08 December 2016

The Second World War: The Neutrals

I did plan to do this last year, but a whole batch of other things got in the way; I still think that this is still relevant.

Last year, 2015, marked the 70th anniversary of the end of the biggest and most destructive conflict humanity has ever known. There were of many articles looking into this, but I wanted to look at something a bit different - those who did not take an active part in the conflict on either side.

In this article, I will looking at the major (and some more minor) nations that stayed neutral in this conflict, looking at why they did so, what they did that wasn't fighting and whether it benefited them.

An initial glance actually determines that there wasn't actually that many who stayed out. Remember there were a lot fewer world nations at the time as the colonial empires were still very much in existence. After the war, the UN was formed with only 49 members.

(I'm not counting the nations now called Belarus and Ukraine, which while signing the original charter and being given seats on the General Assembly - were in fact very much part of the USSR. However, I am counting Poland who while not present at the original conference, signed up later in 1945 and is considered a founder member.)

Also, there were a lot of states that tried to stay neutral and failed, basically because someone invaded them or attacked them.

A number of nations that were far away from the conflict did side with the Allies once victory was pretty much a certainty - I will cover some of them in this article.

The ones who failed to stay neutral

In short, much of Europe, mainly because they in Hitler's way or useful to him.
  • Norway got invaded on 9 April 1940 because of its strategic location, including ice-free harbours going onto the North Atlantic (to avoid a dangerous trip through the Channel or the North Sea for German submarines) and to secure a route for iron ore from Sweden. The British and French were planning to occupy the place as well and the Germans beat them to it.
  • Denmark was in the path of the Germans on their way to Norway: in addition it allowed the Luftwaffe to cover a vulnerable northern flank against British bombers. The Danes surrendered in six hours (also on 9 April 1940), although they would later become home to an important resistance movement.
  • Luxembourg: Located at the northern end of the Maginot Line, it held a small strategic position. With no real army, it was just a case of going through the barricades - the country was invaded on 10 May 1940 and fell the same day.
  • Belgium: Invaded on the same day; the French hadn't extended the Maginot Line to cover their frontier with due to a lack of political will and so the Germans used the country's territory to go round it.
  • Netherlands: On a direct route from the UK to northern Germany by air, Hitler wanted to stop the Allies from using air strips there to attack the Ruhr area as well. Also invaded on 10 May 1940.
  • Yugoslavia: Hitler needed to head for Greece to get Mussolini out of difficulties there. As well as being in the way, land route speaking, Yugoslavia would have been able to assist Greece and refused to align itself with the Axis, with the signing of the Tripartite Pact leading to a coup two days later, which the German leader took as a personal insult.
  • Greece: Invaded by Mussolini solely for imperialistic reasons, although he ran into difficulties there, especially when the British provided air support. The Wehrmacht were needed to recover lost prestige and pull Mussolini's chestnuts out of the proverbial fire.
  • Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania: All allocated to the USSR in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, invaded by them in 1940, occupied by the Nazis (who were initially welcomed) in 1941, then re-taken by the Soviet Union in 1944 and forcibly absorbed into that country until regaining their independence in 1991. 
  • Monaco: Occupied by Italy in 1942, then by the Germans after the overthrow of Mussolini. 
  • United States of America: For obvious reasons; this is being posted one day after the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.
There were also some cases on the Allied side:
  • Iceland: Its strategic position giving coverage for aircraft and ships over much of the North Atlantic meant it was too dangerous for the British to allow it to fall into German hands; they took it over in a bloodless invasion on 10 May 1940, meeting no resistance bar some annoyance and a year later handed it over to the (still neutral at the time) USA.
  • Iran: Invaded by British and Soviet forces (mostly the latter) in a surprise attack in 1941 to remove a pro-German monarch and secure a supply corridor from the Gulf to the USSR, as well as British forces in the Middle East. The corridor proved very effective - with about 8 million tonnes of supplies passing through - but it didn't exactly improve the Western image in that part of the world.
10 May 1940 as you can see was one really busy day in fact - Churchill became PM on the same day of course.

Accidental bombing and torpedoing

It has to be remembered that accuracy of aerial attacks in the Second World War was very much variable. While dive-bombing could be very accurate indeed, the aircraft capable of that lacked the range of action needed to conduct operations against Germany from the UK or the USSR, or against those two from Germany. As a result, lay-down bombing from bombers trying to fly as high as possible was par for the course.

At any event, in a world before satellite navigation, getting to the the target relied on maps (which might be out of date), radio signals (which could be distorted) and to a very large extent the Mark 1 Eyeball. A small bearing error can add up to a considerable distance one over several hundred miles of flying and early in the war, being more than 5 miles off was pretty common.

