Swedish neutrality

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Swedish neutrality refers to Sweden's former policy of neutrality in armed conflicts, which was in effect from the early 19th century, until 2009, when Sweden entered into various mutual defence treaties with the European Union (EU), and other Nordic countries.[1] Sweden's previous neutrality policy had originated largely as a result of Sweden's involvement in the Napoleonic Wars during which over a third of the country's territory was lost, including the traumatic loss of Finland to Russia. Resentment towards the old king precipitated a coup d'état and the new regime formulated a new foreign policy which became known as The Policy of 1812. Since the time of the Napoleonic Wars, Sweden has not initiated any direct armed conflict. However, Sweden's military and government have been involved in major peacekeeping actions and other military support functions around the world. The accession to the European Union in 1995 meant that neutrality as a principle was abolished. Sweden is still today a neutral and non-aligned country in regard to foreign and security policy. However, it maintains strong links to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Nevertheless, the Swedish neutrality during World War II has been much debated and later contested. Despite the British naval blockade of Nazi Germany, and the official posturing of the Swedish government, Sweden exported iron ore to supply Nazi Germany's war industry via the Norwegian port of Narvik.

The German war industries dependence on Swedish iron ore shipments was the primary reason for Great Britain and their allies to launch Operation Wilfred and the Norwegian Campaign in early April 1940. By early June 1940 the Norwegian Campaign stood as a failure for the allies, and by securing access to Norwegian ports by force, the Nazis were able to obtain the Swedish iron ore it needed for war production, even with the British naval blockade still in place.

Sweden also supplied the Nazi German war industry with steel and machined parts throughout the war and provided transportation for armed German reinforcement troops, the 163rd Infantry Division/Division Engelbrecht commanded by General Erwin Engelbrecht, and military equipment through Swedish territory by train from Norway to the eastern front in Finland.

The Policy of 1812[edit]

A rally of support for the Scandinavian movement.

The new foreign policy, often called The Policy of 1812, was directed by Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, the elected crown prince. The policy of 1812 was in sharp contrast to Sweden's previous foreign policy, during which Sweden had been involved in many conflicts, especially with its arch enemy, Russia. However, in 1812, with Napoleon starting a campaign against Russia and Emperor Alexander, the Emperor was in need of allies, and so met with the Swedish king in Åbo. At the meeting it was agreed that Sweden would accept that Finland was part of Russia in exchange for the Tsar's help in pressuring Denmark to cede Norway to Sweden.

Swedish troops led by Bernadotte took part in the Napoleonic Wars in 1813 and 1814, wherein the Crown Prince authored the Allied Campaign Plan, known as the Trachenberg Plan, and commanded the Allied Army of the North. Bernadotte's army fought against the French in the fall of 1813 and defeated them at the Battle of Grossbeeren, Battle of Dennewitz and played a key role in the mammoth Battle of Leipzig.[2] Bernadotte then led an invasion of Denmark. Sweden forced Denmark to hand over Norway by the Treaty of Kiel. This was recognised by the Allied powers at the Congress of Vienna.[3] Since this time Sweden has not taken part in armed warfare (with the exception of peacekeeping).

Schleswig Question[edit]

During the First War of Schleswig, from 1848 to 1851, Swedish troops were located in Jutland[citation needed] as support for Denmark against Prussian-supported rebels; the Swedish regular troops, however, never experienced any combat. Hundreds of Norwegian and Swedish volunteers joined and fought in the Danish army.

After 40 years of successful trust-building with Russia, Sweden took no serious policy risks in the Crimean War, despite the possibility of a revision of the harsh peace of 1809. Although Sweden concluded an alliance with Britain and France, (November 25, 1855), the country did not engage in warfare.

At the Second war of Schleswig, the Riksdag of the Estates refused to fulfill King Charles XV's promises of military support; and Sweden observed a strict neutrality, which would prove to be advantageous. Prussia would soon forge and dominate Imperial Germany, an unmatchable foe for Sweden—whose relative strength had diminished strikingly since its zenith during the Thirty Years' War.

