Saturday, June 14, 2014
World's Greatest Cowards: Swedes?
Journalists around the world are about to cover the different ceremonies commemorating the outbreak of World War One, starting in Sarajevo on June 28. Rightly so, but as a Swede dealing with war history it is my obligation to also remind about the Swedish–Norwegian War of 1814 and question the feelings about the rare peace that we have since enjoyed.
The Swedish–Norwegian War, known here in Sweden also as the Campaign against Norway, was a war fought between Sweden and Norway that broke out with a Swedish naval attack against Norway on the 26th of July 1814. It ended quickly, on the 14th of August with Norway entering into union with Sweden, but with its own parliament and constitution. That war is today of little consequence for Sweden, as the union was dissolved in 1905. But the peace we have enjoyed since 1814 can still be a hot subject, as was recently demonstrated at a debate in Stockholm when Anders Lindberg, editorial writer of Sweden´s largest newspaper, Aftonbladet, stated "neutrality is the world's most successful policy, it has spared us from wars for 200 years". This praise for neutrality was not quite correct, as Sweden since joining the EU has scrapped the principle of neutrality. However, our non-aligned policy continues, and that is most probably what Mr. Lindberg had in mind. The reaction to these words from Erik Helmerson, editorial writer at Dagens Nyheter, our largest morning paper, was scathingly self-critical: "Sure, if success is that others sacrifice their lives for our sake - then neutrality is a mega-hit".
I would say that both Mr. Lindberg and Mr. Helmerson have missed some key parts of Swedish history. For example, we were not neutral when our neighbour Finland was attacked in 1939. But the help that the Swedish government provided was not flaunted and the full scale of it only became known decades after the war. Also in 1941-44 the Swedish government allowed a volunteer movement for Finland and made it possible for Swedish officers to serve Finland. Perhaps not that many Swedish lives were laid down for Finland 1939-44, 117 lives to be exact. But let´s not forget neither them nor the around thousand Swedish lives lost in Allied supply convoys and military units 1939-45. Most were not in Allied armies but on ships under various flags. However, the Norwegian memorial in Oslo for the around hundred Swedes who died for Norway 1940-45 makes no difference at all between those that died in the Norwegian Merchant Navy and those that died on battlefields in Norway and Normandy. So, there is no reason for us to differentiate, a life is a life.
The number of Swedes who died for Finland or in Allied convoys may largely be described as volunteers and the figures pale when one compares to the war dead of other countries. But one must not forget that the Swedish state facilitated both categories and the number of Swedish sailors who assisted the Allies, 8,000, just cannot be regarded as insignificant.
Let us now look back at August 1914, when Europe was largely at war but we Swedes celebrated our first century of uninterrupted peace by erecting an 18 metre tall monument on the border between Sweden and Norway to celebrate 100 years of peace between our countries. There is a book in English that provides us with a unique view of the ceremony that day, Scandinavia in the First World War edited by Claes Ahlund. I know of no similar book in any language, as it provides insights into several very little known subjects like the intelligence and counter-intelligence war in Scandinavia, the 26,000 (sic!) ethnic Danes in the German military, the 1,100 Scandinavian volunteers in Australian (!) uniform and the immense losses of the Scandinavian merchant ships in 1914 and 1918 - Norway alone lost 829 ships. Yes, that´s right, 829 ships.
Scandinavia in the First World War really is a must if you want to get to know Scandinavia in 1914-18 and also paints vital background for the stance in 1939 - not joining the warring sides had worked in 1914-18, so why change that basic strategy? Just bear in mind that Scandinavia in the First World War is not a regular history book but exactly what the subtitle says: Studies in the War Experience of the Northern Neutrals. A more regular history of Scandinavia in 1914-18 has yet to be written and should preferably include more about Finland and thus be called something like The Nordics and the First World War. A parting tip to those who eventually will write that book, check out Swedes at War.
Finally, should we on the 14th of August celebrate that it will then be - unless the Ukraine War of 2014 turns into something much bigger - 200 years since we were officially at war with another state? Shouldn´t we rather ignore the coming anniversary, considering the many abroad that sacrificed their lives for our sake? Well, aside from that more than a thousand Swedes lost their lives for others, i.e. Finland and the Allies, let me quote the British ambassador to Sweden during WWII, Sir Victor Mallet: "Swedish neutrality was of far greater value to us than a Swedish act of suicide in 1940 would have been."