia that was annexed to Hitler’s Germany in the run-up to World War II.
A more damning account of Kamprad’s fascist activism came out in 2011 with the publication of Asbrink’s book, "And in Wienerwald the Trees Remain." The book revolves around Otto Ullmann, who came to live on the Kamprad family farm as a refugee from Nazi Germany, and Sweden’s complex relationship with Germany during the Second World War.
The book alleged that Kamprad was an active member of the Svensk Socialistisk Samling, effectively Sweden’s Nazi party, and even offered his membership number, as the Telegraph described upon its publication. Asbrink found that Swedish authorities had intercepted letters from Kamprad in which he boasted about recruiting new members and said he "misses no opportunity to work for the movement," according to the Telegraph. The book further alleged that authorities believed Kamprad likely held "some sort of official position within the organization."
Kamprad never admitted being involved with Svensk Socialistisk Samling. When the book was released, a spokesman dismissed its findings as "old news."
"Ingvar Kamprad gave a detailed account back in 1994 about what he describes as his ‘youthful sins’ and the ‘biggest mistake of his life’, apologising and asking for forgiveness from all parties involved," the spokesman told the Telegraph. "The Ikea he created is based on democratic principles and embraces a multicultural society."
Though he spent the last two decades of his life denouncing fascism and trying to distance himself from his Nazi links, Kamprad appears to have stood by his relationship with Engdahl, the Swedish fascist leader.
"Per Engdahl was a great man, this I will maintain for as long as I live," he told Asbrink in an interview for her book, according to the Guardian.
It’s not clear how, as a younger man, Kamprad kept his Nazi connections hidden from Ullmann, whose parents were murdered in the Holocaust. But, as Rabbi Dow Marmur wrote in 2013 for the Toronto Star, when the revelations were first made public in the 1990s, Ullmann was one of the first people Kamprad called to apologize.