In addition, for night flying, one city looked very much like another, especially when you really want to get rid of your bomb load to aid your escape and/or you're being shot at. The RAF would later develop an airborne ground search radar that could give you the topography below, but that was only really good for cities with large water features like Hamburg.

As a result, it was not uncommon for bombers to target the wrong country entirely.

In addition, similar considerations apply to submarine warfare - it was easy to hit a neutral ship in the dark.


Why they stayed neutral

It's fair to say that relations between Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom that it had seceded from earlier in the 20th century were not exactly the strongest. The deal to get independence had been that six of the nine counties of Ulster would remain under UK control (as well as three deep water ports intended for Royal Navy use in another war) as these were those with a Protestant majority... however, that treaty promptly provoked an Irish civil war between supporters and opponents of it.

Once that had finished, the anti-treaty forces continued to be active both politically and military.

In 1932, Éamon de Valera came to power... who had been a commander in the Easter Rising, imprisoned by the British and the only one not to be executed. So, he wasn't exactly London's biggest fan. Following his election, a row over money Irish tenant farmers owed on loans given by the British so they could buy their land turned into a six year long trade war with salvoes of protectionist tariffs that ultimately helped neither economy.

In 1938, de Valera reached a deal with Neville Chamberlain that saw the tariffs lifted in return for the Irish paying the money owed in one go and the return of the three 'Treaty Ports' to the UK. However, continued issues remained over Northern Ireland.

With likely hostility among much of his population to fighting a war alongside the British, not to mention Ireland's fairly weak domestic armed forces, the Taoiseach told the Dail (the lower house of Ireland's legislature) that the country would remain neutral.

Later, Churchill offered Irish reunification to Valera as an incentive to enter the war but Valera did not believe the offer was credible and declined it.

What they did instead

The constitution was changed to allow the government to take on emergency powers; censorship was also introduced to prevent the country becoming a source of intelligence for both sides.

Ireland publicly proclaimed an official policy of neutrality, but it was a sort of neutrality on the Allied side due to the way that it was applied. Britain was allowed to retrieve crashed aircraft from the Republic's soil; the Germans were not. British aircrew were usually not interned, being allowed to remain free on licence; many promptly fled to Northern Ireland... but the Germans always were.

The Irish continued to provide some important information to the British, notably weather reports; the decision to go for D-Day on 6 June 1944 was based on a report from County Mayo that the weather would clear up a bit. The British were notified of U-Boat sightings as well.

Irish vessels engaged in trade on the high seas were indicated with bright lights and EIRE being painted on their sides.

There has been a long history of Irish men going to fight in foreign armies; indeed, there is still a Royal Irish Regiment in the British Army and Ireland allows its citizens to join other armies, although the British Army is not allowed to actively recruit in the country. Therefore it is no surprise that many Irishmen went to fight on the Allied side - indeed they won 10 Victoria Crosses. A very small number of Irish POWs did switch sides to fight for the Axis - under 100, it seems.

4,983 of those however were already in an army; the Defence Forces of Ireland, deserting to go fight with the British.

In addition, more legally, up to 200,000 Irish people emigrated to the UK to go and work in war industries.

The IRA did try to engage in collaborative activity with German intelligence, most notably the Christmas 1939 raid on the Phoenix Park Magazine Fort, the Irish main munitions stores, where they stole over a million rounds of ammo. However, the activity was generally unsuccessful (the Irish got most of the ammo back) and the Dublin government with British assistance cracked down hard on the IRA, including executing some of its members.

When Hitler killed himself as the war concluded (it was not announced as a suicide by German radio for obvious reasons) de Valera and Irish diplomats signed books of condolence, to a storm of criticism from the US.

Did it benefit them 

In summary, probably not.

Neutrality did not stop Ireland from being bombed by the Luftwaffe, in what appears to be an accident (Churchill thought that the British distortion of the radio beams used for navigation may have caused it - at any rate, Dublin was not under a blackout) - the Irish government initially declined to confirm it was the Germans, which fuelled speculation it had in fact been the British. On 30/31 May 1941, Dublin's Northside was hit by an air raid that killed 38 and destroyed 70 houses. No-one thought this was anyone but the Germans this time and Berlin announced it would pay compensation, but this didn't get paid until after the war.

The neutrality policy didn't benefit those who deserted either; after the war, deserters lost any pay for the period of their absence, unemployment benefits and pension rights associated with being former army members and were barred from public employment for seven years. Controversial at the time, this was deemed easier than going through a load of courts-martial. It took until 2013 for this policy to be fully reversed with an amnesty for the survivors.

The Irish economy also particularly suffered; it was reliant on trade with the UK for many goods and the UK was having to focus on its domestic needs. Prices rose and a black market developed; rationing had to be introduced. Typhus reappeared and the government had to plan for famine relief.

