Sweden's Position in the War

By Edwin Björkman

[Scribner's Magazine, February 1918]

One fine spring day last year, when the brilliantly blue Swedish sky was dotted with fleecy white clouds like those made familiar to us by the paintings of Prince Eugene and Nils Kreuger, I happened to the principal square of Stockholm—the one named after the great Gustavus Adolphus, whose equestrian statue adorns the centre of it.

Standing at the foot of the statue and facing southward you have in front of you the broad thoroughfare formed by North Bridge, which spans the main outlet of the Lake Maelaren into the Baltic, crosses the little Holy Ghost Isle, and thus connects the mainland with the island that is still called the city, because once it was the whole city. To your right you have the new Riksdag House, with a small park in front of it, occupying the western half of the Holy Ghost Isle. In the background, as if looking down upon the parvenu structure housing the people's chosen representatives, towers the enormous cube of the royal palace.

That view forms a picture well worth studying, but on the day in question—April 21, 1917—I had no eyes for it.

The big square was black with people workers mostly—moving in solid, stolid ranks toward North Bridge and then wheeling to the right, where they massed themselves in steadily growing numbers in front of the Riksdag House. It was a crowd of men, guided and guarded by police, but not checked or harassed in any way. It was a crowd of humble people, but with no sign of raggedness or roughness about them. Here and there a couple of officers in resplendent uniforms or some group of silk-hatted government officials could be seen making their way cautiously through the mass, their faces stamped by a quaint mixture of curiosity and contempt, of embarrassment and defiance.

The balconies of the Riksdag building were crowded with members of both houses of the national legislature. At the windows of the royal palace I could make out faces, many of them pressed against the panes as if fascinated by the sight below.

Then the crowd broke into cheers that swelled and swelled, until the sound of them was like the roar of Kattegat breakers against the blood-red granite rocks of the West Coast.

"It's Branting," a man beside me whispered, his voice tense with suppressed excitement.

Yes, it was Hjalmar Branting, leader of the Socialist wing of the combined radical opposition groups in the Riksdag. He had just spoken in the Lower House to an interpellation meant to make the Conservative Swartz-Lindman Cabinet give some tangible information as to its policy. The crowd had come to back him up, and the principal demands voiced by him within, and by them on the outside were effective food control and an immediate commercial settlement with Great Britain. In other words, the mass of the people, speaking directly as well as through its duly elected representatives, asked above everything else for a reasonable acknowledgment of the genuine Allied blockade of Germany, instead of an unreasoning acceptance of the paper blockade established by Germany to serve as an excuse for her ruthless submarine warfare.

Those days were full of incident and excitement. Food riots had begun all over Sweden about the middle of April. The air of the Swedish capital was surcharged with political electricity. Rumors of revolutions and reactionary coups flew about like storm-swept leaves. It was learned that the guard regiments could not be trusted, and that the military authorities had made hurried inquiries as to the loyalty of various provincial regiments—with most disappointing results, it was said.

One day nearly 200 naval conscripts were seen marching in a body through the streets to attend an anti-militarist meeting in spite of the express prohibition issued by their commanding officers. Another day it was found that practically every revolver in Stockholm had been bought up, and people "on the inside" promptly told you that the Socialists had prepared long lists of persons who were to be slaughtered like sheep on the first of May. Then Branting rose in the Riksdag to denounce the secret formation of a "black guard" of high-school students and athletic clerks for the protection of the "well-intentioned" against the May Day terrors. The government had to avow its innocence—and every one knew where the revolvers had gone. Finally Branting was asked openly by the government if he would undertake to guarantee the peaceful attitude of his followers on May Day, and he replied that he could and would, if only the authorities would look after the mischief-making elements among the privileged classes.

