We Ask If Anyone Was Really Neutral During WWII – The Story of Switzerland, Portugal and Sweden

The most destructive conflict in modern history certainly did not leave anyone unaffected. However, some countries – Switzerland, Portugal, Sweden, and Spain – were never invaded by Axis powers. Nor were they occupied by the Allies; a fate that rather peacefully struck Iceland.

When looking at a political map of Europe during WWII, a few countries attract attention, primarily because they preserved their sovereignty through neutrality.

Continental Europe was mainly under German and Italian control for most of the war. The neutral countries played their specific roles as buffer zones, managing to remain sovereign through use of cunning diplomacy, compromise and, well, luck.

Both Allied and Axis forces profited from the neutral countries, as they were often used as hideouts for spies and, while under the cloak of neutrality, foreign intelligence services roamed the streets of Zurich and Geneva, Lisbon, and Madrid.

Swiss Border Guards
Swiss Border Guards

Whether it was done on the right side of morality is an entirely different question during wartime. An article written by Roger Cohen for the NY Times in 1997, argues about the principles of both the Allies and the neutral countries as the post-war narrative tapped into the Cold War.

The article entitled The (Not So) Neutrals of World War II was written in the context of the end of the Cold War when much new information came to light concerning WWII. It opened the discussion on what the wartime diplomatic and political reality was actually like on a day-to-day basis.

Before the article was written, the world was an iron divide. The new threat was on the horizon, almost immediately after Germany capitulated – the Soviet Union. The change of discourse led to the simplification of the wartime period, in which the neutral countries were celebrated as the defiant small, but brave defenders of freedom and democracy.

Portugal entered NATO due to its strategic position in the Atlantic, despite the fact that it was still under the rule of authoritarian nationalist, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, whose views on politics and the economy were very close to fascism.

In 1945, the US attempted to press Portugal to surrender 40 tons of gold acquired through its Nazi channels. However, the attempt was dropped once the country agreed to join NATO in 1949. The US then built a military base in the Azores, an archipelago in the Atlantic, which remains to this day under Portuguese rule.

A closed border crossing at Moillesullaz in Geneva on the French-Swiss border in 1943
A closed border crossing at Moillesullaz in Geneva on the French-Swiss border in 1943

Switzerland’s neutrality during the war, as well as Sweden’s, were praised as acts of defiance afterward, as the two countries also held a strategically important position for the potential defense of western Europe from the Warsaw Pact.

The history turned to black and white, as the major world powers, like the USA and USSR, refused to admit their wartime mistakes, or worse ― war crimes.

In such a post-war environment, the complicated relationship between Nazi Germany and the neutral countries was pushed under the rug. But what was the nature of the relationship? According to Arne Ruth, a Swedish journalist who is an expert on wartime Sweden:

Sweden was not neutral, Sweden was weak. Its sales of iron ore made an important contribution to the German effort. It allowed German troops and weaponry through its territory to Norway. In 1943, its government told the central bank to ignore suspicions that German gold Sweden received was looted. What is interesting is that all these facts, more or less known for some time, are commanding such attention now.

The economic ties between the Scandinavian country and its southern neighbor during the war were indeed strong, and it would be wrong to say that Sweden did not profit from these ties well after the war was over.

Switzerland, on the other hand, was perceived by the fleeing masses of refugees as a sort of paradise, but its immigration laws became stricter, especially towards Jewish asylum seekers. The Alpine country did not recognize Germany’s racial laws and only accepted political refugees.

Nevertheless, due to political reasons closely tied to the Cold War, WWII was romanticized by the winning parties.

What the article emphasizes is not the relative nature of terms like good and evil, nor does it call for a revision of the ideological apparatus of Nazi Germany. It merely states that during a conflict of such scale, neutrality is not an option.

In the words of a French philosopher, Andre Glucksmann, also cited in Roger Cohen’s article:

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, we tended to imbue ourselves with a facile purity in the West. We blamed the other and did not look too closely at ourselves. We glossed over the corner of neutrality in most people, the neutrality that is also the instinct to save one’s skin.

Nikola Budanovic

Nikola Budanovic is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE