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Swedish history: 1914--1945 (the s.c.nordic FAQ)
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The home pages for the Usenet newsgroup soc.culture.nordic
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Swedish history: 1914--1945


7.3.6 War all around Sweden

During the 20th century Sweden manages to stay out of both World Wars, achieves a high standard of living and becomes an urbanized welfare state.

The parishes are merged to municipalities and then merged again to even bigger municipalities, and then again.

The share of the population working on farms drops dramatically, from 80%, to 25% in the 1950s, and levels finally out at 2.5%.


The union with Norway is ceased without violence, and almost without threats. (Germany's Emperor had refused Sweden military support.)

The workers' unions organize several massive strikes, frightening the upper class. The proposal to equal votes for men was made by a conservative cabinet which feared a revolution as the alternative.

World War 1914-1918

Sweden declares itself neutral in the world war. Contacts with, and sympathies for, the German Empire are however common.

In February, half a year before the war, King Gustav V addresses the participants of a militarist demonstration (borggårdstalet) expressing support for Germany and the possibility of Sweden joining the war. As a result the Cabinet resigns, and the king appoints (for the last time) a Cabinet without support by the parliament.

Sweden does not suffer much for the war - except for shortage of food at the end of the war.

During the Civil War in Finland a voluntary Corps (Svenska Frivilligkåren) operated on the White side. It numbered about 8,000 Swedes and circa 700 Norwegians.

Åland crisis 1918-1921

The most "violent" actions were connected to Åland where the population against the wills of Russia and the liberating Finland wished to become a part of Sweden, expressed in a petition December 1917 (organized without support from the government of Finland, which December 6th had proclaimed Finland's independence). The petition was signed by over 95% of the adult population.

February 1918 the Swedish Cabinet decided to send war ships to rescue refugees fearing Russian prosecution for their separatistic plans.

As the Civil War in Finland the very same week extended to the Åland Islands, Swedish naval officers mediated between the combatants who started to leave the islands. A few days later troops from Finland again prepared to land on Åland, and the Swedish Cabinet decided to send a Swedish unit for the protection of the civilians. The departure of 600 man from Sweden followed on February 23rd.

Swedish troops were gradually retracted after also German troops had arrived on March 5th.

In December 1918 an agreement was made between Sweden, Finland and Germany that the old Russian forts where to be destroyed, which was done in 1919.

In 1920 the issue was still hot and the unofficial Åland county council sent representatives to Stockholm, to remind the Swedish government about the wish to re-unite with Sweden. Two leading officials from Åland were subsequently imprisoned in Finland, accused of high treason, and the Swedish government continued its careful neutrality policy from the previous century, trying to achieve the best possible relations with its neighbors instead of prioritizing the Åland people's wish and the strategic interest in the islands for the defense of Stockholm.

The League of Nations settled the question in 1921 by demanding Finland and Sweden agree on a treaty guaranteeing Finland's sovereignty but the Åland people far-reaching autonomy. The treaty is still valid.



Industry workers get 48 hours working week in year 1919. The Social Democrats dominate the political life in most towns and in the parliament.

Sweden's political development to a parliamentarian democracy, with equal rights for all citizens to participate in elections on municipal and state level, was somewhat delayed compared to the other Nordic countries.

It was first towards the end of World War I as the king accepted the principle of parliamentarism, i. e. that the king's councillors, the Cabinet members, had to resign if they lost the confidence of the majority in the parliament.

In 1917 King Gustav V unwillingly had to appoint a Cabinet with Liberals and Social Democrats, but thereby the revolutionary impulses from Germany, Russia and Finland were smothered, and the final steps toward equal suffrage for men and women were taken peacefully. Equal suffrage was decided upon in 1918 and in use from the parliamentary elections 1921.

Until 1917 the governments were mostly Conservative, 1917-1926 Social Democrats formed most Cabinets, sometimes in coalition with Liberals. In 1932 the Social Democrats returned to the Cabinet, and except for a few months the summer 1936 they remained at power until 1976.

I. e. from 1917 until today Social Democrats have been in the Cabinet all the time except:

¹/(turbulent period, some Cabinets with Social Democrats)

After the first World War a strong popular opinion for disarmament became a major political topic, in line with other West European democracies.


Sweden was without doubt Germany-oriented and Germany-friendly, and to a considerable degree the ideological climate in Germany influented the Swedish society. Social Democrats had their most international contacts with Germany and Austria, and like-wisely the educated class had close connections to Germany.

