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Belligerents and Participants
When the First World War broke out there were conflicting sympathies in Sweden as to which course to take. While many admired France and Great Britain, existing business ties closely held Swedes to Germany. Their old enemy Russia being part of the Allied coalition did not make it any more attractive to join. The conservative group known as the Activists who were fearful of the republican principals exposed by some of the Allies, called for Sweden to join the Central Powers. King Gustav V seemed sympathetic to these views but the public had no taste for war. A policy of absolute neutrality was issued on August 3, 1914. While some tried to exploit the slight public bias toward Germany in order to bring Sweden into the War, but these sentiments seemed to wax and wane with Germany’s fortunes, and it ceased to be an issue by the end of 1915.
Even though Sweden had a history of military aggression, it had not been involved in conflict since the Napoleonic Wars, which led to complacency. Prime minister Hjalmar Hammarskjold called up reserves and increase military spending, but with no clear threat this buildup fell far short of what was required by other neutrals closer to the fighting. The Island of Gotland was of particular concern with fears that it might be seized as a naval base. Swedish warships were eventually stationed their to support the mobilized men of the landstorm. A few Swedes joined the German army as volunteers to fight the Russians, but there was little action in Sweden except for interning belligerent sailors who inadvertently stayed into the kingdom’s waters.
Sweden’s assertion that it had a right to trade with belligerent countries while remaining neutral put it in direct conflict with Britain’s blockade of Germany, and the Allies stopped trading with Sweden. In September the Royal Navy managed to sneak submarines into the Baltic Sea through the back channels of Denmark to harass Swedish exports. After a British sub managed to sink five Swedish merchant ships in one October day in 1915, other ships refused to leave port. This not only put and end to crucial shipments of iron ore out of Lulea to Germany, it caused all shipments of food on the Baltic to be suspended. From then on Sweden would suffer extreme food shortages, which was somewhat lessened when the Germans began escorting mercantile ships with naval convoys in 1916. Nearly all Swedish casualties in the War were suffered by the merchant marine.
Hunger riots would bring down the Hammarskjold government in early 1917, and he was replaced by the more conservative Carl Swartz. He managed to hold tensions down amidst rumors that the Russian revolution would spread to Sweden during the May Day demonstrations. While Sweden did not directly intervene in the Finish Civil War that erupted in 1918, a volunteer Swedish Brigade came to the aid of the Whites in February, and they would facilitate the German intervention in Finland. After the Estonian port of Tallinn was captured by the Germans in February 1918, the British submarines operating from there moved to Helsinki. When this city fell to the Germans in April, the British submarines were scuttled, which ended the Allied threat to Swedish shipping. With both sides now more willing to negotiate, Swartz reached an agreement with Great Britain and the United States by May that allowed Sweden to resume imports provided that they limit exports to Germany, and put most of their merchant fleet into Allied service. While these measures helped, food shortages would outlast the War and lead to social upheaval in the postwar years.