Swedish Foreign Policy During the War


By M. GÜNTHER, Swedish Foreign Minister

Translation received from Swedish Legation, Washington, D, C.

Delivered at the summer meeting of the Swedish Rural Youth League, Angelholm, Switzerland, July 22nd, 1945

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XI, pp. 683-686.

ONCE more it has been possible for us here in Sweden to attend our summer meetings in conditions of peace both with other countries and within our own frontiers. Our towns, factories and farms stand intact where we built them; no uninvited foreigner has encroached upon our territory and we alone have the power to decide in our own country. Thus it has been almost since time immemorial, and thus we envisage the future of Sweden and the Swedish people.

Nonetheless, we all feel strongly the overwhelming change that has come about this year, for us as for other peoples, through the conclusion at last of the war in Europe. This change is so significant that one may designate it as the dividing line between two historical epochs. The most palpable and immediate effect, as far as we ourselves are concerned is of course the removal of the threat to our peaceful existence that for five and a half years has oppressed us without intermission, though at times it has been more menacing than at others. We can now breathe freely again and attend to our affairs on more or less normal lines. Next to this the most important thing for us is that our neighbor countries have regained their liberty. We know that they have yet a long way to go before they completely recover their equilibrium and on the material plane reach their pre-war standard; and we also know that the conditions in many parts of Europe are so terrible that it may not be possible to overcome them for several years. But most important of all at the present moment is and remains the fact that the war is over and the threat to freedom has been beaten back. To all appearances the world is moving towards brighter times, however laborious the journey may be.

In this situation it is natural that the desire should arise in the various countries to balance the books, so to speakof the period that has now definitively come to an end, and that on the whole coincides with the war. In many countries, especially those that have been occupied, this implies the demand that accounts be settled with whole groups of citizens who have cooperated with the enemy, and in some quarters also with a policy that has not had the support of the majority of the people. In other quarters only the understandable desire is felt for a fuller and more coherent account of what actually occurred during the war-years, since the authorities could naturally not make public all the measures to which the compulsion of circumstance gave rise. This latter is the case with us. The Swedish people would certainly like to hear a full account of what took place during these five and a half years, why this or that measure was adopted, just how serious the. threat was at such and such a period, what circumstances played the chief role in a certain situation, etc.

That such a narrative be published is indeed desirable, and the sooner the better; and it is also my sincere hope that it may be possible to do something in this direction. But this is not quite such a simple matter as may perhaps be thought. Consideration for foreign powers still renders it impossible to publish certain documents that are of great importance when it is a matter of providing the context of events during certain periods. And apart from this serious obstacle it is a very difficult task to give an exhaustive and unexceptionable account of so complicated a course of events. Simply to publish available documents, notes, reports, instructions, accounts of conversations, etc, would not be to supply the answer to the questions that are put, and would altogether give a very inadequate picture. This material must to a certain extent be explained and supplemented. It is not sufficient simply to publish a collection of documents, however comprehensive it may be.

I imagine that in circles in which political interest is as keen as it is in the Swedish Rural Youth League this desire to have light thrown on Swedish foreign policy during the war is pretty general. I shall therefore take advantage of this opportunity to present something of my own view of the matter.

To begin with I must strongly emphasize what I have often stressed before, namely, that there is no such thing as a secret Swedish foreign policy. We have clearly maintained all along that the Swedish policy of neutrality aimed at keeping the country out of the war between the great powers with our domestic freedom and our national integrity intact, and at the same time, as far as this was possible within this frame, at helping our neighbor countries. This was no false facade, behind which we concealed secret treaties or pursued a policy along other lines. This implies, further, that no sensational or surprising revelations are to be expected, unless one counts as such the sometimes perhaps rather picturesque details, some of which have latterly been revealed by certain quarters and presented to the public in a form that shows that the chief intention was to make them appear as remarkable as possible. It is clear that such secrets have existed and still do exist. It was not always possible for us, for instance, to reveal the ways in which we endeavored to support Denmark and Norway; and it is also self-evident that much still remains to be told of Sweden's dealings with Germany as well as with other powers. But everything that has occurred has followed the main lines that have been known all along. It is no use expecting any revelations of secrets compromising the country or the Government, for the simple reason that there are no such secrets. There was a time when one read in a certain part of the press continual hints of terrible false steps taken by the Government that in duetime would be exposed. Now, when the time for these exposures might reasonably be supposed to be ripe, these voices have fallen silent. It was often merely a matter of attempts to cast suspicion on the Government, and the public as a whole was not taken in.

