Scandanavian Neutrality

By Maurice Francis Egan

[The Yale Review, April 1918]

Returning from Denmark after ten years spent very near to the German frontier, I am astonished to find how little understood are the position and difficulties of the three Scandinavian nations, which have contrived to remain neutral during the war. I attribute this ignorance to the inability of free Americans to conceive conditions in which great and mighty countries have an over-powering influence on the destinies of smaller lands. To live in Denmark, as I have done so long, is to make one even more deeply in love with liberty, for the shadow of a colossal despotism is never absent from the minds and hearts of the people. A second reason for our misunderstanding the situation of these countries is an inadequate knowledge of their essential peculiarities.

The three Scandinavian nations, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, are closely allied in blood; but owing to the effect of circumstances on their development they are very different in their ideals and points of view. The Danes and the Norwegians are in love with popular freedom; the influences on their national life come from below. In this sense, they are very democratic. The Swedes are still dominated by those ideas of authority which moulded the world before the French Revolution. Sweden, until April 24, 1917, was believed to be governed by the authority of a king little less autocratic than his ancestor Bernadotte, that Marshal of Napoleon who had imbibed a certain flavor of imperialistic ideas. The Swedes, in spite of the great break towards Socialism made under the lead of Hjalmar Branting, are still much less democratic than the other two Scandinavian countries.

It is no longer a diplomatic secret that Norway, after its rupture with Sweden, would have set up as a republic, had not the great powers, including England interfered. However, the Norwegians did the next best thing. They accepted a king—a brother of the present ruler of Denmark, married to a daughter of Edward the Seventh—who was willing to be a president, with very limited constitutional powers, for life. It is generally understood that if little Prince Oluf, the heir to the throne, did not exist, Norway would as a matter of course become a republic on the death of the present king. The natural resources of Norway are great; she is proud of her water power, of her fisheries, of her sailors, of the strong trees that she uses for her ship-building, and, above all, of the position she has lately taken in the world of music and letters. She is not so proud of Ibsen as of Björnsen; and I doubt whether she is so proud of the powerful race of scientists and engineers arising to conquer her natural forces as she is of Grieg. The idea that many of us have of a wild country of fjords, of isolated, darkly passionate people, disturbed mentally by such phantasms as Ibsen evoked, is just as false as were our conceptions before the war of a happy Germany full of Gemütlichkeit. The Norwegian is practical, brusque, demanding what he wants and generally getting it; he is of a temperament in which bluffness must not be taken for frankness, and he is above all a natural politician.

It does not follow that the Norwegian peasant who comes here, speaking bad English, is an ignorant person. His bad English is very deceptive, and he can probably whistle without a flaw the Peer Gynt Suite or analyze with genuine delight a novel of Jonas Lie. His tendencies have always been anti-German; he has loved England, and has been very sympathetic with the United States, because among the peasants in the Norwegian country and the poorer citizens of Norwegian towns there is scarcely a family which has not some representatives in the country of Washington and Lincoln—two names which he loves and reveres.

The points of view of the Swede and the Norwegian were diametrically opposite during those years in which Sweden and Norway were united under one king. If the older union between Denmark and Norway had not been broken, more sympathetic feelings might have existed, as the Dane is less autocratic than the Swede. However, if King Oscar, who was a very charming and interesting person, had thrown off the ideas of the circle of aristocrats by which he was surrounded, Norway and Sweden might have remained united, but never without a distinct change in the attitude of the Swedish ruling classes.

Not that Sweden looks on itself as a small nation; until the Socialist revolt in 1917, the strongest party in Sweden—the party which believed that all power should come from the aristocrats of birth or intellect—thought, that their country was destined to become the Prussia of Scandinavia. This feeling, so well understood in Denmark and Norway, deepened the dislike which these two other countries had for rich and arrogant Sweden.

