In journalism, it is often the case that the most interesting or even important stories are relegated to the back pages in favor of some undeserving sensationalist event that will attract readers.
There are, however, once-in-a-lifetime occasions when even the most celebrated journalists happily give up their prominent slot in favor of a front page that will become a collector’s item.
That happened during four days in June this year, when Queen Elizabeth II celebrated 70 years on the throne of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of her other realms and territories as head of the British Commonwealth.
It was an event that attracted the attention of the world’s media. The large TV Cable News stations abandoned their political bias and broadcast wall-to-wall reportage by their star presenters from their pitch at Buckingham Palace.
The famous balcony of this royal residence in central London was once again the focus of attention when the Queen appeared, surrounded by her family. The cheers reverberated all the way to Trafalgar Square. The Royal Air Force provided a memorable low-level flyby in their inimitable style.
Those four days in June will forever remain in the memory of the multitude who traveled from far and wide to be a part of the celebration, but also those like me, who saw it in full color on the small screen.
The flyby included a group of five planes that brought back vivid memories to those of us who experienced World War II, and I am sure also to the queen, who did war service as a driver in the ATS, the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s section of the British Army. Those World War II planes consisted of a Lancaster bomber, I believe the only one flying, two Hurricane and two Spitfire fighters.
And that brings me to a fifth day in June, the sixth of that month in 1944, which this year was almost forgotten, or should I say overshadowed by the Platinum Jubilee. It was the day that signaled the end of Hitler’s “1,000 year Reich,” when approximately 156,000 troops of the American, British and Canadian armies landed on the beaches of Normandy in northern France. It was the largest amphibious invasion in the history of warfare.
The accepted estimate is that the Allies suffered 10,000 total casualties on D-Day itself, including 4,414 killed. Many books were written about these battles, and many heroic stories of the ensuing fighting were published. I had the privilege to take part and to land on those beaches; it was a privilege, because I became a small cog in the vast undertaking to destroy the Nazi rule in Europe.
Also during that week, I saw the opening of an exhibition at the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram Campus in Jerusalem that deserved more publicity. The exhibition, “Sweden in Israel,” celebrates 70 years of diplomatic relations.
After all, in these days of the Abraham Accords, when Israel is making great efforts to establish diplomatic relations with ever more nations, our long connections with Sweden should rightly be stressed.
Staged in conjunction with the University’s European Forum, the exhibition was opened by Sweden’s Ambassador to Israel Eric Ullenhag. It deals with the economic, political and cultural aspects, and shows both the upside and the downside of relations, such as the killing of Folke Bernadotte by the Lehi in 1948 on the one hand, and the very good relations that were visible through the 1960s and ’70s, when thousands of volunteers came from Sweden to work on kibbutzim, as well as visits by many high-profile Swedish dignitaries. The photographs show how Raul Wallenberg is commemorated in Israel since 1963 as a Righteous Among the Nations.
Because Sweden plays an important part in my life, as you will learn later, I want to tell you about their Flag Day, which is also celebrated on June 6, and in 1983 was renamed Swedish National Day.
It is the date on which Gustav Vasa was elected King in 1523. This laid the foundation of Sweden as an independent state, and on the same date in 1809, a new important constitution was adopted.
Since that date, Sweden’s politics are conducted in a framework of a parliamentary representative constitutional monarchy with executive power vested in a democratically elected government, led by the prime minister. Today’s Swedish monarch, King Carl XVI Gustaf, holds symbolic power.
Since a short conflict with Norway in 1814, Sweden has not been involved in any war. During World Wars I and II, Sweden pursued a policy of neutrality, and in peacetime of non-alignment, basing its security on a strong national defense. It is still today a neutral and non-aligned country in its foreign and security policy.
Sweden does, however, maintain strong links with NATO, a national security alliance that was formed in the wake of World War II to keep the peace, and encourage political and economic cooperation on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
It is an alliance of 30 countries, most of which border the North Atlantic Ocean. The Alliance includes the US, Canada, most European Union members, the UK, Poland and Turkey.
