Scandinavian neutrality and the First World War

The longer the First World War lasted, the more it became an ideological war. To a much greater extent than the Central Powers, the Western Allies were able to appeal to universal principles in support of their war effort: these were enshrined most famously in Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points. The Scandinavian neutrals were thus exposed to the claim that since the West was fighting for values which they shared, they should make a more wholehearted commitment - either by being more accommodating in matters of war trade, or by actually entering the war on the Allied side. In practice, such claims were not made very often or very loudly or very explicitly. Though neutrals were expected to bend their neutrality, their right to remain neutral was not seriously challenged. The neutrals were able to retain at least a toe-hold on the moral high ground.

Allied representatives, it is true, were frequently exasperated by the prevarication of Scandinavian leaders and disgusted by the profiteering of Scandinavian businessmen and shipowners. Howard wrote in his memoirs that the Swedes, like other neutrals (including Great Britain in other wars), were tertii gaudentes, because 'the one object of neutral Powers is to make all the money they can out of war by trading with belligerents and thus, intentionally or not, helping to prolong war to the latest hour possible'. Sometimes this attitude came out into the open, as when Findlay asserted that the inflated price of Norwegian copper was 'the price of blood , - the blood of a friendly people to whom Norway would necessarily look for assistance in time of need'. And the disdain is still palpable in one of the most arresting passages in Bell's official history of the blockade, completed in the 1930s, where Scandinavian responses to German submarine warfare are contrasted with their protests against British controls:

The seamen who thus lost their lives were, for the most part, poor, seafaring folk, who think of death at sea as a writ of destiny delivered and executed. No neutral government was embarrassed, and fashionable society in the northern capitals was not shocked by the death of a wealthy, influential citizen. ...

For the time being, therefore, the German system was better adjusted to general circumstances than the British: the German submarines had bereaved a few poor Scandinavian families, ... we had openly defied the most influential plutocracy in the world.

However, morality also acted as a constraint on the belligerents, most strikingly with Beatty's repugnance at the thought of shedding of Norwegian blood - 'a crime as bad as any the Germans had committed elsewhere'.

No doubt such scruples would have been overcome had the situation been judged sufficiently serious. But that moment never came and the Scandinavian states did not become directly involved in the war. Why not? Formal neutrality regulations had little relevance, as the fate of Hammarskjöld's attempts to uphold them made clear. Nor do the belligerents appear to have been influenced by their obligations under the Norwegian integrity treaty of 1907, to which the Norwegian government in any case made few references in its published pronouncements. The actions of Scandinavian governments clearly played an important part, yet in the last resort Scandinavian statesmen had little influence on the decisions taken by the belligerents. Ihlen's diplomacy was frequently criticised, but nothing could have prevented Norwegian neutrality from being radically compromised in favour of the Allies in the last two years of the war. Sweden was perhaps 'the neutral victor', but it was saved from the consequences of German hegemony and its own Åland ambitions only by Allied victory at end of 1918. Scavenius was an able diplomat but it has been suggested that Denmark's fate was 'determined by the interests of the great powers rather than by the technical skill of Danish diplomacy' - a judgment which Scavenius himself might have endorsed given his ruthless realism and his pre-war views on the relative unimportance of the Scandinavian theatre to the great powers.

Scandinavian neutrality survived because it was useful to both sides, and because neither side achieved an absolute preponderance of power in northern Europe. The German submarine campaign could not destroy Allied superiority at sea, but on the other hand Germany's proximity to Denmark and its defeat of Russia helped to mitigate the Allied stranglehold over Scandinavian trade. In 1908 a British Admiralty planner had described the Scandinavian countries as 'hovering between the Sea Power and the Land Power' and had predicted that 'from their geographical position' they were 'almost certain to be drawn into the struggle in certain eventualities'. That prediction had not been fulfilled. In consequence, it was possible to believe that neutrality had worked. Immediately after the war, admittedly, the Scandinavian countries were to relinquish neutrality in favour of membership of the new League of Nations. But there were always mental reservations, and neutrality again became their refuge when the international situation deteriorated in the late 1930s. By then, however, the conditions of their existence had been transformed. The ideological claims of the belligerents in the Second World War were more insistent, Scandinavian neutrality held fewer advantages, and the balance of power in northern Europe had been destroyed.
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