German universities were close - and the best in the world. In Sweden higher education was performed with German textbooks and Germany-educated professors. The Swedish establishement felt akin to the Germans. Germany's period of weaknes after the unjust Versaille peace, with the Weimar Republic and political instability, was grieved in Sweden as in Germany. And thus the "National awakening" after Hitler gaining power was generally understood as good for Germany, or at least as much better than the alternative.

What was right for Germany was however not neccessarily right for Sweden. The Swedish Nazi parties got their best results in the parliament elections 1932, with 10,000 votes. They never got represented in the parliament.

In 1931 a protest marsh in Ådalen against strike-breachers resulted in assault and battery of the latter. The protest-marsh was repeated the following day, when military troops were ordered to protect the strike-breachers. The military performed their task: five strikers were killed and five wounded. In the following parliament debate support for the violent strikers was to find among Communists, but not so much among Social Democrats who wanted to avoid the situation in Germany (and earlier in Finland) where militias and armed political corpses had made the cities to regular battlefields.

Wearing of political uniforms in public was banned in 1933, and also membership in organizations aiming at armed support /protection of political groupings was forbid. This was directed against both Right-wing and Left-wing militias, however the initial event triggering the law had been a private "anti aircraft corps" in Stockholm with Fascist connections.

In 1938 far reaching agreements between workers' and employers' unions (Saltsjöbadsavtalet) marked the radical change in the relations between employers and workers' unions. Instead of the frequent and big strikes of the time around the W.W.I the situation for the following decades got characterized by nationwide agreements and few and short conflicts.

Social Issues

Like in other European countries Social Problems became an issue during the 19th century. With the increasing political rights for common men, questions such as hospitals and caring for the elderly and the poor had become a hot topic in the responsible democratically elected bodies.

Caring for the poor had in theory been a responsibility of the State since the Reformation 1527, which the State solved by requiring the poor to beg only within the borders of the parish they belonged to. At the end of the Frihetstiden, year 1764, towns and parishes also formally got the responsibility for the caring for the elderly which they in practice had always had. From 1847 towns and municipalities were required to support also other poor, and begging was prohibited.

Since the Reformation the need for hospitals had been neglected until the early 18th century, when hospitals were organized in Uppsala (1708), Stockholm (1752) and Lund (1768). These were financed by grants collected at baptisms, weddings and funerals. Now hospitals were made a responsibility for the Landsting (independent provincial governments introduced 1864) while psychiatric asylums were funded and run by the State from the end of the 19th century on.

By the turn of the century, towns and municipalities began to construct old people's homes with the goal to differentiate between the elderly and other poor, as for instance children, alcoholics and insanes.

National basic old age pension was decided upon in 1913, and a few years later mandatory insurance for occupational injuries in the industries.

The inclusion of women in the politics (from the early 1920s on) gave new impetus for Social Issues, and was immediately followed by a referendum over prohibition of distilled liquors 1922. In opposite to Iceland, Norway, Finland and the US (where prohibition had been introduced 1912, 1916, 1919 and 1922 respectively) Sweden's prohibition referendum turned out a very narrow race, with 49.3% voting for prohibition and 50.7% voting against. The result was thus no prohibition but a continuation of the rationing system (called the Bratt System after Dr Ivar Bratt) introduced in Stockholm February 26th 1914 and in force in all of the country since 1919.

The Bratt System was based on a strict licensing procedure for restaurants with extensive veto rights for local authorities, and individual rations for adult citizens to secure that each individual wasn't allowed to buy more than one could consume without harm for oneself or one's family. In practice this meant that the wealthy were allowed to buy more than the poor, and men allowed to buy more than women. Except for at restaurants, the purchases were noted in individual books (motbok) which like bankbooks were to be presented at the liquor store. Wine, beer and distilled liquors were sold by the glass only in connection with meals and only at licensed restaurants and cafés - and sold in bottles only by the Systembolaget's monopoly liquor stores. The Bratt rationing system was abolished in 1955, but the monopoly for sale of liquors, wine and beers (with more than 2.8% alcohol) still remains.

After the world wide financial turbulence around 1930, the State came to play a much more active role - for instance through state subsidies for sickness insurance (1932), increased support for unemployed with subsidies for relief work and unemployment insurance (1934), and improved old age pensions (1935). The Swedish policy during the depressions 1921-22 and 1931-34 had been aiming at organizing relief works for unemployed (with wages below the level for unskilled laborers) and additionally, to financially support those who couldn't get access to the relief works (on a level about two thirds of the minimum wage for unskilled laborers). From 1933 the main aim was changed to a general stimulus of the economy.


