King Gustav V of Sweden was an avowed Germanophile, as was much of his family. His late wife, the strong-willed Queen Victoria of Sweden, had after all been born a Princess of Baden and was both the granddaughter of Emperor Wilhelm I as well as a cousin of Emperor Wilhelm II. Furthermore, the marriage was primarily a political alliance organised by Gustav’s father, King Oscar II, who was keen to forge strong ties with Germany. Victoria’s influence over her rather hesitant husband was considerable and was still evident in the years following her death in 1930. Gustav continued to be a frequent visitor to Berlin where he entertained the President of Germany and the newly-elected Chancellor, Adolf Hitler to lunch at the Swedish Legation in 1933. As recently as February 1939, the King paid another visit to Berlin, during which he conferred on Field Marshal Hermann Göring, a Commander Grand Cross of the Royal Order of the Sword, a distinguished Swedish military award.
However, when World War II commenced in September 1939, the Swedish government of Per Albin Hansson adopted a neutral stance, a view endorsed by King Gustav. Nevertheless, this would prove a difficult position to maintain and was to come at a price. The first challenge was when Germany invaded Sweden’s neighbours of Norway and Denmark on 9 April 1940. Gustav received news of this by telephone, just after 5am, from his Foreign Minister, Christian Günther. The latter had been informed of the dual invasions in person at his home on Ymervägen in Djursholm, only a few minutes earlier, by the German Minister in Stockholm, Prince Victor of Wied. The Prince (who was a second cousin of the late Queen Victoria of Sweden) had been at pains to reassure Günther that Sweden would not be invaded (subject to certain conditions) and that he would soon be in a position to hand over an official communication from Berlin which would elaborate on the German government’s position. Wied was as good as his word and, by 9am, a collection of notables, including the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Crown Prince, joined the King in his study at the Royal Palace to discuss Germany’s demands. It made uncomfortable reading: Firstly, Sweden was not allowed to mobilise its forces. Secondly, the Swedish navy must at all times not hinder German naval operations nor travel further than three miles from the Swedish coast. Neither was Sweden to impede German telecommunications traffic. Of particular importance to the German war effort, deliveries of Swedish iron ore were to continue unhindered, with the mines protected against Allied sabotage attempts.
It would be fair to say that each person sitting round the table was fearful of the Nazi menace. They had no reason to doubt that if they did not agree to these terms, Hitler’s troops would soon be marching down the streets of Stockholm. Indeed, only the sceptical Crown Prince-who had previously been married to Britain’s Princess Margaret of Connaught and was currently married to the British-raised Louise Mountbatten (who outspokenly compared Nazism to Barbarism) -spoke out against acceptance of these conditions. Eventually, it was agreed to accept the German’s demands with one exception: Sweden would not agree to being prohibited from mobilising its forces. On April 19, King Gustav V wrote a personal letter to Hitler assuring him of Sweden’s neutral intentions.
However, this decision did not mean that Gustav V was now able to sit back and let matters take their course. On the contrary, he would immediately be faced with numerous dilemmas. The first was when his niece, Crown Princess Märtha of Norway, seeking to avoid capture by German occupying forces, travelled from Elverum across the border into Sweden with her three children in the early hours of 10 April. None of the party had passports but eventually the border guards let them through. Unsure of the reception she would receive from her Swedish relations, the Crown Princess then proceeded to the Högfjällshotell in the ski resort of Sälen where she was joined by her mother, the Danish-born Princess Ingeborg, who was no fan of the Germans.
No sooner had Gustav received word of Märtha ’s arrival when another crisis crossed his desk. An exhausted King Haakon and Crown Prince Olav, who had remained in Norway but refused to cooperate with the Nazis, were currently being hounded by a crack group of 120 German commandos bent on their capture or death. They had reached the Swedish border post near Flötningen, on 12 April. The Norwegian Foreign Minister, Halvdan Koht, telephoned his Swedish counterpart, Christian Günther, seeking a guarantee that King Haakon might be allowed to cross over into Sweden and cross back safely after a night’s rest at a hostel. Günther discussed the matter with King Gustav. The reply was brisk and uncompromising: ‘The Swedish government does not want to provide guarantees regarding return travel in advance.’ It was also indicated that under international law, if the Norwegian King and his party crossed the border in military uniform, they would be interned. This response was to earn Gustav the lasting enmity of King Haakon.
