What did you do in the war, Sweden?


Swedish store sign, circa 1940: Jews and Half Jews not allowed

The second edition of my pamphlet on Sweden’s experience of the Second World War is now available as an e-book for 99 cents. To understand Sweden’s open borders approach, it helps to understand Sweden’s history, particularly its history of peaceful, some say demeaning, compromise with the Third Reich during the war that meant Sweden emerged from the war completely unaffected. Sweden’s economy grew enormously during the war by serving as a big exporter to the Reich and, because its factories and economy were entirely intact on VE-Day, it had a head start as the world entered the era of peace. Many Swedes felt very guilty about this. No one more so than Olof Palme, the Swedish prime minister who is the subject of some of my other books. Palme turned neutrality into a strength, not a weakness. And his 1960s engagement in the third world – which paved the way for Sweden’s mass immigration policy two decades after that — was in a sense pursued in order to satisfy a Swedish sense of glory as well as assuage the country’s guilt over a war Palme was just some years too young – as well as being from the wrong country – to participate in.
I think one of the problems with the way the Social Democrats rewrote the history books is that too few Swedes are aware of Sweden’s essentially militaristic, conservative, undemocratic, history – the democratic franchise arrived almost 50 years after Denmark for instance.
Their self definition around 1910 was based on empire and past military glory. Karl XII, Gustav Adolf. Just read a history book from 100 years ago, available from any antiques bookseller. Even the British thought Sweden was an old-fashioned, caste-ridden, conservative society living in the past. The writer August Strindberg became persona non grata in Sweden because he made fun of Swedish officers, with their twirly moustaches, Prussian helmets and extravagant self belief.
When the Social Democrat revolution came in 1918, it was more complete than in other countries. People forgot what pre 1918 Sweden was like. The education system and media played a strong role in this. At the same time, I think subconsciously the Swedes retained an older mindset, a dream to make a mark on the world – a feeling definitely not shared with other small, prosperous democracies such as Holland, Switzerland, Denmark or Norway. Swedes had a need be special, to be the biggest of the small countries.
During the two world wars, the upper classes and military in Sweden looked favourably to Germany, for cultuiral reasons, but in some military and aristocratic circles there was also the desire to leverage German power to increase Sweden’s own power in the old zones of Swedish imperial influence in the Baltic and Eastern Europe. Swedish generals secretly formulated attack plans on the Soviet Union. According to the German military attache, 90% of the Swedish officer corps was pro-Nazi.
The military did not prevail in the struggle for Sweden’s soul in 1914-18 and 1939-45; instead the governing Social Democrats did. Basically pacifist, they ensured Sweden stayed out of the war and made sure not to align Swedish goals with the Nazis, but appeased them instead – wisely, if ingloriously. The desire of Sweden to make a mark did not go away, however.
Olof Palme came from a military, conservative family and the lack of respect for Sweden bothered him. When he came to the United States as an exchange student immediately after the war, aged 20, he discovered that the Americans were suspicious of Sweden’s neutrality and compromises in favour of Hitler.
Palme grew up in a classic aristocratic family of Baltic imperialists: his uncle, also called Olof, thought the only good Russian was a dead Russian and that the Finns were an inferior race who were best off under benign Swedish control, as they had been before 1809. Olof Palme senior volunteered for, and died in, the Finnish civil war in 1918, fighting, of course on the bourgeois white side. Palme’s family were leading recruiters for the whites. The Palme household in Stockholm was basically a discussion and debating headquarters for the extensive Swedish mobilisation for the (largely Swedish speaking) Finnish whites and against the Finnish-speaking Finnish reds. Finland was a country divided between a Swedish speaking elite and a Finnish speaking proletariat. Palme’s father was the treasurer of the White volunteer movement.
Although he affected a radical socialist style when he became leader of the Social democrats in 1969, I don’t believe Palme quite renounced the imperialist instincts of his aristocratic background. Rather, when it came to washing away Sweden’s disreputable reputation as an appeaser during the second world war, he came, when of political maturity, to fuse the classic imperialism of the Swedish right with the humanitarian and pacifist instincts of his adopted left. To turn Sweden not into a superpower in arms, but a superpower of moral values.
Neutral Sweden, locked in and surrounded by a Europe of two superpower blocs, found, in the 1960s and the early 1970s, that the Third World was the perfect outlet for spreading Swedish democratic and humanitarian values in countries where the experience of colonisation had led to a complete loss of faith in European states and values. Sweden, under Palme, had an opportunity here to redeem Europe for its sins and thereby absolve Sweden for its passivity in the second world war. Personal and national motives had become one.
The flaws of each superpower bloc, and the legacy of European imperialism, meant that Sweden could play a role as an ideological model. Africans and Asians, disgusted by the French, the British, and the Americans, might become….Swedes.
So, in the Palme era, Sweden found its need for self expression satisfied by spreading human rights as well as Swedish Social Democracy, a decent middle way between predatory American capitalism and oppressive Soviet communism. It was successful in that Palme became something of a hero in the Third World, “the good white man”, but he was also loathed for his perceived self righteousness in London, Washington and Pretoria. The British called Palme’s morally censorious Sweden “the world’s mother-in-law”.
To many, Palme is a true hero and humanitarian, “a dove of peace” who picked up the baton of youthful hope for a better world. But from my reading of the British archives, I get the sense that British diplomats and politicians frequently thought the Swedes “got too big for their boots”. Whether they were right or not, they felt the Swedes did not understand the responsibilities of empire and, second, had no right to lecture other countries after having such a compromised history in world war 2. Is that a fair assessment?
This pamphlet is a short account of that supposedly compromised history, Sweden’s experience as a neutral state in World War 2. And suggests connections between the Palme era’s atoning internationalism and Third World engagement and today’s exceptionally liberal immigration policy. Subject to time and other issues, I may extend the pamphlet into a full length book. Buy here: https://pelleneroth.wordpress.com/what-did-you-do-in-the-w…/

What did you do in the War Sweden, 99 cents, Amazon Kindle