Category Archives: Scandinavia

10 OCTOBER, 1917: National Stereotypes

The big story in the British press a hundred years ago was still the Third Battle of Ypres, as it was then being called, which was in the throes of another British reboot, distinguished by contemporaries and posterity as the Battle of Poelcapelle.  This latest phase of the fighting achieved very little for the Allies at substantial cost for both sides, and although British newspapers were accentuating the positives for all they were worth, faithfully trumpeting every inch of ground gained and every German casualty, their tone had lately undergone an increasingly familiar shift of focus.

Although everyone was able to be relatively honest about their generally successful defensive operations, the press on the attacking side greeted any major wartime offensive with confident predictions of a great victory.  Haig’s latest offensives were no different, but as hopes of success floundered in Flanders mud readers were being let down gently with reports that spoke less about the strategic situation, more about the horror of the carnage and the bravery of the troops.

This quiet evasion of uncomfortable truths was characteristic of wartime internal propaganda produced by liberal democracies, and was more subtle than the big lies about the big picture perpetrated by German propagandists conditioned to regard the body politic as intrinsically hostile.  Though hardly convincing  to a public accustomed to reading between the lines after three years of war, it did make allowances for natural scepticism and trusted its target audience to respond positively to sugar coated bad news.  As such it spared populations the kind of visceral shock administered to Germany when the truth got out, as mentioned in my last post – but before we get too comfortable with liberal democracies it’s worth noting that all they shared a propensity for other, less inclusive forms of internal propaganda.

We’re the good guys, OK? The British government knew what its people wanted to hear.

When it came to persuading populations that they were on the side of the angels, that their government and armed forces were honourable reflections of the home culture’s intrinsically superior morality, nobody’s propaganda was willing to trust its audience.  By way of illustration, British newspapers on 10 October also carried a small story about four Swedish merchant ships seized in UK ports. According to the reports, the ships had been commandeered for their own good because, although they flew the Swedish flag, they were partly British-owned and therefore likely to be attacked anyway by German warships.

Leaving aside the assumption that German naval officers were extraordinarily well informed about the ownership details of neutral merchantmen, one elephant in the room here was the fact that losses to U-boats, though less than catastrophic since the establishment of a convoy system, still left the British desperate to use any excuse to grab any merchant shipping within reach. Informed readers may well have understood and forgiven this, but a second elephant was more carefully concealed.   A public conditioned to view Britain as the much-loved global policeman, protecting the world from aggressive militarism, wasn’t being told that the British regarded neutral Swedish shipping as fair game.

Of the northern European states known in Britain as the ‘adjacent neutrals’ – the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and Sweden – the constitutional monarchy of Sweden was by far the most pro-German.  The country enjoyed strong cultural and economic links with Germany and had long regarded Berlin as the natural counterweight to the enemy it most feared, expansionist Russia. Though quick to declare its neutrality in August 1914, Sweden had at the same time signed a secret agreement to maintain a ‘benevolent’ attitude towards Germany, an arrangement at least partly motivated by a desire to forestall any German aggression.

Like the other adjacent neutrals, Sweden faced a combination of bullying and indulgence from both sides as the War progressed, because while the regionally relevant belligerent powers – Germany, Britain and Russia – wanted to prevent Swedish trade with their enemies, they also needed Swedish cooperation.

Germany relied heavily on Sweden as one of the few places willing and able to maintain trade links during the British blockade, and above all as a major supplier of desperately needed horses.  Britain’s imports from Sweden included important iron ore and timber supplies, and British diplomats fretted about Sweden’s attitude towards Russia and the Eastern Front.  Early in the War, before the development of Murmansk as an ice-free port, Sweden was the only viable through-route for Allied supplies to Russia, but London and St. Petersburg were always aware that any signs of German victory in the east might persuade Sweden to join the Central Powers for a share of the spoils.

Sweden going to war was less likely than the Allies imagined. Though a noisy Activist Party lobbied consistently for an alliance with Berlin, winning support from significant minorities within all social groups and strong backing from the military, sound commercial instincts and the pacifist preference of the majority kept the Stockholm government committed to formal neutrality throughout the War.

The fact remained that Germany mattered more to Sweden than Britain.  Sweden was less dependent than its neutral neighbours on British imports, and found it could replace most them with German imports when the British flexed their blockade muscles by curtailing supplies, while Germany was both the enemy of Sweden’s Russian enemy and, if provoked, a potential invader .

Though the Swedish government was apt to make a show of reluctance, it bowed to a series of German demands during the first two years of the War.  It agreed to black out Swedish lighthouses and mined the strait between Sweden and Denmark, both by way of keeping British warships out of the Baltic, and it banned the overland passage of military equipment en route for Russia.  Sweden was also the only European neutral to back Germany in the propaganda war, with government and press supporting Berlin’s take on Belgian atrocities, submarine warfare and most other controversial issues.  This was all perfectly legal, and in response the British could only impound Swedish ships, blacklist Swedish businesses and attempt to negotiate guarantees from the Swedish government against the re-export of goods to Germany.

