Sweden in the 20th Century

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A (Very) Compressed History of Sweden, part 5

Between Wars: Laying The Foundation For Folkhemmet”

The 20th century brought about unrest and world war. Even if Sweden managed to stay out of the wars, the first decades were hard in a country being among the poorest in Europe. But a new era had begun, building a modern welfare country. The now powerless king spent his time hunting moose and playing tennis, but he actually had the guts to challenge Adolf Hitler in his own office to berate him.

Shifts In The Political System

Sweden is a constitutional monarchy since 1809 AD, i.e. the monarch (king or queen) has only symbolic duties and very little power, if any, to influence the government or the political life. The Swedish king is in fact not allowed to express any political meaning or preference. All power is held by the parliament (riksdagen), which appoints the Prime Minister (statsminister), who then forms his government.

During the 19th century, only men of a certain wealth were allowed to vote. General suffrage for men was decided by the parliament in 1907 (altough with certain conditions), but didn’t get written into the constitution until 1909. Ten years later, 1919, suffrage was extended to include women (and most conditions for men were taken away).

The king Gustav V (1907-1950) was definitely a child of the 19th century. He did never accept the changes of the new century and is known to have hated the liberal Prime Minister Karl Staaf and his government. Republican preferences were growing, and Gustav V probably stayed on the throne only thanks to his abstemious attitude. He spent much of his 42 years reign hunting moose, fishing pike, making embroideries and playing tennis (he won all the time).

Conservatives dominated the parliament until 1932, but the decades around 1900 AD marked a political shift towards center-left: Labour unions were formed and gained strength with close ties to the social democrats. The Social Democratic Party was formally founded in 1889, and the liberal party Folkpartiet was founded in 1895. A Communist Party was also founded in 1917. This has been subject to repeated fragmentation, and even though communists have had a few members in the parliament since 1932, they have never had any real influence on Swedish government and politics.

During the 20’s, the power shifted back and forth in the parliament between conservatives and social democrats, but with the promise of building a “people’s home” (Folkhemmet) –i.e. a (modern) welfare state – the social democrats got the parliament’s majority in 1932. After that, they continued to be the largest party in every election during the rest of the century, thus being the main influence on Swedish politics and development. However, not always having a majority of their own, they have often had to rely on other parties’ support and concensus, and the social democratic party is strongly infused with liberal values and ideas.

The kings of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark during the meeting in Malmö 1914.(Picture from Wikipedia)
The kings of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark during the meeting in Malmö 1914.
(Picture from Wikipedia)

Staying Out Of War, The First Time

Sweden stayed neutral in World War I, even though members of the Swedish royalty, aristocracy and industry had strong ties to Germany. But king Gustav V summoned a meeting 1914 in Malmö with the kings of Denmark and Norway, where they agreed to keep their countries of of the war. This was probably the king’s best decision ever, and at the same time, the last that would be adhered.

(His later advice to Adolf Hitler, see below, only made Hitler furious and was obviously not followed.)

Even if Sweden was neutral, the war meant hard times. Sweden was dependant of imports of cereals as well as several other types of goods such as coal, fertilizers, and fuel. To make things worse, crops failed several years in a row. Famine was impending; restrictions and rationing were imposed, which caused the Prime Minister Hjalmar Hammarskjöld to be renamed to Hungerskjöld in popular vernacular.


The Interwar

The post-war decades meant expansion for Swedish industries in order to meet the European demand for steel, ball bearings, paper pulp, and matches. At the same time, trade with Britain and France once again grew, English language started to replace German as second language in business as well as in schools, and Sweden gradually became more oriented towards the west.

Believing that there would be no more war ever, the Swedish parliament decided on fargoing disarmament (1925). Some members of the parliament actually suggested a complete disarmament of Sweden (1929). This suggestion was rejected, but disarmament still took place as decided during the following years. King Gustav V protested, as he had done before WWI, but his protests were left unheard. At the beginning of WWII, the Swedish military forces were very small.

