8: Neutrals of Europe


Special free Patreon episode on the neutrals of Europe.



Hello everyone and welcome History of the Great War Premium Episode number 8. Last episode we discussed what was happening down in Spain during the war, and this week we will take a look at some of the other countries around Europe, specifically those in northern Europe. I actually plan on doing an episode on Japan in the future, which I think will be an interesting topic if only because it is WAY outside of our Euro-centric narrative that we have had so far. This episode though will focus primarily on 3 countries, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. These countries made up a Scandinavian block that would remain neutral throughout the entire war, each for their own reason and each with their own problems. We will also touch on the situation in the Netherlands as well, although that piece of the episode will sounds more like a self-contained chapter. One of the sources for this episode was a well researched journal article entitled Denmark During the First World War by Bent Bludnikov. In this article Bludnikow gives the following two quotes, the first one is about some of the dangers of being a neutral, even if they were not on the battlefield. “There was a widespread feeling among the belligerents that the neutral countries had all the advantages. While the warring countries were bleeding to death, the neutral ones were making a great deal of money. This was a dangerous situation for neutral countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Norway and Sweden, since the warring countries displeasures with this lucrative neutrality could perhaps have negative consequences in the longer run.” The second quote gives a nice summary of the phenomenon that we have seen countless times before during the main episodes with Italy, Turkey, Bulgaria, and soon Romania. “When the great powers resources appeared to be exhausted and their last soldiers were thrown into a desperate attack at the front, the potential military capability and the strategic geographical positions of some of the neutral countries became much more important to the belligerents.” These types of pressures would also be put on the Scandinavian countries, although usually from an economic perspective instead of from a military perspective. Thanks also goes out to listener Kjell from Norway who was actually the genesis of all of these neutral episodes due to a message he sent me on Facebook, he also contributed a wealth of information that was used in the Norway section of this episode.

Before diving into the specifics of each of our countries, just want to take a bit to discuss the general history of the region and its place inside of greater Europe. Over the last 25 years of the 19th century there was a change in the three Scandinavian countries. Denmark, Sweden, and Norway were all undergoing rapid economic expansion as they found ways to harness either their natural resources or their manufacturing capabilities to position themselves as a worthy trade partner. This included exporting large amounts of raw materials and semi-refined goods to Germany and Britain in exchange for mostly coal, rare resources, and manufactured goods. Britain was the largest market for the Scandinavian goods, but Germany’s share was rising, and more importantly imports from Germany had already eclipsed those from Britain in the years before the war. It is very likely that if the war had been postponed this trend would have continued for quite some time. This economic change was coupled with strong political movements based around liberal internationalism. These movements strove to increase the political cooperation between all nations and to try and maintain peace through arbitration of arguments. Many people know about this movement, in many ways it would eventually result in the League of Nations, and then United Nations, and then I guess the European Union as well. But during the first world war, and also the second, it was mostly a pipe dream. These economic and political changes brought the countries into another rung of international recognition and power. They were considered a second rate power similar to Japan, or even Spain. One piece to note, that I should probably throw out there now, is that I have not mentioned Finland at all, and I will not be discussing it during this episode because at this point in history it was still a part of Russia and not an independent country.

While the Scandinavian countries were playing a role in European politics, for example when they played a key role in trying to bring Germany and Russia closer together and further away from war, they were also acutely aware of the fact that they were relatively small fish playing in a very large pond. If war happened their contributions would be orders of magnitude smaller than some other nations of Europe and they would have no chance in defending themselves against a determined attack. The Royal Navy would commission a study before the war that would, in its results, say that “Denmark and Sweden are hovering between the Sea Power and the Land Power uncertain with which to throw in their lot, most anxious to remain free from all complications, but, from their geographical position, almost certain to be drawn into the struggle in certain eventualities; and, lastly, Germany, more or less isolated, threatens this country almost more seriously than she has been threatened by France since the Napoleonic era.” They all knew that if they became too closely associated with either of the large alliances, and that alliance lost a conflict, they would be in serious danger. Therefore in the time before the war, and then during it, they were forced to walk a tightrope. There was a concern among all of them that if a large conflict started they would be forced to enter, or in the case of Denmark, they would find themselves on the wrong side of an invasion. Because of this the push for peace and mediation in international disputes was not out of simple humanitarian concerns, but also to make sure that their countries survived. These fact, however, did not prevent rumors from circulating from time to time that one country or the other was getting too buddy buddy with one of the great powers, and in some ways these rumors would be correct. However when the war started they would all be put under pressure in their own ways, if not to straight enter the war then to show preferential treatment to one side or the other. They would have to balance this for 4 years of conflict.

