Defining Neutrality II – Sweden (2)


‘Stridsvagn 103 Tank’. By Mario Zorro (author). All rights reserved


The case of Sweden (Part II)

Sweden is a country whose neutrality policy made of it a remarkable case by those in favour of neutrality, yet its neutrality is surrounded by some myths and/or misconceptions, since many portray Sweden as an example of neutrality given its strong institutionalist approach – at least from a first glance –, with such being the sole reason why its neutrality was left untouched during WWII and the Cold War. The other myth is that being an institutionalist nation, keen on keeping peace, Sweden was unarmed or unprepared to deter any aggression under the aegis of such approach. And on the same way, that Sweden’s neutrality was pristine. In order to test such myths and misconceptions, it is important to make a closer analysis to the periods to be reviewed here: the interwar years, World War II and the Cold War, since they proved crucial in shaping and defining Swedish neutrality.

On the previous part, a brief precedent to Swedish neutrality policy was pointed out, being such based more on trade and some political considerations – orientated towards the foreign affairs sphere – and that was very short-lived. Then, it was explained that Sweden’s neutrality policy had a quite unclear and complex origin, explained perhaps by the very unstable times that characterized the Napoleonic Wars. Nonetheless, it is clear that Swedish neutrality emerged thanks to the heavy shock after the loss of Finland and the aim of keeping Norway under its rule, with the nation deciding not to embark itself into expensive wars as well. A neutrality policy became the tool to keep Sweden out of war and to risk entanglement by any alliance.

Therefore, a calculus of national preservation or survival, and not altruism as one commonly thinks, was the main rationale behind the Swedish Neutrality. Nor it was ‘neutral’ or impartial in the strict sense of the word, as Sweden acted many times in ways far from impartiality or pure non-alignment, and even leaned towards one great power at one point or another. This situation reached the point of almost making Sweden to be involved at WWI. And of course, from time to time acted like the old Great Power it once was. This calculation would be a common driver behind neutrality in the decades to come.

The interwar Period: the beginnings of modern Swedish Neutrality and armed neutrality

WWI was the period where the first characteristics of armed neutrality manifested, as the Nordic nation began to implement such a policy in the face of the surrounding threats and conflicts. This policy was bound to become one of the main pillars of Swedish Neutrality during most of the 20th century. But the interwar period and the early days of WWII were very decisive for Sweden’s neutrality policy.

For instance, the two following decades had a variable degree of application on the neutrality policy and assessments on the international context. In principle, and following Ugwukah (2015), the two decades witnessed the Swedish governments willing to maintain the neutrality tradition, confirming that such was to become the main north of Swedish foreign policies. It was that the level of importance of neutrality, that projects of a Joint Nordic, or Swedish-Finish joint defence policy were kept only at the blueprints. Neutrality was kept, alongside non-alignment, with security based on a strong national defence, according to (2012).

But Swedish neutrality, in the sense of non-alignment or even isolationism (as this side of neutrality policy was also an organic part of it) was, once an again, not entirely complete or respected. An evidence of such is Sweden’s actions during WWII, but its own neutrality policy was in fact, stretched right after WWI. Following Westberg (2013), Sweden initially believed that the idea of collective security – via the League of Nations – would be safeguarded by the great powers during the interwar period. But as Germany and Italy did not respected the international order, and those powers did nothing to safeguard it, Sweden decided to retrieve its neutrality policy. But circumstances made Sweden to stretch its own policy, even during these two decades and despite such retrieval.

One clear example is the – unconscious – role Sweden played in the development of German tanks and armoured warfare during the interwar period. For a start, the desire of Sweden to establish its first armoured corps and integrate the newly armoured warfare into its army prompted the nation to buy a tank, the LK II/ Stvr m/21-29, from Germany in secrecy and under the table, as the Versailles Treaty was already in motion[1]. 1921 marked then the year when armed policy was stepped up for preserving neutrality policy with the introduction of assets that would help in enforce both policies, this case the tanks.

Furthermore, Sweden played a very important – again unconscious – role in the development of the German armoured weapon and its doctrines. The same Stvr M/21-29 were used for such, with Heinz Guderian, one of the architects of the Panzerkrieg and Blitzkrieg, driving one of them while in a trip to Sweden, in a journey aimed at further analysing the nature of armoured warfare (Guderian, 2007). Also, some of the famous weapons of Germany, like the 88mm dual-use gun, where designed under disguise by personnel of Krupp at the Swedish company Bofors (Chant, 1999)[2].