Meanwhile, the situation with Crown Princess Märtha was also badly handled by King Gustav. Märtha was moved on from Sälen, as it was feared her presence so close to the Norwegian border might provoke the Germans, but as to doing exactly what remains unclear. Uncle Gustav eventually offered her accommodation at Ulriksdal Palace in Stockholm. However, during this period the Crown Princess (who received little news of King Haakon and her husband Olav) was subject to constant political pressure from the Administrative Council (among others) in Oslo, who indicated that they wished both her and Prince Harald to return to Norway and cooperate with the occupying power. The ‘bait’ was the possibility that Harald might be made King. King Gustav then chose to become involved and in a telegram to Hitler, on June 16, he openly encouraged the Germans to adopt the ‘Norwegian Regency’ model whereby Harald would be proclaimed king, with his Swedish mother acting as regent until the Prince reached his majority. Ironically, Hitler would interpret Gustav’s involvement as a Norwegian-inspired attempt to put pressure on Germany. Märtha was clearly aware of the growing danger and sent a telegram to London warning her husband and father-in-law ( who had fled there, in early June, to set up a government-in-exile) that her Swedish family (i.e. King Gustav) and Hitler were conspiring to remove King Haakon and set up a Regency. Crown Prince Olav had never felt his family were safe in Sweden and in a letter from Buckingham Palace dated 22 June, he appraised his old friend President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the situation. The President soon came to Märtha’s rescue and offered her and her children the chance to relocate to the United States as his ‘personal guests.’ They departed Ulriksdal on 12 August and sailed from the Finnish port of Petsamo (now Petsjenga, Russia) aboard the USS American Legion on 15 August. Olav’s intervention, of course, thwarted the regency option much to the annoyance of King Gustav who had telegraphed King Haakon, on 24 July, stating that he objected to the American trip as it might undermine the future of the Norwegian monarchy, a viewpoint Haakon quickly dismissed.
Not content with concerning himself with Norwegian matters, Gustav V turned his hand to acting as a peacemaker between Germany and the United Kingdom. He wrote personally to Britain’s King George VI, as well as to Hitler offering his services as an intermediary. What the Fuhrer replied is unclear but George VI handed a note to the Swedish Ambassador in London on 12 August which courteously but firmly rejected Gustav’s offer, pointing out that ‘the intention of My Peoples to prosecute the war until their purposes have been achieved has been strengthened’ as a result of the felonious behaviour of the Germans in the war so far.
Meanwhile, King Gustav was also faced with an even more pressing problem: A German request to transport food, medical staff and nursing supplies through Sweden by train to Narvik in northern Norway. This port was the primary outlet, particularly in winter, for transporting the Swedish ore by sea to Germany. The Swedish government agreed to this request on 17 April. It was a decision they would soon come to regret, as over time the Germans would push for further concessions. The most debated was during the so-called midsummer crisis (Midsommarkrisen) in 1941, when Germany-who had by now reached an accommodation with Finland and was planning an invasion of the Soviet Union-asked to transport a battle-equipped division of military personnel belonging to the Wehrmacht’s 163rd Infantry Division from Oslo to Haparanda, near the Finnish-Swedish border in Northern Sweden, for further transportation eastward. The Swedish cabinet was divided on the issue and the Prime Minister was initially against granting the request, on the basis that it was a violation of Sweden’s neutrality. However, the government executed a volte-face when King Gustav declared that he would abdicate unless Germany’s application was granted. Thus, on June 25, the Prince of Wied had a long conversation with King Gustav who was able to assure him that the transit of the Division would be permitted. It was emphasized, however, that this was to be a one-time concession. The same afternoon the train carrying the German troops left Oslo and on June 26, crossed the Swedish frontier. According to Sweden’s Expressen newspaper, over the ensuing wartime years 2,140,000 German soldiers and 100,000 tons of weapons and equipment were transported into Norway through ‘neutral’ Sweden.