On the 1st of May the royal palace was turned into an armed camp, bristling with machine guns and manned by a body of carefully picked army officers. Signalmen were placed on the roofs of the guard barracks and other public buildings. The guard regiments had been sent out of town or were confined to their barracks. A number of companies from supposedly "safe" provincial regiments had been brought in for the day. Everybody who ought to have known better seemed to expect something terrible to happen.

Nearly 50,000 workers marched through the streets of Stockholm to the drill-grounds outside. They had been warned that the slightest disturbance might prove fatal, and so they marched in dead silence, rank following rank in endless line without a spoken word. It was one of the most impressive sights I have ever witnessed—a wonderful manifestation of carefully controlled strength. An additional 25,000 people were waiting for the paraders around the five platforms on the vast open plain north of Stockholm. The principal demands voiced were the same as those heard inside and outside the Riksdag House ten days earlier. On that same day about 500,000 people, or nearly 10 per cent of Sweden's total population, demonstrated all over the country in the same spirit and for the same purpose. They were, to a man, in favor of a friendly understanding with the Western Powers and against every form of pro-German "activism."

About the same time I talked with a Liberal member of the Riksdag, who had been making a few speeches in his very conservative home district. After one of these speeches he overheard some staid and far from radical old peasants speaking very bitterly of the pro-German activities of the Queen.

"You don't seem to like the Germans," he remarked to the leading peasant, an old patriarch whom all the rest treated with the utmost respect.

"Like them?" the old man repeated in his characteristic drawl. "Those devils!"

I heard, too, about a visit paid to Germany by one of Sweden's foremost financiers. His trip had evidently been carefully planned and conducted in order to have him properly impressed. He spoke with bated breath of the organization, the wonderful methods, the ingenuity, the forethought evidenced by all that he had seen. Then he added with a wry face:

"But to live under them! Rather hell at once!"

Puzzled by what I saw and heard in those days, I turned to a government official for some enlightenment. I asked him what the men of his class and type wanted—if they really wished to bring the country into the war on the side of Germany.

"No, no, no !" he cried in reply. "All this talk about any one here wanting war is nonsense. We want peace, and we want to be neutral, but—well, you see, the country's future lies in becoming a part of the German Empire."

And when I had a chance to ask a minister representing one of the Allied Powers what, as a result of all those popular demonstrations, the Swedish Government had done to hasten the commercial settlement with Great Britain, he answered:

"Nothing! We are on very friendly terms with the present government. We have been making good headway in settling the shipping problem. But not a word has been said by either the previous or the present Swedish Government about the general commercial agreement—not one word since the Swedish commercial delegates returned in February."

Do you get the image I am trying to recreate for you as it came to me over there in those days? It is the image of a house divided within itself—and very unevenly divided at that. Subsequent observations on the spot have convinced me that, unless a radical change has occurred since I left the country in July last year (1917), practically three-fourths of Sweden's entire population feel toward present-day Germany an antipathy which at times borders on hatred. But if this be true, what are the circumstances and the factors that have enabled a small minority to make the nation as a whole appear almost solidly pro-German to the rest of the world?

First of all must be mentioned a wide-spread and genuine fear of the Russia that was. When the first news of the breaking world-storm was received, all Sweden seemed to expect Russia to aim her first blow in their direction, and precautions were taken accordingly. This original oneness of mind was disrupted by two things: what happened to Belgium and what did not happen to Sweden. Had the fear of Russia been entirely natural, Sweden's first happy disappointment, coupled with the horror caused by the undeserved fate of another small country, would probably have disposed of it for good as a political factor. But this fear had been artificially developed beyond all reasonable proportions. It was to a large extent "made in Germany"—the product of a systematic campaign of misrepresentation carried on through a long sequence of years. This campaign aimed at binding Sweden to Germany by all sorts of ties, real as well as imaginary, while estranging her from the Western Powers as well as Russia. The Swedish fear of the bulky eastern neighbor was skilfully fanned into almost hysterical anticipation of inevitable disaster. At the same time the Swedes were sedulously taught to distrust England as greedy and hypocritical; to despise France as decadent and weak; to contemn our own country as a mercenary, blustering upstart. One might almost say that the result was the erasure of the real image of the Englishman or the Frenchman or the American from the Swedish mind, and the substitution of a vilely distorted Simplicissimus cartoon.