In any case, as the years went by and the world was advancing towards WWII, Sweden further advanced on its own armed neutrality program, realising that the context was asking for assets, such as tanks, for assert its neutrality. The LK II/Stvr/21-29 was soon replaced by the Stvr M/31, developed with German assistance as Joseph Vollmer acted as chief of development, and entering in service with the Swedish armed forces in 1931. The Stvr L-60 followed 3 years later, marking a characteristic trait of Swedish defence industry, neutrality and defence policies, which would come to have an incidence on the production of naval and air assets as well. This was the decision of Sweden to develop, build and procure its own armament so to avoid being cut off supplies in case of a war (Jackson, 2012).

The last interwar tank made by Sweden was the Stvr M/38, which was another milestone tank in the sense that it was the first one in incorporating a much more powerful main weapon than its predecessors (a 37mm gun). But as the war started the same year it was introduced, curiously hampering any prospect of import, given the needs for Sweden to have defence material (Jackson, 2012).

On the air and naval spheres, the Swedish Air Force was not strengthened until WW2 itself, except for the implementation of the BAS 90 dispersed bases system some years before the conflict. This system was implemented as Sweden considered a war against both Germany and the USSR by the end of the 30’s, requiring dispersed forward bases for air strikes as well as (dispersed) rear bases. These bases were camouflaged, with the airstrips made of grass and sown with three different types of grass, and the facilities to look like farming buildings (, 2008)[3]. The devising of such basing system was a proof of how Sweden saw its armed neutrality policy as a mean to defend its integrity and to stay away effectively from any foreign conflict. It also evidences Sweden was assessing the international situation, which required some measures to be taken. The naval sphere also witnessed some overhauling in the light of both policies and context. For example, the Göteborg class destroyers was developed in this period, entering in service during WWII, as it was considered the Swedish navy was in need of better and modern units, precisely to defend its neutrality by defending its coasts (Jackson, 2002, p.197)[4].

World War II: concessions and armed neutrality

The spark of World War Two made Sweden to realize that its security was in high peril, thus implementing further its armed neutrality policy. As a result, Sweden introduced enhanced armoured assets, such as the Stvr M/39, Stvr M/42, Stvr M/41 and Stvr M/40 tanks, and the Terrängbil M/42D, Pansarbil M/39 and Stormartillerivagn M/43 105 SPG, whose aim was no other than to provide Sweden with some protection against any surprise attack by Germany, as it occupied Norway. The threat of a breaching of Sweden’s neutrality was a real danger[5]. As the war progressed, the perceived threat shift from Germany to the Soviet Union (Jackson, 2012).

The same was done at the Flygsvapnet, as the aim was to provide Sweden with air assets enough to secure its own neutrality and security while avoiding too much dependency on foreign-made air assets. in fact, it was the embargoes on arms what prompted this decision as well, making Sweden to further stress its policy of independence in relation to military and defence assets, though it received foreign-made material at the last stages of the war. Advanced technology and innovations on the field were also considered for the overhauling of the Flygvapnet. In consequence, the FFVS J 22 fighter, the Saab B 17 dive bomber and recce airplane, and the Saab B 18 bomber, were all developed and entering into service during this period. Others were developed as well, though saw service after the war.

Yet the war also forced Sweden to implement some of the most questionable policies vis-à-vis Germany and Russia, as it stretched negatively the nature and aims of its neutral approach. It remained neutral, though not entirely passive. First, and just like in 1919, Sweden intervened under the table by assisting Finland with some voluntary troops and armament, and other military cargoes, like the air defence vehicle L-62 Anti II, accepting also Finnish evacuees, as this country was under the aggression of the Soviet Union[6]. But new traits of its neutrality policy began to emerge, as Sweden also provided sanctuary to Danish and Norwegian resistance group members, sheltered refugees from Estonia, Finland and Denmark and even saved Jews victims of the Nazi regime (Pashkov, 2009; Lindström, 1997).