A major issue arose with a possible beer shortage; Irish farmers were ordered to grow more wheat instead of barley. In the end, the British, who also like a drink agreed to swap wheat flour for beer.

The Irish Mercantile Marine suffered greatly; their ships were frequently targeted by both sides - although more often the Axis it seems. At any rate, Allied convoys could not stop to pick up survivors (the U-boats might still be there), although Irish ships always answered SOS calls themselves. 20% of Irish sailors in the war (never more than 800 at any one time) would perish on the seas - in the 1970s, a number of streets would be named after ships lost.

As a final point, the State of Emergency was not formally ended until 1976 - the government kind of forgot about it after the war, with all the relevant legislation lapsing in 1946.


Why they stayed neutral

While Portugal was ruled by the authoritarian and often considered fascist Estado Novo, led by António de Oliveira Salazar, it in fact had a long standing treaty of alliance with the UK. In fact, going back to the days of it just being England, that is 1373; signed between the two nations when Edward III was on our throne. It still remains active.

Portugal chose not to break this treaty. In addition, it had an active non-aggression and mutual support treaty with Franco's Spain - as discussed below, neither really wanted more war on the Iberian peninsula. In addition, from the British perspective, if Portugal entered the war on their side, the Spanish could enter the war on Hitler's side and seize the key strategic location of Gibraltar.

What they did instead

While the Portuguese did not actively send troops to fight in the war and continued trading with both sides, their neutrality was inclined very much towards the British.

2,000 residents of Gibraltar were evacuated to Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean; this made things easier for the British as there were fewer mouths to feed. They were warmly welcomed; some choosing to stay and marry locals.

The Portuguese armed forces were modernised, both administratively and later with equipment provided from the British, such as Gloster Gladiator fighters.

Portugal became a key stomping ground for spies of both sides; Ian Fleming being one of them during his Naval Intelligence work, where he decided to see if he could get some money off the Abwehr in a game of baccarat and was promptly cleared out after three bancos. The incident formed the inspiration for the main plot of his first novel, Casino Royale. On the British side, Joan Pujol Garcia aka GARBO spent much of the war operating out of Lisbon providing false information to the Germans, while an American sailor by the name of William Colepaugh defected to the Axis while in Lisbon. He was trained in the Hague and then smuggled back into the US to engage in espionage... before promptly turning himself into the FBI.

Provided there was no interference in domestic matters, the authorities left the two sides to get on with it.

In 1943, Churchill chose to activate the alliance and while the Portuguese didn't provide troops, they did allow the Allies to use bases in the Azores (midway between North America and Europe), most notably Lajes Field. The runway at the Lajes Field airbase was expanded and aircraft there would fly cover for convoys, reconnaissance missions and meteorological flights. It also allowed the Allies to use it as a stopover on transatlantic flights, cutting the journey time down from 70 to 40 hours. The base remains a key military facility for NATO.

Portugal also became an escape route for refugees, especially Jewish ones, fleeing from Nazi-occupied Europe (indeed it even gets mentioned in Casablanca); their diplomats defied official instructions not to issue visas to stateless people, expelled Jews and those without visas for their main destinations. These instructions from the Salazar regime were seemingly for economic reasons - the country had limited resources as it was - rather than any racism, but many saw the instructions as inhumane. Most notably, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the consul in Paris, issued visas estimated in the tens of thousands before being suspended by his superiors for doing so - but as mentioned, he was by no means the only consulate worker to do that.

Did it benefit them

While the Germans did draw up plans to seize bases in Portugal if the British gained a foothold there, these were of course never implemented.

Mainland Portugal was not attacked by anyone and the vast majority of Portugal's colonies were far away from any fighting (those in West or South Africa, such as what is now Mozambique), but those in eastern Asia did get caught up in the fighting there. What is now East Timor was occupied by Australian and Dutch forces in 1941 to prevent the Japanese from taking control... which didn't quite work as they promptly invaded in February 1942. The bulk of Allied forces surrendered within three days, but raids and resistance, including by locals both native and Portuguese continued, even after the last Australians left a year later. This tied up an entire Japanese division that could have been used elsewhere, although the response by them was of course brutal - tens of thousands died before the end of the occupation in September 1945.

Macau was not occupied but did end up having Japanese military advisers, becoming an effective protectorate and also enjoying some prosperity as the only still neutral point in the region. However, when the US discovered that they were planning to sell aviation fuel to Japan, they bombed the facilities in 1945 to destroy it. After protest, the US paid over $20m in compensation in 1950 to Lisbon.