King Gustav V on the cover of the 1939 October issue of Time Magazine.(Picture from time.com)
King Gustav V on the cover of the 1939 October issue of Time Magazine.
(Picture from time.com)

Even though Gustav V had no political power, he still tried to make an impact! And even if it had no effect, the following true event, king Gustav V’s meeting with Adolf Hitler, deserves to be told… with an anecdotal note:

Gustav V, who was married to a German princess, had spent much time with her relatives and other German nobilities, and had also been introduced to Adolf Hitler, to whom he immediately had taken a strong dislike.

Thus, in 1933, after learning about the fire in the Parliament building, the new anti-jewish laws, the book burning, and other shameful acts, the then 75-year old monarch decided that it was time to intervene. He interrupted his yearly stay on the Riviera and went to Berlin asking a personal meeting with Hitler, now elected German Chancellor.

During this meeting, he rebuked Hitler and reprimanded him for his actions towards the Jews, asking him to retract. The Swedish ambassador, who was eavesdropping behind the door, later told that Hitler became furious, shouted, and banged the table.

As an act of defiance, Gustav V finished his Berlin visit by calling on Daniel Prenn, a reknown German-Jewish tennis player who officially had been declared unsuitable to represent Germany, and invited him to a match.

As a true child of a time when Europe’s leaders (monarchs) conferred with each other and gave advice to one another, Gustav V continued to irritate Hitler with reprimanding letters during WWII. Records show that Hitler, during his later Tischgespräche (“round table talks”), often complained about Scandinavian royalties’ long lives. (Gustav V died 1950 at the age of 92.)


Staying Out Of War, Second Time Around

Well aware of the fact that Sweden could be easily overrun in no more than a couple of days, the government decided to stay out of the war, if possible. Denmark and Norway were quickly occupied by the Germans, which gave them free and unlimited access to the Atlantic and the North Sea. Since Sweden mainly faces the Baltic Sea, an attack on Sweden was considered unnecessary, because German mainland (and occupied Poland and Denmark) had all the harbors Germany needed. Finland shielded them to the east, and since Sweden had declared itself neutral, it didn’t pose a threat to the Öresund Strait which is the gateway to the Baltic.

The Raoul Wallenberg Memorial in London.Swedish diplomat working in Budapest during WWII, arrested by Soviet forces 1945, probably executed in Ljubljanka Prison 1947
The Raoul Wallenberg Memorial in London.
Swedish diplomat working in Budapest during WWII, arrested by Soviet forces 1945, probably executed in Ljubljanka Prison 1947

Being strictly neutral, Sweden did not impose any trade restrictions on either side; this has been criticized, but such a restriction to either side would have jeopardized the neutrality and caused an immediate invasion by Germany. When Germany requested permission to use Swedish railways for troop replacements to Norway, the government decided to allow it. Fearing an unnecessary life-wasting invasion, also the king strongly supported this decision and threathened to resign if the request was denied (even if this probably had no impact on the decisionmakers).

It may have looked brave to deny the German request, but first of all, it would have been useless since Germany could have occupied Sweden in less than two days, spilling many lives. Secondly, and equally important, it would have prevented the use of Swedish soil as a refuge and base for Danish and Norwegian resistance, and also prevented the activities of Swedish diplomats abroad. On the request from the US War Refugee Board, the Swedish citizen Raoul Wallenberg was given diplomatic status and sent to Budapest, where he – financed by The Office for Strategic Services (CIA) – organized the rescue of some ten thousands of Jewish refugees.

A lesser-known fact is that on request from the exiled Norwegian government, secret military training camps were set up in Sweden. Here 17,000 Norwegian soldiers were trained, led by the legendary Revolver Harry (Harry Söderman). The goal was to take Norway back from the Germans, and these troups were deployed in northern Norway in 1945, transported by US Airforce.

There have been Swedes – and still are – who have been thinking that it would have been more glorious to resist, deny, and become occupied like Denmark and Norway, but staying free probably served the Western Allies – and the Jews – best.