Swedish Neutrality in World War II: Fact or Fiction?

Swedish soldier during World War II

The Scandinavian Kingdom of Sweden declared neutrality during the Second World War but, was it really nonaligned?

Since 1815 when the Napoleonic Wars finally ended, Sweden had followed a policy of neutrality in global politics. Furthermore, they weren’t the only European state to declare neutrality: Switzerland, Spain, Portugal and Ireland as well as the tiny nations of Liechtenstein, Andorra and Vatican City also took a position of disinterest in the conflict.

However, with the possible exception of Switzerland, no other country has been more widely criticized for its war related activities.

Pre-war Circumstances in Sweden

The Swedish government had followed a policy of neutrality for over a century. Concerned over the expansionist policies of both, the Soviet Union and Germany in the Baltic, Stockholm saw itself as something of a barrier in the areas to both powers

Like most industrialized nations in the inter-war years, Sweden suffered serious economic woes and was deeply divided politically, economically and socially. Right wing and Communist groups were both working to undermine the democratic system.

Finally, in 1932, Per Albin Hansson, a social democrat, became Prime Minister, bringing about some unity. Except for a short period in 1935, Hansson would be the head of the Swedish government until passing away in 1946.

Alarmed by the deteriorating European situation, the Hansson government began a modernizing of the Armed Forces in 1936 and a draft was instituted two years later. Sweden tried to buy 300 military planes from the United States, but Washington stopped the deal after 60 had been supplied. Stockholm then turned to fascist Italy and got 200 combat aircraft.

Hansson made a point of letting the international community know that the military moves were purely defensive and that the country aspired to stay out of any possible conflict.

As War Approached……

In November 30, 1939 the Soviet Union invaded Finland. The Swedes declared themselves nonbelligerent instead of neutral and proceeded to send weapons, ammunition, medicine, food and clothing to the Finns. In addition some 8,000 men volunteered to fight the Soviets.

……And as the World Went to War

Both the Allies and the Axis had plans to invade Sweden. The German war machine was immensely reliant on imports of Swedish iron ore and Berlin meant to keep it flowing. London wanted to stop it. The British and German navies also blockaded Sweden.

Sweden began to walk a very narrow path, especially after April 9, 1940 when the German invaded Denmark and Norway. The German forces commanded the use of Swedish telephone and telegraph lines. The Swedes permitted this, but tapped the lines. Then in 1941, Stockholm allowed the transportation through its territory of German troops from Norway to Finland to take part in Operation Barbarossa – the invasion of the Soviet Union.

On the other hand, Sweden received upwards of 50,000 Norwegian and an undetermined number of Danish refugees and allowed them to undergo military training. Many of them would go back to fight for the freedom of their homelands.

Swedish diplomats and businessmen in Germany relayed intelligence information to the Allies and some acted as messengers for resistance movements in occupied Europe. Eventually Sweden would allow American warplanes to land in its airfield during the liberation of Norway.

The remains of a German V-2 rocket that crashed in Swedish territory on June 13, 1944 were traded to British Intelligence for British Spitfire fighters.

Compassionate Endeavors

But Sweden’s greatest contribution might have been in the protection of Jews. Not only did the policy of neutrality protect Swedish Jews, but allowed the government and private individuals to save thousands of lives. Jewish children were smuggled out of Germany and other occupied territories and placed with Swedish families. King Gustav V made an effort to elicit better behavior toward the Jews from the Nazi leadership. About 8,000 Danish Jews were smuggled into Sweden, preventing their deportation to concentration camps.

A couple of Swedish diplomats deserve particular mention. Count Folke Bernadotte not only provided valuable information to the Allies, but was the lynchpin in the negotiations for the liberation of 31,000 prisoners of concentration camps, including the 450 Danish Jews that had not been able to find refuge earlier in his country.

The most famous and successful of all Swedish diplomats who carried missions of mercy during the war was Raoul Wallenberg. The scion of a family with a long tradition in politics, banking and diplomacy, he was stationed in the Swedish embassy in Budapest toward the end of the war. Wallenberg is credited with saving about 100,000 Jews by either granting them Swedish passports or harboring them in buildings designated as Swedish territory.

Were the Swedes neutral beyond a doubt? Did they support the Allies or the Axis? Is there such thing as true neutrality? I, for one, do not have a definite answer to any of those questions.