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The Neutrals in World War II

World War II soldier
A Swedish soldier in training during World War II (Swedish Public Domain)

In the past, countries that decided to be officially neutral during war time did it at their own risk and hoped they were not attacked by the belligerent nations surrounding them. It was always a balancing act trying to keep both sides of warring countries happy. What I’ve learned through research is that being neutral didn’t really mean a hill of beans.

So…what did it mean?

During World War II several countries in Europe made their neutrality known but were attacked by Nazi Germany regardless. Hitler didn’t give 2 hoots about international law. Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands all fell on 9-10 May 1940. For various reasons, Sweden, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Turkey and Switzerland, and the tiny country of Lichtenstein all came out of the conflict unscathed. But were they really neutral?

Sweden began a massive military build-up as soon as Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson declared his country neutral 1 September 1939. At that time, his Army was 130,000 strong. And he doubled that number by 1943. The other branches of the forces either doubled or tripled in the same time-span, along with their machinery manufactured within the country, such as the 40mm anti-aircraft guns that the Americans and British eventually used. All this despite a German blockade on the Swedish southern seaports on 9 April 1940, in order to make the Swedes totally dependent on German trade. Hitler relented 6 months later to allow five non-Axis ships through each month. But it wasn’t enough for Sweden’s survival. So, this industrious people improvised. Dependent on coal (which they had received from Britain) for heating prior to the blockade, they converted to wood, thanks to an abundance of forests. They received meat and egg rations, but learned to survive on fish and milk as staples, 2 items that weren’t rationed. Any oil and gas that got through the blockade went to the vital areas such as their military, ambulances, and fire engines, while the masses took to bicycles as never before.

Too strong to be attacked, Sweden seemed to the Allies to be pro-German at first, openly selling 10 million tons of iron ore per year to Hitler. This was from their supply of 2 billion tons in an area north of the Arctic Circle, closely guarded by the Army against foreign attack. Sweden then turned around and bought gold bullion, food and what coal they could from Germany. Sweden also sold their ore to the British, but that had to be smuggled out by secret Stockholm-to-Scotland air routes.

Sweden allowed Germany use of their military training facilities for railway troop movements to and from occupied-Norway before and during the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union. Throughout the war, however, Swedish young men joined the Allied forces over the Axis forces at a ratio of 5-to-1. When the tide of the war was starting to turn in the Allied favor in 1943, Sweden let the Allies use their air bases during the 1944-45 liberation of Norway. Sweden was a haven for Jewish refugees. Over 8,000 fled neighboring occupied-Denmark with the help of the Danish underground who received from Sweden 5,000 pistols, 5,000 carbines, 10 million rounds of ammunition and 10,000 hand grenades in return for their troubles. Sweden took in anybody--no questions asked--who wished to leave the Nazi territories, including Danes, Norwegians and Finnish children, who were put into foster homes.

Although the Republic of Ireland was a member of the British Commonwealth, it considered itself a separate state that made its own decisions aside from the British Crown. Most Irish supported its official neutrality. The joke throughout the country was…”Who are we neutral against?” But when France fell and England stood alone against the Nazis, Prime Minister Eamon de Valero appealed to Britain for additional arms and equipment to supplement their meager military supplies. Still, a small minority favored fighting against Hitler. However, over 200,000 Irishman worked in Britain throughout the war and more than 50,000 served in the Allied forces.

Ireland was bombed 7 different times by the German Luftwaffe, supposedly by accident. On each occasion, the Germans claimed questionable reasons such as bad weather or navigation errors. Dublin, on the Irish Sea, was bombed 3 times, including 31 May 1941, when bombs fell on the northern suburbs killing 28 people. Those in-the-know believed it could have been Hitler sending a “message” to Ireland not to aid Britain with troops…and/or it could have been for them sending aid to Belfast, Northern Ireland after it had been severely bombed by the Luftwaffe in April 1941. Many years after the war, the Irish government was compensated financially by the German government for these “accidental” raids to the tune of $250,000.

