Sweden maintained a policy of neutrality throughout World War II. Although the fate of the great Scandinavian state was, in the very least, unclear at the beginning of the conflict, Sweden managed to maintain official political neutrality throughout it all. A combination of geopolitical location (the Scandinavian Peninsula proved to be fruitful during this period of global uncertainty) and successful diplomatic factors (realpolitik) during the unpredictable timeline of the Second World War allowed Sweden to sit through, in short, a Cold War.
Now of course, the Cold War in history is between that of America and the Soviet Union. Capitalism versus communism, a race for science and mankind. But, if you think about it, World War II was — in some ways — a Cold War for Sweden.
Of course, true neutrality can be questioned when it comes to Swedish history. Despite a British naval blockade against Nazi Germany, Sweden exported tons of iron ore to supply Germany’s war industry. All of this trade centered itself in the Norwegian port of Narvik, off the shores of Ofotfjorden.
Iron ore from Sweden was an important economic factor throughout World War II. Both the Allied Powers and the Third Reich frantically scattered to gain control — either physically or capitally — of the mining district in northernmost Sweden and Noway.
The importance of Sweden’s iron resources, despite Sweden’s political neutrality, increased severely after the British completed the sea blockade in the Battle of the Atlantic. This pushed for increasingly dangerous relations between nations like Denmark and Germany. The “safehaven” of Scandinavia found itself on a bit of a Cold War front with everyone through their neutral behavior instead of jumping onto a side in the ongoing world war.
When the Baltic ports froze over and British intelligence discovered Germans shipping the iron ore from the Norwegian port of Narvik, Winston Churchill pushed for the Royal Navy to prevent Germans from travelling inside neutral territorial waters (such as Sweden and Norway) to escape Allied Contraband Control measures. Neutral waters could not be a safehaven for the Axis Powers, especially Hitler’s Germany.
Perhaps we can see a little bit of a break away from what is known as true neutralism from this relation in trade. Nazi Germany and its war industry was, at one point, completely dependent to Swedish iron ore shipments. This became a primary reason for the allied power to launch Operation Wilfred and the Norwegian Campaign in early April 1940.
Of course, World War II would eventually end. Hitler is dead, the Allied forces have won, and the struggles of a post-war Europe would contribute to border problems for decades to come. But the biggest impact of a post-war world?
Tensions between the victors.
The United States and the Soviet Union found themselves in a predicament: they didn’t trust each other. They had worked, reluctantly, on the same side throughout the war without sharing any of the same political of social beliefs. The language barrier limited interaction and similarity. The political ideologies — that of capitalism and communism — set off sparks in Moscow and Washington. The brutal fists of Stalin and Truman/Eisenhower locked tightly around regional control. The idea of Poland being used as border control by a paranoid Stalin irked America.
So, what happened? A Cold War. A state of political hostility ripped apart the former allies. Propaganda panicked the public on both sides. The Soviet bloc understood that the States had the materials to bring the war to their backyards while they couldn’t focus on proper offense after the devastating Second World War. Pressure was on between political powerhouses.
Sweden maintained its policy of “neutrality” after the end of WWII, despite the immense amount of cooperation offered and gained with the Western Allies. During the early stages of the Cold War, this neutral policy was maintained, perhaps even stronger than ever before, even though Sweden’s leaders understood that such neutrality would fail in a third world war. Cooperating with the Soviet’s enemies at all after this point would certainly drag border tension no matter what kind of realpolitik was claimed.
The aim of this strange “neutral” policy was to avoid a violent nuclear exchange between the superpowers. Close to the Russian borders, Sweden didn’t necessarily want to be a testing ground or in the middle of fire between two global superpowers.
Sweden would attempt to protect itself, as well. After the end of World War II, Sweden quietly yet rigorously pursued an aggressive and completely independent nuclear weapons program (involving plutonium production and nuclear secrets acquisition from all nuclear powers), until the 1960s. It was nearly abandoned when Sweden realized the costs were too high, but the idea of protecting themselves from the Soviet Union remained. Sweden’s signing of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968 began the end for the program, which finally concluded in 1972.
As the end of the Cold War approached and the Soviet Union began to fall, Sweden unofficially dropped the principle of neutrality it held near and dear for so long. Despite staying non-aligned to many political foundations and struggles, Sweden has managed to break away from staying isolated from politics. In 1994 a 52% majority within the Swedish European Union membership referendum approved Sweden entering the EU. The next year, 1995, they became the 15th country to officially join it.
But now, fast forward. Could Sweden be on the verge of yet another Cold War? Could the fears of former Swedish leaders be true? By breaking true neutrality, has history proven for tough relations between Sweden and Russia — the former core of the Soviet Union?
In the middle of the modern day Baltic Sea, a former Cold War frontier of itself, a spotlight of political provocation may be the first signs of a problem.
With Russia’s unpredictable political behavior pressing against Sweden, the island of Gotland has once again become an important and strategic military frontier.
At one point, 15,000 to 20,000 Swedish soldiers were stationed here — at the very height of the Cold War while Sweden deeply desired a defensive aim towards the Russians. But after twenty years, the military positioning of Gotland has been (for the most part) abandoned. Former barracks have morphed into local government buildings. Tourism continues throughout not the height of a war but the height of a season.
However, as Russian military activities increase significantly in the Baltic Sea, Sweden is prepared to reactivate a former Cold War and Second World War front.
“What we can see is that there are more exercises, more military activities in the Baltic Sea,” Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist tells Paul Adams, a diplomatic correspondent at BBC, “We can also see more proactive activities, flying close to our aircraft.”
In recent years, political tensions have been noticeable between the two countries. According to NATO, The Russian air-force conducted a “mock nuclear strike against Sweden” less than three years ago.
Russia’s ministry of defence has not publicly responded to the claims, but one retired general told the Telegraph that the report was “nonsense designed to stir up hysteria about the Baltic states”.
However, with Russian military tension occurring in the south after the 2014 annexation of Crimea (alongside the war in eastern Ukraine), the Baltic States (along with the rest of Europe) have reached paranoia levels that are about to reach that of the Cold War.
Could Sweden continue realpolitik as they did in the Second World War? Will the geopolitical location of Scandinavia save them from “war” again? Is Europe teetering on a new Cold War…perhaps this one between moderate “neutral” Baltic states and Russia? Or, even worse, could the political fear of Sweden’s leaders in the fifties and sixties be correct: could a Third World War be brewing right before our very eyes?
- Carlgren, W. M. Swedish foreign policy during the Second World War (London: E. Benn, 1977)
- Gilmour, John. Sweden, the Swastika, and Stalin: The Swedish Experience in the Second World War (2011)