In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the bloody trauma of World War I was still lingering in Europe’s collective memory. It should be no surprise, then, that many countries wanted nothing to do with another conflict.
Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Netherlands declared their neutrality to keep the war away from their borders.
But very few of these countries succeeded in staying neutral for a long. Instead, one by one, most of them saw their neutrality violated by either Germany or the Soviet Union.
Sweden was one of the few exceptions. Throughout the war, Sweden avoided invasion and maintained a social democratic government.
It took in Jewish refugees from neighboring countries and looked after the safety and security of its people. And it managed to do so even as the war raged on at its doorstep.
How could Sweden maintain its neutrality even as the Axis powers were gobbling up its neighbors?
The answer is that it did so by paying a heavy price. Sweden’s government made compromises with both sides throughout the war. And these compromises cast doubt on whether or not this Scandinavian country can really even be considered neutral at all.
It turns out that neutrality is never a black-and-white issue, and we need not look any further than the history of Sweden to see just how tricky neutrality can be.
What Does it (Really) Mean to Be Neutral?
Any country can declare itself neutral, but the reality is always more complicated once war breaks out. A common misconception about neutrality is that a country ceases to have any diplomatic or commercial contact with belligerent nations.
But that’s just not the case. To be neutral does not obligate a country to stop trading with a country at war, nor does a neutral country have to withdraw its diplomats. As long as they’re not directly providing war material to belligerent nations, there is no prohibition against trade or diplomacy.
This means that throughout World War II, Sweden continued to trade with Germany and Japan without violating the neutrality law. Sweden was just as active in diplomacy as well. In fact, the number of Swedish diplomats in Japan actually increased as the war went on.
Still, when it comes to the pragmatic decisions of war, there are plenty of gray areas in which the law of neutrality does not always provide a clear-cut answer.
To get a better idea of how Sweden really positioned itself between the two opposing sides, we have to look at how events unfolded, the challenges the country faced, and how the government responded to an increasingly dire situation.
Sweden’s Geography Created Challenges
When Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, Sweden was in a precarious situation. Just weeks before the invasion, Hitler and Stalin had signed a non-aggression pact, which gave both powers free reign to carry out their territorial ambitions in Europe.
In November, Stalin invaded Finland, which marked the beginning of the so-called “Winter War.” The following year the Red Army continued its expansion, occupying the newly created Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Hitler didn’t sit still, either. In April 1940, he invaded Denmark and Norway. A month later, he sent his armies to Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France.
At the start of the war, Sweden was already in a delicate position due to Germany’s proximity to the south and the Soviet Union to the east. Now, its leaders could only watch as the two power-hungry dictators inched closer and closer to Sweden’s borders.
Sweden’s leaders had no illusions about the ability of their neutral status to protect them. Denmark and Norway, which neighbor Sweden to the south and west, had also declared themselves neutral at the outset of the war; but that did nothing to stop Hitler’s armies.
The German dictator quickly made it very clear that he had no qualms about invading a neutral country.
Even the Allies ignored neutrality when it went against their interests. For example, after Germany invaded Denmark, Britain occupied Iceland in anticipation of another German strike.
It was a bloodless invasion in which the worst casualty was a broken down door, but it nonetheless violated a sovereign state’s neutrality.
More egregiously, when Britain and the USSR invaded Iran the following year, hundreds of Iranians – both civilians and military personnel – died trying to defend their country.
Considering these events, it’s no wonder that Swedish leaders worried about an invasion. After all, Sweden had spent much of the previous decade reducing the size of its military and knew it could do little to defend itself against an attack.
That fear would force Sweden to make some difficult decisions, many of which directly contributed to strengthening Germany.
Germany Depended on Sweden for Trade
The decisions taken by Sweden’s government during the war were a direct result of events outside of their control. As the war machines of Germany and the USSR rolled across the continent, the main Swedish concern was how to prevent a war on Swedish soil.
Sweden was caught between the desires of the Allies and the Axis Powers and had to compromise constantly to keep from being pulled too far towards one side or the other.
When the Soviet Union invaded Finland in the winter of 1940, Sweden provided the Finnish defenders with food, weapons, and ammunition.
Their shared history with Finland meant that much of the Swedish population felt strong sympathy toward their Scandinavian brethren. As the Finns clashed with the Red Army next door, some Swedish leaders even discussed the possibility of sending troops to their aid.
Regarding Sweden’s western neighbor, Norway, their support was only fleeting. Since the beginning of the war, Hitler had tried to negotiate to gain a foothold in the northernmost area of Sweden, which was rich in iron ore.
Iron ore was a crucial material for much of Germany’s military industry and a rare resource in the rest of Europe. Gaining access to Sweden’s iron became a German priority in the region since its military would be crippled without it. When war broke out in 1939, Germany had already imported 40 percent of its iron ore from Sweden.
