Analysis: How neutral was Sweden really in World War Two?

Analysis: How neutral was Sweden really in World War Two?
A group of Norwegian refugees arrives in Sweden in February 1945. Photo: TT.
The issue of Swedish neutrality during World War Two is not as straightforward as it may seem. While the country maintains its reputation of a peaceful nation, historians question the validity of this self-image, writes Anne Grietje Franssen in this analysis piece.

The year is 1938 and the prospects are ominous. In February, the German Chancellor Adolf Hitler has dissolved the Ministry of War and established the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, granting him direct control over the army.

In the months that follow, Hitler asserts his power, his megalomania and his urge to expand: first with the Anschluss of Austria, then with the occupation of Sudetenland and the Kristallnacht – a prelude to the Holocaust. Europe is a reluctant bystander.

Against this backdrop, Swedish Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson prepares the country for what already seems inevitable. A second Great War is heading for Europe.

Remembering the war

In the first 50 years after the armistice of 1945, the common narrative in Sweden was one of 'small-state realism': Sweden had acted conscientiously within the perimeters of feasibility, determined by its geopolitical situation, its location and its pre-existing relations.

And just like elsewhere in Europe, the heroism of a couple of Swedish individuals was magnified, symbolically transferring their virtue to the entire population. While other countries worshipped their resistance fighters, Sweden canonised Raoul Wallenberg, who saved the lives of tens of thousands of Jews in Hungary, or Folke Bernadotte, who mobilised the Red Cross in the war's final year which, in turn, liberated 20,000 concentration camp prisoners.

Yet this national memory of Sweden's role in the war era as defensible and morally upright, diminished with the end of the Cold War. The German historian Nicolas Berg coined the term 'Erinnerungskämpfe', the memory feud. Was there another story to tell about that same past? What part had Sweden had in the Holocaust, with its iron ore trade and its initial unwillingness to open up its borders for Jewish refugees?

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Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson giving a radio address in 1936. Photo: TT

Food shortages

During World War One, between 1914 and 1919, both Sweden and its Nordic neighbours had managed to stay outside the conflict. Yet Scandinavia had still paid a price. Not on the front line or in the trenches, but within the safety of people's homes.

The Prime Minister of Sweden at the time, Hjalmar Hammarskjöld, father of the future UN Secretary General Dan Hammarskjöld, pursued a policy of puritan neutrality, thwarting relations with war-torn Europe. Trade with the continent halted, resulting in dire food shortages and Sweden, neutral though it was, experienced its own winter of war.

Hammerskjöld's stubbornness forced him to resign in 1917. Hungerskjöld, he came to be called.

Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson wouldn't stretch neutrality this far, he reassured his subjects in 1938: “The Swedish Party is not prepared for absolute neutrality. We say instead 'we shall keep ourselves out of war'. But can we also achieve that? If a situation arises where we cannot keep ourselves out, then we must make sure that we come in on the right side… We must look further than neutrality.”


That Sweden's neutrality wasn't absolute became apparent soon after the outbreak of World War Two when the Soviet Union invaded Finland – a country that shared a long history with Sweden. The official government policy was changed from 'neutral' to 'non-belligerent', so as to be able to supply Finland with food and medical supplies.

But Swedish involvement wouldn't be limited to humanitarian aid to a friendly nation. Quite the contrary: the country's subsequent breach of neutrality would damage traditional loyalties. When Hitler invaded Norway in April 1940, Sweden suddenly bordered two occupied countries.

In order to satisfy Nazi Germany, Sweden resolved to make a concession: the government opened its railways to German 'civil' transports to and from Norway, such as wounded troops and unarmed marines.

To the Axis power, this amounted to a clear message: Sweden stands favourably towards the Third Reich. Nazi Germany asked for yet another favour – this time for the transportation of hundred carriages with military equipment. “If you want a conflict, you can get it,” marshal Hermann Göring had added threateningly.

German refugees arrive in Sweden, in 1940. Photo: TT
German refugees arrive in Sweden, in 1940. Photo: TT

After ample deliberation the Swedish government decided to deny the Third Reich its request, despite sounds of approval from members of the royal family and the ministry of foreign affairs. The political decision had, however, little to do with principles; the government feared for an Allied retaliation, had they made another concession to Hitler.

“So now we have broken our precious and strict neutrality,” Prime Minister Hansson wrote in his journal, “knowing that, in the current situation, it is unreasonable to take the risk of war”.

“The real significance of the concession was political,” researcher John Gilmour at the University of Edinburgh wrote in his book Sweden, the Swastika and Stalin. The confrontation with Nazi Germany demonstrated that a democratic country such as Sweden could be forced to give up its neutrality to protect its independence.

The fact that Sweden didn't dare to take a stance against the German aggressor became glaring once again in 1941, when the government refused to recognise the Norwegian government in exile as Norway's only legitimate regime. The Swedish government regarded thousands of Norwegian refugees primarily as a 'risk to security' and Prime Minister Hansson failed to reprimand Nazi Germany for the violent display of power in the neighbouring country, which, like Finland, was generally regarded as an informal ally.

Public opinion

Swedish perspectives vis-a-vis Nazi Germany varied widely. The royal family and the Swedish elite traditionally had had close ties to their German counterparts and tended to be sympathetic towards Hitler. In stark contrast to this (initial) acquiescence was the public opinion, voiced through popular media, which was utterly disapproving, not only of Germany but also of the Swedish government which, according to some talking heads, had been far too complacent.