Of these situations, the Finland case was a crucial one for Sweden, as it was a neighbouring country whose conquest by the Russian, could have brought Sweden’s historical adversary – and threat – closer to home. Indeed, and as Hetmanchuck (2012) remarks, seizure of its neighbour by Russia – or the sole prospect of it – was undesirable. And as this was perceived an important threat, the deployment of Swedish volunteers assisting Finland took place.

Second, Sweden allowed the transit of German soldiers on leave and even of a division from Norway to Finland, through Sweden. Third, troops transports and airplanes from Germany were allowed to transit over Sweden, while providing Germany with some key supplies (Globalsecurity, 2014; Lindström, 1997). Both were mere concessions that Sweden made with Germany, in order to avoid occupation by the Third Reich, as the threat perception of occupation was increasing – and considering Sweden was practically surrounded, following Gotkowska (2013) and Hetmanchuck (2012).

Many will find these actions questionable, and they might be. Yet it is important to remind that Sweden was having a more pragmatic approach towards its own neutrality policy, along with the fact that the context simply required Sweden to have such pragmatism[7]. As Ugwukah (2015) points out, Sweden took such pragmatism in consideration, as the nation paid attention to the surrounding circumstances and the needed policies to preserve its neutrality and territorial integrity, in the light of such context. And neutrality is a policy open to modification any time[8].

In addition, the fact that these concessions took part while at the same time Sweden was rearming, proves that the country was protecting its neutrality and security by two means, that I find sort of mutually complementary: armed neutrality and diplomatic measures. Making some concessions while at the same time preparing to defend its neutrality at any cost should needed. Also, it is noteworthy to remind the positive actions by Sweden during the war, evidencing the sketches of some traits of Swedish neutrality, especially during the Cold War: humanitarian actions. Either ways, Sweden managed to stay out of the war, with neutrality’s main aim – which was to avoid being dragged onto a war by any alliance entanglement, and preserve Swedish territory safe from war – fulfilled.

The Cold War: “Non-alignment in peace, neutrality in war… and humanitarian any time”

The Cold War is the most interesting and defining moment for Sweden’s history and neutrality policy, as armed neutrality was maximized and Sweden implemented a new approach for its neutrality during this period. As it was mentioned before, these new approaches shaped the concept or idea many people have about Sweden, fuelling the myths and misconceptions about neutrality, and even maintenance of peace. But the Cold War was also a period where Swedish non-alignment was stretched and strengthened, combining its policy of independence in production and acquisition of military hardware, with cooperation with other nations. ‘Pragmatism’ seemingly framed and defined Swedish policies on neutrality the same way as during WWII.

At first, the Cold War period introduced new elements and traits to Swedish neutrality policy, at the point of making to believe Sweden was protected by such elements – whose basis were laying at international institutions. Noteworthy to point out that such new elements were rooted in the WWII, and were also possible by the very pragmatic nature of Swedish neutrality. The most prominent example is her actuation at the UN after its enrolment in 1946, following Gotkowksa (2013), Ugwukah (2011) and (2012): Sweden served as a mediator in many important conflicts, also taking part in many peacekeeping operations (like the Suez in 1956 and the Congo in 1964), as well as urging the great powers at the UN to use their resources in favour of weaker nations. Also, and along its Scandinavian neighbours, it played – and still do – a crucial role in development cooperation and assistance in the developing countries, all in the light of its non-alignment and non-partisan approach[9].

Furthermore, and following Westberg (2013), Sweden became focused in policies related to arms control and economic development, as well as a mediator between the two superpower blocks and the support for various peace initiatives, especially during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, and all within the general aim of preserving the country’s independence, yet keeping Sweden away from the then European Economic Community, precisely to safeguard the non-alignment side of its neutrality policy. Sweden also criticized some interventions and wars waged by both blocks, like the Vietnam War, Afghanistan, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, having no fears of the political consequences with both superpowers after such critiques, according to Pashkov (2009).

Hence the notion that Sweden was protected by its institutionalist approach. Yet this idea is very far from the truth. The same goes for the idea that being a neutral nation means being unarmed and unprepared to face conflict when needed, as many confuse ‘neutrality’ with ‘military weakness’. Rather the contrary, a nation wishing to keep its peace, its territorial integrity and its neutrality clearly needs to invest in military assets, moreover if its facing a rather difficult context and geographical position.