When Germany invaded Norway in April 1940, Sweden argued that granting Germany access to their iron ore would mean betraying their Scandinavian neighbors, who were at that moment defending themselves against the German assault. But that argument didn’t stand for very long.
Once the Allied forces pulled out of Norway, Sweden was left with no other option but to cave to Germany’s demands. From that moment on, Sweden permitted German troops to use its rail lines and established an annual iron quota with Germany.
The threats that Sweden faced were not just military in nature. They were also commercial. Just as Germany depended on Sweden for its iron, Sweden got 21 percent of its imports from Germany.
As Germany gained an ever stronger foothold in Europe during the early years of the war, Sweden’s imports from Germany rose to as high as 37 percent. Considering the scarcity of goods during the war years, it could be argued that Sweden would have been hard-pressed to reduce its level of trade.
Sweden’s Humanitarian Efforts
Anti-semitism was not just a German trait. Jewish people were persecuted all throughout Europe, including in Sweden, where many people feared that Jewish immigrants would take their jobs.
For example, during the 1930s and continuing throughout the war, Sweden severely restricted the immigration of Jewish people into the country.
It wasn’t until news broke of the Nazi death camps that Swedish attitudes and policies began to shift. While many Swedes still resented the influx of Jews, they were even more disgusted by the inhumane policies of the Nazis.
To Sweden’s credit, the government did eventually take real steps toward protecting Jews both within Sweden and beyond its borders.
In the wake of Germany’s occupation of Norway, hundreds of Jews were given Swedish papers to cross the border safely. By 1943, Sweden opened its border to thousands of Danish Jews as well, in response to an anticipated Gestapo raid in Denmark.
This policy flew in the face of Germany’s own plans and demonstrated a clear show of support for the plight of Scandinavian Jews.
Finally, when Germany invaded Hungary in March 1944, Jews there found two important allies among the Swedish people. First, the Swedish king Gustav V persuaded Hungarian leaders to hold off on sending Jews to concentration camps, which bought them precious time.
Second, a Swedish man named Raoul Wallenberg was sent to Hungary to try and secure the safety of as many Jews as possible.
As had been done with the Norwegians, Wallenberg provided false Swedish papers to thousands of Hungarian Jews.
Surprisingly, the Germans went along with these false papers. Wallenberg then rented thirty-two buildings, which he designated as Swedish territory. Ultimately, it is estimated that Wallenberg saved at least 20,000 Hungarian Jews in this way.
Sweden Accepted Looted Gold From Holocaust Victims
On the other hand, in the 1990s, journalists uncovered the unsavory fact that several neutral nations had operated as fiscal havens for Nazi gold and treasure throughout World War II.
Sweden was one of these beneficiaries and may have received up to 38 tons of gold from Germany in exchange for exports.
Much of this gold was looted from Jews, who were subsequently shipped off to concentration camps. The gold had an even more sinister origin in some cases, consisting of “melted gold teeth, wedding rings and golden glass frames taken from Jews at Auschwitz and other death camps.”
The Swedish government tried to keep the gold’s origin a secret by stamping the bars with the Swedish insignia, but after the war, the truth got out.
Sweden did cooperate with investigators as they worked to uncover the full extent of the trade; however, it doesn’t erase the mark that this left on Swedish history.
Sweden Provided Help to the Allies
Finally, we come to the Allies. While Sweden found itself within Germany’s sphere of influence during the first few years of the war, things changed by the middle of the war.
In May 1943, Sweden began re-establishing trade routes with the Allied powers after having been largely cut off by a German blockade in the early stages of the conflict.
One of Sweden’s most important contributions to the Allies came in the form of ball bearings. These were crucial for the operation of everything from tanks to airplanes to machine guns, and Sweden’s ball bearings were known to be of the highest quality.
For years, Sweden deliberately violated its trade agreement with Germany by smuggling ball bearings to Britain by both air and sea.
Sweden also provided intelligence to the Allies. For example, Sweden allowed Britain to gather critical information about German supply lines, troop movements, and possible attacks.
Information gathered in Sweden also helped Britain shore up its vulnerabilities, particularly concerning sea traffic between the two countries.
As helpful as Sweden may have been to the Allies, Germany benefited far more. Swedish ball bearings sent to Germany represented about 58 percent of its total, while for Britain, only 38 percent. Regarding intelligence, Sweden was home to agents from the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, and Germany.
Ultimately, the picture that emerges of Sweden during World War II is of a country whose primary interest was in its survival and self-determination.
With a limited fighting capacity, Sweden had to rely on what bargaining chips it had available to it. Unfortunately, Sweden often ended up as a pawn serving Hitler’s war aims.
However, when judging Sweden’s role in the war it’s important to remember Sweden’s unfortunate geographic location. One Swedish journalist perhaps summed up Sweden’s position most accurately when he said, “Sweden was not neutral, Sweden was weak.”