More broadly, NATO has been a stabilizing influence in Europe and North America, allowing the economies of its members to develop and flourish unhindered.
The foundations of NATO were laid on April 4, 1949, by the signing of the Washington Treaty of collective defense. It’s main principle is enshrined in Article 5 of the treaty, which states that an attack on one ally is an attack on all allies.
As Russia shares access to Sweden via the Baltic Sea, and in light of Russia’s recent display of expansionism and the attack on Ukraine, the Swedish Parliament under Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson decided to re-assess whether the country’s security can rely on the current military defense structure.
She said that Sweden will be in a vulnerable position; and in an overwhelming vote, Parliament decided to renounce the country’s neutrality and apply for full membership in NATO.
Another consideration for this decision is Sweden’s 614-km. border with neighboring Finland, which was under the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union and is again in the crosshairs of President Putin. Finland has also dropped its current neutrality in favor of joining NATO.
To get a clearer picture of Sweden’s decision to abandon her 200-year-old neutrality, I met with the Swedish Ambassador to Israel Eric Ullenhag, and asked him first what were Sweden’s reasons for taking this historic step?
“After Russia’s attack on Ukraine, many people in both Sweden and Finland felt insecure about its neutrality,” he said. “This attack was a wake-up call, and when Finland decided to apply for membership of NATO, our parliament resolved to do it at the same time.
"After Russia’s attack on Ukraine, many people in both Sweden and Finland felt insecure about its neutrality. This attack was a wake-up call, and when Finland decided to apply for membership of NATO, our parliament resolved to do it at the same time."Eric Ullenhag
What indications are there that Russia would act militarily against Sweden?
We don’t see a military threat in the short term, but in the long term, the security of Sweden is probably better within NATO than outside. We are also close to the Baltic states that also feel threatened. For many Swedes, the war in Ukraine seems like a fight between freedom and oppression, dictatorship and democracy. The support for Ukraine in Sweden and around Europe is massive, and the feeling of being part of the democratic world is also one of the arguments that has been stressed quite a lot in the Swedish debate.
Dmitry Medvedev, a close supporter of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin who was himself president of Russia between 2008 and 2012 and then prime minister until 2020, and is today deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, said that should Sweden and Finland join NATO, Russia would have to strengthen its land, naval and air forces in the Baltic Sea, and that there can be no more talk of any nuclear-free status for the Baltic, balance must be restored. How do you respond to that?
It is important to underline that as part of the European security order, we own our own decisions when it comes to security. We were troubled when last year President Putin started to question Sweden and Finland’s intention of joining NATO. Secondly, the reason why we now want to join is Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. That changed the opinion in Sweden, and after a deep debate with all the political parties involved, a vast majority of our Parliament concluded that it is better to be in NATO than outside.”
Medvedev’s threat is quite serious. The Russian enclave of Kalingrad on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania is for all intents and purposes a Russian military base which could become nuclear and constitutes a threat to the east coast of Sweden and more so to the Island of Gotland. It is throught that Putin is unpredictable. Is it therefore worth upsetting the status quo with the Russians?
Yes, we have drawn the conclusion that it is necessary. We realize that at this time security is better together with other democratic countries in Europe and with the transatlantic bridge to the United States. We hoped to live in a safer world, but the majority in Sweden believe, and I agree, that we are better off inside NATO. Many Swedes are also affected by the war in Ukraine and the feeling that they were on their own. That’s one of the reasons why public opinion changed.
How do you see the future for Europe and particularly for Scandinavia?
I am a strong pro-European, and I think one could never overestimate the value of the European Union. I see a Europe that has come closer together, not least because of the crisis in Ukraine, and I see more and more European countries as part of NATO having a transatlantic link. But the most important is the cooperation between other European Union countries, as well as strong ties with European countries that are outside the EU, like the UK. It shows how different the situation is today. The map is changing because of this war, and I hope that we shall see more cooperation between democratic and free states.