One notable incident that didn't really benefit anyone was the shooting down of KLM/BOAC Flight 777 over the Bay of Biscay on 1 June 1943 by a German maritime fighter. All 17 people on board died, including actor Leslie Howard. The general theory for many years is that they thought Churchill was on board, but the weight of evidence is that this doesn't appear to be the case - Howard was a major figure in British propaganda at any rate, so killing him may have been intended to damage morale.

Salazar remained in power until 1968, when ill health led to his departure from the scene - he died two years later. The Estado Novo lasted only four more years; it was overthrown in the Carnation Revolution by a left-wing group of military officers, who paved the way to Portugal becoming a democracy and the independence of its overseas colonies, although East Timor found itself annexed by Indonesia. It would eventually gain its freedom in 1999 after a brutal 24 year occupation with major UN involvement in brokering the deal and enforcing it.

As for Sousa Mendes, he would not be formally rehabilitated until long after his death in 1954 - he suffered social banishment and remained in disgrace. However, in 1963, he became the first diplomat recognised by Israel as "Righteous Among the Nations".

The process of restoring his reputation in Portugal took a while - indeed the Salazar government denied the orders he defied even existed - but in 1988, the democratic legislature dismissed all the charges and promoted him posthumously. In 2007, he came third in a TV poll of greatest Portugese people, behind communist leader Álvaro Cunhal in second and the winner, Salazar himself.

Today, a number of streets and even two planes are named after him - his house is currently being restored.

William Colepaugh and his German fellow agent Erich Gimpel were found guilty in a military court, but their death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment - they served 15 and 10 years respectively before making parole, living long lives after that.


Why they stayed neutral

In short, they'd just spent three years fighting a very bloody internal war and were in no fit state to fit another one. Also, the government was split between supporters of both sides.

Francisco Franco had gained full country of Spain after the Spanish Civil War concluded in April 1939 and was using this period to consolidate his hold on power by the way any successful dictator consolidates power i.e. kill a lot of people who were on the losing side; something that carried on both during the war and afterwards. In addition, large numbers of Republican supporters who were in France when it was taken over by the Axis ended up in the concentration camps, most notably Mauthausen-Gusen, which was cruel even by the standards of those.

However, before this point, half a million people had been killed in what was very much a warm-up for the global conflict to follow. The Germans infamously used places like Madrid and Guernica for bombing practice, while the Soviet Union provided support to the Republicans when they murdered Roman Catholic clergy. It was an unpleasant affair all round - I'd highly recommend reading George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia (he participated on the Republican side and was shot in the throat, an injury he never fully recovered from) for an idea of what it was like.

Franco did discuss entering the war on the Axis side with Hitler in October 1940, but his demands (Spanish control of Gibraltar and French North Africa among others) proved too high and nothing was agreed. Hitler told Mussolini that he would "prefer to have three or four of my own teeth pulled out than to speak to that man again". In December, Hitler asked for safe passage through Spain to take Gibraltar - this was refused and active negotiations ended after that.

It's not clear whether Franco, who of course died of old age rather than suicide or being shot like his contemporary, was overplaying his hand or deliberately setting unacceptable terms with assistance from Abwehr head Wilhelm Canaris. Canaris would play a major role in resistance to Hitler, paying the ultimate price for it - he was hanged naked at Flossenburg concentration camp in April 1945.

What they did instead

This is not say that Spanish troops stayed out of the war - on either side.

On the Axis side, Spain agreed to allow volunteers to go and fight... on the condition that they were only used against Communists i.e. the Red Army. After Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of the USSR), Hitler allowed this and a total of 45,892 soldiers would go to fight as part of the 'Blue Division', wearing a distinctive uniform, including blue shirts, when on leave and a slight variant of the regular German Army in the field.

However, after some rather 'distinguished' fighting on the German side - Hitler praised them for their courage, but not for their discipline - domestic and international pressure led to Franco ordering them to withdraw in late 1943. In the event, the Nazis saw this coming and recruited a large batch of them to fight under German command, in the regular army and the SS, mostly in anti-partisan forces away from the front lines in places like Slovenia. Not all of course returned home - around 4,500 died.

Many Republican refugees had ended up in neighbouring France after the Civil War; being mostly interned in refugee camps. At the start of the World War, many joined the French Foreign Legion for improved conditions and Spaniards made up a large percentage of it. Several thousand also ended up fighting for the Maquis (i.e. the French Resistance) or the Free French forces. Notably, one of the first Allied units into Paris, the 9th Company of the Regiment of March of Chad (part of the French 2nd Armoured Division), was nearly all of Spanish origin, something which slightly surprised the Parisians. They told the resistance that the Allies were on the way and captured some key locations before accepting the surrender of the German garrison. This would not be the last distinguished action of the unit; it would liberate Strasbourg and be among the first to reach the Eagle's Nest in the concluding days of the war; soldiers there took several photos before being told to leave by the Americans.