According to Kaplan (2008), Sweden’s neutrality was won by the very aggressive submarine fleet of this country, at the point of not even requiring NATO protection[10]. Indeed, it was Sweden’s implementation of armed neutrality policy what managed to protect the nation’s security and neutrality, even more than the sole reliance on institutions. It allowed Sweden to exert credible deterrence by military power and enjoy neutrality. But on the other hand, Sweden did reach for NATO for some sort of protection, especially at the early years of the Cold War. For this period – and its characteristics – made Sweden to further advance on its armed neutrality policy and on developing and producing its own defence assets, with the defence industry and the army both increased and even developing for a brief time its own nuclear arms programme (Pashkov, 2009)[11].

The submarine fleet mentioned by Kaplan (2006) was important for Sweden, as it was intended to ward-off any naval surface and undersea incursions and reconnaissance against its long shoreline. The result was the 6 Hajen class units (based on a German Type XXI U-boat), the six Draken class units, the very capable and manoeuvrable Sjöormen class with 5 units, and the 3 units Näcken class (Chant, 2006).

Independence on military assets was not absolute, however, as many of those assets received cooperation from the US in their development, or were licensed-built versions of US weapons. And of course, Sweden was operating many foreign-made equipment. Secret agreements between NATO, for defence under a worst-case scenario, and the US, for the technical assistance in development and fabrication of equipment. In fact, Sweden and NATO knew they could count on each other, as NATO saw Sweden and its considerable military power as a buffer protecting Norway as well as a helpful element in the defence of Scandinavia, and Sweden saw NATO as an aid in case of armed encroachment, with NATO’s air forces able of assisting NATO in case of Soviet attack (Bergman, 2004; Lindström, 1997; Vaahtoranta & Forsberg, 2000)[12].

Moreover, for the US, Sweden was far more vulnerable given that Finland was also neutral, worsened by the refusal of Denmark and Norway to allow foreign troops and bases in their territories. And as Sweden’s actions in WWII undermined its neutrality credibility, the US saw as necessary to establish informal relations with Sweden, so to bring it closer to the West, clearly doing so at least in economic terms by making them to abstain from transferring US strategic material and technologies. And even taking part in the Marshall Plan (Rickli, 2004).

The US, in the light of strengthening the very important and strategic “northern flank”, decided to further strengthen Swedish armed neutrality, according to Rickli (2004). The US, in consequence, provided Sweden with assistance in aerospace – missiles – and anti-submarine warfare, with both nations exchanging intelligence as well. Even the Flygvapnet could collaborate with NATO and provide bases in case of war. The US was also benefited, as it could receive anti-tank weapons and cross-country vehicles made by Sweden (Rickli, 2004; Parnell, n.d.; Vaahtoranta & Forsberg, 2000). The result of technical cooperation between the US, NATO and Sweden was exemplified on the development of the Saab J 29 Tunnan, the Saab 32 Lansen, the Saab J 35 Drakken and J 37 Viggen, the Saab 105 and the Saab J 39 Gripen (developed during the Cold War but entering in service after it)[13]. Most, if not all of these fighters and fighter-bombers and trainers incorporated many technologies made in the US, developed in cooperation with the US, or armed with US-made missiles.

Even WWII assets were kept, like the M/42D, or upgraded, like the Stvr 74, which was WWII a Stvr M/42 with a new turret and gun[14]. The first vehicle served until the turn of the new century, while the later served for most of the Cold War. Also, battle tanks or armoured vehicles such as the Stvr 103 (which came to reflect the defensive stance of Sweden given its design), the PvB 301 (a conversion of WWII-era Stvr M/41 into an APC), the PbV 302 APC APC, and the Ikv 91 light tank, were developed. Self-propelled artillery and tracked troop transports were developed as well, such as the Bandkannon and the Bv 202[15]. Furthermore, WWII aerial designs intended for such conflict were put into service and equally enhanced, as it was the case with the Saab J 21 and A 21R[16].

Its non-alignment would have seen compromised and even neutralized by these facts. But if anything, Swedish neutrality is flexible in essence, which means that agreements of the sort could take place for defence purposes in case of war, yet at the same time Sweden was implementing a very non-aligned and rather impartial role[17].

