When Danuta Danielsson stepped out of a crowd in the Swedish city of Växjö in 1985 and hit a neo-Nazi with her purse, the photo quickly became famous around the world. Danielsson was widely praised back then: Her mother had reportedly survived a German Nazi concentration camp, according to Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter.
— Carina Bergqvist (@carinabergqvist) February 20, 2015
Thirty years later, Danielsson, who has since died, is back in the headlines again -- but this time as the subject of a nationwide controversy. A Swedish artist wanted to erect a statue of her in Växjö, but a local committee on Wednesday prohibited her from doing so.
According to the committee, a statue of a woman who used her handbag as a weapon would glorify violence. "We in Växjö work for democracy and free speech. Of course, we don't like Nazis," city councillor Eva Johansson told The Washington Post on Friday.
"But we can't accept that one can hit a person because one does not like him or her. Furthermore, a close relative has called us and has said he does not want Danielsson to be remembered that way," Johansson said.
When artist Susanna Arwin posted the photo of a first model of the statue last year on her private Facebook page, reactions were primarily positive. "Absolutely wonderful. Cheer for our strong women," one person commented. Others, however, had a different opinion, and the idea subsequently caused a national debate in Sweden over the question of whether Danielsson had been a hero or an offender.
Opponents argue that such a statue would send the wrong signals at a sensitive time. The shock of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Copenhagen earlier this year has not faded, and the horrific violence of the terrorists has left many Swedes wondering whether violence could ever be a means of political expression.
"The origins of the debate are completely disconnected from what happened in Paris and Copenhagen, but the right to say and express what you want is an important part of Swedish law," explained Marcus Sjöholm, a director of coverage at the Swedish Broadcasting Company
This question not only concerns the roughly 60,000 inhabitants of Växjö but reaches far beyond the town. Supporters of the memorial started to decorate other statues with handbags all over Sweden, according to Swedish public radio. They argue that Danielsson's attack should be seen symbolically as an act of courage.
— Sara Fransson (@SaraVxo) February 18, 2015
— Helsingborgs Dagblad (@hdhbg) February 25, 2015
— Anders Larsson (@And_rs_L) February 19, 2015
In a comment for Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, Ola Luoto criticized local politician Johansson for prohibiting the statue. "What [Johansson] forgets it that art is multi-layered and open to different interpretations. [Danielsson] was undeniably one of the real victims of the Nazis. The fact that she got enraged is understandable," the writer concluded.
Many agree with this viewpoint: After the controversy was made public, other Swedish councils offered artist Arwin the chance to erect the statue in their cities instead. "[It] looks fantastic -- and the photo is iconic. Although this memorial should belong to Växjö because the incident occurred there, we would take it if they don't want it," Malmö city representative Nils Karlsson was quoted as saying by German public radio.
One aspect, however, has gone unnoticed by many: According to the famous picture's photographer, Danielsson instantly seemed to regret her own attack in 1985. Whether this is true is hard to say: Until her death, she never publicly commented on the incident, which made her an icon for many.