When the war opened, the three countries were at heart opposed to one another. Foreign readers of Scandinavian history imagine that the bond of religion kept these Lutheran peoples close together. Whatever bonds of religion had existed after the Reformation and until the death of Gustavus Adolphus, disappeared in the course of time, as the interests of the three peoples diverged more and more, and religion ceased to be closely allied to politics. Later, Socialism, growing in all three countries, looked towards Germany for its inspiration; and Socialism does not concern itself with the dogmas or prejudices of any form of the Christian religion. At the opening of the war the differences among the three nations were marked, and Socialism hardly counted as a factor in bringing them nearer. The haughty dislike of the Swede for the Norwegian who had dared to cast off the Swedish royal power, the disdain of the Norwegian for a dominating country whose yoke he had thrown off, and the scorn of the Dane for the illiberal tendencies of the Swede and his lack of aesthetic qualities, did not tend to produce that Scandinavian Confederacy which in 1918 has become more than possible.

The ill feeling of Sweden for Denmark was accentuated by the acceptance of the Swedish throne by King Haakon. Although the mother of King Haakon, the present dowager queen of Denmark, is a daughter of the late Charles the Fifteenth of Sweden, yet the Swedes resented the placing of her son, a Danish Prince, on the throne of a country which they had hitherto regarded as an appanage. There is a story of a Swede in Minnesota who proudly said to an American: "You may talk of New York, but we have the beautiful city of Stockholm; you may talk of Niagara Falls, but we have hundreds of splendid cascades; you may talk of your electric cars, but we have finer ones in Sweden." "But," replied the American, "you have no Indians in Scandinavia." "Yes, we have," retorted the Swede, "we have Indians, but we call them Norwegians." This may be exaggerated, but it gives a fair idea of the Swede's attitude towards Norway just before the present war.

Of the three countries, Norway felt itself to be the most independent. Since the government was mild and liberal, destructive Socialism gained very little headway. As the king retained no royal prerogatives worth considering, there was nothing to-fight against, and so the Norwegian did not feel himself bound in any way to imitate the methods of the German Socialists. Germany was hateful to the Norwegian because it meant autocracy; he had not abolished titles and come within an ace of doing away with all decorations, to be caught in the toils of an international movement which meant the absolute supremacy of the state. Besides, German Socialism had broken down; in voting military supplies for the Kaiser, it had ceased to be international; consequently the influence of German Socialism in Norway in no way assisted in diverting the sympathies of the Norwegian from the cause of the Allies. Until our embargo became so extremely stringent, Norway was almost openly unneutral. Her great coast-line, her belief in her sailors, and her unconquerable spirit of independence made her one of the freest of nations. She feared neither Russia nor Germany.

In Denmark fear of Germany is still a natural condition of mind. If you study the map of Denmark you will observe that the northern provinces of Schleswig-Holstein are geographically part of Danish territory, and that Germany herself seems to melt into Denmark. In truth, the German Junker constantly, speaks of Denmark as "our northern province." The population of Denmark is about 3,000,000; the country is purely agricultural, unless we except whatever mines may exist in Greenland and Iceland. On the West, you have the North Sea; on the North you have the Skager-Rak, which is a branch of the North Sea; on the East the Kattegat, the Sound, and the Baltic. Among the most precious and dangerous possessions of Denmark are the Great, the Middle, and the Little Belt. The Great Belt runs into Kiel Bay; and for military purposes this strait, which connects the North Sea and the Baltic, is most valuable.

In the beginning of the war, a grave question as to the internationality of this Belt, was on the tongue of every thoughtful Dane. The precedents were all in favor of the internationality of the middle part of it; but as it was expected that England might send a fleet to attack the imprisoned German ships, it was presumed that Germany might regard this as a breaking of the neutrality of Denmark; and this is, above all, what Denmark fears. Sweden is no longer under the shadow of Russia, and Norway considers herself able to defend her coast; but Denmark knows that the fate of Serbia continually hangs over her. She has never had any reason to hope for assistance from the great powers. In 1864, Europe stood by and allowed her provinces of Schleswig-Holstein to be unrighteously seized by Prussia and Austria. In addition to socialistic schemes of benevolence, she supports a standing army which, at a pinch, might number 100,000 men. Her navy, destroyed by England early in the nineteenth century, has been revived; it has taken years to bring it to its present condition; but this condition is meagre compared with the navies of the great powers. Nevertheless, in spite of the socialistic discouragement of the defense of the country, she makes a brave military show; but this would be as a mist before a tornado if the Germans should land in Jutland or send a group of aeroplanes and Zeppelins over Copenhagen.