But neutrality policy was a must for Sweden, nonetheless. Following Ugwukah (2011), its strong ties with the West – which would explain why Sweden would lean towards these nations – and its very strategic geographical location prompted Sweden to adopt such policy, precisely to avoid entangled and strangled by either superpower and keep its independence. And it seems that Sweden had in consideration not to harm Finland’s independence with any alignment with the West, according to Lindström (1997). This was beneficial for Finland, as Sweden’s strength helped in maintaining its independence as well (Vaahtoranta & Forsberg, 2000).

Some considerations…

The same way as with neutrality, a policy of armed neutrality was needed in order to exert a real defence of the nation’s peace and neutrality. Pragmatism seemed to shape actions aimed towards this policy hence the secret agreements with the US and NATO in defence and technological development. Sweden needed simply weapons to keep its action at international organizations and maintain its neutrality. Therefore, it decided to create military power in order to grant itself that peace and neutrality, with deterrence being primordial for this. A neutral nation is, by no means, a weak nation. and more often than not, it will be forced to have considerable military power to defend it.

Now, what is the future of Swedish neutrality policy in the light of the post-Cold War? How the optimism of the 90’s and the new insecurity in the Baltics and the Arctic – with Russia being again a central element of concern – influenced Swedish neutrality? Will Sweden remain neutral or it will be forced to give up it entirely? The next section will examine the period after the Cold War until our current days, answering these questions and providing a personal stance on the Swedish neutrality and its future.



[1] Regardless of how questionably this move was, Sweden was forced to take this course and decide for the German-made LK II, as the British options were either too heavy or too expensive. And even as the LK IIs were in service, some units had to be cannibalized for spare parts given the Treaty, until 1927, according to Bocquelet (2014). Moreover, it seems Sweden was developing its own armoured assets, with the Germans offering technical assistance. It might be that they also took the chance from Sweden’s aim and experiences to develop in secret their own armoured assets and the tactics.

[2] In fact, the Bofors model 29 of 75mm AA gun was developed earlier by the Krupp engineers working for Bofors, serving as a model for the posterior German 88mm gun. See: Hogg, 2002, p.113.

[3] The Swedish Air Force (Flygvapnet) was created in 1926 taking units from both the army and the navy. In regards to the dispersed bases system, the aim was to reduce the chance of any damage as a product of an attack against its air assets, dispersing the units (X-plane, 2008).

[4] This naval policy can be traced back to 1869, where it maintained a very strong navy with defensive purposes. See: Crawford, 2001, p.61.

[5] For the Stvr M/38, Stvr M/39, Stvr M/40 and Stvr M/42, see also: Jackson (2012).

[6] Yet refused to allow the British Empire to send some troops to Finland via Sweden, and while it steadily began to implement some restrictions to imports to Germany (after Stalingrad), it also restricted its own press so to avoid any hostility by Germany (Globalsecurity, 2014; Parnell, n.d).

[7] Gotkowska (2013) remarks, in fact, that Swedish neutrality was having such approach for most of its time, with declarations of neutrality met with actions aimed at adapting to the surrounding challenges of the days.

[8] Cfr, p.35.

[9] Sweden also took active part in the implementation of sanctions against South Africa during the apartheid, in assisting the liberation movements and providing humanitarian assistance to refugees of both South Africa and Namibia. See: Ugwukah, 2011, p.39.

[10] Cfr, p.80.

[11] Westberg (2013) states that this armed neutrality was also sparked by Sweden’s desire to show a clear commitment to its own neutrality and to exert deterrence in order to avoid any invasion.

[12] It is important to remark, in order to avoid any confusion, that despite such agreements, Sweden never aligned with NATO and actually looked for staying out of conflict, should it had started. Cfr, Ugwukah, 2011, pp.31-32.

[13] See also: Sharpe, 2001, pp.257-266.

[14] For Stvr 74, see: Jackson, 2012, p.190.

[15] For further information on the military vehicles, see: Haskew, 2012; Jackson, 2012; Trewhitt, 2001; and Turner, 2003.

[16] For additional information on the J 21 and A 21R, see: Chant, 2001, p.284. And: Sharpe, 2001, p.258.

[17] See also: Lindström, 1997, pp. 4-5.



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