Sweden's Role in the Great War

The Economic And Diplomatic Struggle
Of The Belligerents In Scandinavia—
"Beating The Embargo"—Popular
Sentiment Toward The Germans
And Toward The Entente Allies

By D. Thomas Curtin

[The World's Work, December 1915]

What is Sweden doing? What do her people think of the war? Are they going to enter into it? Is the war welding the three Scandinavian peoples more closely together? Is Sweden maintaining a strict neutrality? These and similar questions are constantly asked me by Americans.

The roar of battle along fronts aggregating more than 1,500 miles drowns out the great silent conflicts waged elsewhere: conflicts of diplomats, and conflicts of traders, a single one of which, in a war of exhaustion, may more directly affect the final outcome than a series of bloody but indecisive Neuve Chapelles. The nations at war are not only fighting one another at death grips in the lands of belligerents but they strive unceasingly to defeat each other in neutral lands. Efforts may be directed to induce the neutral to join in the war or to keep out of the war, or to extend trade privileges to the one or the other, or there may be a combination of motives. Of these silent battle-grounds, Sweden is perhaps the most interesting.

If the traveler would not rush from boat to train and from train to train in his whirl through Scandinavia, but would tarry a while and closely observe conditions in such places as Stockholm, Christiania, Goteborg, and Malmo, he would realize that Sweden is concerned, very much concerned, with the business of the Great War. If he continued his investigations, he would find himself in a network of plots which would be food for a Conan Doyle, a Stevenson, or a Poe—carried on in many cases by men backed to the limit by the mighty nations which they represent. No scheme is too ambitious to be seriously considered, no amount of goods too small to smuggle.

Although Sweden is immensely rich in iron and timber, it is when she plays the role of reëxporter that she most interests the warring nations. She early put an embargo on such war materials as guns, ammunition, swords, etc. To be exact, the date of this embargo was August 2, 1914. This was obviously a most sensible course for the smaller nations of Europe. In a war in which the avowed policy of one belligerent is to blockade the enemy to exhaustion, it is clear that Great Britain would be the nation most desiring a rigid embargo in those nations contiguous to Germany and Austria. Other nations, however, contributed their share of pressure to force Sweden to add extensively to her original embargo list. England would gladly have paid a high price for German dyes shipped via Sweden, and Russia would have welcomed all sorts of things from Germany by the same roundabout route. Germany would have paid tremendous prices for Russian wheat and petrol. Therefore it became vividly clear at an early date that Sweden's only salvation, to avoid being cut off from goods actually necessary to her life, lay in the compilation of a long embargo list and its strict enforcement. This list now covers eight or nine pages of fine print.

Officially no government could have conducted itself with more consistent neutrality than that of Sweden, and it zealously seeks to enforce its embargo laws to the letter; but Sweden, like every other nation, has her quota of citizens who are willing to take business chances, legal or illegal, which offer big rewards. Beating the game was elevated to the dignity of an applied science, wits baffled other wits, or succumbed. Some made fortunes; ugly looking bales of cotton inspired enthusiasm in men who formerly might have been considered utterly lacking in temperament.

Were a visitor to judge by appearances, the gorgeous world-renowned Grand Royal Hotel in Stockholm was turned into a stock exchange overnight. Knots of men put their heads together in the lobby and discussed any kind of a business transaction from the collecting of junk to the purchase of an oil ship; other groups sat in whispered discussions behind locked doors, while telephones were tingling, ever tingling, in the rooms throughout the great hotel. The atmosphere was that of Wall Street or the wheat pit of Chicago. The Continental presented a similar scene, as did also the other hotels to a lesser degree. Many Germans and a few Russians trying to buy and get their goods home to their respective countries, Englishmen trying to forestall the one and aid the other, and a sprinkling of neutrals garnered from Teheran to San Francisco playing the game—that is the transition from the sporting Stockholm of the Olympic Games to the Stockholm of the game of war.