The first country that we will be talking about today is Denmark. Denmark was far more involved in continental politics because it was, well, attached to the continent. It also occupied a very strategically important position on the entrances to the Baltic sea. The Danes could easily shut down all access either in or out of the Baltic almost on a whim, through the mining of the various channels. This control of these channels and could have hurt Germany and Britain equally by closing them down until the widening and deepening of the Kiel canal in the late 1800s gave the Germans a way to move warships between the Baltic and the North Sea without going around Denmark. This was a concern for the British because starting around the turn of the century, as alliances were shifting, the British were looking at ways to project their power onto the continent. From a naval perspective, trying to do anything against the German North Sea coast was dangerous since it was so heavily defended, but they did hope to be able to do something in the Baltic, a place where hopefully Germany would be less ready to receive them. However, as it became apparent that a close blockade of Germany was not going to be possible, and any blockade of the North Sea would probably be a distant blockade that would also include all of the channels around Denmark the general concern about what Denmark could do to the entrances to the Baltic was sharply reduced. In fact, when war came, the British would not even really complain that strongly. Denmark was also an important trade partner for both Britain and Germany before the war, for example 68 percent of Danish agricultural exports when to Britain. This just added another reason that it was such a big topic of conversation year in and year out at the Admiralty. With its reliance on sea trade, and its connection to Germany on land, the Danes were in a position where if war came it would be easy for one side to cut off Denmark, just to hurt the other alliance. This became a near certainty when the British Admiralty admitted that a close blockade of Germany was not going to work. With a distant blockade that included Danish ports there would be a constant strain between Britain and Denmark about how much of those imports were going to Germany.

The relationship between Denmark and Germany requires a special bit of conversation. Unlike Sweden and Norway, Denmark shared a land border with Germany. This, and its strategic position, meant that the Germans were always wondering what they should do with Denmark in case of a European wide conflict. This was made even more important after some tension between Germany and Denmark in the 19th century over things like Southern Jutland and other territorial disputes. Even with these tensions though, and with the countries generally not being on the best of terms, there were constant rumors around Europe that they were going to sign an alliance. This would have been very advantageous for Germany, and for the Danes it would have at least made them safer from a German invasion, but in reality it was never going to happen. In the years before the war, the German Army definitely had the plans drawn up to invade Denmark if it was required. This action would be taken in the case of Denmark either entering the war again German, or perhaps more dangerously if Denmark was used by the British as a point of invasion onto the continent. Schlieffen was opposed to the idea of a pre-emptive invasion of Denmark, seeing it as an uncessary distraction from the decisive theaters, however when Moltke took over as Chief of Staff he was far more concerned about Denmark and its potential to affect the war between Germany and Britain. When the war did finally started in 1914 Denmark was given a frightening reminder of what could happen when Germany invaded Belgium and took it over in a matter of weeks. This caused the Danish government to do something that was not exactly in keeping with their neutral status, but they felt that they had no choice. The first thing was an announcement by the Foreign Minister that while his country would remain neutral they would show “favorable neutrality” towards Germany, whatever that means. He did go on to say that while doing this they would only go as “far as this is consistent with the notion of neutrality.” they then went ahead and mined the Great Belt, effectively cutting the Royal Navy off from the Baltic. The country would then go on to be a huge exporter of food to Germany throughout the war. This brought about some economic benefits, but there were also some downsides. While the British would choose to ignore the mining of the paths to the Baltic, even though they probably could have spun it as cause for a declaration of war, they would continutally put pressure on the Danes to cut economic ties with Germany. The British would use their ability to cut off all imports into the country as the stick to try and beat the Danish government into line. It did have some effect, even if it caused hardship among the Danish people because almost all imports into the country were cut off, even though they were neutral.

Just because Denmark was not involved in the war did not meant that it did not play its own part in the conflict, although it did not mean sending guns into the field it did mean playing a humanitarian role during the 4 years. The Danish Red Cross would play a huge role in helping Prisoners of War during the war through a program called the Dana Programme private funds were gathered to send parcels to prisoners of all countries. The humanitarian reputation of the Danish Red Cross was such that by 1917 the Russians were asking them to take over the care of all Russian Prisoners of War, which was officially the job of Spain, although they were apparently not doing a very good job. When I say taking care of Prisoners of War a big part of this is identifying who are prisoners, informing their governments, verifying that they were being treated humanely, and then handling mail for them for the duration of the war. They were also seen as advocates for the prisoners. While this might seem like a small thing, I am sure the families and the soldiers themselves were very thankful for the work put in by the Danes in this regard.

