Stockholm - The Casablanca of the North

During World War II, a whole string of women spies operated in Scandinavia. The so-called neutral Stockholm was during the war a “Casablanca of the North.” With a flow of refugees, traveling businessmen and diplomats, the Swedish capitol was a hotbed for exchanges, but also an environment in which warring parties spied on each other and secret agents exchanged classified information.

“Some of the participants in this risky business were actually women,” says journalist and historian Anders Thunberg.

“They worked as singers, actresses, dancers, journalists, secretaries and housekeepers. Most of them where young and beautiful; some of them became agents for ideological reasons, others to make money,” says Tore Pryser a Norwegian historian with the Lillehammer University College in Norway. “There were also women, who became spies to save relatives from captivity. Their methods were observation and infiltration, but also flirting and seduction.”

Until now, the story of these female secret agents has been largely confined in dusty archives in Sweden and the U.S., which Thunberg and Pryser have explored in a joint effort that has yielded in two projects.

Pryser’s recent book, “Women in Secret Services and Intelligence in the Nordic Countries,” grew out of a larger project about German intelligence in the same area. While Pryser focused on telling the collective biography, Thunberg narrowed in on Sweden and one particular agent – Karin Lannby who spied for the Swedish Defense staff – and whose life he has retold in a biography with the same title.

In Sweden, during the years between 1940 and 1945, 11 million phone calls were tapped and about 50 million letters were opened, read and some times recorded. Interesting phone calls were recorded by a stenographer and burned on wax records. It was a busy time for those working with intelligence, Thunberg says.   

Despite that many letters and recorded phone conversations have been destroyed, about 700 meters of personal files remain in the national archives of the Swedish Security Police. At the turn of the 21st Century, many of these records became public, thus opening the doors for historians like Pryser and Thunberg.

By combining and matching the information in Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA, with that in the Swedish archives, Pryser and Thunberg managed to find all the pieces to the puzzle that would eventually lead them to the innermost secret in the world of secret agents – the true identity of a spy.

“The most useful documentation we found in the OSS archives in Maryland, Thunberg says. “It was a list with the interesting headline: Suspect list SWEDEN – persons working in NAZI and other enemy interests. It was dated 1944 and included 213 names.”


A large number of the recorded names were familiar to Thunberg and Pryser, especially those with ties to German business in Sweden. But there were also a number of unexpected names, some from the cultural world.

One name in particular caught Thunberg’s attention.

LANNBY KARIN: Actress. Swedish-born citizen. Mother lives in Ålsten, Björkriksvägen 15 (tel 22-33-84) Ever since last spring (1943) Karin Lannby has moved around and now has the address Furusundsgatan (Gärdet). She speaks fluent German, fairly good English and Spanish and an acceptable French. Karin Lannby leads a bohemian lifestyle and appears to be especially interested in foreigners. She has excellent knowledge in different German representatives, notably navy officers. On the surface she does not appear very intelligent, but must be credited for her beauty and glamorous person. Karin has visited Germany as well as Spain during the ongoing war and she is very interested in all types of refugees. She appears to be very interested in rubbing shoulders with rich Jews. Many suspect that she is an agent with the Gestapo.

But, Karin Lannby was never an agent for the Germans, Thunberg says. She was a top agent for the Swedish Defense Staff, using the code name “Annette” and delivered thousands of reports to her constituents. 


"...I have gotten the impression that ST. has gotten more reserved toward me than before..."

It was an intricate weave of people roaming the intelligence circles of Stockholm. The Germans spied on the allies, and the allies spied on the Germans. The Russians were also suspicious of their Western allies and spied on them and the Swedes they spied on everybody and many were double agents, Thunberg says. Most of this dangerous game was played out in the two key locations in Stockholm. One was Mona Lisa, a tavern near the Central Station; the other the exclusive Grand Hotel, located across from the Royal Castle.

“In 1943, Grand Hotel was described by the British Picture Post as ‘the listening port of Europe,’” Thunberg says.

It is unknown exactly how many female agents were active during WWII. Some of the more famous names are Astrid Dollis, a Norwegian who spied for the German and operated a great deal in Sweden.  And Karin Lannby, who’s interesting and exhilarating story Thunberg pours out on 415 pages of his book “Karin Lannby – Ingmar Bergman’s Mata Hari”. And there were always rumours about Zarah Leander and her alleged links to the Nazi party.

“Karin Lannby is for many Swedes especially interesting since she lived with Ingmar Bergman in a studio in Södermalm, Stockholm in 1941 to 1942,” Thunberg says. “It was a stormy relationship, which Bergman afterward described as an inspiration well for his creativity.”

Did Ingmar Bergman know that his live-in girlfriend was a secret agent?

“No, no, no. She could not share that. To reveal that kind of information was very dangerous,” Thunberg says adding that it wasn’t unusual that spies were executed, sometimes by their own for knowing too much information.

Both Pryser and Thunberg are surprised that so little has been told of the female spies in the Nordic countries during WWII. Pryser says that, after inquiring among women colleagues in his field, one reason might be in part that these women used their good looks and some times even their bodies, in order to get the information needed.

”We hope that will change,” Thunberg says and adds, ”These women were no bimbos, they were sharp and carried out risky business with their lives at stake.”(MB)