Further, it should be stressed that also as regards the details in the various spheres of foreign policy there arc scarcely any of real importance that the Government have-kept as its own secret. In the first place the Government acted in concert with the Foreign Affairs Committee in all the more important questions, and also, of course, kept the Committee informed of what had taken place. In the second place, the Riksdag was throughput kept "au courant" with the foreign political situation. I am scarcely guilty of any indiscretion in mentioning that the rather numerous secret sessions of the Riksdag were devoted chiefly to lie-tailed accounts by the Government of what had occurred in the foreign political sphere. And in the third place, the press was kept informed to about the same extent as the Riksdag. The confidential communications, made to the press at the information meetings, were of course made on condition that they should not be published, and the great majority of the newspapers loyally followed this rule. If I add that a large number of persons in responsible positions in the civil and military administration were supplied with reports from the information meetings, it becomes clear that there cannot be any secret chapters, strictly speaking, in the history of our foreign policy during the war. There are, however, gaps here and there, not of essential importance for the picture as a whole, but nonetheless gaps to be filled in; and what is, as I say, still lacking is above all a coherent account from which conclusions may be drawn as to cause and effect, motives and considerations.

In a certain part of the press advantage is taken of this lack to stir up storms in a teacup now and then. The procedure followed is to reveal some unpublished episode, that is none the less as a rule well known in wide circles, and then to pretend to have caught the Government in a shady manoeuvre that they wished to keep secret but that thanks to the vigilance of the press has now come to light, to the shame of the Government. After a few days the whole matter has died a natural death, but there is perhaps always some small circle of readers who swallow the bait, and this is probably just the intention. The other day, for example, one could read in a couple of newspapers sensational articles describing how Sweden had taken part in the well-known German popular campaign to equip the armies for the winter campaign in Russia 1941-42. This sensational "revelation" was as a matter of fact concocted on the basis of the sale of a number of tents to the German troops in the north of Finland, as well as possibly smaller deliveries of goods of a non-military character and the transit through North Sweden of some small groups of German laborers not belonging to the army—all in accordance with the rules then being followed and well known for some time not only in wide Swedish circles but also to the Allied Governments. So far was Sweden from participating: in the equipment of the German armies on the eastern front that not even a small collection of clothes made in the German colony in Sweden could be despatched, as the export of the clothes was forbidden.

No, it is, as I say, no use expecting any real sensations, and there is no need to doubt the sincerity and consistency of Swedish foreign policy during the war. The question is what steps the Government should take to rive a complete account of it, accessible to the general public.

In this connection there has latterly been some talk of a booklet that is now being prepared and it would seem thatthis work is anticipated with exaggerated expectations. The booklet is being prepared by the Press-Bureau of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and is intended primarily to be read abroad. It is planned to publish it in English, but a Swedish edition will also be supplied. It is, however, a brief account, and aims at giving a popular narrative of the main lines of Swedish policy. Readers abroad cannot of course be particularly interested in questions of detail, not even in all those events and measures that have been most spoken of and debated here at home. Thus this booklet will not give an exhaustive account, and it is no use expecting to find in it the answers to unsettled questions. It is, in other words, only of secondary interest in this connection and does not meet the desires existing.

On the other hand, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs is engaged upon another work, that is here of greater importance. This is the collecting of all available information into a complete and chronological register of everything that has taken place in Swedish foreign policy since the beginning of the war. This work is being done by Docent Thermaenius. He has free access in the first place to the archives of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, but is also free to resort to other sources, such as the records of the Defence Staff and those of civil departments, the notes of different people, etc. His instructions are summary and may be thus indicated: that he should include everything that has occurred without exception and in each separate case give the source of his information. It is clear that this is a very comprehensive undertaking. After more than a year's work M. Thermaenius has reached the year 1941, and he estimates that he will need another year to conclude his task.

Those parts of the work that he has submitted so far probably correspond to about a thousand pages of print. For reasons already mentioned, they can not yet be published in their entirety; and apart from this, the account is much too circumstantial and difficult to penetrate to be able to serve in an unabridged form as a guide for the general public. The work is rather to be regarded as the raw material or perhaps rather the semi-manufactured product for an account that would serve that purpose.

It is now my intention, on retiring from my post, to hand this material over to my successor. At the same time I shall warmly recommended him to allow M. Thermaenius to conclude his tasks. I am definitely of opinion that if this is not done it will very soon be extremely difficult simply with the help of the documents preserved to reconstruct the true context of the events that took place during these fateful years.