At the commencement of World War II, Spain was still feeling the effects of a devastating civil war that lasted from 1936-39. Pro-Fascist General Francisco Franco’s Nationals won out over the Republicans (financed by the Soviet Union) but it proved costly to Spain. Franco’s country of 26 million was in no condition to throw its weight into another war. His people were hungry and homeless. Bridges, roads, and churches had been destroyed. Droughts had devastated farm land and had persisted into the middle 1940s. The civil war cost Spain $9 billion, plus half a million lives. It owed the Nazis $212 million for their involvement…troops, machinery, other military supplies from Berlin. Without Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini’s help, Franco’s rebels would have had their butts kicked. This was actually Hitler’s military testing ground, his chance to try his state-of-the-art machinery.

Although Franco aligned himself with the Nazis, Spanish volunteers fought on both sides during the war. Hitler tried on many occasions to bring Spain into the war, but Franco stood his ground. At one point, he finally said he’d enter the conflict providing Germany gave him fuel, military aircraft, vehicles, armaments, grain and fuel, plus heavily-fortify the Canary Islands in defense against the Allies. Hitler said nuts to that. Some historians believed Franco had deliberately set the price too high in order to stay out of the war. It was a good thing because his country would have been overrun too in 1945. Cash-strapped Franco did manage to cut a deal with Germany by shipping them tungsten, used in the production of armor-piercing shells, and in return received much-needed food.

There were 45,000 Spanish who served alongside the Germans on the Eastern Front, a group called the Blue Division. Responding to this, Stalin at the Potsdam Conference of July 1945 demanded an Allied invasion of Spain to get even. I guess, Stalin forgot about the 1,000 Spanish Nationalists who fought on the Russian side. But he eventually settled for a trade embargo on Spain once British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Harry Truman cooled him down.

Portugal was quite the oddity. At Sintra Field, 18 miles out of the nearby capital of Lisbon, the ticket offices and hangars of Lufthansa and BOAC were right beside each other. Fancy that. Germans and Brits side by side. The mechanics could probably wave to each other every morning. They could’ve shared a tea…or better yet, a schnapps together on the tarmac. Although pro-Fascist, Portugal’s government under Antonio de Oliveira Salazar refused to sign the Anti-Comintern Pact that would align him with the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Instead, Salazar chose to honor the 1386 Treaty of Windsor between England and Portugal, the oldest alliance in the world and is still active today. A treaty of mutual support. But this didn’t stop his country from exporting tobacco, sugar and tungsten to both the Allies and the Axis. In June 1941 Germany initiated Operation Isabella, a plan to go into effect that would secure bases in Spain and Portugal in order to put the squeeze on England should the Soviet Union fall into Hitler’s hands. But it was plain to see by mid-war that wasn’t going to happen. Throughout most of the war, Salazar feared that Spain would join the Axis and his country would be attacked. To appease Franco, he sent 10,000 tons of wheat and 6,000 tons of corn as a gift to Spain.

By 1943, British and American air forces were allowed at Lajes Field, Azores to use the facility to protect Allied shipping in the mid-Atlantic. The next year saw Portugal sign an agreement with the US to allow the construction of an air base on Santa Maria Island in the Azores. In all, 30,000 Jews fled to Spain from continental Europe, then got out through Portugal and beyond to the US or Great Britain, either by ship or plane. But it wasn’t easy getting out. A person had to obtain get a visa, which could take months, then purchase a ticket. More weeks or months. Lots of bribes along the way, money under the table. A popular way out was the 3-a-week Pan American flights to New York City aboard Sutherland flying boats.

The national flag of Switzerland
The national flag of Switzerland, a neutral country for 200 years

The most publicized World War II neutral had to be Switzerland, a nation of 3 major languages that had been a professional neutral since 1815. We’ve all heard of Swiss bank accounts. As the story goes, the nation’s international businessmen supposedly had a saying that went something like…“Six days of the week we bank for the Nazis. On the 7th day, we rest and pray for the Allies.” Bordered by occupied France, and 2 Axis powers in Italy and Germany, they were the Nazi bankers, all right, taking in currencies, gold, and what-have-you plundered from the occupied countries. But the Swiss also considered a German invasion as a reality. At the outbreak of war in 1939, the entire land-locked country of 4 million people was mobilized within 72 hours. Once mobilized, mountain passes were patrolled by elite ski troops and fortified with gun turrets, operated by young men who knew how to handle such heavy weaponry. Every village became a stronghold, complete with machine-gun posts and bunkers. This was a nation containing a superbly-trained militia, where every male between the ages of 20 to 60 years old had a uniform, a working weapon and ammo at home. By law, every grade school boy had to learn how to handle a gun.