About 700 Spaniards are believed to have fought in the Red Army, with another 700 as partisans on that front.

People fleeing the Nazis had a surprisingly easy time, especially Jewish refugees. Some 25,000 passed through the country on their way out of Europe and a few thousand stayed under Spanish protection; while Spain had just as bad a history of anti-Semitism as other European nations (in fact, Jews had not been able to live openly in Spain for 400 years!), the country helped more Jews than any other neutral nation. While a list of 6,000 Jews living in Spain had been produced by the government in 1941 and given to Himmler, there is no evidence that any were indeed sent to Germany.

Spain allowed the Abwehr (i.e. German military intelligence) to operate in Spain and Spanish Morocco until 1944 when they forced Germany closed the operation down after a British protest; the British had gained information on this from. In addition. the Abwehr had maintained observation posts on both sides of the Straits of Gibraltar, allowing for the Germans to track shipping movements through the key choke point. How they would have loved to be able to close it.

Spain become a useful source of and conduit for raw materials to Germany; primary shipping wolfram (tungsten ore) from German-owned mines in the country to the Reich; tungsten was and still is a key strategic material, particularly in armour-penetrating munitions where depleted uranium, of course not available at this time, is not suitable or needed. The trade continued, despite Allied attempts to buy up supplies, until August 1944 - the payment was set against Spanish debt to Germany.

Spain moved with the flow of the war; after the fall of France in 1940 they favoured the Axis side, but moved back towards neutrality in 1943 when it was clear the tide of the war was going against Hitler and Mussolini, closing down the Abwehr operation as previously mentioned.

Finally, Spanish troops did occupy Tangier in Morocco, which was in fact under control of the League of Nations, on 14 June 1940 - the same day that the Germans took Paris - it would remain occupied until November 1945, when they left after an international agreement. Tangier would also be a major hotbed of espionage activity during the war.

Did it benefit them

Definitely not. In the aftermath of the war in Europe, Stalin actually argued at the Potsdam Conference for an invasion of the country, but was rebuffed by both Truman and Churchill. In the end, they settled for economic and diplomatic isolation. In 1946, Spain was barred from joining the United Nations or its associated agencies as long as Franco remained in power, faced trade embargoes and had a number of nations withdraw their ambassadors.

This didn't last - it was clear that this isolation was in fact strengthening the regime. The ban was lifted in 1951 and full diplomatic relations were restored; Spain joined the UN in 1955. However, attempts to join NATO and the then EEC were blocked by other Western European nations until after the death of Franco in 1975, which of course led to the restoration of democracy.

That said, Spain avoided being dragged into another bloody war, so it wasn't all bad.


The only Nordic country to successfully remain neutral.

Why they stayed neutral

Sweden has long had a policy of non-alignment; indeed it still does today, remaining outside of NATO. It also has the geography to make such a declaration stick; the long border area with Norway is largely forested and not very easy for an army to cross. That with Finland is pretty close to the Arctic Circle, something that also applies to the Norwegian border in its north aspect; so again not exactly easy for an army to cross. The Baltic and its entrances separate it from everything else - no Øresund Bridge back then of course - and German amphibious capability was pretty poor (one reason they never attempted Operation Sealion). 

Sweden's army was not up to much; for a time it had only ten tanks (based on a First World War German design) and under 70 at the outbreak of the war.

King Gustaf V, who reigned from 1907 to 1950, was a bit of Nazi sympathiser, which is a bit odd considering that he is generally believed to have been a closeted gay man as well... but perhaps not that odd considering the presence of one Ernst Röhm.

What they did instead

Once the war broke out, Sweden declared strict neutrality, its Social Democrat Prime Minister, Per Albin Hansson, formed a coalition of all major parties (well, that took until December)... then engaged in some actions that seriously stretched the meaning of the term "neutrality".

The Winter War of November 1939-March 1940 saw the Soviet Union invade neighbouring Finland, which of course borders Sweden. While Sweden did not send troops directly, it did send a large number of volunteers (at least 15,000) and a good deal of military aid, including 50 million rounds of ammunition and 26 military aircraft to Finland, the latter being a third of the Swedish Air Force. This had little real effect and eventually, despite public support for full intervention, Sweden declared it would not do so publicly on 19 February 1940, forcing the Finns to the negotiating table where they would have to make substantial territorial concessions to maintain their independence. After this, an attempt at a Swedish/Finnish alliance was stopped after both Germany and the USSR made clear their opposition to it.

