Swedish Neutrality: Stumbling into the Unknown Past

  • Wilhelm Agrell


After World War II, Swedish neutrality gradually became a way of life. For Swedes in general, neutrality formed a key element of national identity. With this self-image Sweden was regarded as the small (but not unimportant) peaceful country that wisely avoided war, believed in human rights, and kept itself neutral in the divided world. Neutrality was a good thing, an elevated position in world politics. Swedes were proud of being neutral; it was nothing to be ashamed of when other based their notion of security on threats for nuclear annihilation.2 Swedish neutrality was first and foremost an emotional concept. The support of neutrality by an overwhelming majority of citizens did not owe to its international or strategic raison d’être; 3 these supporters simply felt they were neutral, that it was a good idea, and that neutrality meant trying to stay out of serious trouble and still being able to speak up.


Security Council Security Policy Armed Conflict Hague Convention Swedish Government 
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  1. 1.
    This paper departs from two of my books, one on secret Swedish military cooperation with Western countries during the first post-war decades (Den Stora Lögnen, Stockholm (Ordfront) 1991), the other on the security policy problems of European integration (AlliansfriTills Vidare, Stockholm (Natur & Kultur) 1994).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Attitudes of Swedish public opinion are remarkably well documented. Since the 1950s the Swedish Board for Psychological Defense regularly conducted opinion polls on attitudes to world politics, foreign powers, Swedish security policy, and Swedish defense. Support for the official security policy gradually became almost total, only around 5 percent indicated a different opinion in the 1980s. For an analysis of defense-related opinion polls, see Gertie Elsässets dissertation Försvarsvilja och Framtidstro, Lund 1987.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    While a vast majority supported neutrality, only a minority thought it would provide immunity against armed aggression. The ability of Sweden to stay out of a general European war was not regarded as high and was steadily decreasing (only 19 percent believed this in 1982). Kurt Törnqvist (1985): Opinion 85, in: Styrelsen för Psykologiskt Försvar, Stockholm, p. 14.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Inriktningen av säkerhetspolitiken och totalförsvarets forbsabba utreckling Government Bill, in: Section on Swedish Security Policy, (1976–1977:74), p. 26.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Säkerhets- och försvarspolitiken. Betänkande avgivet av 1970 års försvarsutredning. (Report from the 1970 Parliamentary Defense Investigation), in: Sveriges Offentliga Utredningar (SOU) (1972:4), Stockholm (Försvarsdepartementet), pp. 112 ff.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    The exception was, of course, Korea which became a serious problem for Swedish foreign policy, solved by a non-combat engagement and the conclusion that Korea was a singular occurrence in the Security Council.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Experience from World War II was not encouraging; Goebbels’ policy of”terrorizing” the remaining European neutrals into gradual submission met with some success against Sweden, especially in the years of German hegemony, 1940–1942.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    The secret staff cooperation was revealed when the diary of the former commander-in-chief (1951–1961) Nils Swedlund became available for research in 1990.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    On the whole secrecy worked remarkably well. And in the rare cases where it failed, denial proved just as effective. On November 13, 1958 the American news agency UPI quoted Pentagon sources saying that from an American perspective it was important that the northern region of NATO continued to have”a Scandinavian dimension” including secret staff consultations. The statement was made in connection with the planned visit of the Danish minister of defense to the United States. Both the Danish and the Swedish high commands denied the existence of consultations. The Swedish defense staff stated that such consultations”have not taken place and will not take place.” Agrell (1991), p. 97 (see note no. 1).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    In certain scenarios Norwegian forces destined to defend South Norway could be deployed in southern Sweden. If the Soviet strategy was to secure the Baltic approaches from the south and reach Norway and the Atlantic coast through Sweden, this deployment made sense from an operational point of view.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Paul M. Cole (1992): Neutralité du Jour. The Conduct of Swedish Security Policy since 1945, Ann Arbor (University Microfilms International).Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    From 1947 to 1965 this was officially stated in the public defense plans, although US assistance was labeled”foreign military aid”, plain enough for anyone able to read between the lines.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Om kriget kommit... forberedelser för mottagande av militait bistând 1949–1969. Betänkande av neutralitetspolitikkommissionen, in: SOU (1994:11), Stockholm (Statsrådsberedningen). The investigation was to cover events up to 1969. The final year was agreed to between the political parties and coincided with Olof Palme’s succession of Tage Erlander as chairman of the Social Democratic Party and prime minister.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    It is commonly taken for granted that a country cannot change its geographical dislocation. This is true in the logical sense. However, security policy is only to some degree restricted by logic; from the mid-1960s and onwards, the Swedish government redefined the strategic position of Sweden step by step from unfavorable and exposed to reasonably secure and protected by the Baltic Sea. This redefinition was carried out, even though development of military technology worked in the other direction.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Most documents on the Wennerstöm case (all in all around 250 dossiers) were declassified in the early 1990s. Still classified are documents relating to foreign powers, mainly the part of the Wennerstöm investigation related to his espionage for the Soviet Union against the United States in Washington, DC.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    A number of questions regarding the incident remain unanswered. Soviet authorities explained it as a case of faulty navigation. In the late 1980s what was claimed to be the official report of the Soviet naval investigation was made public (it was later given to Swedish authorities). Swedish attempts to change this attitude in bilateral Russian-Swedish expert negotiations in 1992–1994 failed, the Russian navy refused to deviate from the Soviet version. However, a Swedish investigation initiated after the breakdown of expert negotiations did maintain that the submarine had intentionally entered Swedish territorial waters. Ubåtsfrågan 1981–1994. (Ubåtskommissionens rapport), in: SOU (1995:135), Stockholm (Försvarsdepartementet).Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    This was especially the case after the return of Olof Palme to power in October 1982 after six years of non-socialist governments.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Att möta ubåtshotet. Ubåtskrankningar ock svensk säkerhetspolitik. Betänkande av Ubåtsskyddskommissionen, in: SOU (1983:13), Stockholm (Försvarsdepartementet). Wilhelm Agrell (1986): Bakom Ubåtskrisen, Stockholm (Liber). The main evidence of midget submarines were tracks along the sea bottom leading up to what was assumed to be the”print” of a W-class submarine. However, the new commission appointed in 1994 could find no conclusive evidence of any signal intelligence data related to underwater operations.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    However, reports on foreign submarines did continue until 1994, when the supreme commander disclosed that conclusions from the last two years and possibly earlier, were based on misinterpretation of technical data. A swimming animal, possibly minks, created a sound assumed to be cavitation from a submarine propeller. This caused considerable embarrassment as well as some amusement in the Swedish and Russian press.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1998

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  • Wilhelm Agrell

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