Now on another subject, is it not a fact that Sweden’s declared neutrality during World War II was not really true, because the Swedish government made several concessions and thereby breached its neutrality in favor of both Germany and later the Western Allies?
Yes, and I think it’s extremely important for every country to try and learn from their own history. If I should have felt critical of Sweden, then it’s because for a long time we described neutrality as the higher moral standpoint. It cannot be the higher moral standpoint to be neutral when you have Nazi Germany in view. It might have been smart to keep Sweden out of the war, but you should be careful in judging the generations that went before us. It was not the higher moral ground, and there are a lot of things that we need to ask ourselves, like: was it right to let German soldiers pass through Sweden? Morally it was totally wrong, but neutrality for Sweden was a way to stay out of the war. Good, but it was not the higher moral ground, and we should not sit on too high a horse when discussing other countries’ actions.
As you pointed out, during June and July 1941, Sweden allowed the German Army to use Swedish Railways to transport troops from Norway to Finland. There were regular similar breaches of Sweden’s neutrality. On July 8, 1940, the Swedish agreement with Nazi Germany was formalized: one daily train with 500 men was allowed back and forth between Trelleborg and Konjo, and one weekly train with 500 men back and forth between Trelleborg in Sweden and Narvik in Norway. The agreement was later expanded.
Yes, that’s not a position by the then-government we can be proud of. They were probably convinced that if they didn’t accept this agreement, they would be drawn into the war. It’s not the moral high ground. That is a part of the decision that we need to question ourselves about. All European countries including the neutral ones have a duty to try and learn from what they did during World War II. Some things were good and others give reason to question.
There’s more. It’s no secret that Sweden supplied iron ore to Nazi Germany via its northern ports and also via Norway, reaching ten million tons per year. Equally, driven by business, SKF, the Swedish ball-bearing industry, supplied more than 50% of Nazi ball-bearing requirements during WW II, but also a smaller percentage to the UK. So today wouldn’t be the first time that Sweden is not neutral, except that it is not covert.
It all depends on how you define neutrality. We were neutral in the way that we did not fight with either side, but we all have reason to think about that part of history, and it is extremely important not to hide anything of it.
It is not the moral high ground to act as Sweden did, it was a way to keep Sweden out of the war.
I wonder if all Swedes think the way that you do?
If it was right or wrong is still a great debate in Sweden. For a long time we described ourselves as sitting on a higher moral ground. During my school days in the ’70s and ’80s, the perspective in Sweden was that we were morally better than others because we were neutral.
That position does not have any support today. It might have been necessary for different reasons, but it was not morally right to be neutral when you had Nazi Germany and Nazis in Europe.
I WOULD be remiss if I would not mention that shortly before the end of the war, Sweden made a great humanitarian effort by obtaining Nazi permission to rescue Jews and others from Nazi concentration camps in the now-famous white buses with red cross markings, one of which is displayed on the grounds of Yad Vashem.
The Swedish government at the time was headed by its longest-serving prime minister, Torge Erlander (23 years), followed by the equally humanitarian Olof Palme.
I want to end with the message that I am forever grateful to the government of Sweden, which in this way rescued my mother from the clutches of the Nazis, and to the people of Sweden for having accepted her as one of her citizens.
Today Sweden stands at the crossroads of her future, not only in foreign policy, but also to combat the notorious rise of antisemitism that is plaguing its Jewish population. It is good to hear that the Swedish government is about to appoint a special investigator to make proposals for a strategy to strengthen Jewish life. ■
The writer, at 98, is the oldest working journalist and radio talk-show host with both Guinness World Records. He broadcasts weekly ‘Walters World’ on Israel National Radio, and ‘The Walter Bingham File’ on Israel Newstalk Radio, both in English.