The Allies also considered invading northern Sweden and Norway to gain control of the iron ore deposits in northern Sweden (iron ore being something the Germans heavily relied upon) and the harbours that would ship them out in Norway. The 'cunning' plan was to get the two countries to allow an expeditionary force to cross their territories to assist Finland then seize the facilities, presenting the Nordic nations with a fait accompli. This failed to get off the ground as Oslo and Stockholm figured this might happen, so refused the force permission to transit. The Germans also realised this and combined with the Altmark incident (the Royal Navy's last boarding action to date, seizing German ships and rescuing POWs while said ships were in neutral Norwegian waters) this led to Hitler ordering his own plans to invade Norway speeded up.

On 12 March 1940, the Allies decided to do the invasion anyway and not press the issue if it encountered serious resistance, but the following day Finland sued for peace with the USSR, so that version of the plan had to be abandoned as well. Further operations in Norway will not be covered here.

In the same year, Sweden created a Home Guard (Hemvärnet), with small units of 8-15 former soldiers formed to defend towns and factories. These soldiers got their weapons, ammo and uniforms issued to them, but had to pay for their own skis, marching boots and sweaters. This was backed up by the Swedish Women's Voluntary Defence Service (Riksförbundet Sveriges lottakårer), known as the Lottorna after a fictional character from a poem about the 1818 Finish War who ran a field kitchen, who provided administrative assistance and socks. Seriously, the amount of times soldiers have had to buy their own kit in history is staggering.

Sweden also provided a refuge for those fleeing Nazi persecution, especially Jews from Norway and Denmark. The closeness of it to the latter allowed for one of the best actions of rescue in the war - when Sweden publicly declared it was willing to take them, the Danish resistance managed, at great personal risk, to get 7,220 of the 7,800 Jews living in Denmark (as well as 686 non-Jewish spouses) across the water before the Nazis could deport them to Germany. At the close of the war, the Swedish Red Cross rescued around 15,000 prisoners, including the surviving Danish Jews in those camps in the 'White Buses' operation.

Before that, however, they arguably somewhat assisted in that persecution. With the Germans on their western border, they decided to allow unarmed troop transports to go through the country on their railways carrying Wehrmacht troops between Germany and Norway i.e. to and from leave, then much more controversially allowed an entire armed division (the 163rd Infantry Division) to go from Norway to Finland during the invasion of the Soviet Union in June-July 1941. Stockholm did this after an ultimatum from Germany that caused a political crisis in which King Gustav allegedly threatened to abdicate if they didn't agree; Gustav and Prince Gustav Adolf apparently tried to extend a similar agreement to the Allies, but this was rejected due to fears of German retribution.

The Swedish government tried to keep these movements secret but were eventually forced to admit them after rumours spread. These transits came to an end in summer 1943 after it became clear that the war was going against Germany and public opinion, along with pressure from the Allies, forced Sweden to bar the Germans from doing this.

With the Skagerrak (the strait running from the south eastern coast of Norway to the Jutland peninsula i.e. the 'main' bit of Denmark) blockaded, Sweden's merchant navy was split into two; those in the Baltic traded with Germany, those outside were leased to the Allies for their own convoys. In addition, four destroyers being delivered (only with transport crews on board) from Italy to Sweden in June 1940 were seized by the British when they'd anchored off the Faroe Islands - occupied by them after the fall of Denmark - to take on oil and water; the British after searching the vessels, let them leave after ten days and later paid damages, although the Swedish Navy was still annoyed of course.

The Swedes had ordered 300 combat aircraft from the US before the war began (mostly P-35s and P-66s) but only 60 were delivered before the Americans halted deliveries, resulting in them instead procuring 200 aircraft from Italy instead. Later in the war, they would receive Spitfires from Britain in exchange for parts of a V-2 that had exploded over Sweden during a test flight; it had gone the wrong direction reportedly due to the operator getting distracted by the spectacle of the launch. Sweden would in fact heavily build up its air force during the war, paving the way for a large high technology force that would operate during the Cold War.

As the war turned against Germany from 1943 onwards (Stalingrad, their ejection from Africa), Sweden was able to reduce the concessions it had made to Germany; while curtailing open trade with them (again under Allied pressure). In this case, they managed to have their cake, eat it and order another one; the Allies gave them money to compensate for the loss of trade... but continued to sell steel and machine parts to Germany at inflated rates.

As the war moved towards the Allies, Sweden offered another significant concession to the Allies - the use of airbases. Sweden's geographical position made it very useful for air strikes against the eastern part of Germany. In addition, it was a lot easier for any aircraft conducting air strikes against Norway to land in Sweden if badly damaged rather than risk the long flight back across the North Sea or land in German controlled Denmark. US aircraft were permitted to land at (initially) five airfields in Sweden, something not mentioned in a formal agreement or put on USAAF maps. While they and their planes would be interned on landing until the end of the war, the internment was pretty comfortable; the crews could visit the local area, the Swedes liked them (indeed some of them had relatives in the US, particularly in Minnesota) and in particular, the money, chocolate etc. they had with them made them very popular with young women - a rather common experience for American soldiers in Europe in fact.