These critical voices were answered with censorship. A 'caution-before-everything' policy prompted the Swedish government to seize 17 publications that had voiced their dismay with German torture of Norwegian resistance fighters. The Swedish government feared that these anti-German sentiments would result in retributions.

Yet the most controversial chapter of Sweden's war history concerned the continuous iron ore exports to the Third Reich. Nazi Germany used millions of tonnes of Swedish iron ore and ball bearings for its weapon production. Sir Ralph Glyn, member of the British parliament during the war years, would later state that suspension of the iron ore trade would have “resulted in an immediate ceasefire”.

Stockholmers reading news bulletins after the war broke out. Photo: TT

Swedish transports accounted for approximately 60 percent of German and 30 percent of British iron ore reserves during World War Two, according to Deputy Head of Department at the School of Economics at the University of Surrey Eric Golson, who specialises in (the history of) economic warfare. Did Sweden contribute to the continuation of the war? “Most likely, yes,” Golson confirmed. “The production of aircrafts and tanks would have been considerably more difficult had Sweden cut off its supplies.”

The iron ore exports were part of a series of compromises, Golson continued. “Without this trade agreement, Sweden would have been deprived of food and electricity, just as during the previous Great War. Yes, it probably prolonged the war, but it was also necessary for Swedes to survive.”

Not only would discontinued trade have caused severe scarcity, but there was also the real chance that “someone would have invaded”, according to Golson.

“During the early years of the war”, the researcher said, “a trading halt would have led to serious problems, but as Nazi Germany weakened, iron ore shipments also declined”. The Swedish government argued that, in the second half of the war, it was unlikely that Hitler had the resources and manpower to occupy Sweden. From then onwards, Swedish diplomacy was increasingly directed by the Allies.

Trade with Great Britain increased, Swedes aided the Allied powers in gathering intelligence and the country opened up its airbases to American aircrafts. During the last years of the war, the Nordic nation also welcomed thousands of Jewish refugees, 6,000 of whom came from Denmark.

“The government conducted politics of adaptation”, senior lecturer Johan Östling at Lund University explained. Sweden wasn't led by any ideology, but by pragmatism, and turned left or right – depending on what was deemed the most beneficial alliance at the time.

“The country conducted the realpolitik of a small state,” Östling said, meaning that Sweden conformed to the strongest party with self-preservation – and not neutrality per se – as its objective.

Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest during WWII. Photo: TT.
Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest during World War Two. Photo: TT

Danish refugees

Was it, indeed, realpolitik? “That's truly debatable,” Östling said. “Sweden wanted to avoid occupation at all cost. This did not only benefit Sweden, but also its neighbours: had Sweden lost its sovereignty, Danish and Norwegian refugees would not have stood a chance.”

Yet, Östling said, some critical footnotes are in place. Particularly concerning the Swedish refugee policy, which was extremely restrictive prior to and during the early years of World War Two, preventing Jews fleeing continental Europe to find refuge in the European north. And, Östling continued: censorship might have been excessively repressive. “We would probably have managed with a somewhat freer press.”

But to pass judgment in retrospect is all too easy. “We must at least try to empathise with the precarious situation in which Sweden found itself. Could the government have acted more courageously? How far could Sweden have gone without provoking the Germans to declare war on us, too?”

In the 1990s, young historians' introspection began to drown out the 'small-state realism' argument of their predecessors. This fresh approach reflected a development elsewhere in Europe, where countries such as France and the Netherlands had started to scrutinise their formerly patriotic narratives.

New generations of historians rejected the previous self-justification: how widespread had the resistance movement really been, and hadn't the government been too compliant? Half a century after the fact, the war legacy was no longer as clear-cut as it once seemed.

The leitmotiv of the Swedish counter-narrative became that the government, in its ruthless pragmatism, had behaved immorally and irresponsibly. The concession policies had supposedly prolonged the war, and thereby also the Shoah.

It wasn't a coincidence, Östling said, that this memory shift ran parallel with other countries reinvestigating their own, flawed past. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the continent felt an increasing need for a European solidarity. Countries like Sweden, that joined the European Union in the 1990s, began to revise their respective national memories in favour of a common, European story. In the words of historian Klas-Göran Karlsson, Sweden, although belatedly, had to “come to terms with the unifying experience of war and its symbolism”.

It once again underlined that the way we remember says at least as much about the present as it does about the past.

Yet one narrative hasn't replaced the other. Different perspectives on the war nowadays exist side by side, according to Östling. Thus, the Swedish story of neutrality still echoes – within and beyond the national borders. The international community, moreover, at times seems to confuse Sweden's supposed neutrality with pacifism, though pacifism is grounded in ideology, Swedish neutrality in self-conservation.

But even Sweden clings to this peace-loving self-image. From time to time, a politician stands up and tries to open the door towards Nato membership – only to get it slammed back in their face. Though Sweden conducts large-scale military exercises with Nato members and has reintroduced compulsory conscription for fear of the 'Russian aggressor', Nato membership proves to be a symbolic bridge too far, for the country that owes its moral superiority in part to this neutrality saga.

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  1. A well balanced article. As a historian with an interest in WW2 i have often been surprised by (a) the misconception that neutraily equates to pacifism and (b) the fact that for most of the war Sweden was not technically neutral like Switzerland but non-belligerent, as the atricle rightly points out. The only interesting fact that perhaps might have mentioned was that nearly 7,000 Swedish volunteers went to fight on Finland’s side in 1940 (the ‘frivilligkaren’). Again, thanks for publishing this interesting article.

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