Exploring the complex history of Swedish neutrality

Sweden and Norway during World War II

Gustav V's birthday party

Photo: public domain
His Majesty Gustav V of Sweden celebrated his 80th birthday in 1938 before the start of World War II. Crown Princess Märtha, Crown Prince Olav, and King Haakon VII of Norway were in attendance.

Brooklyn, N.Y.

At the onset of World War II, both Sweden and Norway had declared neutrality. But that did not deter the Germans from storming Norway with multiple surprise strategic attacks. The result was defeat and five years of Nazi occupation for Norway, while Sweden retained its sovereignty. 

Having recently watched the PBS mini-series Atlantic Crossing, I began to wonder about the relationship between Sweden and Norway during the war. I recalled a text at the Resistance Museum in Oslo I had once read. It said something like: “When Norway was first occupied, the Swedes would not permit them to cross the border into Sweden. They later changed their minds.” It made me want to learn more. 

a pamphlet cover for "Wings for Norway" with planes flying in formation over a Norwegian flag

Photo courtesy of Victoria Hofmo
Wings for Norway was organized by Swedish Americans to raise funds for the Norwegian war effort.

My interest was further sparked when I discovered a booklet in the Scandinavian East Coast Museum’s archive entitled “Wings for Norway,” an effort by Swedish Americans to raise funds for the Norwegian War effort. The goal was to purchase 27 planes for the 1,000 Norwegians training in various sites in Canada. The Swedish-American poet Carl Sandburg served as chair, and Swedish-born Princess Märtha of Norway was one of its advocates. Clearly, Swedish Americans felt an affinity to Norwegians, as fellow Scandinavians and wanted to assist Norway in defeating the Nazis, even if their ancestral home country had remained neutral. 

Neutrality under duress

Sweden had been a great power in the 17th and early 18th centuries and was often involved in wars and colonization. But that changed with the Policy of 1812 in response to Napoleonic Wars, which made Sweden a neutral state. However, it included the caveat of Russia pressuring Denmark to cede Norway to Sweden.  

By the start of World War II, Sweden had been neutral for over a century. On Sept. 1, 1939, the same day that Hitler invaded Poland, the Swedish Prime Minister Per-Albin Hansson declared neutrality, but clarified, saying: “Friendly with all other nations and strongly linked to our neighbors, we look on no one as our enemy. There is no place in the thoughts of our people for aggression against any other country, and we note with gratitude, the assurances from others that they have no wish to disturb our peace, our freedom, or our independence.”

Then in 1939 following the Soviet Invasion of Finland in the Winter War, Sweden changed its claim of neutrality to that of non-belligerence. This allowed about 8,000 Swedish volunteers to assist in fighting the Soviets, and Swedes provided military and humanitarian aid to the Finns.  

But the realities of war placed Sweden in a precarious situation. In June 1940, the Swedes signed a transit agreement with the Germans, allowing the Nazis to transport troops and goods through Sweden when traveling to Norway or Finland. By 1943, the German military had made about 250,000 trips across Swedish territory taking soldiers to and from the warfront. Sweden also had iron ore, an element necessary in the making of steel, which the Germans required, forcing further concessions.

Humanitarians and heroes

Sweden played an important role in saving Jewish refugees and others fleeing the Nazis. While in the beginning of the war, most refugees were denied access to Sweden, the Swedish government shifted policy in 1942, when they gave 900 Norwegian Jews sanctuary after an attack. 

A year later, all Danish Jews, about 8,000 people, were slated to be deported to concentration camps. Danes made it their mission to protect their citizens by transporting them to neutral Sweden, and almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark was rescued because of their efforts and Sweden’s role as a refuge. Each person was granted asylum, and local families cared for them.

When German defeat became imminent in the later years of the war, Sweden’s governmental policies shifted from German to Allied favor. By 1943, Sweden no longer sanctioned German transport of troops through their country. Sweden was now better positioned to gear toward defeating the Nazis by assisting in military training for Norwegians and Danes on Swedish soil and providing military intelligence. They also created Norwegian resistance camps near their shared border and opened their air bases to the Allies. 

Sweden’s humanitarian efforts were intensified with the White Buses campaign. Organized by Count Folke Bernadotte and the Swedish Red Cross and the Danish government, they aimed to rescue Scandinavian prisoners from German concentration camps. From March to May in 1945, the White Buses campaign rescued more than 21,000 prisoners and brought them to Sweden for medical treatment and recuperation. Of these, 7,000 were Danish or Norwegian, and 12,000 were of other nationalities, both Jewish and non-Jewish. A second detachment brought another 10,000 survivors to Sweden after the war ended.

Individual Swedes also came to the defense of Norway’s and other nations’ displaced people. Three hundred Swedish volunteers fled to Norway to assist them in defeating the Nazis when the occupation began. Espionage was carried out by individual diplomats and business owners. Everyday Swedish families sheltered and fed refugees, and Swedes in higher positions also made heroic efforts. Count Bernadotte was instrumental in rescuing 15,000 from the concentration camps, and 100,000 Hungarian Jews survived because of the efforts of diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who eventually was arrested for espionage by the Soviet Red Army and vanished. 

Sweden’s neutrality during World War II constitutes a complex chapter in history, with concessions made to the Nazis on the one hand and enormous efforts to aid the resistance and refugees from its neighboring countries on the other hand. Despite the hard realities of war, there are always people who will do the right thing and stay true to their convictions, no matter the cost—even death. And the Swedes during World War II were no exception. There were Swedes both in the United States and in Sweden who saw the injustices and acted from all levels of society, offering refuge to the victims of the war and saving thousands of lives.

This article originally appeared in the June 18, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Victoria Hofmo

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and still lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.