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Author, film researcher and member of the Swedish Military History Commission.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

World's Greatest Cowards: Swedes?

In 1914 we Swedes celebrated 100 years of peace, should we very soon celebrate the 200th anniversary, or ignore it?

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."

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Kid That Ignited World War One

Sarajevo, where it all started.

In less than tree weeks it will be exactly 100 years since the assassination in Sarajevo that ignited World War One. Gregor Mayer has helped me better understand this event.

The whole thing started with a kid firing two bullets from a Belgian-made Fabrique Nationale model 1910 pistol. It may seem like the simplest of facts, but the age of the Sarajevo assassins of June 28 1914... the age! For some reason it just did not get to me before I had picked up the new book Conspiracy in Sarajevo by Gregor Mayer. The main assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was 19 when he shot the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg. Take away Princip´s moustache and what remains is a kid, even more apparent when you see not just his face. Some of Princip´s helpers were even younger. Perhaps one shouldn´t focus too much on the age of the assassins - as behind the historic action of the young Bosnian Serbs stood older men, members of the secret military society best known as the Black Hand - officers of the Serbian Army. But I still think the age of the assassins says something, like that one has to attract young men (kids) for extreme deeds.

Was the First World War truly a result of the actions of some students? Formally there is little doubt about this but Gregor Mayer also writes that the Austro-Hungarian Empire viewed the assassination as a "welcome reason" for a long contemplated punitive drive against Serbia. In other words, had there been no Gavrilo Princip there would sooner or later nevertheless have been some other action that would have prompted Austria-Hungary to declare war against Serbia, thus setting off the chain reaction that became World War One.

But there did exist a Gavrilo Princip, and thus the story of his short life and motivations should long since be well known. However, while much has been written about the assassination, the actual killer has until now not been the subject of a modern biography such as Gregor Mayer´s. Doctor Martin Pappenheim studied the imprisoned Princip and his notes were published in 1926 - everyone who has read them, raise your hand... Of course, Doctor Pappenheim´s notes are often quoted in Conspiracy in Sarajevo.

What emerges from Gregor Mayer´s book is that Princip was greatly motivated by other assassins who went before him and also by the fact that he had not been allowed to become a soldier. Mayer provides the reader with a strong picture of Princip´s final years as well as the environment in which he grew up. It is also remarkable to read the words from Princip´s trial in October 1914 and about what it is like today in Princip´s home village of Gornij Obljaj.

Right now Sarajevo is preparing for the WWI anniversary, a large photo of Gavrilo Princip can be seen on the site of the assassination, on a banner somewhat strangely proclaiming "The street corner that started the 20th century".

So far, Conspiracy in Sarajevo is only available in German, as Verschwörung in Sarajevo: Triumph und Tod des Attentäters Gavrilo Princip. But aside from hardcover format it is also available as an e-book.

Friday, June 06, 2014

The Last Living Normandy Swede

The Last Living Normandy Swede fought in a British uniform with Polish insignia, together with the Canadian Army. Here a clip from the Canadian D-Day film "Storming Juno".

I am glad I was sort of wrong. When I wrote my post "D-Day Swedes Forgotten in Sweden" I said I was "sorry to say that we believe that now every Swedish citizen who took part in D-Day has passed away".

Well, yesterday I came to think of that I didn´t have the obituary for Karl Habsburg, a Swedish-Polish volunteer in Normandy. He did not land in Normandy on June 6, but definately was in combat in Normandy and that is more important than the date he arrived. I believed I had heard or read somewhere that he had passed away. But then I checked the net and found out he is still very much alive and I thus could provide a tip for the Swedish daily DN, that today published this article about the Swedes in Normandy. He joined the Polish Army in Britain quite late, in early 1944 via the Polish embassy in Stockholm who put him on a plane of the secret US airline between Sweden and the UK. Although he got no lengthy training he managed to join the 1st Polish Armoured Division in time for the great invasion. His first combat experience was the battle for Caen, where the Poles fought together with the Canadians.

Quite fittingly I today remembered my veteran friends and trips to Normandy by for the first time ever watching "Storming Juno", the Canadian D-Day film (in Sweden called "D-dagen 6 juni 1944"). I must say I was favourably impressed by both the manuscript, cast and look of the movie. It differs from the previous D-Day films not just by totally focusing on the Canadians but also by not having a main hero charachter but rather telling the story of three small units, one airborne, one armoured and one infantry. The teamwork within these units but also between the units. Finally the focus shifts to the surviving (2010) veterans and this is done in a wonderful way.