World War I[edit]

Prussia's dominance had made the following forty years peaceful in the Baltic region, and by the outbreak of World War I, neutrality seemed a natural state to many Swedes. Although feelings of cultural and scientific kinship with the German Empire were strong in Sweden, mercantile and personal ties with Britain and France were strong as well. Opinion was split between Conservatives, with sympathies for Germany, and Liberals, with more mixed sympathies. Organized but politically less influential were the Social Democrats, antimilitarists and opposed to the war. The neutralist stance was reinforced when Denmark and Norway remained neutral. Voices for neutrality dominated the public debate, but Queen Victoria and some conservatives were strong advocates for entrance in the war on the German side, and the government's policy had a clear pro-German bias.

In 1916, the pro-German policy was abandoned, having resulted in famine, rebellious opinions, and no tangible advantages. Once again, the conviction that strict neutrality was most suitable for Sweden dominated Swedish society. A new, less German-minded Conservative cabinet was appointed, and to calm the social unrest, democratic reforms were promptly initiated that cemented Sweden's neutralist policy and would soon lead to the political hegemony of Social Democrats lasting up to the 21st century.

Åland Islands[edit]

The politician who stood as the biggest thorn in the side of the government was the Swedish Foreign Minister, Rickard Sandler (1932–1936 and 1936–1939). Sandler strongly opposed the government's policy of strict neutrality, feeling it necessary that the government relax its stringent policy. Sandler expressed a desire to defend the Åland Islands from either German or Soviet control, by mining the area around the islands in conjunction with the Finnish government.

The location of the Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea.

The Åland Islands are of extreme strategic importance in the Baltic. Lying at the base of the Gulf of Bothnia, the Åland Islands are situated alongside all the sea traffic lanes that come in and out of the Gulf, and are within range of Sweden, Finland and the Baltic states to the east.

Prior to 1809, the Åland Islands were part of Sweden, who was forced to give them up, along with the mainland area of Finland, in the Treaty of Fredrikshamn on September 17, 1809, to Russia. Out of the ceded areas, including the Åland islands, Russia formed the Grand Duchy of Finland. With the Treaty of Paris of April 18, 1856, at the conclusion of the Crimean War, Russia was required to stop the construction of any new fortifications on the islands, which Russia obeyed, despite unsuccessfully attempting to change the status of the islands in 1908.

In 1914, however, the Russian government turned the islands into a submarine base for the use of British and Russian submarines during the First World War. In December 1917, the Finnish government proclaimed that Finland was a sovereign state and a dispute over whether the islands belonged to Sweden or Finland ensued. In 1921, again despite the fact that almost 100 percent of the islands' population was Swedish—and that they expressed a desire of being incorporated into Sweden—the League of Nations decided that the Åland Islands should remain a part of Finland.

Despite Sweden's grievances over failing to gain control of the islands in 1921, all difficulties between Sweden and Finland were resolved by the mid-1930s. The fear of the Åland islands falling under German or Soviet influence was very real, and that is why Sandler proposed defending the status of the islands.

However, the Swedish government opposed Sandler's proposal, in that it was felt that this would set a precedent for further moves—moves that might provoke an invasion from either Germany, the Soviet Union or both. When a new coalition was formed to represent Sweden's policy of neutrality, in light of the Winter War, Sandler was dropped from the new lineup of ministers. It was initially believed that the Swedish government had dropped Sandler due to his outspoken comments on the government's policies, and the German press' allegations that Sandler was pro-British; however, in reality it was Sandler who requested permission to retire from the Swedish cabinet, because the government did not represent Sandler's anti-neutral views.

Armed neutrality[edit]

The 1930s marked a new period when Sweden's long-standing policy of neutrality was severely tested on numerous occasions, most of which came from a strongly rejuvenated nationalistic Germany. Since the founding of the League of Nations in 1919 and up to the year 1935, Sweden had been a strong supporter of the League and most of Sweden's energy on the international stage had been put into its preservation.