This period sees Gustav and some of his family at their most fawning where Germany is concerned. In September 1941, Princess Sibylla, the German-born wife of Prince Gustaf Adolf, Duke of Västerbotten was spotted serving coffee and cake to a group of wounded German soldiers, travelling homeward from Norway, at the Krylbo railway station northwest of Stockholm. It is inconceivable that this was done without the King’s permission; while in February 1942, Gustav would also permit a visit to Stockholm by Sibylla’s father, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, an avowed Nazi and Obergruppenführer in the SA. In addition, in October 1941, Gustav attempted to send a personal letter to Hitler ‘about a matter that is close to my heart…’ i.e. Bolshevism and offering his ‘sincere thanks to you for deciding to strike at this plague..’ and congratulating the Fuhrer ‘on the results you have already achieved.’ However, the Prime Minister got wind of it and would not allow the letter to be sent. That the King was a devious operator is evidenced by what he did next: Gustav merely sent for the Prince of Wied and read the letter out aloud to him. The Prince took notes and that very evening, the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin received a copy of the text from the German Embassy in Stockholm. Of course, Wied was more than just a diplomat. As a second cousin of Gustav’s late wife, the King treated the Prince ‘like family’ and he was often invited on summer retreats. It is no wonder that Winston Churchill now viewed Gustav as being, ‘absolutely in the German grip.’
Gustav V and his government were also afraid of the Swedish press upsetting the Germans. Academics have reported that there was ‘very limited reporting’ on the Jewish question in 1940 and 1941 compared to the pre-war years. This self-censorship also extended to at least sixteen Swedish newspapers being prevented from reporting abuses in Norwegian prisons. Expressen cites a case which illustrates that the Swedish King took a personal interest in such matters. When the Gothenburg Trade and Shipping Magazine featured an article by Torgny Segerstedt (an avowed critic of Nazism and Sweden’s policy of appeasement to Hitler) which mentioned Nazi atrocities, Gustaf V summoned the magazine’s editor to the Royal Palace and urged him to stop writing negative articles about Hitler and his regime.
It is easy today to criticise the actions of King Gustav. However, he and his government were clearly under constant pressure for although Sweden remained unoccupied, it remained cut off from the West by German-held territory and was dependent on Germany for her necessary imports. Furthermore, the possibility of a German invasion of Sweden was ever-present. At times, the King’s intervention may even have prevented a German incursion, as when he wrote to assure Hitler that ‘Sweden will defend itself against all invaders, even against an English attack…’ This was in response to Hitler’s grumblings that Sweden would not protect itself against a British invasion thus threatening the supply of iron ore on which Germany so desperately relied. Certainly, in April 1942, Hitler decided to strengthen German forces in Norway by 70,000 men. The 25th Panzer Division was strategically stationed in Oslo and was Germany’s way of intimidating the Swedish government into continued cooperation. By contrast, with the weakening of the German military position in the latter part of 1943 onwards, Gustav’s fear of German reprisals seemed to have diminished and he appeared more accommodating, although cynics would say that was merely repositioning himself in preparation for an Allied victory. Nonetheless, during this period, the King has been credited with helping save Jews deported from Nazi-occupied countries such as Denmark by authorizing measures including the distribution of Swedish passports. Furthermore, in June 1944, at the urging of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and the Chief Rabbi in Sofia, Gustav sent a telegram to the Hungarian ‘Regent’, Miklós Horthy, protesting the deportation of Jews from Hungary.
The author of this blog takes a keen interest on the fate of royalty during World War II. He narrates the wartime adventures of the Greek-born Princess Olga (onetime Consort of Prince Regent Paul of Yugoslavia) in Africa (and much else besides) in a new biography Princess Olga of Yugoslavia: Her Life and Times published on 1 April 2021 by Grosvenor House Publishing. This is now available to purchase on Amazon, and other book outlets, in hardback or e-book.