Sweden declares itself neutral at the eve of the war but has to compromise on several occasions to avoid direct conflict with Germany: Sweden continues to deliver iron ore and other strategic goods to Nazi Germany and allows the transfer of German soldiers through its territory. At the same time, however, Sweden acts as a haven for refugees coming from the neighboring countries, provides aid to Finland in its fight with the USSR and trains Danish and Norwegian police troops that were used to restore order after the German surrender.

When Russia attacks Finland 1939, many (maybe as many as 80'000) children from Finland were received in families all over Sweden. From the start of the war to the end of the century Sweden receives far more than a million refugees and economic immigrants, of which the majority choose to remain in Sweden. This includes some of the war-children who never returned to Finland, or who came back to Sweden in later years.

Nov 1939 --> March 1940

The Soviet bomb attack on Helsinki, and advance on the Carelian isthmus toward Viipuri, on November 30th 1939 led to a broadening of the Swedish Cabinet with participants from all political parties except the Communists.

The Swedish opinion was strongly engaged for the sake of Finland's, although split. Around Stockholm the Finland-support was general, whereas in the rest of the country the support is said to have been concentrated to the upper class.

The higher state officials were also split, but predominantly negative toward Swedish contributions for the state of Finland, fearing a weakened and endangered defense of southern Sweden. A certain aversion against a humiliating submission under the Finns can maybe also be traced in the indifference: The harsh negotiation and diplomatic correspondence twenty years ago were not forgotten, and now since the end of the 1930s the Finns requested Swedish troops for the support of the demilitarized and neutral Åland islands. After the outbreak of the war also proposals of Swedish troops for the defense of Carelia could be heard.

It's also possible that many believed the ruin of Finland to be sure, and thereby all military help to Finland to be wasted.

The iron ore mines in the sparsely populated northernmost province Norrbotten were Sweden's best card in the war game. Germany was dependent on the iron for its munition industries, and would hopefully hesitate to attack Sweden for discovering the mines to be blasted and destroyed.

But this strategy was dependent on Sweden's capacity to protect the mines for attacks from Russia or England. The Russian air-forces in Murmansk were a dangerous threat, but even more a Russian occupation of Åland and/or the coast of Finland.

Also the opinions among the leaders of the government and the defense were split regarding Åland, but decidedly negative regarding Swedish troops in Finland. The popular support for missions on the Carelian isthmus was deemed to be insufficient, and Sweden's military strength was also feared to be insufficient to fight both Russia in the East and Germany in the South. This alternative was although seriously discussed.

The Social Democratic foreign minister Rickard Sandler advocated, supported by the trade unions and Högern, the most Right-wing party of the parliament, military units on Åland. Liberals and Agrarians were outspoken opponents of Swedish missions abroad. The conflict regarding military support of Åland and Finland complicated the formation of a new cabinet in December 1939, and was solved when Rickard Sandler resigned after the prime minister Per Albin Hansson had chosen to support a careful compromise:

But the Swedish opinion, unaware of the miserable preparations for war, was influenced by strong pro-Finland feelings, why the government chose an increasingly permitting attitude over for the Swedes who enlisted for Finland. The volontary Corps in Finland came to comprise 2,000 Swedes and 700 Norwegians.

When Soviet after two months of war with Finland declared a peace with the lawful government in Helsinki to be possible, instead of Kuusinen's Communist government, the Swedish fear for a Russian occupation of the whole of Finland disappeared.

Instead England threatened to occupy the iron mines, why Sweden brusquely opposed demands from Finland to facilitate the transport of British troops via Sweden. Simultaneously the cabinet rejects a direct question from the government of Finland February 13th 1940 regarding Swedish units of 20'000 men to be engaged on the Carelian isthmus.

The decision led to agitated disappointment among the Swedish public, and the 82 year old King Gustav V made an unconstitutional public statement supporting the decision of the government, explaining it with the danger of invasion from the South, which no Swedish official had dared to mention in public.

After Finland's harsh peace treaty England continued its attempts to close the export of iron ore from Northern Sweden to Germany. April 5th England declares to the government of Sweden that unless Sweden shuts the flow of necessities to Germany, the allies would be forced to do this by their own.