Cut off from the great oceans, Germany redoubled her efforts in the Baltic. In Germany I was impressed with the contrast between the dead ports to the west of the Kiel Canal and the bustling ones to the east. A solemn hush hung over the rivers at Hamburg and Bremen, but Stettin swarmed with shipping activity, and Lübeck suggested the flourishing days of the Hanseatic League. Until an article went on the embargo list, it was, of course, permissible to export it from Sweden, and the vast quantities of needed commodities which Germany contrived to get not only from and through Sweden but from and through other neutral countries afford added proof of her up-to-the-minute alertness and efficiency. Two British consuls have told me that she even succeeded in getting machine guns through some neutral countries in the early days.

In the game of "beating the embargo," buying soon became a comparatively simple matter compared to delivering the goods. Once Sweden placed a commodity on the embargo list the chances of getting it out of the country by crooked means grew exceedingly slim. Successful delivery, on the other hand, meant profits. It became clear that Germany was making prodigious efforts to get cotton. Sweden did not place it on the embargo list until June 6, 1915. On June 30th cotton was selling for less than sixpence (twelve cents) a pound in Liverpool and more than two marks (forty cents) in Bremen. The British Government had not yet declared cotton contraband, although a portion of the press incessantly hammered it on the subject.

While Parliament debated the question and the Cabinet considered it I saw the German ring of cotton buyers in Sweden quadruple their efforts. On one occasion, after a pleasant chat on the Grand Hotel veranda with a neutral diplomat and a well-known American cotton king who was just then making a tour of Sweden to inspect his cotton interests, I stepped inside and was accosted by three Jews who were fighting Germany's trade battles on the Swedish front. I had already talked with these men several times, and if I had entertained any doubts of the nature of their activities these doubts were now expelled.

"Who was the strange gentleman to whom you were talking just now on the veranda?" asked one of them.

"He is one of the greatest cotton men in America," I returned with warmth.

I shall never forget the devouringly eager manner of the three men at my simple announcement. They came at me with outstretched arms. "Introduce us!" "Introduce us!" they, pleaded in unison. It is significant that this was in late July.


Every month Sweden added to her embargo list, which at present includes nearly every imported article. It is interesting and instructive to examine the causes which produced this exhaustive list. Let us consider copper as an extreme example. During the first months of the war German buyers sought to purchase every ounce of copper obtainable in Sweden, as elsewhere, and numbers of Swedes naturally accepted the high prices offered, some manufacturers, indeed, temporarily running short themselves. The director of one of the largest paper mills in Sweden told me that he was continually pestered by German agents trying to buy all kinds of scrap metal, but especially copper.

Now there was a time in Sweden's history when her production of copper was of paramount importance. That was the time when Gustavus Adolphus referred to the famous copper mine at Falun as the treasury of Sweden. It was a mine which began to be worked during the thirteenth century and which, during the seventeenth and part of the eighteenth, was the most important copper mine in the world.

British agents, in Sweden, however, are sufficiently well informed to know that the once famous Falun mine now yields less than 206 tons a year. In fact, less than 2,000 tons, of copper are mined annually in Sweden. These industrial agents kept well posted on what was happening, and, the fortunes of war giving Britain control of the sea, some people in Sweden began, to experience considerable difficulty in importing much-needed copper. British industrial espionage, organized under a capable leader who made no secret of his mission, sought to collect accurate data on all foreign transactions of Swedish business houses; and firms which were reëxporting to Germany often had their cable orders to America nullified in England.

There is a story of one German attempt at smuggling which is amusing. It has been reported on good authority that Germany at one time ordered several hundred thousand copper busts of Von Hindenburg for early delivery. The Englishmen did not like this. They did not object to Germany honoring the great hero by placing a statuette of him in every home in the Fatherland if she chose, but they did insist that if the statuettes were to come from Sweden they would have to be of wood, papier-mâché, or some other innocuous substance—but not, not of copper.

