IN THE sixth year of war, the pendulum of Swedish neutrality has swung sharply to the Allied side. Despite Stockholm's reluctance to depart from its cherished position of neutrality, German-Swedish relations have deteriorated to a point where open hostilities between the two countries appear a distinct possibility.

In mid-November the Nazis recalled the German Minister to Sweden, Dr. Hans Thomsen. Germany had previously declared the Eastern Baltic a zone of naval operations in which all ships would be sunk without warning, and Sweden had protested in unusually sharp terms. Other factors in the mounting tension were the repeated inroads and depredations on north Swedish territory by German troops fleeing from Finland, the drastic roundup of known Nazi agents which the Swedish police carried out in November, and, finally, the Swedish announcement that she would not hold the annual trade talks with Germany but would let the current agreement expire on January 1, 1945, without renewal.

It has been amply demonstrated in this war that neutrality is far from an absolute and immutable status. Theoretically, neutrality requires a complete balance in the neutral country's relations with the two belligerent groups of states. In practice, however, such total or ideal neutrality is seldom attained. In the present war it has been conspicuous by its absence. Which of the few surviving neutral countries can claim to have maintained the same status throughout the war? All of them have passed through various stages of affiliation with one or the other of the belligerents, ranging from unavowed collaboration to non-belligerent alliance, or even "moral belligerency." The swing of the pendulum from one to the other of the two warring blocs is perhaps most marked in the case of Sweden. The Swedes, like other wary bystanders, continually adjusted their concepts of neutrality in accordance with the demands of the winning side.


There are four distinct phases in the evolution of Sweden's policy of neutrality. In the short initial phase of the war, from September 1, 1939, to November 30, 1939, Sweden adhered strictly to the principles of neutrality laid down at The Hague Convention of 1907 and to the joint neutrality rules that had been drawn up by the five northern states of Europe at the Stockholm Conference of May 27, 1938. From the beginning of the war, the sympathies of the Swedish people lay overwhelmingly on the Allied side, but the government doggedly pursued a policy of absolute impartiality. However, during those months of "phony war" the government placed few restrictions on the comments of the Swedish press on the international situation, and there was little interference with the propaganda activities of either belligerent group. A close tab was kept on attempts at espionage, however. At the same time, the mobilization of Sweden's manpower and industrial resources in defense of neutrality, which had begun in 1936 and had progressed steadily year by year, was switched into high gear. Sweden's neutrality was armed and vigilant from the start, in marked contrast to the state of affairs in Denmark and Norway.

Russia's surprise attack on Finland, on the morning of November 30, 1939, brought the second period, which was to last until April 9, 1940. Sweden continued to observe strict neutrality in the conflict between Germany and the Allies, but for a variety of reasons she did not regard herself as equally committed to impartiality in the secondary struggle between Finland and the Soviet Union. Sweden had always looked upon Finland as the bulwark of her own security, and as a sister state. There is a Swedish minority of perhaps 10 percent within Finland's population, established centuries ago in the coastal regions of Finland. The policy of "Nordic collaboration," initiated in the middle thirties, had tied all the northern states closely together, in sentiment at least. And finally Swedish and Finnish interests in the strategic Aland Islands coincided; both countries were resolved to keep them out of reach of any Great Power.

The cry "Finland's cause is ours," which was launched by the Swedish interventionists as soon as the Russo-Finnish war broke out, had a tremendous echo throughout the country and profoundly affected government policies. Premier Per Albin Hansson and his Cabinet resisted the pressure for a declaration of war against Russia, but they went to the very edge of belligerency in lending unofficial assistance to the Finns. Swedish authorities not only tolerated the recruiting of volunteers for the Finnish Army, but openly encouraged and assisted the movement. About 9,000 volunteers crossed the Gulf of Bothnia, fully armed and equipped. And various public and private agencies in Sweden raised a total of 500,000,000 kronor (about $125,000,000) for the purchase of munitions, medical supplies and other materials of war for Finland.

This Swedish policy of unofficial intervention in the Russo-Finnish conflict was enthusiastically hailed in all democratic countries. The Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 was still in force. Foes of Germany and foes of Russia regretted only that Stockholm refused to go further and declare war, or at least permit the passage of Allied troops through Swedish territory. In mid-February 1940 the Swedish Government refused an official request from Helsinki for the dispatch of several Swedish divisions; and it also categorically rejected a British-French request for passage of three Allied divisions through northern Sweden. In retrospect, the Allies must shudder at the thought of what might have happened had Sweden granted this demand. All this time, the Kremlin contented itself with mild protests in Stockholm and, as far as is known, never even threatened to make war on Sweden in reprisal for actions which were admittedly unneutral. Future historians will decide what the reasons for this Soviet moderation were.

