Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Scandinavia in the First World War
Reviewed by Jane Mattisson Ekstam

Scandinavia in the First World War: Studies in the War Experience of the Northern Neutrals
Claes Ahlund (ed.)
Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2012

Scandinavia in the First World War discusses two neglected areas of the Great War: its military and economic consequences for the Scandinavian countries and what the war meant to specific groups in Scandinavia, including soldiers, seamen, journalists, and volunteer nurses.

Scandinavia faced many challenges in 1914 due to its substantial economic resources and open economies that were reliant on foreign trade. At the time, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark were dependent on trade with both Britain and Germany. As the author demonstrates in his excellent introductory chapter, an important Scandinavian resource was its merchant navy, which served the trade regime that encompassed the British Empire. Germany was an important exporter to Sweden; Britain, on the other hand, was the dominant importer of Swedish products; and France provided investment capital. Norway and Denmark depended on trade with both Britain and Germany and were thus under pressure from both.

1918 Danish Cartoon Showing the Strain on Communications Due to the War

Scandinavia's geographical position, with Denmark and Sweden controlling the Baltic approaches and Norway flanking the debouches to the North Atlantic, made it necessary, according to international law on neutrality, to muster naval and military forces to survey and intercept in case of infringement. As the contributors to Scandinavia in the First World War demonstrate, the Scandinavian countries escaped war by a much narrower margin than was generally understood immediately after the war.

Scandinavia in the First World War treats subjects as diverse as the visual mediation of the war in Danish magazines, the portrayal of the war in a Scandinavian spy novel, the women's antiwar movement, the Danish minority in the German Army, Scandinavian Diggers in the Australian Imperial Force, the horse field ambulance in Tampere in 1918, and the experiences of Scandinavian seamen during the war. Despite extensive losses of both sailors and tonnage, the contributors conclude that "the Scandinavian countries emerged from the war with exceedingly small human and material costs compared to the belligerents...the war had a profound impact on Scandinavian societies and their post-war development - more or less along the lines of other European countries." (p. 42)

At the same time, however, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark failed to capitalize on their gains, at least in terms of influence on international policy, because they were unable to cooperate on foreign policy and defense and because they did not recognize that neutrality had effectively collapsed during the war. In his introduction, Ahlund also argues that the Scandinavian countries had failed to understand that the League of Nations, which they embraced as a pious and altruistic institution unconstrained by national interests, had become somewhat politically obsolete by the latter part of the 1920s. Norway was the first to recognize the fallacy of this belief, declaring in 1938 that they intended to return to a policy of neutrality.

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A particularly fascinating chapter is Lina Sturfelt's "The Call of the Blood. Scandinavia and the First World War as a Clash of Races." Sturfelt states that neutrality was an extremely complicated issue in Scandinavia, particularly in relation to race and racial fitness, the key foci of her chapter. Sweden's decision to stay neutral, she argues, was a sign of "national degeneration and decay." (p. 212) There was a concern that the Swedish race was becoming emasculated on both the national and individual level due to lack of war experience. In Denmark, she demonstrates, the neutral stand taken by the well-known writer Georg Brandes "was feminized and ridiculed in cartoons picturing him as a terrified woman." (p. 213) As the war progressed, however, the racial benefits of peace were increasingly emphasized and a discourse developed that presented Scandinavians as a chosen and spared people, "superior, civilized, peaceful, and forward-looking, in stark contrast to the barbaric belligerents." (p. 214) Sturfelt concludes that the idea of a Nordic master race was established — an idea that was more or less unquestioned in Scandinavia.

Scandinavia in the First World War is a valuable reference book for all interested in the much neglected history of Scandinavia during and immediately after the war. Beautifully written, rich in detailed case studies and with an excellent introduction to the history of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland before and during the war, Scandinavia in the First World War is highly readable and meticulously annotated. The black-and-white illustrations and photographs provide important supplementary material.

Jane Mattisson Ekstam

1 comment:

  1. This sounds fascinating and useful. Thank you for the review.