Whether Sweden was truly neutral in World War Two has been the subject of much debate over the years. Following past articles on the role of Spain (here) and Switzerland (here) in World War Two, Kaiya Rai presents the arguments for both sides – how Sweden assisted both Nazi Germany and the Allied Powers.
Sweden, during the Second World War, declared an official policy of ‘non-belligerency,’ meaning that the nation itself was unattached to either the Allied Powers or the Axis Powers. Since the Napoleonic Wars, Sweden had attempted to maintain this policy of neutrality. In those wars, over a third of Sweden’s land was lost, including new Russian control of Finland, and these losses, alongside a coup d’état against Gustav IV, former King of Sweden, meant a new foreign policy of non-belligerency was formed, namely the Policy of 1812. Whether the Swedes, and even the government themselves, steadfastly adhered to this policy is questionable, however, especially in the years 1939 to 1945.
One key feature of Sweden’s lack of neutrality in the Second World War is closely linked with its long history with Finland. Finland was a ‘co-belligerent’ with Germany, meaning that it engaged in the war as support for Germany, due to its nations’ alliance. Evidence points to Finland under Swedish rule from the late thirteenth century, starting with Swedish crusades to Western Finland, securing Swedish rule over the nation and creating a Swedish province. Their rule collapsed on September 17, 1809 as a result of the Finnish War, where, under the conditions of the Treaty of Fredrikshavn, Finland became a semi-independent Grand Duchy under Russian rule with the Tsar as Grand Duke. But, even with the lack of rule over Finland, Sweden still supported the nation, and managed to indirectly help its cause a number of times during the course of the Second World War, undeniably leading to support for Nazi Germany and its allies in the process.
Support for Axis Powers
As opposed to its official government policy, when called to fight in Finland, as many as 8,000 Swedes volunteered, and in response to German pleas for volunteers against the Soviet Union, around 180 Swedes joined the German Waffen-SS. It was always the individuals’ choice to enlist; however, the government also helped in ways such as sending food, ammunition, weapons and medicine to Finland during conflict. While the number of Swedish volunteers was comparatively small compared to some other nations, the country’s willingness to help in the war effort surely points to its obvious lack of neutrality. Even if official government policy stated the country was in a non-belligerent position, the actions of people in a nation are what ultimately reveal the true nature of the attitudes, and these undeniably show Swedish refusal to sit on the sidelines and do nothing.
Another concern for Sweden during the war was trade. At the beginning of WW2, an agreement had been signed by Sweden, the United Kingdom and Germany, in order to sustain vital trade, but Swedish shipping began to be attacked. As a result, trade with Britain reduced by about 70%, and it increased with Germany, culminating in 37% of Swedish exports being to Germany alone. The battle of the Atlantic was what caused Swedish trade to be blocked, but a few vessels, known as ‘lejdtrafiken’ or ‘the safe conduct traffic,’ were allowed through to the United States (until their entrance into the war), and some neutral nations in Latin America.
This leads onto arguably the biggest point concerning Swedish support for the Axis Powers, and why historians are still debating Swedish neutrality during WW2: the iron ore trade. Germany used this ore in its weapon production, and trade form Sweden to Germany eventually became so large that ten million tons of iron ore per year was shipped to the Third Reich. The government did not interfere with the trade because of its official policy of neutrality. British intelligence had identified German dependency on this production of ore, and estimated that Germany’s preparations for war could end in disaster if there were to be a delay in exports. Therefore, the Allies planned to seize the iron ore deposits by using the Soviet attack on Finland in November 1939 as a cover. They planned to gain Norwegian (the ore was shipped through harbors in Norway to reach Germany) and Swedish permission to send expeditionary forces to Finland, under the pretense of helping the Finnish, and once there, they would take control of the northern cities to gain access to the ore and deny German access to it. However, the Norwegians and Swedes realized the danger of allowing an expeditionary force to be sent across their nations and so refused to allow it. Sir Ralph Glyn had even claimed that if iron ore exports were stopped, an end to the war would have been imminent, showing the Allies’ belief in the importance of Swedish trade to Germany, and so eluding to the lack of neutrality of Sweden during the Second World War.
A final point regarding support for the Axis Powers in WW2 concerns Operation Barbarossa, the German plan to invade the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. The Germans asked the Swedes to allow German armed forces to be transported by train through Swedish land, from Norway to Finland. There was huge controversy surrounding what the government should do, and the political debates around the issue became known as the ‘Midsummer Crisis.’ This was the first point in the war where the Swedish government itself, as opposed to simply the people, was asked to reject its foreign policy of six hundred years. The four party coalition that ruled Sweden was in disagreement, with the Conservative and Agrarian parties, the Swedish Foreign Office and Gustaf V all wanting to grant Germany permission. In opposition, the Social Democratic Party and the Liberal Party wanted to adhere to their foreign policy. In the end, permission was granted to Germany, and thus, the Swedish government showed opposition to its country’s long-held foreign policy.
Support for the Allies and opponents of Germany
Firstly, intelligence played a huge part in Swedish support for the Allies, as military intelligence was shared between them. Due to its ‘neutral’ stance, Sweden was able to gain physical access to Germany, which was useful for both Swedish and Allied intelligence, and the Polish resistance was assisted as employees at factories acted as couriers for messages. Moreover, German telegrams passed through Swedish-leased cables, allowing the Swedes to intercept them, and due to Arne Beurling breaking the cypher code in summer 1940, the messages were understood and the Polish resistance movement conveyed these to the Allies. Another example is when the German battleship Bismarck set off to attack the Atlantic convoys, Swedish intelligence informed the British. In addition, Swedish businessmen, diplomats and emissaries actively spied for the Allies in cities such as Berlin.
Secondly, militarily, Sweden assisted the Allies. They helped to train soldiers, originally refugees from other European nations, and allowed Swedish airbases to be used in the last two years of the war. On June 13, 1944, a V2 rocket being tested by the Germans crashed in Sweden and they exchanged its wreckage with Britain for Supermarine Spitfires. In another instance, the Swedish merchant navy, totaling around 8,000 seamen, found itself outside the Baltic and from May 1940, was loaned to Britain. The Allies began preparing to liberate Denmark and Norway in 1945, and they wanted Sweden involved and so the nation began preparing for ‘Operation Save Denmark,’ where they were to invade Zealand from Scania. Sweden then planned to assist the Allies in the invasion of Norway, and whilst this was not necessary in the end, US planes used Swedish military bases during the eventual liberation.
Finally, an integral part of what creates doubt around Sweden’s policy of ‘non-belligerency,’ was its part in hosting and assisting refugees and Jews who were being persecuted by Hitler and the policy of the Final Solution. Sweden became a place of refuge for these people, and nearly all of Denmark’s 8,000 Jews were brought to Sweden after the order to deport all Danish Jews in 1943. Norwegian and Finnish Jews also fled to Sweden and many stayed there after the war, too. While this shows a lack of neutrality, with its open defiance to Germany’s cause, ironically, it was Sweden’s policy of neutrality that allowed Jews to seek refuge there, as Germany wouldn’t invade the country. Alongside this, many were working to try and persuade German leaders to treat the Jews more humanely, such as King Gustav V of Sweden. Moreover, diplomats such as Count Folke Bernadotte, who contributed to saving over 15,000 prisoners from concentration camps, Raoul Wallenberg, who saved up to 100,000 Hungarian Jews, and Werner Dankwort, who secretly helped Jewish children to escape to Sweden inside wooden crates, were able to use their statuses to communicate with the German government and pass information back to Sweden.
In conclusion, I think it is safe to state that Sweden was only in name, a neutral country during the course of the Second World War. It did aide both sides, however, which is perhaps what has led to the debate surrounding the reality of its neutrality. Arne Ruth argues that “Sweden was not neutral, Sweden was weak,” and Winston Churchill believed that Sweden “ignored the greater moral issues of the war and played both sides for profit,” although this could perhaps be discredited due to the evidence that points to the country’s immense help in saving so many victims of the Nazi regime. We must also consider that WW2 was indeed a ‘Total War,’ and so was there ever any real possibility of any nation within Europe being completely neutral during the period?
Do you think Sweden was neutral in World War 2? Let us know below…