For this German intriguing against supposedly friendly nations there can be no defense. For the more constructive side of Germany's effort to win Sweden there is a good deal to be said not only in defense but in praise. It was not wholly selfish or hypocritical, and it was directed with an intelligence worthy of emulation. While it had deep roots in economical considerations, it was also expressive of a strong sense of kinship, frank admiration of the Swedish character, a far-reaching outlook, and much genuine although often misdirected idealism. All the best German qualities played a conspicuous and successful part in that effort—enthusiasm, thoroughness, systematic thinking and acting, intellectual curiosity, adaptability, and a constant linking of national and personal interests.

The outcome of this effort was an enormously increased exchange of cultural as well as material values. The Swedes became accustomed to turn primarily to Germany for instruction and capital, for merchandise and critical approbation. A friend of mine told me that, about twenty years ago, his firm used to get 95 per cent of their imported iron beams from England, 5 per cent from Belgium, and nothing at all from Germany. At the outbreak of the war they were taking 99 per cent from Germany, 1 per cent from Belgium, and nothing from England. Swedish authors have long had a market in Germany second only to that of their own country. Swedish students have been warmly welcomed at German universities and technical schools. Swedish scholars have sometimes found more appreciation in Germany than at home. Because they met with this flattering attention, the Swedes, who are an excessively polite race, were gradually led to return the compliment. Nations bear a great resemblance to individuals, and mutual admiration forms an excellent basis of friendship.

Returning once more to the destructive phase of the German campaign, there is one little known factor that probably counted for more than all the rest. When, during the first decade of this century, the great international news agencies divided the world between them, the Scandinavian field fell to the Wolff Bureau at Berlin. Until the war was well under way all but a very small portion of the telegraphic news from abroad reached the Swedish press via Berlin, and every piece of news from Sweden had to pass through the same focal point for distribution to the rest of the world.

This meant that Berlin could and did direct what Sweden should or should not receive in the way of news. It meant a process of selection amounting to a censorship. It meant finally that the Swedish press could be fed automatically with anything which the German Government wished to spread abroad. Much of the news sent to Sweden in this way was quite irresponsible. Mere rumors floated by Berlin newspapers were passed on as "cables" without proper designation of their origin. Important pieces of news were constantly "doctored" or wholly suppressed. When the London Times printed the letter from the Kaiser that led to the resignation of Lord Tweedmouth, not a word of that letter was allowed to reach Sweden via Berlin. When, during the Morocco crisis, Asquith made his momentous speech in the Commons warning Germany not to go too far, his utterance reached the Swedish press shorn of every point that gave it real significance. In the same way news from Russia had to pass through Berlin, which, of course, offered many tempting chances to increase the Swedish sensitiveness concerning the treatment of Finland—to mention only one aspect of the situation.

Conditions like these indicate how thoroughly Germany had managed to isolate Sweden from the non-German part of the world. If, nevertheless, her certain hope of a northern ally in the case of serious trouble was foredoomed to disappointment, the cause lay in the fact that the supposedly complete German inoculation had taken very unevenly. Its effectiveness seems to have decreased a little with every downward step on the social ladder. In the broad mass of the Swedish people it was hardly skin-deep. And down there, in the foundations of the social structure, its effects were also neutralized by certain interests and sympathies of a distinctly anti-German tendency.