From 1943, Sweden also started secretly training Norwegian and Danish police troops; these were trained in infantry and later with artillery. The use of the Norwegian troops was after liberation to maintain order and use their legal training to arrest suspected collaborators as part of a round-up; this controversial episode in Norway's history (as it wasn't done entirely fairly or evenly) ultimately led to 37 executions, most notably of Vidkun Quisling, who led the fascist government under the Nazi occupation and whose name has become a term for 'traitor' in its own right. Norwegian troops would also assist in the liberation of Finnmark (the far north-east part of Norway) in winter 1945, in what is one of the least well-known parts of the European theatre conflict.

Later equipment was transferred to both countries via Sweden and the US was allowed to use a listening post on the island of Öland to pick up German transmissions.

As the war came to its conclusion, Heinrich Himmler, acting completely against the instructions of his leader (who had totally lost the plot by this point, but that's something off topic) contacted the head of the Swedish Red Cross via his former masseur, Felix Kersten, who had moved to the country, to try to reach an independent peace deal. This did not achieve anything more on that front than seriously annoy Hitler but Felix Kersten (who used his access to the SS leader to save a large number of people from the Nazis) was able to arrange the above mentioned 'White Buses' operation.

After the war, the USSR demanded the return of all those Axis soldiers interned in Sweden, which Sweden agreed to in secret in June 1945 - it became public. Enjoying strong support at the time, while 3,000 Germans going back was not that controversial (although there was no legal requirement requirement to do it), sending back 146 Balts, whose nations had been annexed into the USSR would be. They feared execution as traitors despite not being Soviet citizens at the time; two killed themselves (and several more attempted to) rather than go back - while only three were executed on their return, others ended up in labour camps.

In 1968, a book was released about this, with a film based on it called A Baltic Tragedy released
two years later, which would win the Certificate of Merit at the Chicago Film Festival and was nominated for the Gold Berlin Bear at the festival in that city, which ultimately did not award a prize for that as the festival was ended early after a major controversy over the anti-war film o.k. caused the jury to resign. In 1994, the Swedish government apologised for the action to the survivors.

Did it benefit them
Well, they didn't get invaded, so that's one thing. That's not to say there weren't problems.

Sweden's geography also acted against it for terms of trade. The Germans had a blockade in the North Sea and once they'd invaded Norway and Denmark, control of the sea approaches to Sweden. With British blockades as well, getting goods in and out required negotiations with both sides for pretty much every shipment - even then some of these were attacked by someone who hadn't gotten the memo. The British used high speed 'blockade runners', including the memorably named HMS Gay Viking (of course 'gay' meant something different then), to import ball bearings and other equipment from Sweden. All of these difficulties meant extensive rationing and development of substitutes, such as wood gas (i.e. biomass or other carbon sources converted in a special generator) for vehicles - Sweden being one of the biggest users of this outside Germany, with 73,000 vehicles in 1942, not even the peak of popularity for that.

1,500 Swedish sailors died during the war, mostly at the hands of U-boats and mines; in addition, German merchant raiders both attacked Swedish shipping and posed as it as part of their operations.

In addition, there was also some accidental bombing of the country; such as a raid on Strängnäs, a small city not too far from Stockholm.

Per Albin Hansson died a year after the war following a heart attack on the way home from work - his total of 14 years as Swedish PM are often considered the most successful in Sweden's history due to the large number of reforms implemented; the Social Democrats would remain in uninterrupted power until 1976.

The Home Guard still survives today as a reserve force, comprising about half the Swedish Army since the end of conscription there. - it is mostly rapid response forces and in peacetime typically deals with search and rescue or severe emergencies like natural disasters. The Lottorna still exists as well.


It should be remembered that Switzerland is a confederation of individual cantons; all with considerable autonomy from the central government.

Why they stayed neutral

A long standing history of neutrality, going back to the 19th century.  In addition, they had the territorial geography to allow them to do it; Switzerland is only really easily accessible for a large army via mountain passes and tunnels, easily closed in a war or some cases because of winter.

In any event, Switzerland was surrounded by hostile powers for most of the war; the German Reich itself (which had of course annexed Austria in 1938), Vichy France or Italy, so provoking them was not really a good idea.

Despite declarations that they would respect Swiss neutrality, Hitler did want to incorporate the German parts of the country into a Greater German Reich, with a planned operation codenamed Operation Tannenbaum planned and discussions over who might run the area - however, this never went ahead and was dropped after the D-Day landings as there were more important things to deal with.