It has seemed best for me to act in this manner, and thus refrain from myself giving any account. In this way I will avoid any accusation of speaking in my own cause and arranging the material-accusations that, as we know, have been levelled against me already in advance. I am naturally not aware of what the future Minister for Foreign Affairs and the new Government desire to do in this matter. But it must obviously, in any case, be some time before the general public can expect to have access to the result to which their future decisions may lead. I can only assure you that no serious prejudice can be caused by further delay; and I do not even think I need to urge the public to take further sensational "revelations" with the greatest equanimity.

The Swedish, people now know what this sort of opposition to the policy of the Government is worth. Opposition is in itself, of course, all to the good. It would have been serious indeed if even such a strong pressure from without as that to which we have been subjected during the war had produced a complete unanimity of opinion in our people. And it would have been unnatural if we had all had or pretended to have the same view as to how the Government should act in every given situation. That there has been such a lively exchange of opinion in questions big and small during these fateful years is something, I think, that we ought to remember with gratitude. This has given, both abroad and here at home, a more animated and accurate picture of Sweden's attitude to the great world conflict than the actions of the Government and the authorities alone could have done. But to the fanatical and spiteful opposition to which I am referring—I think everyone is aware of the circles I have in mind—I am unable, and with the best will in the world, to accord a word of praise now that the battle as far as it is concerned may on the whole be considered to be over. It has been far too dishonest in its methods and from the Swedish point of view far too unreliable in its aims.

A spokesman for this opposition summarized his criticism of Swedish foreign policy during the war in an article the other day by declaring that it will always be objected to it that it represented at one and the same time self-surrender and misjudgement of the situation. The misjudgement was said to have consisted therein that the Government for a long time counted upon a final German victory. This allegation has, as we know, been repeated over and over again in these quarters. Among the proofs adduced is a pronouncement by me in the Riksdag in October 1941. I said then that the Swedish people shared the feelings that filled the hearts of the Finnish people, when they now had the prospect of a more stable peace and increased security for their country. Now, nearly four years later, it is attempted to read out of this not only an expression of belief in and hope for a German victory, but also support of Finnish plans of a Greater Finland including Eastern Karelia, etc. Neither the one thing nor the other has anything to do with the truth. The pronouncement was made against the background of the hints regarding the possibility of a Russo-Finnish separate peace that had been made via American channels but that had not then been published. It was commented in this sense in foreign diplomatic circles in Stockholm, where in the words quoted it was thought that a veiled Swedish exhortation to the Finnish Government to try and seize the opportunity offered to discuss a separate peace should be read. This was also in so far correct as the pronouncement was more nearly than anything else an expression of a desire in that direction. Beyond this I will now only categorically declare that the Government have never entered into a judgment as to the final issue of the war. On the other hand, the Government did for a long time judge the situation thus that Germany represented an extremely serious, and perhaps deadly peril also for our country, that our policy must be shaped accordingly. Was this a misjudgement of the situation? I do not think so, and it is incumbent upon those who allege that it was so to adduce proofs. And how did these wise critics themselves judge the situation? Well, during the winter war in Finland we should have permitted the transit of troops of the Western Powers and ourselves have participated in the war. After the occupation of Denmark and Norway we should have broken with Germany. When we had agreed to the transit leave traffic of German soldiers we were told that we had put Sweden into a hopeless situation; after the war we should find ourselves in a morally inferior class among the nations of the world, morally and commercially isolated from the rest of the world. And only this spring we should have mobilized the whole Swedish army and marched into

Denmark and Norway to free these countries from the Germans. This is the wise and far-seeing judgment of the situation that is held up as a model. Who actually did misjudge the situation is now known both in this country and abroad.

The other accusation is more serious. Sweden's policy during the war implied self-surrender, it is said. This is an insult not only to the Government and the authorities but also to the Swedish people, an insult that would be monstrous if it were not so clumsy that it falls to the ground of itself. Is it self-surrender to pursue a policy that both in word and deed continually gives expression to the resolve to defend oneself against any attack from any quarter? Was it self-surrender on the part of the Swedish people to sacrifice thousands of millions of crowns to make our defence as strong as possible? Was it in order to surrender themselves and their country that our young men guarded our frontiers for five long years?