Though giving Finland all assistance short of war, the Swedish Government constantly sought to end the conflict by peaceful means. Germany, too, was then interested in a Russo-Finnish peace, and the two countries not unnaturally combined their efforts toward this end. Late in February 1940 the Swedish Government dispatched an unofficial emissary to Berlin, the noted explorer Sven Hedin, who was joined in the German capital by the industrialist Axel L. Wenner-Gren, summoned from the western hemisphere by an urgent personal message from Hermann Goering. The two Swedes, assisted by the German authorities, successfully acted as intermediators in Berlin, and other Russo-Finnish contacts were made in Stockholm. They led to the signing of peace on March 12.

The question of a defensive alliance between Sweden and Finland arose in connection with Finland's acceptance of the Russian peace terms, and was further discussed in the course of that fateful summer. However, when the Soviet Government registered its formal opposition to this scheme in December 1940, the Swedes dropped the idea, reverting for another few months to a state of harmonious relations with Moscow.


In the meantime, Sweden's will to neutrality had been put to an even greater test on another front. On April 9, 1940, German troops invaded Denmark and Norway. And the iron ring was drawn tighter around the last surviving neutral in northern Europe when, in the winter of that year, the Nazis surreptitiously occupied strategic positions in Finland. From the beginning of this third period the Nazis took full advantage of the stranglehold which they had obtained on Sweden's economy, and the power of life and death which they held over her contacts with the outside world.

German military movements in Norway, especially in the northernmost part of that country, were hampered by the sparsity of rail and road communications, and harassed by operations of the British Navy. Small Allied expeditionary forces had established bridgeheads in central and northern Norway, and the Norwegian Army was making a fighting retreat northward. Though the Germans enjoyed crushing numerical and material superiority in Norway, they found it convenient to press Sweden for permission to move troops and supplies over the Swedish railroad system to Trondheim and Narvik. The first request of the kind was made on April 25 and was followed by a series of diplomatic moves emphasizing the same point at intervals of a week or so up to June 6. The demands became ever more urgent and finally centered on relief for the hard-pressed German garrison of Narvik. The Allies had pushed the German invaders back into the mountains on the Swedish border at that point, scoring their only land success of the Norwegian campaign.

Sweden resisted the German pressure for a time, in spite of open threats of invasion, but eventually agreed to permit the dispatch of several trainloads of Red Cross personnel and medical supplies to the Nazi troops besieged in the mountains above Narvik. Norwegians have repeatedly asserted that the Germans grossly abused this privilege by sending troops, in Red Cross garb, and military supplies through Sweden. Stockholm has consistently denied these reports. Whatever the truth, the Germans were able to hold out and Narvik was evacuated by the Allies, one week before the fall of France.

After the Norwegian campaign had ended, the Swedish Government held that its obligations as a neutral would not be violated if it granted the incessant German requests for further transit privileges. On July 5, 1940, it was officially announced in Stockholm that an agreement had been concluded with Germany under which German officers and men, "principally on leave," would be allowed to travel unarmed over the Swedish railroad system. This so-called "leave traffic" was severely criticized both in Sweden and abroad, as incompatible with the obligations of neutrality. The Hague Convention explicitly forbids a neutral state to allow a belligerent to move troops, munitions or supplies across its territory. Sweden's contention that war in Norway had ended was scarcely sound, for Britain and Germany were still at war and the Nazis were preparing quite openly to attack the British Isles from Norway.