For nearly a century the life of the unprivileged mass of Swedes has been colored, if not actually shaped, by four great modern movements: religious sectarianism, temperance reform, emigration, and trades-unionism. The first two of these movements came to Sweden from England and the United States, and they have always retained the marks of their origin. Besides exercising a strong direct influence on the whole outlook of the people, they have become inextricably interwoven with the wide-spread and deep-reaching movement for supplementary popular education of those beyond the school age. Emigration has by degrees transferred something like 2,000,000 Swedes to this country, and from them an uninterrupted stream of American democratic ideas and ideals has passed back to the old home, whereby now they have taken such firm hold on the people that continued existence under prevailing conditions has been rendered well-nigh unendurable.

Swedish trades-unionism is inalienably bound up with the development of political socialism in that country. Swedish socialism is largely of German origin, and yet—or perhaps for that very reason—it has served to make the Socialists of Sweden bitterly hostile toward a Germany chiefly symbolized by the militaristic junkerdom at its top. In recent years the Socialists have formed a temporary alliance with the Liberals, both in the Riksdag and at the polls, in order to secure the enactment of certain basic reforms deemed indispensable by all the radical elements. The traditions underlying Swedish liberalism are almost wholly English and French, and both Liberals and Socialists stand practically unanimous in their recognition of the English-speaking countries as the main strongholds of modern democracy. In this connection we should bear in mind that in the regular fall elections of 1914 the two radical parties cast 462,621 votes to 268,631 polled by the Conservatives.

It would be foolish to class all Swedish Radicals as anti-German. It would not be safe to count all Conservatives pro-German. But the lines of division on national and international politics must to a large extent be regarded as identical. The situation may then be summed up as Sweden's follows: the vast majority of Swedes are as a rule distrustful of Germany because of her present organization under autocratic-bureaucratic-militaristic control; a minority are so unreasonable and reckless in their sympathies that even some of their own political associates have charged them with being more German than Swedish.

The backbone of this minority is formed by the big aristocratic landowners, whose ideas and interests are closely related to those of Prussia's agrarian junkers; whose large estates, where they still reign like little princes, are held together by the law of primogeniture; whose younger sons fill the most desirable posts in the military and diplomatic services, in the courts and all the administrative departments. Another conspicuous minority element is found in the army and navy officers, who, as professional soldiers, look greedily toward Germany as the land where their own class is privileged above all others. A third element of utmost importance is furnished by the bureaucracy—the vast army of department officials in that all-pervading system of civil administration which has every national function more or less under its control. Last, but not least, we find in this minority a very considerable part of the intellectual element par preference—professional men of every kind, scientists and teachers in the higher schools, authors and journalists, all of whom, like the members of the bureaucracy, have the academic hall-mark.

In fact, the one thing common to all the elements forming the pro-German minority is that they have passed university examinations—that they have won the right to wear the student's white cap with its yellow-and-blue cockade. This circumstance is of utmost importance for the proper understanding of Swedish conditions. The country is startlingly democratic in many ways, and has always been so. The special privileges of the nobility have gradually been pruned off. I don't think there is a single office not accessible to a commoner to-day. It is claimed that Sweden was among the first to make high public positions accessible to men of great ability and humble origin. But the inevitable way of such men to such positions has always led and still leads through one of the big universities. The diplomas of these institutions may well be looked upon as minor patents of nobility. And the real dividing line between "upper" and "lower" class seems identical with that separating the "student" from the "philistine."

The truth of the matter is that the pro-German minority has been recruited almost exclusively from the class of men who have run the public affairs of the country ever since the first Vasa king made Olaus Petri, the son of a small tradesman, his secretary and chief civil administrator of the Swedish capital. As a ruling class it has, on the whole, an enviable record. But, like all ruling classes, it feels convinced that Sweden must go to the dogs if deprived of its traditional guardianship. And in this sense Sweden has been going to the dogs very rapidly.