Up to the outbreak of the war, Denmark had furnished the English breakfast table with butter, bacon, and eggs; she had exported fish, a certain amount of cream, beef, and pork to Germany; she was deeply indebted to Germany for importations and money advanced. Germany had managed through manipulation of the commercial classes, even though they were sentimentally against her, to secure a strong grip on her resources. Like Holland, she was beginning to be a commercial adjunct to her powerful neighbor, and the only offset to this was the export of an enormous amount of agricultural products to England. While Sweden sent out iron and ore, which found a ready market in Germany, and Norway furnished Germany with the most delicious fish, almost equal to the famous salmon of the Rhine. Denmark continued to divide herself into three parts, like Caesar's Gaul—and England was her best customer. In spite of the fact that Denmark was filled with German agents offering to buy the exports intended for England, at exceedingly high prices, the Danes tried, to the best of their ability, to keep up their usual trade with England.

The literary sentiment in both Sweden and Denmark, was not wholly anti-German. The Swedish men of letters, the scientists, in fact, clever folk of all kinds found their most discriminating appreciation in Germany. The Swedish university education looked entirely to the German universities and their methods of thought and practice. For Sweden, English culture and English literature hardly existed, while from the Swedish point of view American culture did not exist at all. What little the Swede found good in American literature, he attributed to a rather old-fashioned English influence. He admired Longfellow and knew of the existence of Washington Irving and Hawthorne. The English made no attempt whatever to influence the Swedish mind, although we all knew that, once the terror of Russia was removed, the influence of English and American culture might be made, by judicious propaganda, to offset the adoring respect which the educated Swede has for everything German. Germany to the Swede of the higher class represented a mild and benevolent power, which prevented the undue manifestation of individuality, while it conserved, through well-ordered intellectual power, all that was fine and great which could not be disseminated among the masses without force from above.

The three Scandinavian countries have in common their love of music and literature; this is innate, natural, not exotic; yet a Danish book, while it may be read in Norway, will not be read in Sweden unless it is translated. Similarly, a novel by Selma Lagerlöf loses much of its beauty for the Dane and the Norwegian, while the exquisite poetry of Johannes Jörgensen is deprived of its bloom when read by a Swede, who is unacquainted with either Danish or Norwegian. Unless a Scandinavian author has an English or French market, he must largely depend on Germany for his circulation. Georg Brandes, for example, has always had a great market for his literary works in Germany. He has hitherto been a prime favorite among the French, but since his quarrel with his friend Clemenceau, he is looked on by many of his countrymen as having pro-German leanings, and Brandes, although ferociously attached to the belief that Schleswig should belong to Denmark, has disappointed his French admirers by regarding the destruction of Belgium as a necessity of war rather than an outrage against humanity. His opponent, Johannes Jörgensen, has become one of the bitterest enemies of German ideals. He was Professor at Louvain when that city was practically destroyed, and his "Clock of Roland" was one of the bitterest arraignments of German policy in that unhappy country. But Jörgensen has always been Danish of the Danes; he looked rather to France than to Germany for the circulation of his books, which, through their mystical quality, commanded a great audience. Jörgensen is considered to-day the most poetical of Danish poets—the Keats or the Spenser of Danish literature.

The University of Copenhagen is an essential part of the national life; and, when we think of the nearness of Germany and the wonderful organization of her universities, we wonder that the University of Copenhagen has managed to keep itself from being utterly Germanized. The professors, however, have always maintained their spirit of independence untouched by German political influence. I have merely to mention the names of Harold Hoefding Jasperssen, Fischer the Egyptologist, Johannsen the biologist, Warming the botanist, Andersen the interpreter of literature, Amundsen the theological historian, and a dozen others whose work is known in this country only to scholars. It seemed logical that Danish literature and science should turn to Germany for support, and lose much of its freedom in so doing. Nevertheless, while it has depended on Germany for an encouragement which has been readily given, yet it has lost none of its national life or freedom.

The same thing may be said of Danish art. The influence on the greatest of all Danish painters, Croyer, is entirely Latin; Zahrtmann, who has just died, lived in a world of his own untouched by foreign influences; and the modern schools of Danish painters are going as far as possible in the line of French impressionism. While the lighter forms of dramatic art in Denmark are dominated by the Viennese ideals of modern music, while Wagner is sung every year at the Royal Opera, with the great tenor, Cornelius, in the heroic roles, a Danish singer who should attempt to sing in German on the stage of any theatre of Copenhagen would be hissed from the stage. The most popular operas of the last three years have been "Eugene Onegin" and "Faust," of which the Danes never tire. No year passes without the revival of the most important comedies of their great dramatic author, Holberg, whose traditions are very scrupulously maintained at the Royal Theatre. Their favorite buffo, Olaf Poulsen, was the ideal actor of certain of Holberg's heroes, and certainly one of the best of Falstaffs. As to modern plays, very few are imported from Germany. Of late, since the French dramatists have ceased to produce, the Danish stage has turned to the United States and England. "Milestones," for instance, was an enormous success, and "Romance" held interested audiences for weeks. I have merely mentioned the attitude of the Dane towards literature, art, and science, to show that in these vital things he is Danish to the core, and in no way under the spell of the dominating mentality of his southern neighbor.

The English and French management of the blockade in the beginning of the war had much to do with the slight change in public opinion concerning the attitude of the Allies towards Denmark. In Denmark, France has been always the most favored of nations. Among the traditions of the past there was nothing to show any antagonism on the part of France towards Denmark. In matters of aesthetics, since at least the middle of the eighteenth century, Denmark has looked towards France as Sweden looked towards Germany; notwithstanding the strict embargo in which France assisted England, the indignation caused by the brutal invasion of France by the Germans was almost as fervent as that aroused by the invasion of Belgium. But the treatment of Denmark by the English, which has been by turns drastic and tolerant, of an uncertainty even more exasperating than a hard and fixed policy, made the Danes feel that the commercial tyranny of the Allies was almost as much to be feared as the political tyranny of their opponents. But no, I cannot say that, for nothing to the Dane is more horrible, more heart-breaking than the prospect of the absorption of his country into one whose ideals are so different from his own.

At first, certain of the commercial classes made great profits, developing a type known as "Gulasch," similar to the kind of merchant called "Shoddy" during our Civil War. These people invested their resources in supplying hashed meat to the German army. Every horse that could be sold was sent over the border, until the government and the more far-seeing of the merchants and the Allies themselves put a stop to these wholesale exportations. Denmark as a neutral claimed the right to export both to England and to Germany, and did not resent the consequences of the blockade when its restrictions were applied impartially.

As the embargo became more stringent, and English coal became almost unobtainable, Sweden began to suffer even more than Denmark. The lack of warmth and food, felt deeply by the common people, was attributed to the bad management and pro-Germanism of the government. This was made an excuse for the Socialist and Liberal disturbances which culminated recently in a change of the Swedish government from autocracy to constitutionalism with liberal tendencies, and practically forced King Gustav to enter into consultation with Norway and Sweden. Three years ago such condescension on the part of the Swedish potentate would have been looked on as impossible.

Norway bore the beginning of her deprivations more philosophically; she kept her ships going; her sailors braved the danger zone without a murmur; yet she managed to remain officially neutral. If Swedish officialism was undoubtedly German, Norwegian officialism was quite the reverse; it reflected exactly the sentiments of the people; the torpedoing of her ships would have led inevitably to war, if the cooler heads of Norway had not perceived that such a defiance was impossible without the assistance of Sweden. It was believed when the German outrages on Norwegian shippers were most lawless, that if Sweden had been willing, there would have been an open break with Germany. The Norwegian press itself, though apparently neutral, was not backward in expressing its sense of the utter brutality of the Prussians towards a neutral nation.

The sympathy with the Allies, made ardent by the invasion of Belgium and the tone of Germany's despotic actions, continued until the United States entered the war. Then Norwegians felt the strangle hold at once, and, astonished by the treatment their commerce received, began to reconsider their admiration both of England and of the United States. They held that, being neutral, they could not cut off all exports to Germany and that, in trying to force them to do so, the United States was denying its own traditions. They held, and do hold, that, notwithstanding the necessity that America and the Allies win the war, the drastic treatment of small neutral nations is contrary to the professions of friendship for the little countries which the United States has always made. When I left Norway in December, this opinion was expressed more in sorrow than in anger; but the admiration which the Norwegian people had always shown for the United States had begun to cool. "I do not blame your country," a distinguished Norwegian said, "for strangling us, if that is a necessity of war; but I do blame you for departing from your traditions and adopting those of the European nations and not making a distinction between starving us for a possible good end, and starving us in the interest of military red tape." The Norwegian, deprived by superior force of his right to trade with belligerent nations and obliged to live without the necessities of life, is beginning to take the view of Georg Brandes, who has said: "As for myself I believe in the bestial cruelty of each party."

Now the Germans have begun to show great benevolence, even to the hated and stiff-necked Norwegian. They have tried to placate the Swede with offerings of coffee, potatoes, and coal, saying: "Impoverished as we are, we give you what we can out of our store, while the Allies, including the rich Americans, take the bread out of the mouths of your children." The term "rich Americans" has much to do with the irritation in these northern countries. It is useless to talk of our want of tonnage; it is useless to point out the difficulties of our railways, and quite useless to make any excuse whatever. American abundance, American generosity and, above all, American efficiency have been so much exploited in Europe that our difficulties as to tonnage and our embarrassment under the enormous strain suddenly put upon us, cannot be understood.

Finding that she was losing her grip on Sweden, and that she had already lost commercial power in Denmark and Norway, Germany is now counteracting the influence of the Allies by offering Rumanian and Galician petroleum and coal to the Scandinavian nations. Denmark, patiently waiting for the American crude petroleum on which nearly all of her industries depend, held off for many months; but she was beginning in December to consider the feasibility of accepting the German offers. The reasons for these offers are obvious. To Germany Denmark is of special commercial value; Germany's free harbor is the way to the North, and she feels deeply the necessity of controlling Denmark, in order that American competition may not interfere with her designs after the war.

After the fateful August of 1914, the three Scandinavian countries looked on the United States as the spokesman of the neutrals. The United States, using her rights as a neutral, continued to trade with Germany; but the blockade forced her to find new routes—Norway and Sweden became roads of transit, but Copenhagen was the most used because of its geographical position. The Entente watched our exports most closely, and the Scandinavian countries, especially Denmark, became involved in an unusual complication. Denmark paid for her value commercially by becoming the very centre for the Argus eyes of England; but the three Scandinavian countries worked hand in hand with the United States, feeling that though she, as the most potent power of the world, could maintain her neutral rights to trade, they would be without her in a most precarious position. When we were forced into the war in defense of an idea, Denmark and Norway and even Sweden were filled with admiration, though they knew that our ceasing to be neutral meant perhaps almost a cessation of their agriculture and industry.

The United States had become the only country from which Denmark could receive raw material, and it was at once understood that, unless food stuffs could be sent from America, she must kill her cattle. To force this would be for the Entente a short-sighted policy, as the cattle thus slaughtered must be sent to the German market or rot in Denmark. The English could not take these supplies of meat, owing to lack of tonnage, the dangers of the blockade, and their inability to furnish convoys in the North Sea. Again, for Denmark to refuse to export her surplus to Germany might be looked on by her neighbor as an act of unneutrality. It would take exactly eight hours to bring a fleet of destructive airships over Copenhagen, and probably not more than twenty-four hours to put an army corps into Jutland. This result would not only give Germany her coveted northern province, but at the final reckoning would add to the territory with which she could bargain.

The recent meeting of the three kings of the Scandinavian countries, so unexpected and so unusual, was practically a meeting in self-defense, forced on them by the precarious situation in which the war had placed their countries, Sweden had prided herself on her militarism, copied from the German system. Norway relied on its coast-line, its shipping, its fisheries, and the firm belief that it was practically independent of the world, with an assured future made by its own brains and its natural resources. Denmark, never free from the fear of the German Colossus, believed that England and Russia might save her from extinction at the crucial moment; and the preponderance of American opinion at the various Hague conferences made her hope that the moral force of our opinion might prevent her national extinction. These hopes are gone. Denmark fed England, she exported certain products to Germany, she had made herself the foremost scientific agricultural nation of the world, she was the freest, she was working out the ideals of her national life without desiring to acquire territory or to infringe on the rights of others; but the moment the United States entered the war, she and the other Scandinavian nations gave up hope of any protection or help, and they have now determined to band together in an industrial, economic union. The world has deserted them, and they have determined to do their best to become independent of the world.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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