The outbreak of war
Even more than in the rest of Europe, the sudden deterioration of the European crisis in late July 1914 took Scandinavia by surprise. Some Scandinavians had been reassured, as relations between Austria and Serbia worsened, by the fact that Kaiser Wilhelm had not cut short his annual holiday in the Norwegian fjords. It was not until 25 July that he set out for home, accompanied by a number of ships of the High Seas Fleet. On the same day the French President Poincaré and Prime Minister Viviani arrived in Stockholm on their return journey from St Petersburg. The news of Austria's rejection of the Serbian reply to its ultimatum sent the French visitors hurrying home without stopping, as scheduled, at Copenhagen and Kristiania. Once war had broken out on 1 August, there was still hope that Scandinavia might avoid direct involvement if the conflict remained confined to the European continent. The great danger was British intervention. The first consequence, so many believed, would be an Anglo-German naval clash in northern waters into which the Scandinavian countries would inescapably be drawn.
On 2 August the Swedish Foreign Minister sought to avert the danger by warning the British minister that Sweden might be forced to intervene on the side of the Central Powers if Britain, by declaring war on Germany, placed itself alongside Russia. Such a statement could have had no influence on the deliberations of the British government, dominated as they were by Germany's violation of Belgian neutrality and Britain's moral commitments to France and Russia. Britain duly went to war on 4 August. For Howard, however, the presence of Wallenberg in the government was a guarantee against Swedish intervention, and he argued that it was imperative for Britain to 'do all we can to assist the Minister for Foreign Affairs in his difficult task of maintaining Swedish neutrality'. At Howard's suggestion, Britain gave an assurance to Sweden that it would not violate its neutrality and would come to its assistance in the event of aggression, and persuaded France and Russia to do the same.
But in the first days there were widespread fears that the belligerents would seek to draw Scandinavia into the war. There were rumours that Britain might seize bases on the coast of Norway or Sweden in order to gain command of the entrances to the Baltic, or that Germany was putting pressure on Sweden to enter the war. King Gustav did not believe that Sweden could stay out of the war in the long run, while King Haakon told a Swedish representative on 6 August 1914 that he 'feared a breach of neutrality by England at any moment'. Such anxieties were by no means groundless. Battle cruisers of the German High Seas Fleet had been off the Norwegian coast until 26 July. In April 1913 Grey had agreed with Churchill that Britain would be entitled to attack 'German ships found in Norwegian waters on the outbreak of war' since they 'would presumably have been put there for strategic reasons', although he had drawn the line at the seizure of a Norwegian harbour. In early August, Admiral Jellicoe, the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, sent a cruiser sweep along the Norwegian coast following a report from Kristiania that the German navay had established a base there. The most alarming incident during these early days was one that remained unknown until after the war. On 9 August Admiral von Essen, the commander of the Russian Baltic fleet, sailed for the island of Gotland where a Swedish naval force was assumed (wrongly) to be stationed in anticipation of a joint German-Swedish action against Russia. Half-way to his destination he was recalled, the Russian authorities having come to the conclusion that Sweden had no immediate intention of entering the war.
There was, nevertheless, some discussion in Britain of the possibility
of drawing Scandinavia and other European neutrals into an anti-German
coalition. On 31 July Churchill, with a naval offensive in mind,
sent Asquith a list of bases on Dutch, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish
territory for possible capture without considering 'questions
of violation of neutrality'. The day before Britain declared war
he wrote to Asquith and Grey advocating an alliance with Norway,
Holland and Belgium as a means of tightening the blockade. On
4 August, before Germany's invasion of Belgium had become known,
the Foreign Office instructed Britain's representatives at Kristiania,
The Hague and Brussels that Britain was prepared to join France
and Russia in offering 'an alliance' (subsequently altered to
'common action') 'for the purpose of resisting use of force by
Germany against them, and a guarantee to maintain their independence
and integrity in future years'. The instructions were cancelled
following Germany's violation of Belgian neutrality but on 5 August
It should be our endeavour to bring into a system of fighting
alliance a ring of Powers surrounding the enemies. With Sweden,
Norway, and Holland neutral (at least neutral) we should, and
I am convinced we could, bring into line with us Portugal and
Spain, and I should not despair of winning over Italy, Greece
and possibly Turkey.
These countries would have to be offered 'effective financial
assistance and supplies of war material and guns'. Grey, too,
identified the position of the smaller neutrals as being critical
to the future of Britain as a great power. He told the American
ambassador on 4 August:
I had information that Germany was putting pressure on at least
one of the smaller European States to join her in this war, and
the issue for us was that, if Germany won, she would dominate
France; the independence of Belgium, Holland, Denmark, and perhaps
of Norway and Sweden, would be a mere shadow: their separate existence
as nations would really be a fiction; all their harbours would
be at Germany's disposal; she would dominate the whole of Western
Europe, and this would make our position quite impossible. We
could not exist as a first-class State under such circumstances.
