Patrick Salmon, Scandinavia and the Great Powers 1890-1940 (Cambridge, 1997)

Chapter 4

Neutrality preserved: Scandinavia and the First World War


Denmark, Norway and Sweden were more fortunate than most European countries in that they were not directly involved in hostilities between 1914 and 1918. Both the Entente and the Central Powers were persuaded that they had more to gain from Scandinavian neutrality than from drawing the Scandinavian states into the war. Scandinavia proved marginal to the military and naval strategies of the belligerents to an extent unforeseen by pre-war planners. This was partly because the war lasted longer than most people had anticipated: much pre-war planning had been predicated on the assumption of a war of early engagements and rapid movement both on land and at sea - particularly in Scandinavian waters. It was also because attempts to break the deadlock on the western front by a flanking strategy were directed elsewhere: towards the eastern Mediterranean, not the Baltic. And because the war was prolonged, economic pressure became increasingly important to both sides. This heightened the significance of neutral Scandinavia as a transit route to Germany and Russia and as a source of supply to the Entente and the Central Powers.

In some respects their economic indispensability was advantageous to the Scandinavian states, or at least to the many individuals and firms who made large profits out of trading with the belligerents. However, most of the problems that confronted Scandinavian governments during the war resulted directly or indirectly from the attempts of the belligerents to conscript the Scandinavian economies into their respective war efforts. All three countries had to accept a drastic diminution of traditional neutral rights while establishing an unprecedented degree of government control and supervision over their domestic economies. Economic pressure from the West - in the form of coal and food embargoes - caused considerable hardship; pressure from Germany - in the form of unrestricted submarine warfare - led to the destruction of ships and the deaths of thousands of seamen. There were major political consequences as well. In Sweden, the war defeated the attempt by the King and his Prime Minister Hammarskjöld to conduct affairs of state on 'patriotic' principles, without parliamentary interference, and helped to bring about the entry of the Social Democrats into government. In all three countries the war radicalised the working class.

The belligerents displayed only intermittent interest in enlisting the Scandinavian states as active participants in the war, or in extending the theatre of operations into Scandinavian territory. Their main efforts were directed towards gaining control of Scandinavian resources and commerce and denying them to the enemy. Scandinavian leaders, for their part, conducted their affairs in such a way as to convince the belligerents that it was in their own best interests to avoid taking steps which might bring Scandinavia into the war. They also managed to persuade the two sides to be satisfied with a less than total control of Scandinavian trade. To this extent the war was a vindication of Scandinavian statesmanship. Yet the experiences of the three states differed widely. At the beginning of the war Denmark mined the Great Belt at Germany's behest but thereafter managed to maintain a remarkable equilibrium between British and German economic demands. Norway, who, in the words of the Britain's wartime naval attaché in Scandinavia, 'was our best friend, and from whom there were no political consequences to be feared, received the worst treatment of the three Scandinavian States at the hands of the British Government'. Whilst Britain imposed a coal embargo to force Norway to comply with its blockade measures, German submarine warfare took a heavy toll of Norwegian shipping and Norwegian lives. Sweden, conspicuously pro-German in its neutrality policy, was also subjected to severe British economic pressure in 1916-17. And, when it came round to a more even-handed policy, concluding a war trade agreement with the Allied and Associated Powers in May 1918, Sweden was faced with a new threat to its integrity in the form of the Baltic hegemony won by Germany as a result of its victory over tsarist Russia and its peace treaty with the Bolsheviks at Brest-Litovsk. However, this same victory, followed by Germany's defeat at the hands of the western allies, permitted the emergence of Finland as a fourth sovereign state in northern Europe.

The contrasting experiences of the Scandinavian states were clearly due in large measure to differences in geographical position and resource endowment. But allowance must also be made for the nature of domestic politics in each of the three countries. In Denmark, and to a lesser extent in Norway, a large measure of consensus prevailed throughout the war. The minority Radical Liberal government which had ruled in Denmark since 1913 with Social Democratic support was broadened (though not turned into a 'national' government) in 1916 by the inclusion of 'supervisory' ministers without portfolio from the Liberal, Conservative and Social Democratic parties. The government of Gunnar Knudsen in Norway, and especially the Foreign Minister, Nils Claus Ihlen came in for much criticism, but found a partial solution in the formation of a parliamentary foreign policy committee early in 1917. Swedish politics were much more confrontational. The Hammarskjöld government was under pressure from both the right and the left: from the 'activists' who wished Sweden to intervene in the war on the side of the Central Powers and from the Liberals and Social Democrats who wished both to democratise the country and to pursue a more even-handed neutrality policy.

Much also depended on the personal qualities of Scandinavian leaders: on their assessment of the challenges and dangers posed by the war, and on their ability to manoeuvre to limit their consequences. Here too there were marked differences between the three countries. These resulted from the personalities of Scandinavian monarchs, prime ministers and foreign ministers, as well as from the relationships they managed to establish with the diplomatic representatives of the belligerents. Perhaps the most impressive achievement was that of Erik Scavenius, whose conduct of Danish foreign policy amounted to compliance with belligerent demands where this was unavoidable but going no further than was absolutely necessary. Although Scavenius kept his cabinet colleagues in ignorance of some of his most important exchanges with belligerent governments, he was also in the habit of consulting the leaders of other political parties, while King Christian X gave support to the government at certain critical points. Scavenius was aided by his ability to inspire confidence in the diplomats of both sides. With successive British ministers - Sir Henry Lowther and, from 1916, Sir Ralph Paget - his relations were always correct and amicable; but the crucial relationship was with the German minister, Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau. It was one of mutual respect and friendship in which the German minister, despite his abiding suspicion of the sympathies of the Danish population, consistently urged on the political and military authorities in Berlin the importance of respecting Danish neutrality.

Denmark's very vulnerability gave it a strength which Norway lacked. Ihlen was right when he told the Storting that Norway was the weakest of the three countries because it was not under threat of German invasion or likely to join the Central Powers, and was hence wholly exposed to British pressure. Ihlen himself, in contrast to Scavenius, seemed secretive and dilatory in his dealings with foreign diplomats. He was subject to much criticism in the Storting and was frequently on bad terms with the British minister in Kristiania. This was not entirely Ihlen's fault, given Findlay's temperament. Findlay was, however, on reasonable terms with the Norwegian Prime Minister, Gunnar Knudsen, and enjoyed close relations with King Haakon. The Norwegian naval authorities were also very forthcoming towards the British legation, and in particular towards Captain Consett, the British naval attaché to the Scandinavian countries. But failures of communication and misunderstandings - together with Norway's dependence on Britain - led to a drastic breach between the two countries over the blockade early in 1917. Germany had less scope for pressure or persuasion than Britain - apart from the brutal sanction of submarine warfare - but also had less effective diplomatic representation in Norway than in the other Scandinavian countries until 1917, when the colourless German minister Micahelles was replaced by the resourceful and ruthless Admiral von Hintze.

That Sweden was the most important of the Scandinavian countries was recognised by Britain, Germany and Russia in their choice of diplomatic representatives. At the outbreak of war the British had their man, Sir Esme Howard, firmly in place, while Nekludov, the able and civilised Russian ambassador, who had been in post since 1912, was to remain until 1917. The Germans were not so fortunate. In January 1915 the Auswärtiges Amt responded promptly to a personal request from King Gustav V to the Kaiser and replaced von Reichenau, who had been intriguing blatantly with Swedish 'activists', with Hellmuth Lucius von Stoedten. Lucius was at first a more effective operater, but later he too overplayed his hand. Nekludov described Lucius as 'quick, intelligent, shrewd, and essentially cynical', but also as 'too excitable, too much of a trickster'.

The Swedish side of the relationship with the belligerents was more troubled than that of Denmark or Norway. Whilst Scavenius and Ihlen were given a relatively free hand by their monarchs and government colleagues, the position of Sweden's first wartime Foreign Minister, the banker Knut Wallenberg, was more constrained. The Prime Minister, Hjalmar Hammarskjöld, was Sweden's leading expert on international law and played an active, often dominant role in the formulation and execution of Swedish policy until his fall in March 1917. He was frequently in conflict with the pragmatic Wallenberg, whose good relations with both the British and the German ministers in Stockholm did much to persuade both governments of his indispensability. Wallenberg had many strengths and his 'business connections as a financier with Great Britain, France and Russia' gave him, as Howard observed, 'a larger outlook than most of his fellow-countrymen possess'. But he was a poor administrator who frequently failed to keep colleagues and subordinates of what he was doing. It was, for example, Wallenberg, not the ostensibly more pro-German Hammarskjöld, who - without consulting his colleagues - allowed Germany to use Swedish ciphers to communicate with its embassies and legations overseas - a practice which was to have damaging repercussions on Sweden's relations with the Allies as well as on Swedish domestic politics. Months before the fall of the Hammarskjöld ministry, Wallenberg had been marginalised by the Prime Minister's confrontational policy towards the Entente.

Arvid Lindman, his successor as Foreign Minister in the short-lived Conservative ministry of March-September 1917, lacked credibility with the Western powers owing to his pro-German reputation, while in terms of Swedish domestic politics the Swartz-Lindman government was all too evidently a stop-gap. Johannes Hellner, Foreign Minister in the Liberal-Social Democratic coalition which came to power after the elections of September 1917, was a more capable figure who had learned the difficulties of Sweden's position at first hand in war trade negotiations with the Allies. Like their predecessors, however, Hellner and his colleagues had to reckon with a further disruptive element in Swedish policy making. Whilst Christian X and Haakon VII gave their governments full support in their efforts to preserve neutrality, King Gustav V and his consort Queen Victoria intervened intermittently throughout the war to push Sweden in a more pro-German direction. At times they clearly hankered after military intervention on the side of the Central Powers, but the King lacked the will - and perhaps had a sufficiently realistic understanding of the temper of the Swedish people - to see his initiatives through to their logical conclusion.

As small powers, the Scandinavian states were generally ordained to react, respond, adapt; there was little scope for policy initiatives, though all were to carry out important humanitarian work, especially among prisoners of war. Norwegian leaders made no attempt to influence the attitudes or conduct of the belligerents, but Denmark and Sweden were less passive. In the first months of the war both King Christian X and, perhaps surprisingly, Scavenius, gave strong support to the efforts of H.N. Andersen (head of the East Asiatic Company and a confidant of the King) to mediate between Britain, Germany and Russia. Sweden was a stronger power with a tradition of active diplomacy. Sometimes it sought to influence the great powers in matters of high policy: Wallenberg's warning to Great Britain of 2 August 1914 is an example. Britain's behaviour, as well as that of France and Russia, was influenced to some degree but much less than Wallenberg had hoped. Sweden also attempted to enhance its own position as a regional power. This was the purpose of the various initiatives over the Åland Islands emanating from the King of Sweden and other quarters in 1917-18, which ended in a humiliating and potentially damaging submission to Germany's terms in May 1918. A more promising arena for Swedish diplomatic activity was that of Scandinavian cooperation. Swedish initiative lay behind the meetings of Scandinavian monarchs, prime ministers and foreign ministers which took place with increasing regularity from the autumn of 1914 onwards. If the practical consequences were limited, such meetings did much to dispel the mutual suspicions which existed among all three countries, but especially between Norway and Sweden after 1905, and laid the foundations for more extensive cooperation in the post-war period.

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