Sweden was in a different, and generally far more favorable position when compared to Denmark. It had the largest, best armed, and best trained military in northern Europe, and it also had a population larger than Denmark and Norway combined. They did share a border with one of the countries in the conflict, Russia, but they were far enough from any battlefields that it was extremely doubtful that they would be able to use what little resources they were able to devote to another front to invade Sweden. Sweden also had more industry than the other countries with specialized industries that created important items, like ball bearings that other countries depended on, they were also known for their iron ore exports. During the war the government in Sweden was far more conservative than the other countries and was less involved in the internationalist agenda. Instead they advocated strongly for their rights as neutral in the more traditional sense. Before the war, even if Russia did not end up being a huge threat to Sweden, that fact was far from certain. In the 19th century when France and Britain were often strong enemies of Russia Sweden had looked to them for support against their large neighbor. Sweden hoped that such strong backing would prevent any actions from Russia. But then something happened, France began to cooperate with Russia, and Britain seemed to be going along with them. The British would try to assure the Swedes that they were in no danger from Russia, but the generations long antagonism between the two countries, dating all the way back to Gustafus Adolfus and the Swedish Empire, was just too strong for Sweden to believe the British.This caused Sweden to have to find another ally that was able and willing to help them against Russia if they needed it. Therefore, instead of seeing Germany as a natural enemy, they saw them as a natural ally. The relationship between Sweden and Germany continued to grow in the years before the war, although there would be no official alliance. Germany would probably have signed it, if only to ensure access to Sweden’s natural resources, but Sweden was hesitant to commit to anything that might bring them into war against their much larger enemy to the east. Therefore when the war started Sweden would stay neutral. As we know by now, this did not stop the war from affecting Sweden. The biggest problem for the country was food. In 1913 Sweden was heavily dependent on food imports, for example importing 8.5 million bushels of wheat, most of these were from sources that would not be available to them when the war started. Either because they were on the other side of the blockaded North Sea or because there were now armies in the field to feed. The government was proactive though, to try and reduce the effects that this would have on the average citizen. Soon after the war started the government would take over the stores of all grain and flour and begin a series of proactive rationing efforts to stretch available supplies as far as possible. This would go a long way to helping the food situation in Sweden throughout the war, and even though the ration would have to be cut a few times, especially in 1917 at the height of the U-Boat campaign, they were able to keep it at a reasonable level.

Sweden’s closest neighbor was Norway, and it was not until 1905 that it was independent from Sweden. After the declaration of its independence there was remarkably not a war, although it was a close thing. There were questions to answer though, like what type of government the new nation would have, would it be a republic or a monarchy? Eventually it was decided for the latter and a Danish prince with an English wife was chosen as the new King Haakon VII. This was not the only reason that Norway was important to Britain though, with its long coastline and its position along the North Sea the Norwegian harbors and fjords were the ideal place to extend naval strength, as was seen in the second world war when Germany wasted no time in capturing the entire country. Even in the first world war Britain was very concerned that a country might try to capture these areas, especially Germany with its growing navy. Lord Lansdowne would say before the war that ‘It would be a serious blow to British interests if any other power were to acquire possession of a port on the Norwegian coast. We should, therefore, do our utmost to prevent such an eventuality." This led to Britain providing a guarantee of Norway’s neutrality and independence, and Norway counted on Britain to come to its aid if it was required. Germany was generally okay with this in 1914 because they valued neutral Norway, or at least one not completely under the thumb of the British. The biggest reason for this was because they needed the Norwegian port of Narvik as a point of departure for Swedish ore during the winter months with many other ports were frozen over. There was also the fact that Norway had the third largest merchant fleet in the world, and they also had a large fishing and whaling industry. Both of these would be critical for Germany during a European conflict as way to continue to trade with the outside world, albeit by proxy, when the British blockading Germany. This was another plan that was a casualty of the wide ranging blockade of the European ports by the British. When the war did get going Norway and its people were generally split between the two sides, however, as the war progressed the opinions of the Norwegians turned sharply against Germany. More than maybe any other neutral, because of its emphasis on shipping and fishing in its economy Norway was effected by the German unrestricted U-Boat Campaign of 1917. There were simply a lot of Norwegian boats out there on the seas and they were bound to be hit by this practice during the war. It got to the point in 1917 during the height of the German U-Boat campaign that the British were providing military escort to convoys destined for Norwegian ports. There was also a sort of economic proxy war happening between Germany and Britain around the Norwegian fish harvests during the war. Initially a lot of this was being sold to Germans, but of course Britain was not a big fan of this practice. Therefore Britain was able to use its position as the exporter of critical goods to Norway like copper and coal as leverage to force the Norwegians into a deal where the British purchased all of the Norwegian at a flat rate, below market value. While Germany was then not a fan of this agreement when it came about in 1917 there was not a ton that they could do about it since at that moment they were sinking Norwegian ships without remorse all over the North Sea and Atlantic.