However, although Grey described Crowe's proposal as 'timely', he did not pursue it. Indeed, in early August Grey 'seemed stunned by the course of events and Nicolson as well as Crowe complained of the lethargic nature of his approach'. It was nevertheless understandable that with its other preoccupations, the British government required nothing more than neutrality from the Scandinavian countries at this stage of the war.
Germany was equally satisfied with Scandinavian neutrality. Having adopted a defensive strategy, the German navy had no plans for action in Norwegian waters, and a neutral policy would preserve Norway from undue British influence especially if, as seemed likely, it was combined with a degree of alignment towards Sweden. More surprisingly, perhaps, Germany made no move to draw Sweden into the war. There was no pressure for a military alliance from either the General Staff or the navy, and the Swedes themselves were able to convince Germany of the advantages of Swedish neutrality while leaving no doubt as to where their loyalties and sympathies ultimately lay. This was very much Wallenberg's achievement. In order to avert the danger of a German ultimatum - one which he, like others, overrated - he went even further than the King in expressions of support: so far, in fact, that both the German minister, Reichenau, and Sweden's envoy in Berlin, Arvid Taube, believed for a time that intervention was imminent. Wallenberg's true intentions were revealed on 6 August when, strengthened by the neutrality declarations given by the Entente powers, he requested a similar declaration from Berlin. Reichenau supported the idea, arguing that Sweden's military preparations were inadequate for immediate entry into the war and that such a declaration would reinforce confidence in Germany without prejudicing Swedish action in the future. It was of some importance in this connection that the Swedish government had resisted the King's demand for immediate mobilisation. The German assurance was duly given on 10 August but was made dependent on the maintenance of an attitude of 'benevolent neutrality' towards Germany. This was very different from the 'strict neutrality' proclaimed in the Swedish neutrality declaration of 3 August, but was nevertheless something which had already been voluntarily conceded by the Swedes themselves.
The main thrust of German diplomacy was directed towards Denmark. In this case too, however, the motive was fundamentally defensive. On 5 August Denmark received a German request that it should lay mines in the Great Belt. A brief but intense government crisis ended when the King intervened in support of compliance. The Danes announced that they would mine not only the Great Belt but also the Little Belt and the Drogden channel on the Danish side of the Sound. Two consequences of the Danish decision are worth noting. First, Denmark's acquiescence did not imply that it would submit to further pressure. The German navy went on to seek information and preferential treatment for its ships from the Danish authorities; in September 1914 it requested that Denmark should lay mines in the Flint channel in the Sound (which lay in both Danish and Swedish territorial waters) in order to prevent British submarines from entering the Baltic. All of these requests were refused by the Danish government. Its attitude was strongly supported by both Brockdorff-Rantzau and the Auswärtiges Amt, who argued that further demands would unleash a wave of anti-German feeling and make it difficult for the King and government to maintain friendly relations with Germany.
Secondly, Denmark managed to avoid antagonising the Entente. During
the crisis of 5 August Danish ministers devoted little attention
to the possible reactions of Britain and France. In fact Scavenius
had reason to hope that Britain would show understanding for Denmark's
position. When he had met Grey in London in May 1914 the latter
had taken 'the opportunity of saying that we were aware of the
delicate position of Denmark, that we should never be the first
to violate her neutrality, and that we always desired to avoid
placing her in an embarrassing position'. The first response of
the British minister proved reassuring. When told of the Danish
government's decision to lay mines, Lowther declared that he found
Denmark's action quite reasonable. As he put it later that month,
Denmark could 'hardly be blamed if she be inclined to stretch
a point to avoid giving offence to Germany at the present time'.
The British government, unable to defend Denmark and wishing to
give Germany no excuse for an invasion, was quite willing to accept
Although the three Scandinavian countries had reached agreement on joint neutrality regulations in 1912, the most explicit expression of Scandinavian determination to remain outside the conflict was a declaration issued jointly by Sweden and Norway on 8 August 1914 in which the two countries affirmed their resolve to stay out of the war and 'to exclude the possibility that the state of war in Europe in any circumstances shall lead to one Kingdom taking hostile measures against the other'. It derived from a much more ambitious Swedish proposal of 1 August for an offensive and defensive alliance between the two countries. The initiative came from Wallenberg and was designed to serve a number of purposes. Like his warning to Howard of 2 August, it may have been intended to dissuade Britain from going to war by facing it with 'a neutral alliance of significant military strength' instead of an isolated, controllable Norway. More realistically, Wallenberg's aim was to prevent Norway from being drawn into the war on the side of Britain and Russia, with the obvious danger that Sweden would be drawn in on the side of the Central Powers. An agreement with Norway would weaken the Swedish activists who were calling for intervention, while strengthening Wallenberg's own position within the government. In a longer perspective, a defensive alliance with Norway (a goal pursued by Wallenberg's two immediate predecessors as Foreign Minister, Taube and Ehrensvärd), would help put an end to the strained relations which had existed between the two countries since 1905.