But can Swedes send nothing out of the country which is on the embargo list, you may ask?. They can, under certain conditions. The war has brought about a state of economic exchange which reminds one of those early days in the history of the race when goods were directly bartered for other goods. To make clear, Sweden is in dire need of coal. Germany agrees to let her have 600,000 tons, in consideration of which Sweden allows Germany to purchase to equivalent value something which is not on an enemy contraband list. Then it is that the Swedish merchant applies to the Board of Trade (connected with the Foreign Office) for permission to export a commodity on the embargo list. On one occasion Sweden bartered 10,000 horses for German products.

Thus we see that the great commercial struggle of outside influences in Sweden during the war has been primarily a struggle between Germany to get and Great Britain to prevent.


Toward the middle of October a new and possibly consequential phase of the war began to develop. I have already referred to the striking comparison between Germany's North Sea and Baltic ports. My inspection of Swedish east coast harbors confirmed my impressions, formed in Germany, that there existed no real blockade of that country, and I felt that the British Government would be confronted by a perplexing problem in the Anglo-American controversy that was brewing. Then came the reports of British submarine activity in the Baltic, resulting in the sinking of numbers of German ore ships. The natural question arose whether such acts were merely an extension of Great Britain's war on German trade, or if they possessed a deeper significance. Was this Britain's answer to the charge that her blockade of Germany through Scandinavia was illegal?

The nature of the cargo of the ships sunk leads us to a further consideration of Sweden's role in the war. The role is the triple one of connecting link between Russia and England, reëxporter, and source of supply for both sides. The first two have been discussed.

Staples of food, the forests, and the iron mines are Sweden's chief sources of wealth. Both sides in the conflict need great quantities of iron, and Sweden mines the best iron in the world. In 1912 Sweden exported to Germany 4,127,764 tons of iron ore; that is, more than six times the total of her iron ore exports elsewhere. The country is both in quantity and quality rich in this metal. In the whole world 45 per cent, of iron ore is pure; in Europe, 36.7 per cent; in Sweden we find the astonishing average of nearly 60 per cent. The total iron ore deposits of Sweden are estimated at 845,000,000 tons of pure metal, of which 95,000,000 tons are located in the old mines of central Sweden, and the great remaining bulk is stored in the iron mountains of Lapland. These mines lie farther north than the Klondike.

Far up above the Arctic Circle a ribbon of steel winds across dreary Arctic wastes through a desolate land of eye-tiring stretches of rolling swamps and nameless streams, and between mountains whose upper slopes are forever mantled in eternal snows; a ribbon lured on by fabulous treasures of iron ore. Boden is the junction of the railroad which branches around the Gulf of Bothnia nearly to the Finnish border, and the line which runs through Lapland. But Boden is more than a mere railroad junction. It is the great key fortress of the north, built to check the Russian Bear, should he ever attempt to claw his way across Lapland to the warm water port of Narvik.


There are two great ore fields in this weirdly silent region of the Lapps, the one at Gellivare, the second a hundred miles northwest at Kiruna. The first accounts of the iron ore of Gellivare date from the beginning of the eighteenth century, when mining and iron production on a small scale were attempted, the ore being transported by reindeer, to some small blast furnaces in the neighborhood. Various attempts at exploitation proved fruitless, however, for more than a hundred years, partly because of the high percentage of phosphorus, but chiefly because of the want of communications. It was not until the invention of the "Thomas Method" and the completion of the railroad in 1888 that an era of prosperity began. The Grangesberg Traffic Company gained control of the mines in 1903, but in 1907 the Government entered as partner in the association, and by a contract in force until 1938 the production of ore for export is fixed at 22,500,000 tons for the period 1907-1938.

At the outbreak of war the total annual output of the Gellivare ore field averaged 1,200,000 tons; but for the Swedish industry, which, owing to lack of coal is based chiefly on ores with a low percentage of phosphorus, the Lapponian ores have been used only to a small extent. The shipping port for this ore is Lulea, twenty-four miles from Boden on the Gulf of Bothnia, and in peace time the export went chiefly to Westphalia (via Rotterdam) and to Silesia (via Stettin); a minor part went to England, America, and elsewhere. To-day all the export goes to Germany via Stettin and Lübeck, and until the middle of October it went as unmolested as though Europe basked in the sunshine of peace.

The work at Gellivare is underground, whereas the mining operations in the region around Kiruna are simply the blasting away of a great mountain of iron estimated to hold 800,000,000 tons of ore, of which 70 per cent is pure metal. The preparatory work was started in 1898, and in 1899, 800,000 tons of ore were exported.

Thirty years ago there was not a single house in these desolate wastes, where the sun remains below the horizon for more than a month at Christmas time. It was a region of reindeer and nomadic Lapps. To-day Kiruna is a hustling mining town of 10,000 inhabitants, thoroughly up-to-date, with a moving-picture theatre, excellent roads, and a local division of the Salvation Army. The most northern trolley in the world runs from the town along the crescent shore of Lake Luossajärvi to the base of the iron mountain, without the existence of which the region north: of Gellivare would remain the undisputed domain of the nomad and his herd.

The road from Kiruna northwest to the Norwegian border is electrified, the power coming from the great station recently completed at Porjus, a brilliant example of Sweden's determination to harness waterfalls and lakes to atone for her serious lack of coal. Before the war fourteen ore trains of thirty cars each rumbled along this road every day. They broke the age-long silence of Arctic lakes and crags; at one end of a tunnel which pierces the border mountains of Norway and Sweden, the watershed between the Atlantic and the Baltic, they enter from rocky wastes, barren save for the most stunted of birch-scrub, and they emerge through the other end into a more kindly land of strikingly picturesque fiords and stately pines, and continue on to Narvik, washed ice-free by the last efforts of the Gulf Stream, ten degrees north of Cape Farewell, Greenland. Narvik is the magnet which Sweden has feared might draw the steel that Russia has laid across Finland. Like other small nations Sweden has come, to realize that sympathy plays scant part in the chess game of great nations, and she has viewed Russia with the same growing alarm as that with which Belgium viewed Germany and Servia viewed Austria-Hungary.

The Great War has diminished the fourteen ore trains a day to six. At Narvik, which has changed in character from a Norwegian hamlet to a Swedish iron port, the ore is dumped into vessels of a special type which carry it over the seas. Of the 3,000,000 tons annually exported from here before the war 70 per cent went to Germany, chiefly through Emden. Now little more than 5 per cent, of the Narvik export reaches that country, and that through Rotterdam. The bulk of it goes to England, though some reaches America.

The Swedish boats carrying ore destined for Germany slip down the coast, keeping as much as possible in the protecting shelter of Norwegian waters. When forced to go outside they trust to fog and darkness, when possible, to avoid the vigilance of the British fleet. Usually they are successful, but sometimes they are conducted to Kirkwall or other British ports, where the cargo is purchased, and they return to try once more to beat the game. As iron ore is not contraband of war neither ships nor crew are running undue risks.


Two days south of Narvik on the Lapland Express and we are in the iron ore region of central Sweden, a smiling country of lake and stream, where the hills which once offered Gustavus Vasa refuge from the Danes now reëcho the roar of blast furnaces and rolling mills, whose managers have learned their art in Yorkshire and Pennsylvania. Unlike the ore of the north, much of the ore here contains a very low percentage of phosphorus and can be smelted by charcoal. The mine at Dannemora is world-renowned for the superior quality of tool steel which is made from its flaky magnetic ore, the output of which is purposely kept below 50,000 tons a year in order that a high price may be maintained. Now tool steel happens to be a much demanded commodity in these times of high explosives, and when England found that she was able to import from Sweden only 1,580 tons in May, 1915, against 4,604 tons in the corresponding month of the previous year, she naturally wondered whether Germany had the inside track or whether Sweden needed more for herself in her feverish preparations for armed neutrality.

It is worthy of note that Germany took two thirds of the French iron mines, chiefly at Longwy and Briey, in the first weeks of the war, and that she has been working them to the limit. Furthermore, although the Swedish iron mines in Lapland are exporting only about one half their normal output, the Austrian Freya Company with mines at Koskullskulle, near Gellivare, have increased their export from two- to threefold, the ore being shipped from Lulea to Witkowitz in Bohemia by way of Stettin.

Whereas Germany at the outbreak of war was the greatest purchaser of Swedish iron ore, Great Britain was by far the greatest buyer of Swedish wood products. German submarines, however, have taken deadly toll of Scandinavian ships laden with pit-props bound for England.


Before considering the sentiment created in Sweden by the war it would be well to examine briefly into the state of affairs at the beginning of hostilities, for the pulse-beat of national feeling was quickening perceptibly. Back in 1855, in the days of the Crimean War, England and France, bent on thwarting the Russian Bear wherever he might seek to break his icebound fetters, signed a treaty guaranteeing armed assistance to Sweden—which then included Norway—in case of Russian attack. In 1899, however, the buffer state of Finland was militarily incorporated into the empire of Nicholas II, and Sweden awoke with alarm from her dream of security, aghast at the shadow of the Cossack looming large across the narrow waters of the Bothnian Gulf, while a military railroad crept up to her very border.

To make the clouds seem blacker Norway, taken from Denmark after four centuries of union and united to Sweden in 1814 by the peace of Kiel, indulged in a bloodless revolution in 1905 and became a separate kingdom under Haakon VII, brother of the present Danish King. England allowed Russia to encroach upon Persia, while the growing rivalry between England and Germany caused Sweden to feel that to rely upon the former to save her from Russia would be to commit national suicide.

Yet despite the significant trend of events, Sweden—like the America of to-day—developed her quota of orators who went about the land preaching the blessings of unpreparedness. In 1912, with Europe trembling on the brink of war, the Radical Socialists continued to work for disarmament. It was then that Sven Hedin, championing the cause of the Conservatives, issued his "Word of Warning," a tremendously popular pamphlet crying out against the danger from Russia. The price of a battleship was quickly raised by popular subscription, and after the espionage exposures in 1914 which involved the Russian wife of the second son of the King, the popular clamor for protection became so great that 30,000 peasants marched in from the country through the streets of Stockholm to the Royal Castle to assure the King that they would be willing to bear any added taxation for national defense. The Foreign Minister resigned and the Conservatives came into power on the eve of Armageddon.

Therefore, the visitor to Sweden finds her pro-German in sympathy with an anti-Russian war party in power. The Swedes tell you that they have a close bond with Germany racially and culturally. To associate entirely with army officers would be to believe Sweden on the brink of entry into the struggle on the side of Germany. One sees flashes of the spirit of Charles XII, whose three-cornered hat is the style worn by the Swedish soldiers when they do not wear the more warlike spiked helmet, which from the distance appears to be the exact counterpart of that worn in the armies of the Kaiser.

But the unreasoning ambition of the dashing Charles XII, though often met in the Sweden of to-day, is safely tempered by such men of power as the great banker, Wallenberg, Minister for Foreign Affairs, who is determined to keep out of the struggle, and by the Social Democrats, all of whom are opposed to war and most of whom consider Germany the greatest exponent of the militarism they hate, and would consequently use all their influence to prevent their country from joining her.

On August 9, 1914, the governments of Sweden and Norway agreed to maintain their neutrality, and the three Scandinavian monarchs have subsequently met to confer upon protective measures. Such acts may be portentous, and they certainly look important for Scandinavian unity when viewed from afar. But it should not be forgotten that the peoples of these northern lands are decidedly democratic and that the people rule. The disastrous flames of jealousy which raged in them for centuries have by no means been totally extinguished. They have not a common enemy. Denmark is favorably impressed by Germany's quick apologies for transgressions, and she does not dread her as much as at the outbreak of war; yet she cannot look upon Russia as an enemy as does Sweden. The average Swede fumes against English meddling with his trade, while he glosses over inconveniences inflicted by Germany. The Norwegian feels just the opposite. A Norwegian cartoon showing a ball room in which Sweden dances with Germany and Norway with England depicts the present situation. Whether they will go on with the dance, or their monarchs will induce them to forget the rivals and be friendly, is a question which the future, probably the near future, must solve.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —


A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury