Christian Günther

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Christian Günther

Christian Ernst Günther (5 December 1886, Stockholm – 6 March 1966) was Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs in the unity government that was formed after the Soviet attack on Finland in November 1939, and would remain in function until World War II had ended in 1945.

Günther, whose father had been Swedish diplomat, and whose grandfather briefly had been prime minister, had entered the Civil Service at the age of 30, and was eight years later transferred to the foreign ministry from the position as personal secretary of the prime ministers Hjalmar Branting and Rickard Sandler. In the foreign ministry, he advanced in the 1930s to the position immediately beneath the foreign minister Rickard Sandler, as under secretary of state for foreign affairs, and was then accredited as ambassador to Norway, where he intended to stay until retirement.

Günther's main achievement was to defend Sweden's neutrality in the Second World War, thus escaping the fate of occupied Norway and defeated Finland. The dominant historiography for decades after the war ignored the Holocaust and used what it called the "small state realist" argument. It held that that neutrality and cooperation with Germany were necessary for survival, for Germany was vastly more powerful; concessions were limited and were only made where the threat was too great; neutrality was bent but not broken; national unity was paramount; and in any case Sweden had the neutral right to trade with Germany. Germany needed Swedish iron and had nothing to gain—and much iron to lose—by an invasion. The nation was run by a unity government that included all major parties in the Riksdag.[1]

Personal background[edit]

Christian Günther was hardly a typical representative for the diplomatic corps. Although a perpetual student of law, his ambitions were rather that of a writer's – of drama, lyrics, and a few novels – not without some success. Unanimous testimony describes him as a man of unassuming ways, high intelligence, and a bohemian personality, with a significant lack of ambition, who made his visits in the office as brief as possible. He was passionate for harness racing and had the nerves of a habitual gambler.

Günther represents the last generation of cultural Scandinavists, sympathetic to the relative political liberalism in Denmark and Norway, that was influenced from French and English thinking, contrasted to les Ancient régimes of Austria, Prussia, and Russia; but beside that, he was virtually ignorant of the English speaking world. Like many Liberal Swedes, he was untouched and rather alienated by Finland's political and cultural development after 1809, signified by a high regard for the autocratic Gustavian Constitution of 1772, fervent anti-Germanic fennomania, and the bloody aftermath of the Civil War.

As a foreign minister, Günther favoured policies that were rather in the taste of pro-German Conservatives than of pro-Soviet Radicals. Both during the war, and after the Allies' victory, he was the target of criticism that, chiefly, argued that the nation's soul would have been better saved by a less indulgent position vis-à-vis Nazi Germany, and a more yielding attitude towards the Allies, also if this had resulted in a German invasion and occupation. Together with his aristocratic appearance and bourgeois upbringing, this has rendered him being sometimes characterized as a Conservative. Günther himself would hardly have approved, ardent anti-Nazist, religious skeptic, and, according to his wife Ingrid, a cautious supporter of the Social Democrats as he was.

Christian Günther, who had distanced himself from the state church already by a civil marriage, was buried in a civil funeral.

The situation at Günther's appointment as Foreign Minister[edit]

A serious cabinet crisis in Stockholm put an end to his mission in Norway: The failure of Foreign Minister Rickard Sandler's policy, that had been characterized by high-profile diplomatic support for Finland without sufficient agreement from other Social Democratic Ministers for concrete military actions outside of Sweden's borders, was starkly illuminated by the run up to, and outbreak of, the Winter War. The cabinet's refusal to authorize even limited military actions for the defence of the de-militarized Åland Islands before the war and, even more significant, the waters between Åland and Stockholm made Sandler's resignation unavoidable, although somewhat postponed due to the tense international situation.

The outbreak of the Winter War put Sweden in one of the worst political crises since the secession of Finland in 1809. A strong and vociferous public opinion demanded unlimited solidarity with Finland. However, a broad parliamentary majority opposed not only military support of Finland, but also other actions that might put Sweden in danger of an invasion by either Nazi Germany or her ally, the Soviet Union.

To overcome this crisis, a National Unity Government was deemed essential, which proved difficult since the Rightist Party, led by Gösta Bagge, supported at least moderately Activist policies for the defence of Finland. To solve these difficulties, it was agreed to appoint a "non-political" Foreign Minister from among Sweden's top diplomats, which was thought to put the foreign policies in the firm grip of the party leaders in the cabinet, where they planned to broke compromises.

Christian Günther as Foreign Minister[edit]

Christian Günther left no memoirs, no diaries, very few personal letters of interest for historians, and actually remarkably few notes and writings from his time as foreign minister. Hence, an assessment of Günther has to rely on the account of colleagues in the cabinet and in the foreign ministry.

As a Foreign Minister, Günther represented a stark contrast to Sandler's idealist policies. Günther's preferred line was a cautious realpolitik, adapted to the very limited options of a small country during a war between Great Power neighbours. Like many, maybe most, of his contemporary peers, he expected German culture to be inherently stronger than the Nazi barbarism. Thus, he did not subscribe to the idea of the world war as primarily a clash of democracy against fascism, but rather as a traditional war on dominance of the European continent. In that light, a German victory over the Soviet Union, the latter being the latest appearance of Sweden's old arch-enemy, could not be perceived as particularly alarming. On this point, Günther stood close to the most conservative of the cabinet members.

In popular culture[edit]

In the Swedish television movie. Four Days that shook Sweden - The Midsummer Crisis 1941 , from 1988, he is played by Swedish character actor Sven Lindberg .

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ John Gilmour, Sweden, the Swastika, and Stalin: The Swedish Experience in the Second World War (2011) pp 270-81 online
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Einar Ekstrand
Envoy of Sweden to Argentina
1931–1934
Succeeded by
Einar Modig
Preceded by
Einar Ekstrand
Envoy of Sweden to Chile
1931–1934
Succeeded by
Einar Modig
Preceded by
Einar Ekstrand
Envoy of Sweden to Paraguay
1931–1934
Succeeded by
Einar Modig
Preceded by
Einar Ekstrand
Envoy of Sweden to Uruguay
1931–1934
Succeeded by
Einar Modig
Preceded by
Torvald Höjer
Envoy of Sweden to Norway
1937–1939
Succeeded by
Johan Beck–Friis
Preceded by
Joen Lagerberg
Envoy of Sweden to Italy
1946–1950
Succeeded by
Hans Gustaf Beck-Friis
Political offices
Preceded by
Carl Hamilton
State Secretary for Foreign Affairs
1934–1937
Succeeded by
Erik Boheman
Preceded by
Rickard Sandler
Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs
1939–1945
Succeeded by
Östen Undén