The Swiss press were anti-German, which infuriated Adolf Hitler’s butt to no end, calling his neighbors “Renegade Germans.” He also referred to them as, “A haven for Jews and Marxists.” But money talks. He and his henchmen still banked with their half-brothers. Switzerland was also a base for espionage and spying by both sides. Over 300,000 refugee-seeking people (29,000 Jews) of all nationalities escaped to Switzerland during the war, while thousands of others were turned away because the country could only take in so many due to their dwindling wartime supplies. “Our lifeboat is full,” declared one Swiss official after a time.

On many occasions, Swiss air space was violated by the German Luftwaffe. For example, during the first few weeks of Germany’s 1940 invasion of France, Swiss pilots flying German-made Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighters shot down 3 Heinkel-111 bombers, much to Luftwaffe Chief Hermann Goring’s disgust. So, on one of the next German intrusions over Swiss airspace, he sent several Luftwaffe 109s to escort the Heinkels. A large air battle commenced…38 German 109s against 14 Swiss 109s. Same fighters…different markings. How ironic. The fearless Swiss shot down 4 German fighters, while losing only one of their own. The Swiss may have been neutral, but they didn’t take any guff from anybody, even when they were outnumbered. Allied aircraft intruded on Swiss airspace too. Damaged B-17 and B-24 bombers returning from raids over Italy and Germany would land on Swiss air bases, where the crews and bombers were interned. After some time, the crews were usually diplomatted (if there is such a word) out of the country, while the bombers stayed behind until war’s end. After the war, a total of 150 bombers were returned to the US Army Air Force. During the six years of war, over 1,700 Allied airmen were interned.

Turkey was the largest European neutral and the least talked about of the group. Almost forgotten. It had an army of 800,000 peasants with light arms and equipment, but were well organized. Hitler did everything he could to bring the country into the war as an Axis brother, which may have been easy for his foreign diplomats to do--negotiating, that is--because in the Turkish capital of Istanbul, the German and Italian embassies were on the same street, side by side. The British embassy was right there to, I might add. An ally to Germany in World War I, Turkey, early in the war, wasn’t quite convinced enough to side this time around with the Fascist regimes of Hitler and Mussolini. Once the German Army was defeated at Stalingrad, Turkey was glad for its decision. If it did side with the Axis, Hitler would have easy access to Turkey’s copper and chromium ore deposits, the latter used in the production of weapons-grade steel. As a result, the Germans had to pay big bucks for the precious metals.

On more than one occasion, Britain’s Winston Churchill tried to swing the Turks over to the Allied side, but Turkish leadership under President Ismet Inonu wanted to stay right in the so-called middle. At least their neutrality prevented the Nazis from using Turkey as a launch pad to the Middle East oil reserves. That was only one of their contributions to the Allied cause. Their second was taking in thousands of fleeing Jews without passports or visas. They even made arrangements for their own Turkish diplomats to head to Europe for the purpose of saving Jews from the concentration camps and the gas chambers, in some cases claiming the Jews were Turkish citizens. All told, Turkey was responsible for saving the lives of 100,000 Jews.

Lastly, there’s little Liechtenstein. Ever hear of it? A lot of people haven’t. It’s a German-speaking country of 35,000 people today, only 62 square miles in land mass completely surrounded by the Alps. Established in 1806, it borders Austria (occupied by Hitler during the war) to the east and north, and Switzerland to the west and south. The capital is Vaduz and the largest town is Schaan. As of 2013, Liechtenstein has the highest gross domestic product per person in the world, the lowest external debt, and also has very low unemployment at 1.5%. During World War II, it looked to Switzerland for support and advice, and used the Swiss Franc (still does) as its currency. According to declassified 2005 records, it admitted 240 wealthy Jews into the country before the start of the war, people who could pay their own way and provide jobs. Of these, 144 eventually became citizens. Even a tiny country like Liechtenstein did what they could for humanity by taking in Jewish refugees during those scary years when Adolf Hitler and his Nazis ran their reign of terror on Europe.

To sum it up, there were no true neutrals in Europe during World War II. Only in name.


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