Sweden’s last war was tangentially a Napoleonic one, and a Swedish soldier was last killed in action in Afghanistan. And yet, Sweden has one of the most well-equipped militaries for a country of its size in the world. Neutrality has generally been Sweden’s position on the international stage; however, it now appears to be moving in another direction. The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine has pushed Sweden away from its non-aligned stance and into the arms of NATO. How has Sweden managed to stay neutral for so long?
Its last war was against Norway in 1814, when Norway entered into a union with Sweden. Since then, Sweden has been involved in peacekeeping operations but has had no involvement in the major wars that have plagued the European continent. Sweden’s role has usually been as an outlet of mediation between belligerents of conflict, a neutral haven that opposing sides can use to communicate with each other. World Wars One and Two demonstrated Sweden’s abilities to serve as a negotiator and to navigate a country through unsure waters.
With the breakout of hostilities on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, Sweden unsurprisingly declared neutrality. That is not to say Swedes were not up for the fight. The later Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland in 1939 had its share of Swedish volunteers.
Too Powerful to Fight?
The precarious situation Sweden found itself in during the Second World War should not be underestimated. Germany’s successful invasion of Norway sandwiched the country between that occupied country and a pro-German Finland. Historians continue to go back and forth regarding Swedish accountability in the war. Matters of debate include Sweden’s supply of much-needed iron ore to Germany, some pro-German politics, and some actions that were less than neutral. Many will agree, however, that Sweden’s stance shifted and changed as the war evolved.
Reportedly, Sweden had the ability at the time to muster up to 1 million soldiers, and by the end of the war had introduced domestic tank, artillery and fighter designs that could compete with contemporary models. Sweden, especially later in the war, would be a tough nut to crack. In the end, though, Sweden managed to stay neutral throughout the conflict and has remained non-aligned to this day.
The Past Meets the Present
Since the Second World War, Sweden has maintained its extraordinary ability to make weapons that make potential invaders think twice. The Viggen, the Gripen, the Carl-Gustaf rifle, the CV90, the Södermanland class submarine, and the Visby class corvette are just some of the domestically produced weapons employed by the Swedes – all this from a country with a population of that of North Carolina. But as impressive militarily as it may be, Sweden still maintains a militarily non-aligned stance, although change may be on the horizon.
The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine has driven both Finland and Sweden to consider NATO membership. Both have applied. Should they be approved, they will become the 31st and 32nd members of the Alliance. Sweden would bring a lot to the table for NATO such as new bases and a manpower boost. Surrendering neutrality might be tough for some Swedes to swallow, but it might be a necessary pill to take given the current geopolitical landscape.