The democratization of the government, of the administrative machinery, of all public institutions, has made unprecedented progress in recent years, although much still remains to be done. Vast social reforms have been carried out, and still more radical ones have been planned. More and more the centre of social gravity has shifted from agriculture to industry, from the country to the cities, from the privileged few to the unprivileged many. More and more the masses have become conscious of their power and determined to enjoy the fruits of it. The men hitherto in charge have felt not only privilege and power but social distinction—so dear to the Swedish mind—slipping out of their hands. To stave off the inevitable they have instinctively turned to Germany for support, encouragement, and example. And their hatred of the great western democracies has grown apace with their trust in Germany. To get the benefits of German militarism, with its unquestioned authority for the man above and its unquestioning obedience for the man below, they have been willing to adopt the German model of bureaucratically controlled and developed state socialism. To keep Sweden from being governed entirely "from below," they have been willing to bring the country to the verge of war, if not actually beyond.

A few months before the great storm broke, the Liberal cabinet, supported by an overwhelming majority in the Lower House, had been flung out of office by an unexpectedly successful Conservative intrigue that, without doubt, had some of its roots in Germany. A ministry composed of Conservatives not too closely identified with their own party had been placed in power against the will of the people for the particular purpose of solving the problem of military preparedness. At the beginning of the war this government showed wisdom enough to put scrupulous neutrality foremost on its programme, and thus it obtained a temporary and conditional support from the two radical groups. But most of the cabinet members were bureaucrats sharing the feelings of their entire class, and back of them stood the permanent officials, with their poorly hidden ill will toward Great Britain and the United States and their openly declared sympathy for Germany. The result was a wavering and ambiguous policy that satisfied neither belligerent group.

As far back as a year ago the Liberal and Socialist leaders had come to a full realization of the dangerous position in which the country had been placed. If, nevertheless, they refrained from using all the means at their disposal to compel a more radical change when, in the early part of April last year, the Hammarskjöld-Wallenberg cabinet reluctantly surrendered the governmental machinery to the equally Conservative Swartz-Lindman cabinet, their hesitancy must chiefly be ascribed to a fear that the establishment of a truly representative government at that time might lead to open conflict with Germany. Two factors tended by degrees to put that fear in the background. One was the Russian revolution, which in one stroke disposed of the principal Conservative campaign argument, and which undoubtedly hastened the downfall of the Hammarskjöld regime. The other was the entrance of the United States as a belligerent, the importance of which was much better appreciated by the mass of the people than by the ruling class.

The demonstrations described at the beginning of this article were meant to produce a change of government policy rather than another change of government. When they proved futile some hotheads clamored for an immediate revolution. The Swedes, however, are a slow and patient people, very orderly in all their instincts. The radical leaders knew that nothing could be more dangerous to final success than a premature resort to extra-parliamentary means. The wiser heads prevailed, and their wisdom was proved when the regular elections of last September reduced the strength of the Conservatives in the lower house from 86 to 58 and gave the combined radical groups a majority of more than 60 in both houses. On October 19 a Liberal-Socialist coalition cabinet took charge of the nation's affairs, this being the first time in history that a Swedish ministry included representatives of the Socialist party.

This change of government implied a total change of national policy—not from neutrality to belligerency, but from pretended to genuine neutrality. It implied a final and complete cessation of practices found detrimental to the interests of our own country and our allies. It implied a thorough cleaning up of permanent officialdom, first in the Swedish Foreign Office and then elsewhere. It implied a national attitude rendering a satisfactory agreement with the Western Powers not only possible but inevitable. It implied finally a completion of that process of democratization which, in Sweden as elsewhere, constitutes the one enduring barrier against Pan-Germanism.

The mass of the Swedish people standing back of the new government have no desire for territorial enlargement in any direction. They want nothing that has to be won at the expense of another nation. They want no control of any social or racial group outside their present borders. They feel the precariousness of their own situation very keenly, but they will risk all they have to protect their national independence. They want no warlike adventures, but they will not suffer injury or insult beyond a certain point. They want peace above all else, but they want it for the whole world, and the only kind of peace that will quite satisfy them is one that "makes the world safe for democracy."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury