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Death of a (Horrors!) Capitalist: Ingvar Kamprad

On Saturday, as it must to all men, death came to Ingvar Kamprad. Fittingly, it was the Swedish business journal Dagens Industri that broke the news the next day: in Småland, the rural region in which he grew up, the founder of IKEA, the world's largest furniture retailer, had died at age 91.

The son of a farmer, Kamprad grew up in humble circumstances in southern Sweden and began his career by selling matches at age five. He founded IKEA in 1943; its name stands for “Ingvar Kamprad Elmtaryd Agunnaryd,” Elmtaryd being the name of his family farm and Agunnaryd the name of his village. Kamprad was universally described as quiet and unassuming, a man of simple tastes who preferred staying out of the limelight and who was far less interested in earning money than in the hard work of building up a business. At his death, according to Bloomberg, he had a net worth of $46.8 billion, making him the eighth richest person in the world and the second richest in Europe.

The firm he built is, of course, one of the legendary business successes of the past half-century, widely respected for the quality of its product, for the innovative layout of its stores, for the role it has played in introducing the world to Nordic design, and for its treatment of employees. Last year, its U.S. division came in at #72 on Fortune's list of best U.S. firms to work for; Business Insider ranked it at #45. In the same year, it was named one of Canada's greenest employers.

IKEA has also been a tremendous boon to Sweden. Kamprad's homeland, needless to say, has one of the world's largest social-welfare systems, and like all such systems it represents a massive burden on the national economy. Arguably, no one is more responsible than Kamprad for the production of the wealth that has funded the postwar Swedish welfare state. For that reason alone, Swedes should be grateful. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of workers not only in Sweden but around the world should be grateful for jobs they would not have had if not for Kamprad. Add to that the hundreds of millions of consumers who, thanks to IKEA, have been able to furnish their homes handsomely on modest incomes.

But not everybody is grateful. On Sunday, the youth division of Sweden's Left P arty, which received 5.6% of the votes in the 2010 general election, posted on its Facebook page a statement that was signed by Henrik Malmot, who was identified as national chairman of the Young Left and as a former IKEA employee. “IKEA's owner and founder, Ingvar Kamprad, has died,” reads the statement. “He built his fortune by exploiting people in Sweden and other parts of the world to force down wages and costs. He has even incorporated the company in tax havens in order to avoid taxes in Sweden. It's time for the workers to get back what he has stolen from them. We are 150,000 workers who should share in the inheritance.”

(Yes, some years ago IKEA did rearrange its corporate structure, basing many of its activities in the Netherlands and elsewhere to bring down its taxes. It's called smart management. More power to it. If Sweden had shaved its tax rates to Dutch levels – which are scarcely low – IKEA might never have moved.)

Malmot wasn't alone in trashing Kamprad. Barbro Sörman, a schoolteacher and former Left Party district leader, tweeted: “When a Nazi capitalist dies. Yes, maybe there is nothing to mourn.”

Alas, Kamprad was a Nazi sympathizer during World War II. On the one hand, this was, quite rightly, a source of lifelong shame; on the other hand, he was seventeen at the time, Sweden was a de facto ally of Germany, the Swedish king was himself chummy with Hitler, and the Swedish media that shaped Kamprad's picture of the world were little more than propaganda organs for the Third Reich.

The adult Kamprad was no Nazi. But yes, he was a capitalist – one of the most successful ones in history – and to socialists like Malmot and Sörman, alas, that is hardly different from, or more forgivable than, being a Nazi. It is sad to think how many millions of people like them will go to their graves thinking that Kamprad stole a piece of their pie, rather than understanding that he helped make the pie bigger for everybody.