As the collective security system of the League of Nations started to crack with the Abyssinia crisis, and the approach of World War II, Sweden could look back on 120 years of successful neutralist politics – with one singular exception: the backup force on Jutland during the First war of Schleswig. Sweden now pursued a policy of forging a block of neutralist countries in Northern Europe. Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Finland and the Baltic States were all members of this club of neutral states. Of them, only Sweden would be fortunate enough to remain unattacked during World War II.

Opposition to this new policy of armed neutrality was weak in that all major parties, such as the Conservatives, Agrarians and Liberal People's Party, supported the government's position. On a regular basis, beginning in 1936, the Swedish government requested increases in its defense budget to strengthen its military preparedness as the international situation continued to worsen. The actual military budget from 1936 to 1939 increased many times over. In 1936, military spending was $37,000,000; 1937, $50,000,000; 1938, $58,575,000; and in 1939 it was at $322,325,000. After the war began, military spending peaked in 1942 at $527,575,000 in one year alone. With the increased need of an expanded military, Swedish industry was required to not only supply the increased demand for domestic products, exacerbated by the German blockade of the North Sea, but also had to meet an increased demand in military armaments for the Swedish government. Before the war, production of armaments did not exceed more than tens of millions of Swedish kronor, but during the war, production exceeded the cost of one billion Swedish kronor ($240,000,000).

Significance of the neutrality policy[edit]

The fate of the Swedish nation largely rested upon the outcomes of distant battles and the policies of distant governments—events outside the control of Swedish politicians and diplomats. Had certain battles or policies during the war been different, Sweden's ability to attain a successful policy of neutrality might very well not have succeeded. The British invasion of Norway and Germany's counter-attack on, and occupation of both Norway and Denmark, coupled with the fact that Finland was battling the Soviets, made Sweden's position extremely tenuous, in that countries on both sides of the European conflict were poised on Sweden's borders and could potentially strike at any moment. Germany had considered a Swedish invasion, and with Germany occupying both Norway and Denmark, Germany's ability to attack Sweden was a significant concern. Sweden was forced to act upon the whims and orders of a belligerent Germany.[citation needed]

Had the war continued for a longer period of time, Germany or the Allies might have had no choice but to invade Sweden in order to thwart enemy advances. If Germany had been able to sustain its successes on the battlefield beyond 1943, and been capable of bringing the war to an end favorable to its own terms, Sweden would have had no choice but to join the new order of Europe, a new order under the domination of Nazi Germany. Germany would not have allowed a country to exist on the sidelines in the new order of Europe, and Sweden would have had to abandon its long-cherished policy of neutrality. However, German domination of Europe did not succeed and Sweden was left on its own. Sweden's ability to maintain its policy of neutrality until the war's end was due in large part to luck, since events out of its control played the largest part in the fate of Sweden's policy of neutrality.[citation needed]

Sweden was able to move along with the events occurring all around its borders. Prime Minister Hansson and the government were able to maneuver the country effectively through the course of the war, avoiding the devastating losses and destruction that said war might have brought upon Sweden.

One beneficial consequence of Sweden's neutrality was that Sweden was able to act as a refuge to people from occupied lands. Approximately 70 000 Finnish children were evacuated and placed with families in Sweden. There were also refugees from the Baltic nations and the other Scandinavian countries. Nearly all of Denmark's Jewish population was able to escape to Sweden on fishing boats in a coordinated effort by the Danish people and the Swedes who gave them shelter on the other side. Also, Sweden's neutral stance allowed Swedish diplomats access to Germany, allowing for espionage which benefited the Swedish intelligence as well as the Allies. Most notable among these were Raoul Wallenberg and Count Folke Bernadotte, who saved over 100,000 European Jews from the concentration camps. Also, Sweden's King Gustav V attempted to negotiate with Hitler for a more humane treatment of the Jews.

Scandinavian defence union[edit]

A Scandinavian defence union that would have included Sweden, Norway and Denmark was considered among the three countries after World War II. They would remain separate sovereign countries but act as a single block in foreign policy and security issues. The proposed union was discussed by a joint Scandinavian committee during the winter of 1948–1949, but in the end the Cold War tension between the United States and the Soviet Union and preparations for a western alliance that would result in the North Atlantic Treaty superseded the Scandinavian negotiations.