But enough of this. I should not have mentioned this opposition at all here today if I had not wished to come to a particular point in its activities. I must—and this is the point—admit to my sorrow that in one respect this trend has had a certain success in its endeavors. It has succeeded in bringing about a regrettable weakening of our people's self-confidence, its belief in its own judgment. This is of old a tender point with the Swedish people. The weakness that Swedes have for the judgment of foreign countries, and their consequent lack of confidence in their own has been pointed out by our poets from Tegner and Almquist to Strindberg and Heidenstam. There is no denying that we have here a softness in the Swedish national character that in certain situations may have unfortunate effects. It may lead to fatal mistakes if a people is too sensitive and anxious about opinion abroad instead of asking itself what it wants or considers necessary itself and then firmly and determinedly acting accordingly. One gains neither advantages nor respect in this way; on the contrary, one arouses distrust and finally perhaps even contempt.

It is this Swedish weakness that the opposition has succeeded in increasing during the war by continually playing upon it in its agitation. How have we not been obliged to listen to an incessant anxious whine about what other countries are thinking of us? After the first Finnish war we would not be able to look a Finn in the face because we had not intervened with force of arms. Every Norwegian judgment, however slender the foundations upon which it is based, is noted in our newspapers with an anxiety approaching fear. And the attitude adopted in some quarters to the great Powers in the west and the east would seem to apologize for our venturing to have any opinion at all about our own affairs. A small neutral country is neither admired nor liked by the belligerents during a world war. But even that country has the right, nevertheless, to see to it that it can live; and its government has, without doubt, the duty to act accordingly. We have been agreed on the point that we should endeavor to avoid becoming involved in the war, and we have been determined to help our neighbor-countries as far as we could without sacrificing our own country. It is according to these lines that Sweden has acted—no observer of judgment is likely to contest that fact. Well then, let us also stand up for it. If other countries disapprove of some points this should not lead us to change our opinion or to apologize.

Let us stop anxiously wondering what others think of us. If one wants to know how one ought to act in order to act wisely and rightly, rightly also to others, one must first of all seek the answer in oneself—this applies for nations as well as for individuals. It is self-evident that in saying this I do not wish to deny the importance of striving to achieve good relations with other Powers and especially with our Northern inter-nations. This, on the contrary, must be one of the main aims of our foreign policy. But we must nevertheless first act in accordance with our own vital interests—if we do not do so, then, indeed, have we cause to feel anxiety about the judgment of the world and of posterity.

Today, standing on the dividing-line between two epochs, when we have behind us a difficult period, now at an end, and ahead of us a new period with in many respects other problems and tasks, the Swedish people have no such cause for regret for the past or anxiety for the future. It is of course not for me to pass any judgment on the policy we have pursued, and still less on the way in which it has been carried out. Neither I nor the Government as such cherish any exaggerated notions concerning the wisdom of what has been done, and the self-satisfaction of which we have sometimes been accused I have for my own part been unable to observe amongst the members of the Government themselves. But I will not speak of this. What I do, on the other hand, consider that I have the right to say is that the unity, resolution and energy with which the Swedish people have met the dangers and difficulties of these years is something of which it can and should feel proud. I was saying just now that it would have been still better if self-confidence and assurance in the face of foreign opinion had been just as consistently apparent. This is the only reservation I should like to make in connection with our people's behavior during the war, that has in all conscience been characterized by the very opposite of self-surrender.

You, who are young, will have an opportunity of improving what has been deficient in this respect, and I believe, too, that you will do so. The sort of tendencies I have mentioned are generally met with a quick reaction in a sound and vital people. It is on your shoulders that the political tasks of the future will devolve. We do not know much about what these tasks will be, but as regards the immediate future certain definite questions arise. Sweden's participation in the new international peace organization is one of them. Our continued materia] aid activities is another; and in close connection therewith are the questions I of our own supply position in the time to come, our foreign trade and shipping. And in our relations to our Northern neighbor-countries new viewpoints and changed conditions appear. All these questions together give our foreign policy for the immediate future a different character from what it has hitherto had; and this in itself, in my opinion, makes a change in the Government, and naturally, especially as regards the post of Minister for Foreign Affairs, a natural and logical matter. But fortunately I may add that I do not believe that this need give occasion for any lack of unity in the country. On the contrary, everything seems to indicate that in the matter of foreign policy the bases and conditions are common to practically the entire Swedish people. Jm For my own part I have felt this unity of the Swedish people as my strongest support. As today is probably the last time I shall have the honor to speak as Minister for Foreign Affairs to a gathering of people I will conclude by giving expression to my gratitude for this support and to my warm hope that we Swedes shall be able to go forward as one man also in the sequel when it will be a matter of safeguarding our vital interests as a free nation among the free nations of the world.