Sunday, March 27, 2016

BOOK: Joachim Joesten, "Stalwart Sweden"

Joachim Joesten: Stalwart Sweden. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1943. 215 pp. Online on

Joachim Joesten was a German-American journalist; due to his connections with the communist party, he had to run from Germany soon after Hitler came to power. He spent much of the late 1930s and early 40s in Scandinavia, working as a correspondent for various European newspapers. This book, written in 1943, is partly an account of his time in Sweden, but mostly it's a warning that Sweden's pro-Axis leanings are stronger than has been commonly supposed in the West. By the time Joesten was writing this book, it was clear that the war was going in the Allies' favour and that they would probably sooner or later try to liberate Norway and Denmark from German occupation. Most everyone assumed that once it came to this, Sweden would either stay neutral or even join the war on the Allied side, but Joesten is trying to make the case that while this is possible, it is not certain and should not be taken for granted.

“There is a Swedish myth in America [. . .] Its roots go back to the early thirties, when roving reporters and ‘social tourists’ discovered Scandinavia [. . .] searching the globe for a place where people lived peacefully and prosperously in an atmosphere of social progress and international co-operation, found Scandinavia, and, in particular, Sweden, came very close to their dreams [. . .] they eagerly rushed their findings into print.” (Pp. 2–3.) Joesten argues that while this enthusiasm had at one point been justified, Sweden has since then declined considerably from that ideal, but made considerable efforts to prevent this from becoming widely known abroad.

Joesten locates the source of the problem partly in the long-traditional pro-German feelings in Sweden, especially among its ruling classes (p. 22); partly in its equally traditional deep distrust of Russia; and partly in a sort of isolationism which led the Swedish government to abandon the system of collective security that the League of Nations had been trying to promote (p. 25; this system, it seems, was mostly based on sanctions against aggressor states, which invariably proved ineffective), deciding to put its trust into strict neutrality and bilateral treaties with the various great powers (p. 28).

There's a very interesting chapter on steps taken by Nazi Germany to promote pro-German attitudes in Sweden, mostly through influencing the media, writers, journalists etc. Influencing Swedish writers was made easier by the fact that many of them depended on the German market, where they sold more books than they did in their native Sweden (p. 52). Several Nazi parties were also set up in Sweden, but they were tiny and had little influence (pp. 32–3). Joesten points out a number of rabidly pro-German Swedes in the army, in business, in the press, etc.; among them there's also the famous explorer Sven Hedin: “He is a great scientist, to be sure, but whenever he dabbles in world politics—which he does, alas, very frequently—he reveals an almost incredible ignorance and naïveté.” (P. 42.)

One of the main reasons why Sweden was strategically of interest to both sides in the war were its large deposits of very high-quality iron ores; German rearmament in particular would have been impossible without steel imported from Sweden (p. 65).

Another chapter that I found very interesting was about Swedish attitudes towards Russia. In many parts of Europe under Axis influence, it was the hatred of communism that encouraged various collaborators to side with the Axis and fight against Russia; but in Sweden, the anti-communism was, so to speak, just the icing on top of a much larger and older anti-Russian cake. Sweden and Russia had often been at war until eventually, in the early 18th century, Russia emerged from these conflicts as a winner: “Sweden ceased to be a Great Power and Russia became one” (p. 70). Another blow came in 1809 when Russia conquered Finland, which used to belong to Sweden ever since the middle ages. The Swedes seemed to honestly think that Russia would sooner or later try to seize the rest of Scandinavia as well, to get access to ports on the Atlantic coast. German propaganda of course did its best to stoke such fears.

I noticed a good deal of this anti-Russian sentiment in Sven Hedin's 1942 book, America in the Struggle of the Continents, which I recently read; in it, Hedin spends an inordinate amount of time whining about the godless bolshevik hordes that are about to flood western Europe and bring an end to all civilization etc. etc. etc., and he endlessly airs out all the historical grievances between Russia and Sweden that he can think of, from the Viking era onwards. I thought it was just his personal obsession but judging by that Joesten writes here, it was a widespread obsession in Sweden at the time.