When it became known that the western alliance's own pressing needs would prevent them from supplying the Scandinavian countries with armaments, Norway, wanting access to those arms, decided that it would be more advantageous to be a member of NATO and resigned from the talks. Denmark was still willing to enter into an alliance with Sweden, but the Swedes saw few advantages in this and the proposal failed. Norway and Denmark subsequently became signatory parties to the North Atlantic Treaty and members of NATO, while Sweden remained neutral.

The Cold War[edit]

Sweden maintained its policy of neutrality after WWII, despite substantial cooperation with the West. During the early Cold War, this policy was maintained even though Sweden's leaders understood that neutrality would probably fail in a third world war. The aim of the policy was to avoid the violent initial nuclear exchange between the superpowers. This was the rationale behind Sweden's policy of neutrality until the late 1960s with the advent of second strike capability and nuclear parity.[4]

Initially after the end of World War II, Sweden quietly pursued an aggressive independent nuclear weapons program involving plutonium production and nuclear secrets acquisition from all nuclear powers, until the 1960s, when it was abandoned as cost-prohibitive. During the Cold War Sweden appeared to maintain a dual approach to thermonuclear weapons. Publicly, the strict neutrality policy was forcefully maintained, but unofficially strong ties were purportedly kept with the U.S. Sweden, for instance, cooperated extensively with U.S. intelligence: "Though officially neutral, Sweden in fact built very close ties to both NATO and the US security establishment in the late 1940s and early 1950s and was deeply involved in cold war spying operations."[5]

It was hoped that the U.S. would use conventional and nuclear weapons to strike at Soviet staging areas in the occupied Baltic states in case of a Soviet attack on Sweden. Over time and due to the official neutrality policy, fewer and fewer Swedish military officials were aware of the military cooperation with the west, making such cooperation in the event of war increasingly difficult. At the same time Swedish defensive planning was completely based on help from abroad in the event of war. Later research has shown that every publicly available war-game training, included the scenario that Sweden was under attack from the Soviets, would rely on NATO forces for defence.[6] The fact that it was not permissible to mention this aloud eventually led to the Swedish armed forces becoming highly misbalanced. For example, a strong ability to defend against an amphibious invasion was maintained, while an ability to strike at inland staging areas was almost completely absent.[7]

In the early 1960s U.S. nuclear submarines armed with mid-range nuclear missiles of type Polaris A-1 were deployed outside the Swedish west coast. Range and safety considerations made this a good area from which to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike on Moscow. The submarines had to be very close to the Swedish coast to hit their intended targets though. As a consequence of this, in 1960, the same year that the submarines were first deployed, the U.S. provided Sweden with a military security guarantee. The U.S. promised to provide military force in aid of Sweden in case of Soviet aggression. This guarantee was kept from the Swedish public until 1994, when a Swedish research commission found evidence for it. As part of the military cooperation the U.S. provided much help in the development of the Saab 37 Viggen, as a strong Swedish air force was seen as necessary to keep Soviet anti-submarine aircraft from operating in the missile launch area.[8]


After the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, Sweden dropped its official policy of military neutrality, but continued to behave as a neutral and non-aligned country. In 1995 Sweden joined the European Union (but declined Eurozone membership) and has since the mid-1990s continued to reduce its armed forces and became involved in more international missions in countries like Bosnia and Afghanistan. The continued reduction of its own national defence and the question of whether the country really could defend itself against an aggressor has led to some criticism.[9][10]

In 2009 Sweden agreed to enter into mutual self-defence treaties with the EU, and with other Nordic countries, thus ending a nearly 200 year long period of official military neutrality.[1] As a result of a 2010 U.S. diplomatic cables leak, it was learned that the United States government had described Sweden's "official security policy" as "non-participation in military alliances during peacetime and neutrality during wartime." However, Sweden does contribute to various NATO and EU battlegroups and is involved in international organizations.[11] From March–October 2011, Sweden was a participant in the NATO-led international contingent in the War in Libya. In May 2016, a survey showed for the first time that more Swedes favored NATO membership than opposed it.[12] All of the political parties that are part of the right-of-centre coalition favor full NATO membership.[13]