(It is worth to note that the Swedish iron was of considerable importance for Germany's ability to perform the war. In 1939 Sweden contributed with 40% of Germany's need. But we also ought to remember that the history is written by the victorer. Sweden's export of iron to Germany is much more criticized than Sweden's export of ball bearings to the UK.)

Swedish military was prepared for an allied attack against Northern Scandinavia with 100'000 men at the Northern borders, although only a thousand as guards at the very mines, but in the South the situation was quite the opposite. A demand from the commander-in-chief for partial mobilization in Southern Sweden was motivated by intelligence reports from Germany's Baltic harbors, but the government didn't deem this to be justified. The hope was that the strong protection of the mines would be enough. (Post-war research has shown that the initiated de-mobilization after the peace between Finland and the Soviet Union had made the protection of northernmost Sweden almost illusory, but that wasn't known by the Cabinet.)

As Denmark and Norway were occupied April 9th 1940 it became clear that the troops in Germany's Baltic harbors weren't intended for Sweden - this time.

Foreign troops in Sweden

Sweden having become enclosed by Germany and the increasingly Germany-oriented Finland did however result in intensified German demands (and threats), which is why the Cabinet chose to allow continuous transports via Swedish railways of (unarmed) troops between Germany and Norway. The extent of these transports was kept secret however the Prime Minister admitted their existence when rumors had begun to spread. Officially the trains transported wounded soldiers and soldiers on leave (permittent-tåg), which however didn't make it less of a violation of neutrality.

Since this is an often returning topic in the news group, a more throughout relation might be motivated:

April 9th, 1940
Sweden accepts German demands for import and export of products to/from Norway as before - i. e no war material.

April 16th, 1940
Food and oil supplies permitted transport to northern Norway to "save the population from starvation" after the war had emptied the reserves.

Troops, including 40 "red-cross soldiers" denied transit

April 18th, 1940
The 40 "red-cross soldiers" were accepted for transit together with a train loaded with sanitary material, which however turned out to contain 90% food according to the Swedish customs. Further requests for transit of "sanitary material" were rejected.

April to June, 1940
Norway protests over Sweden taking the neutrality too seriously, expecting more of support for Norway.

German civil sailors were given individual transit visa.

Wounded soldiers were transported through Sweden, and 20 further "red-cross soldiers" and a physician were allowed to pass together with five wagons with food stuff.

June 18th, 1940
As the war in Norway was finished, German demands for transit were reinforced. The Swedish parliament did formally modify the neutrality policy according to Germany's demands. (England and France were informed before the parliament debate.)

July 7th, 1940
The Prime Minister admits the transit in a public speech in Ludvika.

July 8th, 1940
Agreement with Germany:
1 daily train (500 man) back and forth Trelleborg-Kornsjö
1 weekly train (500 man) back and forth Trelleborg-Narvik

The agreement with Germany was later increased.

July 15th, July 20th, 1940
Protests from Norway's exile Cabinet, and from Britain's government.

In connection with Germany's attack on Russia on Midsummer's Day 1941 (which Finland was to join a few days later) Sweden had its most serious Cabinet crisis: Germany demanded to transit the fully armed division Engelbrecht from Norway to Finland. The transit permission was granted.

April 1941
As the German plans for an attack on Russia was taken seriously by the Swedish government it was discussed between the Cabinet and the Commander-in-chief how Sweden could react in case of a war between Germany, Finland and Russia.

The Commander-in-chief warned for the danger in provoking German anger and occupation by a continued neutrality policy. Plans for cooperation with Germany and Finland were made.

Single Cabinet members considered cooperation with the Soviet Union, which however was fiercely rejected.

June 23rd, 1941
The Cabinet discuss the requested transit of one armed division (Division Engelbrecht) from northern Norway to northern Finland. Agrarians, Liberals and the Right supported the combined Finnish-German request. Social Democrats rejected.

The king declared he would abdicate if the government couldn't agree with him in a positive answer on Finland's and Germany's request.

June 24rd, 1941
The Social Democratic parliament group decides, with the votes 72-59, to try to convince the other parties for a rejection, but to agree in case they insisted.

The other parties seemed prepared to split the Cabinet.

June 25th, 1941
The Swedish government accept the transit of Division Engelbrecht.

July 11, 1941
Finland's official ambitions on a Big-Finland get known.

New demands on transit of an armed division from Trelleborg to Tornio.

July 1941
The attitude to Finland's and Germany's demands less and less favorable.

The troop transit is proposed to be realized on Swedish water along the Swedish coast with Swedish escort.