The exact nature and extent of the "leave traffic" is still very much a matter of dispute. Norwegian, Russian and other Allied sources -- and at least one Swedish newspaper of international reputation, the Göteborgs Handels-och-Sjöfartstidning -- have repeatedly maintained that the Germans took the opportunity to move major forces and heavy matériel into Norway. They insist also that the Nazis flouted the agreement forbidding them to carry arms on the Swedish trains by loading the troops in one train and their weapons in another following immediately behind. These charges have always been denied. On April 6, 1943, the American-Swedish News Exchange, an agency of the Swedish Board of Information, officially defined the extent of the leave traffic as follows: One train daily, in each direction, between Kornsjö [the Norwegian border station southeast of Oslo] and Hälsingborg or Trälleborg; three trains weekly in each direction between Narvik and Hälsingborg or Trälleborg; two trains weekly in each direction between Trondheim and Narvik over the Swedish inland trunk railway ["horseshoe traffic"]; two carriages twice weekly in each direction between Haparanda on the Finnish border and Storlien on the Norwegian border. Officers, travelling in special compartments, were allowed to carry their pistols; soldiers, only their bayonets, other arms not being allowed on the trains.

But quite apart from the question whether or not the Germans misused the transit privileges officially granted them, it is rather obvious that a regular railroad traffic of such dimensions cannot have served merely military personnel on leave. After the outbreak of the German-Russian war in June 1941, Sweden also complied with an urgent German request to allow passage across Swedish territory for one fully armed and equipped Nazi division on its way from Norway to Finland. According to the Völkischer Beobachter of August 24, 1941, this decision was forced through the Swedish Council of Ministers by the personal intervention of King Gustav V "against the trade union leaders." It aroused heated debate in Sweden and led to formal British and Russian protests in Stockholm. It could not possibly be brought into harmony with The Hague Convention, but Sweden's excuse was that it was a concession ad hoc, given for one division and never repeated.

As the Nazi ring around Sweden tightened still further and the German Armies marched triumphantly through Europe, the Swedish Government imposed increasingly severe restrictions on the expression of pro-Allied or anti-Nazi sentiments within Sweden. Books, newspapers and magazines were banned for giving offense to the German legation, and recalcitrant editors were dismissed or imprisoned. Even the mildest criticism of the Nazi régime was expunged from theatrical performances, moving pictures and various exhibitions, and public opinion was repeatedly warned not to bruise the sensitive feelings of the powerful neighbor in the south in any manner. This was a concession to the new theories of "integral neutrality" which had been evolved by Dr. E. H. Bockhoff and other Nazi neutrality experts. Staatsneutralität (neutrality of the state) was not enough, the Germans claimed, if a country wished to remain at peace with the Reich; it must be supplemented by Volksneutralität, or neutrality of the people, and Neutralität der Gesinnung, or ideological neutrality. The Germans openly declared that they would not feel bound to honor the proclaimed neutrality of any country in which public opinion was allowed to manifest hostility to the Reich or to the Nazi régime. With the fate of Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Norway and the Low Countries before their eyes, the Swedes did not feel like taking risks. Popular sympathies in Sweden never deserted the Allied cause even at its blackest hour, but most of Sweden's political and business leaders believed that the ultimate victory of Germany was certain. And for some time after the United States entered the war, they thought that a compromise peace which would leave German power intact was likely. Throughout the years 1940 to 1942 Swedish policy was determined by this estimate of the situation. Not until after the Russian victory at Stalingrad, and the Allied victory in Tunisia in the early part of 1943, did the Swedes seriously entertain the possibility of a crushing German defeat. The government then revised its concept of neutrality.


When the administrative checks on public opinion were relaxed somewhat in 1943, an increasingly urgent demand arose for the revocation of the German transit privileges. On April 5 a mass meeting held at the Stockholm Concert Hall adopted a strongly worded resolution asking the government to put an end to the "leave traffic." The Social Democratic federation of trade unions was prominent in the movement, and many other organizations and prominent individuals joined in the appeal. At the same time, Allied pressure on Sweden, which hitherto had been very light, increased. Late in July, following the collapse of the German summer offensive in the Kursk area, and the surge of the Soviet Armies toward Orel and Belgorod, the Swedish Government took the plunge. On August 5 Stockholm announced that an agreement had been reached with the Reich, suspending German transit privileges for war materials and for troops, effective August 15 and 20 respectively. Actually, it was a one-sided decision by Sweden, made after a reappraisal of Swedish interests.