In the light of Sweden's 'benevolent' neutrality towards Germany, and in the context of those earlier proposals, it was understandable that some should have detected more sinister motives behind the project. Chevalley, the French minister in Kristiania, warned that an alliance between Norway and Sweden might serve as a prelude to a German-Scandinavian federation of the kind advocated by Taube a few years earlier. Wallenberg was certainly looking beyond the immediate crisis, but his motives should perhaps be sought rather in his close personal associations with Norway: his wife was Norwegian and he had substantial business interests in the country. Wallenberg was to be disappointed in his larger goal. The Norwegian government responded cautiously; and both King Gustav and Wallenberg's government colleagues, who retained bitter memories of 1905, disavowed the alliance proposal. However, the joint neutrality declaration which emerged from the negotiations in Kristiania served at least part of the Foreign Minister's purpose. It undermined the position of the Swedish activists while reassuring the left that the government intended to pursue a policy of genuine neutrality. It was also greeted with satisfaction by both the British and Russian ministers in Kristiania as a guarantee against Swedish intervention.
As a contribution to Scandinavian cooperation, the declaration of 8 August was a mixed blessing. While it helped to demonstrate that the divisions of 1905 between Norway and Sweden had been overcome, it left the Danes aggrieved at their exclusion. Although subsequent Swedish initiatives took more account of Denmark, there remained a residue of suspicion on the part of both Denmark and Norway - not least because Scandinavian cooperation under Swedish tutelage seemed to carry the risk of confrontation with the Entente. Suspicion also greeted the invitation from King Gustav V to his fellow Scandinavian monarchs to demonstrate their mutual solidarity by meeting, together with their foreign ministers, at either Stockholm or Gothenburg, in December 1914. Both Christian X and Scavenius were initially inclined to return a polite refusal but eventually agreed on condition that the meeting was held at Malmö. Wallenberg, once again, was behind the Swedish invitation. His purpose was not only to show a solid Scandinavian front to the outside world, but also to strengthen Swedish neutrality at a time when Germany was beginning to take a tougher line towards Sweden and when Wallenberg himself was coming under attack from the right-wing Swedish press.
The meeting at Malmö on 18-19 December gave the three foreign ministers the opportunity to meet and exchange information for the first time. It had few other positive consequences but was of some symbolic importance as an expression of Scandinavian solidarity. Certainly it was taken seriously by the belligerents - more so than the actual results of the meeting warranted. The German government saw in it 'the nucleus of resistance against English pressure'. British opinions were divided. Although he had approved the declaration of 8 August, Findlay in Kristiania was vehemently opposed to any closer Scandinavian cooperation under Sweden's aegis. He had written privately to Grey, in late November, warning that, whatever Wallenberg's own inclinations might be, he might become the prisoner of 'a pro-German Court clique' determined to bring Sweden into the war. Findlay feared that at Malmö 'Norway by entering into any agreement will be escaping to a certain extent from our control and influence'. Howard in Stockholm and Lowther in Copenhagen took a less alarmist view. Howard did not think that a closer association between the Scandinavian states of the kind foreshadowed by the declaration of 13 November would be disadvantageous to Britain. Primed by Wallenberg, he correctly interpreted the Malmö meeting as a means of showing a common Scandinavian front and strengthening the Foreign Minister's domestic position. The Foreign Office shared Howard's opinion: it was understandable that the Scandinavian countries should seek common means of mitigating belligerent pressure, and the Norwegians could be relied upon to avoid being drawn into the Swedish orbit. Grey telegraphed that Britain could not oppose an understanding between the three countries: 'if it strengthens them to resist any forcible violations of their neutrality and leads to business-like arrangements between them in common for distinguishing between bonâ fide imports and those destined for Germany we have no reason to be other than favourable to such an understanding'. No such arrangements were forthcoming. On the other hand, there was no evidence that any attempt had been made 'to form the Scandinavian countries into a pro-Teutonic bloc'.
Back to top of this chapter