I always thought of neutrality as a simple idea, but it turns out to get a bit more complicated when you look at it up close. What exactly must a country do or avoid doing in order to remain neutral? In 1938, the Nazis came up with the perverse if ingenious concept of ‘integral neutrality’: “a small country could not be deemed neutral unless it also refrained from criticizing the Great Powers—especially Germany. [. . .] Germany would not feel bound to respect the proclaimed neutrality of any country whose government did not impose upon its press and public opinion a complete ideological neutrality” (pp. 78–9).

The Swedish government was, quite reasonably, scared shitless of what the Germans might do, so it started exerting more and more pressure on the Swedish press to refrain from criticizing Germany. This gradually developed into a curious situation where Sweden had freedom of the press in all matters except international politics, in which area it was controlled by the government almost as tightly as it would be in a totalitarian regime (pp. 183–90). After the German occupation of Norway, the Swedish government prevented any pro-Norwegian agitation in Sweden (p. 173), and allowed German troops to travel on Swedish railways (p. 178); this arrangement was ostensibly meant for soldiers travelling on leave, but in practice gave Germany a free hand in moving soldiers between Norway and Denmark.

Joesten also writes a little about his personal experiences, which I thought was a great idea as it made for fairly exciting reading and livens up the book considerably. He had been reporting truthfully for the international press on the extent of Swedish appeasement of Germany, much to the annoyance of the Swedish government, which was trying to prevent this appeasement from becoming more widely known. This eventually led them to expel him from the country in 1939, and being stateless, the only country where he could settle was Denmark. He lived there until April 1940 when it was suddenly occupied by the Germans; knowing that the Gestapo would probably be coming for him very soon, he fled, managing to reach Sweden on one of the last boats to cross the Sound. He evaded the Swedish authorities for a few days, hoping to make his way to the as-yet-unoccupied part of Norway, but the Swedes eventually arrested him and interned him. He describes the internment camp as a “peculiar compromise between the innate decency and humanism of Sweden and the invading Nazi zeitgeist” (p. 158). One of the most problematic aspects of it was that the inmates were forced to perform manual labour, even though they had not even been charged with any crimes, let alone found guilty of them. After a few months, he managed to arrange a visa to Costa Rica and was allowed by the Swedes to depart. He eventually settled in the USA and worked there as a journalist.

By the time he was writing this book, it was becoming clear that the Allies would win the war, and Sweden was therefore starting to reduce its various concessions to Germany (pp. 191–5). Joesten concludes with some thoughts on what Sweden might do when the Allies attack the German positions in Norway, as they would sooner or later have to do. He thinks it is unlikely that Sweden could remain neutral in such an event, and points out that Allied statesmen tended to assume that if it would not remain neutral, it would enter the war on their side. Joesten agrees that this is the likeliest outcome, but suggests that it's also a very real possibility that Sweden might join the Axis instead, or perhaps try to seize Norway for itself so as to prevent any spread of Soviet influence into Scandinavia (pp. 202–3), or even that Sweden, torn between these various options, might descend into civil war (p. 204).

Some of these undesirable scenarios struck me as somewhat implausible, and in hindsight we know that none of them happened. The German-occupied parts of Scandinavia were only liberated in the spring of 1945, i.e. not as early as Joesten had hoped; Sweden remained neutral but helped the Allies in various small ways.

This book was an interesting read, partly because I knew so little about Sweden during WW2 and partly because it's a contemporary account, and I always like to see how some historical event was viewed while it was actually happening.


  • Joesten's previous book, Denmark's Day of Doom (1939; the U.S. edition was titled Rats in the Larder), about the Nazi influence in Denmark. He mentions it here on p. 121; it “gave warning of the Nazis' aggressive designs on that country and bared the carelessness, if not the complicity, of the Stauning-Munch regime. [. . .] The Danish Government naturally was furious about my disclosures—which subsequent events have proved to be so tragically true to the last detail.”

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