A series of incidents followed that seemed deliberately provoked by Germany. On August 25 German warships sank two Swedish trawlers without warning in Danish waters, with the loss of 12 lives; a few days later a Nazi pursuit plane machine-gunned and downed the Swedish courier plane Gladan on its way home from England. These unwarranted attacks led to a warm controversy between Swedish and German newspapers which was further embittered when the Nazi persecution of Danish Jews began. Sweden not only offered asylum to thousands of Jews fleeing across the Oeresund, but on October 1 the Swedish Minister in Berlin lodged a formal protest against the deportation of Danish Jews to Poland. The Germans sharply rejected the protest as "meddling" in Germany's domestic affairs. Another Swedish courier plane, Gripen, was shot down by the Nazis on October 22, and a few days later the Germans temporarily suspended the safe-conduct granted a limited number of Swedish ships bringing essential supplies from overseas to Gothenburg. Swedish-German relations have since grown even more strained. In January 1944 cultural intercourse between the two countries was virtually broken off when Sweden, angered by the mass deportations of Norwegian students, declared that visiting German scholars were no longer welcome. Shortly after, the Swedish customs authorities discovered that the Germans were shipping thousands of detail military maps of Sweden to their forces in Norway and Finland.

On the eve of the invasion of France, the main issue between Sweden and the Allies involved Swedish trade in war materials with Germany. When the German-Swedish trade agreement had come up for renewal toward the end of 1943, Sweden, yielding to Allied demands, had sharply curtailed deliveries of iron ore and ball bearings, the two Swedish commodities most eagerly sought by the Germans. In 1944 Germany was scheduled to get only 7,100,000 tons of Swedish iron ore as compared with 10,200,000 tons in 1943, and $7,500,000 worth of ball and roller bearings as against amounts valued at $15,000,000. But Allied experts felt that even these reduced deliveries would go a long way toward offsetting the damage done to crucial German industries by bombing. In May 1944 the Allies clearly intimated that Sweden should completely halt the shipments of ball bearings at least. Sweden pled respect for her contract with Germany and her independence on vital supplies, especially coal, from that country, and at first refused to comply. Then she yielded in part. Under a compromise agreement announced June 13, shipments of ball bearings to the Reich in 1944 were limited to about 20 percent of the total of the preceding year. As we have noted, Sweden has now declared that the trade agreement with Germany will not be renewed in any form in 1945. And on September 5 the Swedish Minister of Social Welfare, Gustav Möller, declared that Sweden would not become a haven for war criminals, and he added: "If any such succeed in crossing our borders they will be sent back." Several Finnish refugees who were alleged to be war criminals have, in fact, already been turned away.

Even before the successful Allied invasion of Europe, Sweden had stretched out the hand of friendship to her traditional enemy, Russia. Swedish diplomacy vainly sought to prevent the renewal of hostilities between Finland and Russia in June 1941. When the fighting started again on that front, Sweden extended some material aid to Finland, though on a much smaller scale than in the winter of 1939-40. A few thousand Swedish volunteers joined the Finnish forces, but they received little official encouragement and by mid-summer of 1944 most of them had returned home. Sweden repeatedly advised Finland to seek peace with Russia at the earliest possible moment, and her good offices probably helped the Finns obtain their relatively moderate terms.

Swedish advances to Russia have become quite frequent and conspicuous. A Russian Institute was opened at Stockholm University, and an "Association for the Advancement of Cultural and Economic Relations between Sweden and the Soviet Republics" was founded. On November 7, 1943, it sponsored the first public celebration of the anniversary of the Bolshevist Revolution ever held in Stockholm. And the Swedish press is paying ever-increasing attention to the possibilities of a vast postwar trade with the Soviet Union. The Swedes, always practical-minded, will be guided by reason rather than by sentiment in their future relations with Russia.

Relations with the Norwegian Government, which had been markedly cool for some time after the Nazi invasion of Norway, also are on the upgrade. Normal diplomatic intercourse has been restored between the two countries, and more than 21,000 Norwegian refugees have been cared for in Sweden. Sweden has also placed a $50,000,000 credit at the disposal of the Norwegian Government for purposes of rehabilitation. By agreement with the lawful Norwegian Government, an auxiliary police force of about 11,000 Norwegian patriots has been trained in Swedish camps to assist in the restoration of orderly conditions after the downfall of the Quisling régime. Early in November 1944, to the great annoyance of the Germans, the vanguard of this force left for the Russian-liberated parts of north Norway. Probably not without reason, the Germans fear that these "policemen" will take an active part in chasing out the remaining Nazis on arrival in their homeland.

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  • JOACHIM JOESTEN, formerly correspondent in Scandinavia of several European newspapers and periodicals; author of "Rats in the Larder" and "Stalwart Sweden."
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