Global surveillance disclosure[edit]

As a result of Edward Snowden's disclosures, the notion of Swedish neutrality in international politics has been called into question.[by whom?] In an alleged internal document dating from the year 2006, the U.S. National Security Agency acknowledged that its "relationship" with Sweden is "protected at the Top Secret level because of that nation’s political neutrality."[14] Specific details of Sweden's cooperation with members of the UKUSA Agreement include how:

Several years before the Riksdag passed a controversial bill proposing a change in legislation of the FRA, Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the NSA and the FRA signed an agreement in 2004 that allows the FRA to directly collaborate with the NSA without having to consult the GCHQ.[15] As part of the UKUSA Agreement, a secret treaty was signed in 1954 by Sweden with the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, regarding collaboration and intelligence sharing.[16]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ a b What price neutrality? The Economist. By Charlemagne. June 21, 2014. Downloaded Sep. 17, 2017.
  2. ^ Barton, D. Plunket (1925) Bernadotte: Prince and King. Pp. 94, 101-108. John Murray, London.
  3. ^ Ibid. 110-115.
  4. ^ Dalsjö, Robert (2014-04-03). "The hidden rationality of Sweden's policy of neutrality during the Cold War". Cold War History. 14 (2): 175–194. doi:10.1080/14682745.2013.765865. ISSN 1468-2745. S2CID 154156744.
  5. ^ Eakin, Hugh. "The Swedish Kings of Cyberwar". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 2017-01-09.
  6. ^ Holmström, Den Dolda Alliansen
  7. ^ Livlös livlina till väst Framsyn 2004, NR. 1 Archived 2007-07-07 at the Wayback Machine (The Swedish Defense Research Agency’s bi-monthly publication)
  8. ^ Hemliga atomubåtar gav Sverige säkerhetsgaranti Framsyn 2005, NR. 1 Archived 2007-07-07 at the Wayback Machine (The Swedish Defence Research Agency’s bi-monthly publication)
  9. ^ "Björklund vill ha starkare försvar - rapport". svt.se. Retrieved 2010-08-14.
  10. ^ "Fullt bråk om försvarspolitiken - Rapport". svt.se. Retrieved 2010-08-14.
  11. ^ Cable 07STOCKHOLM506, "Sweden: Scenesetter for Prime Minister," May 4, 2007. The United States has also stated: "Its active participation in the NATO Partnership for Peace and its role in leading the European Union's 1,500 troops-strong Nordic Battle group give the lie to the official policy. Sweden has opted out of buying two C-17s and has subsequently joined and made the second-highest contribution to the NATO-sponsored Strategic Airlift Capability. This will, in the long run, support of the Nordic Battle group and other strategic lift requirements. Sweden also plays an important role in Darfur, where former Swedish Foreign Minister Jan Eliasson is the UN Special Envoy and Sweden supports democratization and humanitarian relief. Within the EU, Sweden often takes positions that coincide with our own on issues as diverse as the DOHA round, EU enlargement and Turkey, Swift banking data privacy, and the EU's relationship with Cuba."
  12. ^ Radio, Sveriges. "More Swedes are for joining NATO than against - Radio Sweden". Retrieved 2016-05-07.
  13. ^ Ydén, Karl; Berndtsson, Joakim; Petersson, Magnus (2019). "Sweden and the issue of NATO membership: exploring a public opinion paradox". Defence Studies. 19: 1–18. doi:10.1080/14702436.2019.1568192. S2CID 159163645.
  14. ^ "NSA "asking for" specific exchanges from FRA - Secret treaty since 1954". Sveriges Television. Retrieved 12 December 2013.
  15. ^ a b c d "Read the Snowden Documents From the NSA". Sveriges Television. Retrieved 12 December 2013.
  16. ^ "Cold War treaty confirms Sweden was not neutral". The Local. 2013-12-09. Retrieved 12 December 2013.

Additional information[edit]