Alma Braathen was a pioneer within Swedish journalism who served as a war correspondent in Finland and Norway during the Second World War. Reporting on social issues as experienced in remote northern areas became her specialism. She was also an excellent photographer.
Alma Braathen was born in Jämtland in 1906. She grew up in Sundsvall, to which her father had migrated from Norway in the 1890s. He owned a sawmill and the family experienced both the peaks and troughs of the forestry industry in the latter stages of the First World War. Alma Braathen attended school but never obtained her school-leaving certificate. An accident, which damaged her back, caused her to leave school early. She spent her convalescence in Norway, living with Katti Anker Möller, a radical women’s rights activist who left a deep impression on her. Alma Braathen then decided to become a journalist and to campaign for women’s rights.
Alma Braathen set out on her career path when she was 18 years old, working for Sundsvalls Tidning. She went on to volunteer for Elin Wägner at Tidevarvet. She then worked for various daily newspapers in Stockholm. She attended the Kvinnliga medborgarskola (civic women’s school) at Fogelstad, visited various settlements in England, and studied at the Socialpedagogiska institut (socio-pedagogical institute) in Stockholm all the while working as a journalist. Having gained her qualification in 1928 she headed into the wider world. Rather than going home she bought a ticket for the Orient Express which took her to Greece, and from there she headed onwards to countries such as Palestine, Syria, and Egypt. Her book Som luffarturist i Orienten, which was published in 1929 to positive reviews, contains descriptions of her experiences during this adventurous and taxing journey. Following a summer spent working for Dagens Nyheter, she mostly worked temporary posts and freelanced – it was the time of the depression and unemployment was high. However, her travels to the Soviet Union, Ukraine, and the Caucasus gave her material for newspaper and journal articles and she muddled along. Following a few years working as the editor at Svenska Journalen, she returned to freelancing, sometimes writing for Dagens Nyheter, frequently using the pseudonym Brodjaga (Russian for wanderer).
When the Second World War broke out and the Soviet Union attacked Finland Alma Braathen was sent as the Dagens Nyheter correspondent to northern Finland (Barbro Alving reported from the south as Bang). Alma Braathen wrote detailed and empathetic reports on the streams of refugees crossing the border and the major need for aid. Large amounts of clothing and large financial donations flooded into the newspaper and to the Red Cross. Her accounts from the Salla and Pesamo fronts during the ice-cold winter of 1939-1940 – a “living death” to quote Harry Martinsson – were marked by realism and empathy, even for the Russian soldiers who were the enemy. These accounts often appeared on the front pages of the papers, illustrated by her own photographs.
At the end of the Finnish Winter War, another war loomed. In April 1940 Hitler occupied Denmark and Norway. Alma Braathen skied across to a remote part of northern Norway and reported back to her paper by telephone that the Norwegians were resisting the Germans – this was major news which was sent on to London and then across the globe. She undertook many taxing journeys on skis and delivered detailed reports on the Norwegian resistance, soon joined by British and French forces, until Norway was forced to surrender militarily in June, at which point the allies withdrew in order to defend their own countries. Just as she had done in Finland, Alma Braathen not only covered the reality of the military actions but also the conditions that civilians – the elderly, women, and children – lived under. The readers were introduced to particular individuals and their feelings. Alma Braathen’s personal interest in and ability to make connections with those she interviewed made her articles engaging and gripping to read.
Throughout the rest of the war Alma Braathen was kept at home but as soon as peace was declared in 1945 she returned to northern Norway. Her reports and photographs revealing the total destruction perpetrated by the German forces on the countryside and the communities who lived there, as well as the horrors of the concentration camps in the area, make for almost unbearable reading.
After the war Alma Braathen redid the journey to the Orient which she had taken as a youth, now in the guise of an experienced and professional journalist. Of particular interest are her descriptions of war-torn Greece and occupied Palestine, where she landed right in the midst of the on-going political mayhem, surrounded by attacks and raids. She published a book called Blå lyckofågel i orienten in which she collated all her newspaper articles. It was released in 1949 to generally favourable reviews; one reviewer called it “whirlwind” journalism.
In October 1940 Alma Braathen was appointed to a permanent post at Dagens Nyheter, and she remained in post until her death. Reporting on social matters, particularly on people living in remote areas far away to the north and east, remained her specialism – she was often called a desert reporter and arctic colleague. But she also covered the raising of the Vasa in many long and knowledgeable articles. She maintained her efforts to campaign on behalf of women’s issues. For example, when describing Algeria’s struggle for independence in 1966 she focused on the situation of the women there.
Towards the end of the 1950s and during the 1960s Alma Braathen – like Jan-Olof Olsson, or Jolo, and several other Dagens Nyheter journalists – was seen a little bit as a “has-been” given the arrival of the latest 1960s tranche of journalists and a new style of journalism. However, she still managed to undertake her dream journey in the end. The year before her death she travelled on the Trans-Siberian railway. The result was four long articles, each illustrated by her own photographs.
In addition to being a journalist, a photographer, and a writer, Alma Braathen was also a poet and a great describer of nature. She has produced beautiful and lyrical descriptions of the Jämtland countryside. Happiness for Alma Braathen was “listening to nature on a summer’s morning” in Hammerdal, where her mother was born.
Alma Braathen never married, but from 1941 onwards she shared an apartment with her friend and colleague Karin Schultz, who was a radio critic, an author and an astronomer. In 1952 she adopted a 13-year-old settler boy from Tärna in Västerbotten.
Alma Braathen died in Sundsvall in 1967. She is buried at the Skog cemetery in Stockholm. The funeral announcement included a poem she had written:
Disperse my ashes in the wheel tracks, where carriages rumble past, obliterate everything I was, the new rain will come gently and the day will dawn.
Olof Lagercrantz officiated at the burial.