Several requests for neutrality-violating exports and transits rejected during the following autumn.

In 1943, as Germany's war luck had begun to wane, and the opposition among the Swedish opinion against the favors for Germany and Finland increased, as well as the pressure from England and USA, the Swedish Cabinet declared June 29th, 1943 the transit to have to stop before October 1943. August 5th it was officially announced that the transitations were agreed to stop.

Sweden also started train small Danish and Norwegian military units, planned to take part in the re-conquest of Denmark and Norway, and in particular to ensure the immediate establishment of government, law and order after a re-conquest. Officially it was labeled as training of police forces, which was almost true.

At the very end of the war, Sweden made preparations to enter Norway. German troops had devastated many of the northern fjord valleys the previous winter, and as they now continued their doomed struggle also after the capitulation of the German troops in Denmark and The Netherlands (on May 4th) it was discussed if Sweden could contribute to a soon end of the atrocities in Norway. But before any decisions were made Germany's total capitulation on May 7th made it unnecessary.

Christian Günther, who had served as unpolitical Minister for Foreign affairs during the war, was made scapegoat for Sweden's embarrassing indulgence toweard Germany, and was after the war not accepted by the Danish government as ambassador in Copenhagen. The under-secretary for foreign affairs, Boheman, on the other hand was appointed ambassador in Washington after the war, then elected Member of the Parliament for the Liberal party, and finally Speaker of the parliament 1965-1970.

Freedom of Press limited

self censure During the Second World War the Swedish press was put under a considerable pressure, requested to avoid tempting fate by making the German powers less friendly toward Sweden. Beside self-censure and regular cooperation between the government and editors five means were prepared to restrain the press' outspokenness:
  1. Prosecution according to the Freedom of the Press Act against "expressions aiming at dis-concord with foreign powers" - except powers which the realm are in war with.
  2. Immediate confiscation without following prosecution of "printed matters with expression causing misunderstanding with foreign power."
  3. Preliminary declaration of confiscation ("kvarstad") until decision could be made about prosecution or immediate confiscation.
  4. Prohibition to distribute newspapers and magazines during a limited period of some months (decided by the government, not a judicial court) after conviction according to the Freedom of the Press Act. (From March 1st 1940)
  5. Press Censure could according to a constitutional change 1941 be decided by a 3/4-majority of the Parliament, and when the Parliament wasn't meeting the cabinet meeting could proclaim censure for at the most 30 days. (This was never used, and again revoked 1945.)
Most of these restrictions came to strike Communist and Syndicalist papers, but also for instance a major paper in Gothenburg (Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning) was confiscated many times. Confiscation according to point 2 above was made about 300 times during the war. Approximately 10% of the actions were directed against Swedish Nazi press.

Extraditions of refugees - Baltutlämningen

At the close of the war Sweden returns 167 male Baltic refugees who had fled in connection with the Soviet Union's second occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Despite a strong public opinion they were extradited to Stalin's Soviet Union (the so called "Baltutlämningen"), as they had been fighting against the Soviet troops. (Some 2,700 German soldiers were also extradited to the Soviet Union, which however caused no attention.) Also Ingrian refugees where hunted on behalf of the Finnish government, who after the unsuccessful second war against Russia had accepted to deport them to Russia.

The Bernadotte Dynasty

Since the break-through of parliamentarism in 1917 the royal family had gained very much in goodwill. In the critical times of the Second World War also the aged, and previously controversial, King Gustav V could act as a unifying symbol and leader for all of the nation.

Prince Bertil, son of the British-oriented Crown-Prince Gustav Adolf, worked during the war as a naval attaché in London, where he could contribute to improved relations between UK/USA and Sweden. Also export of arms from the US was promoted. Among the Swedish public he gained great popularity as athlete and racing driver.

Count Folke Bernadotte af Wisborg, newphew of King Gustav V, worked for the Red Cross and, after the war, for the United Nations. Just before the end of the war he gained much good-will as leader for a rescue-operation transporting interned Norwegians, Danes and other inmates from German Concentration Camps to Swedish hospitals (in the so-called "White Buses" 27,000 persons where liberated, a considerable share of them Jews). September 17th, 1948, he was ambushed during a mission as UN-mediator in Jerusalem. The assassination was one of many by Lohamei Herut Yisrael, also known as the Stern gang, a Jewish terror organization, whose leaders included Yitzak Shamir who later would become Prime Minister for Israel.

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This page was last updated December the 2nd in the year of 1998.

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