The final country we will discuss today is the Netherlands, and they were in a very interesting position. Germany had specifically chosen not to invade the Neterhlands when they had swept through Belgium at the beginning of the war for one very specific reason. The Dutch were the best way for Germany to utilize a neutral port to bring in necessary war materials since they had the port of Rotterdam. This would allow for critical materials to be brought onto the continent. Moltke would say that ‘For us, it will be the utmost importance to have in Holland a country whose neutrality will assure imports and exports. It will have to be our windpipe that enables us to breathe." This was based on the belief, again as all plans of this type were before the war, that the British would setup a close blockade of German ports, but leaving the Netherlands upon for business. This belief was strong enough that German officials were already signing contracts with the Dutch merchants as soon as the war started. These contracts were for huge quantities of American grain and countless other smaller orders. When war was declared the Dutch Queen Wilhelmia would declare her country’s neutrality in the conflict. This also began a huge economic boom for the Dutch. First there were all of those deliveries of foreign goods to Germany through Dutch ports, but that began to taper off as the North Sea blockade began to solidify. In fact, the French and Russians wanted the British to declare Rotterdam as a base of supply for the enemy, which would have allowed more drastic measures to be taken to prevent it from being utilized for shipping. However, the British were hesitant to take this step. In the early days of the war so much of their casus belli for entering the conflict was based on defending the neutral rights of Belgium, by moving against the Netherlands they would be doing exactly what they were screaming at the top of their lungs that Germany should not, not a good look. While international trade through Dutch ports continued to drop due to the blockade there were no effects on domestic goods, and these saw a huge boom time during the war. Between 1913 and 1915 the export of food products like cheese, butter, eggs, potatoes, and meat tripled or quintupled. The Germans also had to borrow huge amounts of money from Dutch banks to finance the war, between 35 and 50 percent of their total war debt came from this source. These good times for Dutch merchants and bankers lasted until 1917 when the Germans started their second string of U-Boat warfare. This also coincided with the British taking a much harsher stance on the Dutch for exporting so many goods to the Germans. The British would claim that the Dutch were being “consistently pro-German.” The increased antagonism in London, and the difficulties caused by the submarines, meant that the trade between the two countries almost ceased to exist. In the meantime the Germans had begun to build fortifications along the Dutch-German border just in case they decided to enter the war of if the British invaded. They also updated their plans to allow them to rapidly take over the country, should it be required. By the last year of the war the Dutch were really stuck between a rock and a hard place, trying to keep both sides happy. This severely restricted their freedom and they were pretty much stuck doing what they were told to do from the belligerents, while trying desperately to not antagonize one side too much.

As the war came to a close the four countries, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands had all managed to stay neutral throughout the conflict. Unlike Spain where internal conflict and strife made the future look just as bleak as the war years these countries had made a concious choice to stay out of the war and were coming out the other side mostly intact. For Denmark and the Netherlands they had been able to use their position to their advantage, exporting huge amounts of material to Germany while still maintaining at least some level of friendly relations with the Entente. Sweden and Norway were much the same, just with different types of exports. After the war these countries would fight strongly for the creation of the League of Nations, although they believed that in the end it did not go far enough to create a forum for the resolution of international problems. They also believed that it was too Entente dominated, and for some of them the fact that it had to uphold the treaty of Versailles was simply a step too far. One thing that I may have hammered too much in this episode but has become clear to me is that the unrestricted submarine campaigns that Germany used did far more than sink a few ships. By taking such drastic steps against both belligerent and neutral shipping Germany allowed Britain to get far more heavy handed in its measures to cut Germany off from other countries. By creating so much hatred and antagonism in the neutral countries the countries almost had to go along with what the British wanted, if only because the sinking of ships and the killing of sailors was far more publicized than some backroom trade dealings. All of these problems would be in some ways brought back into the fore in 1939, however during the next war Germany would take a far more direct approach to assuring the supply of war material from these countries. And this, brings us to the end of our two part series on the neutrals of Europe. I hope that you have learned a bit about a less covered topic of the war. If you have any thoughts, or suggestions, for future premium episodes, please reach out to me. I’m always looking for new and interesting topics to research, and you never know what might happen with the smallest of suggestions.