I have previously blogged about "My Way", a strong war movie that ends with telling the basically true story of the many foreigners (in this case two Koreans!) in German uniform in Normandy. But what is still missing is a full movie about Normandy from a German perspective ("The Last Days of Rommel" is partially about Normandy but not enough IMHO). One could also wish for a French perspective (or is there such a movie?) and why not eventually a movie about Swedes in Normandy?

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

D-Day Swedes Forgotten in Sweden

Swedish volunteer paratrooper Gösta Wollin was one of the very first to drop over Normandy, some minutes before it was actually D-Day. PHOTO: Karin Wollin

This Friday will be the last D-Day anniversary with a fairly large number of veterans taking part. In 2024 there may still be some veterans around, but very few fit enough to be in Normandy. It made me rather sad in 2004 that our own D-Day veterans got no media attention. Will 2014 be better?

Yes, Sweden too has D-Day participants to remember. I am not talking about Americans of Swedish descent now, but men born in Sweden and who actively were a part of D-Day. But how is that possible considering that Sweden did not fight as a nation in WWII? Well, it is all explained in Swedes at War but to summarize, hundreds took part as seamen in the D-Day invasion fleet under various flags. In addition, there were men born in Sweden serving in various Allied combat units that were landed on the now world famous landing beaches or, landed by parachute or took part in D-Day as fighter or bomber pilots. How many we can still only guess, a hundred seems very plausible. If one limits oneself to those who in 1944 were still Swedish citizens, then the figure may be just a dozen, but on the other hand some more Swedish citizens arrived in Normandy in the days following D-Day.

How many Swedes were there on the other, German, side in Normandy? We have identified three, in three different divisions of the Waffen-SS. Although few they too are described in our book.

I had the great fortune to find and communicate with the probably very first volunteer from Sweden to arrive with the Allies in Normandy, Gösta Wollin from Ystad in Skåne (in southernmost Sweden). He is pictured above in his US airborne cap. Against all odds he was able to join the US 82nd Airborne Division and parachuted with them over Sainte-Mère-Église on June 5, 1944.

If one broadens the definition of Swede to all those that were called "Swede" because of their name and roots, well then several thousand such Swedes were landed in Normandy. One of them you have probably some knowledge of. If you have seen the movie "Saving Private Ryan" you remember the role played by Tom Hanks, right? He portrays the commander of Charlie Company of the 2nd Rangers. Well, in real life that commander´s name was not John Miller, as Tom Hanks is called in the famous movie, but Ralph Goranson. He was the son of a Swede who left Mönsterås in Småland to start a new life in the US of A, his mother was from Norway. I had the privelege of being in touch with Ralph Goranson by mail during his final years. Our book Swedes at War made the fact of Ralph Goranson´s important contribution on D-Day known in the Swedish language and a local paper in Småland followed up on our book´s words about him, but no national Swedish newspaper has yet done so, not even when he died in 2012.

It was similar with William Yngve Anderson from Kramfors. He took part in D-Day as a P-51 Mustang pilot - see the book cover in the above right corner. All his planes were painted with "Swede´s Steed". My co-author and I were first to document in a book that he was Sweden´s only flying ace - but he has so far never been mentioned in any Swedish nationwide newspaper.

But it is of course not too late to show these men respect and it is therefore with great joy that I can report that 69 former Swedish parachute rangers trained at FJS in Karlsborg, 23 to 72 years old, will be paying tribute to the paratroopers of D-Day by jumping this Friday over Normandy. It will also be the largest ever drop abroad of FJS-trained Swedes. It is a most suitable tribute because one of the founders of FJS was Erik Lewenhaupt from Stockholm, who parachuted over Normandy on June 6, 1944. So, thanks to the commemorative jump on Friday, I reckon at least Erik Lewenhaupt will get some recognition in our media.

Another thing that made me happy the other day is the news that Swedes at War is now available not just as a large paperback in Swedish and English but also on Kindle, in English only so far, both in the US, in the UK and also as an ePUB via iTunes.

Note that the above figures about Swedish citizens on the Allied/German sides relate to Normandy on D-Day. The total figures for all areas of operations 1939-45 are more than 1,000 Swedes in various ground, naval and air units on the Allied side (above all Norwegian units) and 8,000 in the Norwegian, British etc Merchant Marine - in comparison with 200 Swedes in different German units. There were also Swedes on tankers in the Baltic supporting the German Navy but these sailors (about 500) were not in the German Navy or Merchant Navy but on chartered Swedish ships.