By the end of 1916 the negotiations had achieved nothing much in the face of intransigence from Swedish premier Hammerskjöld, who had headed an essentially pro-German cabinet of conservative and business interests since the beginning of the War.  Facing nationwide food shortages and high unemployment, byproducts of the British blockade, and under pressure from its right-wing supporters to prepare the military for war, Hammerskjöld’s government eventually fell in early 1917.  The new conservative cabinet reopened negotiations with Britain, but no practical progress had been made by September, when the Luxburg Affair broke.

The laugh out loud paragraph here is the one about London’s astonishment.

During the summer US intelligence had intercepted and deciphered a cable to Berlin from a German diplomat in Argentina, Count Luxburg, recommending the sinking of Argentine merchant ships. At London’s behest, Washington delayed exposure of the cable, and the fact that it had been sent via the Swedish consular service, until just before Swedish elections.  The scandal stressed but didn’t break the Argentine government’s generally good relations with Germany, but revelation of such a clear breach of neutrality regulations did help defeat the conservatives in Sweden.  Engineering a change of government didn’t do the British much good, because the liberal coalition that took power under premier Nils Éden proved no less amenable to German influence and hardly more interested in reaching agreement with the Allies, dragging out negotiations until a re-export accord was eventually signed in May 1918.

The internal stresses exacerbated by wartime neutrality did complicate the lives of Swedish people and encourage post-war political reform (which expanded the franchise and concentrated executive power in parliamentary hands), but Sweden’s was hardly the most significant or dramatic of the War’s many diplomatic tightrope acts.  It is one of the least the least well known, partly because heritage history – the stuff peddled to the public via mass media, and arguably a form of state propaganda in fancy dress – has had reasons to forget the troubled wartime relationship between Britain and Sweden.

Sweden had peace but no quiet – the war years saw a surge in popular protests demanding constitutional reform

The Swedish public hasn’t been encouraged to dwell on a situation that might tarnish its generally well-deserved reputation, in Britain as elsewhere, for non-aligned fair dealing through the violence and geopolitical duplicity of the twentieth century.  Meanwhile British heritage history likes to preserve the righteousness of its Victorian heyday, and seldom questions the orthodoxies of modern international relations.  Given that it ignores almost anything that doesn’t fit its Tommy-centred, liberal agenda, it’s hardly likely to spotlight a time when the British government treated Sweden as an enemy in all but name and seized the country’s ships as a form of profitable punishment.  So I’m giving it a mention.

16 JANUARY, 1916: Peace and Quiet?

As world wars go, this one was pretty quiet at the start of 1917.  The Western Front had reverted to its particular version of inactivity, the patchwork violence of trench raids and minor attacks defined by the very British concept of ‘permanent offensive’, and on the Eastern Front – inevitably quiet during Eastern Europe’s ferocious midwinter – the last rites of the Central Powers’ attack into Romania were the only substantial military activity.

Elsewhere, the Italian, Caucasian and Salonika fronts were quiet, and an uneasy standoff existed in East Africa, with German forces confined to the south of the colony and the British still busy replacing European and Indian troops with as many African soldiers as they could mobilise. The slow, steady preparation for British operations in Palestine, from forward defence of the Suez Canal to invasion, was approaching completion, and a limited British offensive was taking place in Mesopotamia.  The latter was making fast progress towards Baghdad, but we’ve been to Mesopotamia lately and we’ll be back there soon, so I’ll give the preliminary battles their due then.

This relative lack of carnage, which had encouraged talk of a compromise peace during December, encourages me to talk about peaceful things – like Denmark.

On 16 January 1917, US president Woodrow Wilson ratified the purchase from Denmark of what had been the Danish West Indies and subsequently became the US Virgin Islands. This was a rare moment in the headlines for wartime Denmark, and most Danes tend to see the First World War as little more than a passing nuisance, not central to the country’s twentieth-century development. With all due respect to anyone Danish, this is only half true.

A constitutional monarchy since the mid-19th century, Denmark had lost its southern provinces and 150,000 of its people to Germany after the Second Schleswig-Holstein War of 1864, and was one of Europe’s smallest states in 1914, with a population of less than three million. Though its industrial and urban development had kept pace with the most advanced European countries, it retained a predominantly agricultural economy that had made a highly successful switch from grain to pork and dairy production since the 1870s, and that sustained Europe’s most prosperous farmers.

Agricultural products accounted for 90 percent of Denmark’s exports and, underpinned by a thriving merchant navy, much of the nation’s wealth.  This was reflected in the country’s political development, which embraced contemporary socialism (especially in modern, industrialised Copenhagen) but centred on liberal and social democratic attempts to curb the power of major landowners by opening up the country’s narrow electoral franchise.

Since the country was also dependent on imports for food, energy and manufacturing raw materials, international trade was obviously very important to Denmark, and its two main trading partners in 1914 were Germany and Great Britain.  When war broke out between them, Denmark could only choose neutrality, but the fact that it shared a long, scary frontier with Germany, and couldn’t hope to defend it, soon forced the Danish government to play favourites.

Denmark’s only strategic importance to the belligerent powers lay in a geographical position that controlled access to the Baltic Sea, and in August 1914, at Berlin’s request and in spite of a promise to Britain, the Danish Navy began laying minefields across the narrow straits separating Denmark from Sweden. The Navy spent the rest of the War tending the minefields, while the 58,000-strong Danish Army remained clustered around Copenhagen, the only part of the country considered defensible if the Germans decided to march in and take over.

Danish naval squadrons spent four years protecting the minefields that guarded the Baltic.

Invasion from the south remained a possibility throughout the War. It seemed most likely at the start of the conflict, when collective insecurity triggered a run on gold deposits in Danish banks. With the country’s political parties committed to a cooperative truce for the duration, a coalition government responded by suspending convertibility of the national currency, the Krøne, into gold, and followed up with a raft of emergency laws that gave it control over prices, food supplies and exports.  These measures were primarily designed to ensure fair distribution of resources in the face of inevitable shortages, but control of exports also added to the government’s bargaining power with warring powers desperate for supplies.

With wartime inflation running close to 20%, subsequent measures provided (and later increased) welfare provision for poorer citizens, introduced government subsidies to keep down prices of fuel and essential foodstuffs, and responded to housing shortages by regulating rents and offering tax exemptions to housing developers. Progressive taxation was also introduced to counter both the strain on public finances – partly caused by keeping the armed forces mobilised throughout the conflict – and excessive profiteering.

All this interventionism, new to Denmark and similar in nature to governmental developments in belligerent European states, worked reasonably well, as did the diplomatic balancing act performed by a government that spent its time convincing both sides that trade with an independent, neutral Denmark was to their advantage. Once the uncertainty of the War’s opening phase had passed, Danish society and economy adjusted to its requirements in relative comfort… for a couple of years.

By the summer of 1916, a change at the top in Germany appeared imminent, and the prospect revived fears of an invasion aimed at breaking (or at least stretching) the Allied naval blockade by occupying Norwegian and Danish ports. Nervousness in Denmark was echoed by worsening relations with equally worried Allied countries, and by alarm in the United States, which saw the Danish West Indies (the Caribbean islands of St. John, St. Croix and St. Thomas) as part of the western gateway to the Panama Canal, and was determined to take control of them before Germany could invade.

Here they are…

The Danish government had no good reason to keep the islands, which were economically depressed and expensive to run, and had agreed to sell them to the US twice before, in 1867 and 1902. The US Senate had rejected the first treaty of sale, essentially to spite unpopular Secretary of State Seward, and the Danish upper house had rejected the second, largely because of fears that a US administration would mistreat the islands’ predominantly black population. The same fears were expressed when Danish authorities rejected a fresh offer of purchase in October 1915, but Wilson’s secretary of state, Robert Lansing, kept on asking, eventually making it clear that the US would seize the islands rather than let them fall into German hands. Menaced by Germany and under pressure from Britain, Denmark could ill afford to make an enemy of the US, which was likely to impose selective restrictions on neutral trade from its shores if and when it joined the Allies, and the Danish ambassador signed a preliminary treaty of sale in New York on 4 August 1916.

The treaty did not secure rights of US citizenships for the islands’ residents, nor did it grant them a say in the matter, but by December it had passed through both Danish houses of parliament and a national plebiscite. The US Senate ratified the treaty in September, but Wilson delayed his own signature until 16 January 1917, by which time all hope of imposing peace on the world had faded and US relations with Germany had virtually collapsed. The formal transfer of power took place on 31 March, at which point the US paid Denmark $25 million in gold and the US Navy took administrative control of the islands. Island natives eventually received full citizenship rights in 1932, but that’s another story, as is the considerably less prosperous neutrality endured by the Danes after the US entered the War.

Like it or not, here’s Uncle Sam.

It’s easy to see why the First World War is no big deal in Denmark, where commemoration is largely focused on the 35,000 Danes from German-controlled Schleswig-Holstein who were conscripted to fight for Germany and the 6,000 of them who died, along with the three hundred or so Danish merchant ships sunk during the conflict and some 800 sailors who lost their lives. Otherwise, the post-War return of northern Schleswig to Danish control is recognised as a turning point in the country’s modern history, but much of the state’s wartime legislation was dismantled in the early 1920s and is largely forgotten, while the country’s economy quickly returned to something like its pre-War condition. A new constitution was introduced in 1915, widening the franchise and allowing women to vote for the first time, but it was the product of pre-War political dynamics and not influenced by the course of the conflict.

On the other hand, as they did in so many other developed European countries, wartime organisational needs forced an enormous, lasting growth in the reach and power of Danish unions and employers’ associations. They also spawned a political truce that propelled the country’s emerging social democrats to governmental responsibility and laid the foundations for an alliance with the liberal left that went on to shape Danish society for the next forty-five years. Perhaps most significantly, the country’s geopolitical position was fatefully altered by its years of neutrality, because experience of Allied blockade tactics during the First World War convinced German planners to occupy Denmark during the Second.

Just so you know, Danes serving in the German Army fought and died on the Western Front.

This has been a long, flimsy piece of journalism, and aside from telling another small tale of big people bullying little people, it has only one, small point to make – that the First World War changed the lives of almost every citizen in the developed world, even those that think it passed them by.