While the population tended to be against Berlin (and the Swiss press vocally criticised the Third Reich, many influential people in Swiss politics, especially in the military, were members of the Swiss Patriotic Federation (SVV in German), a body that had sympathies with Nazi Germany and was also anti-immigration; which in practice meant being anti-Semitics - they took the very notorious forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion as fact.

What they did instead

Served as a protecting power and intermediary between the two sides. Switzerland's geographical location meant it was within easy geographical reach of a number of Axis states and while the mountainous nature of much of the border meant that you couldn't exactly get tanks through it, it was not as hard for a few reasonably fit people to make their way through smaller passes and woods - indeed it still is.

However, this geographical position also had advantages; the railway lines from Germany to Italy got through Germany

In addition, the Swiss had taken early action, especially once Hitler had renounced the Treaty of Versailles, to improve their military with an increase in defence spending, including a new infantry rifle (the K31, a high quality bolt-action design still in civilian use today). Two days before the war started, the Swiss appointed a General.

This needs explaining; normally the highest rank in the Swiss Army is a Korpskommandant, equivalent to a Lieutenant General i.e. a three star rank. In the event of a war or an event of activity threatening the Swiss nation, the United Federal Assembly, which is a joint session of the National Council and the Council of States can appoint a four-star officer, a General, to command the armed forces, as well as allowing for mobilisation. This has happened on six different occasions, the last being in 1939.

They appointed Henri Guisan, an artillery officer who got the job despite his membership in the above mentioned SVV. At any rate, Guisan wasn't going to let the Germans just walk in.

Guisan changed the nation strategy to one of static defence at the borders to an attrition-based plan, in which the Swiss military would retreat deep into a well-stockpiled 'National Redoubt' high in the Alps. The major urban centres (especially Geneva, which is next to the French border) would be abandoned, but the aim was to inflict enough casualties on the Germans over time to make any occupation not worth the cost, especially as key passes and rail links would remain under Swiss control.

Switzerland played a vital role as a 'protecting power' under the Geneva Conventions, providing a formal channel through which warring states could communicate with each other; they provided 219 links for 35 states, well above the second choice of Sweden - the former popular choice of the United States was not seen as a disinterested party by the Axis during the time before it formally entered the war in 1941. Indeed, the surrender of Axis forces in Italy at the end of war was arranged in Switzerland.

While Switzerland did not actually grant that many people 'asylum' (a figure in the hundreds), the individual cantons did allow in a large number of refugees; about 300,000 in all, of which 104,000 were foreign soldiers or aviators interned under the Hague Convention. Others were either interned or allowed to live in the local community, although not given the right to work. This was not ideal, but considerably better than falling into the hands of the Nazis.

Linked to the flight of people was the flight of assets. Switzerland is famous for its tradition of banking secrecy i.e. the famous 'Swiss bank account', a numbered account that is accessible with a code word and does not have the owner's real name on the statements. Over the years, criminals, dictators and businessmen have used this to hide their assets from people they'd rather not declare them too, based on the neutrality of the country.

These numbered accounts were first created in 1934 under a law codifying the then practices of the industry. While not explicitly intended to help Jews fleeing the Nazis protect their assets, it had that effect. It also had the opposite effect of course.

Financially, Switzerland ended up doing business with both sides; for one reason in particular, the Swiss franc. This remained on the gold standard when everyone else had pulled out of it; gold could be freely converted to this major currency at a guaranteed rate. In addition, in a pre-electronic age, you physically needed the actual money in the local currency to buy the goods in question (the need for 'hard currency' explains the later East German official exchange rate of 1:1 against the West German mark when the 'real' rate wasn't anything like that). Currency dealers in neutral countries weren't exactly keen on taking Reichsmarks or Pound Sterling when there was a decent chance that they might end up with a lot of paper (banknotes, bond certificates etc.) only good for lighting fires. So you needed something like the Swiss franc.

Further to this, Switzerland relied on imports for half its food and all of its fuel, especially coal from Germany. While it did control the rail links inside the country, it did not control those outside. The only rail link not through directly Axis controlled territory was through the nominally independent Vichy France. Once Hitler seized that territory in November 1942 (following the Allied landings in North Africa), that link was severed and so more concessions had to be made to the Axis.

During the war, Switzerland sold a number of things to the Axis that it locally produced, such as precision tool equipment, watches (which are vital basic equipment for any military), dairy products and electricity; the last generated using coal bought from Germany. It also purchased 1.3 billion Swiss francs worth of gold from Germany, providing the Germans the hard currency needed to buy oil, tungsten and other strategic goods from neutral parties.

The Germans however had acquired this gold from the central banks of occupied countries... and also from Holocaust victims. Indeed, literally from their mouths in some cases as gold fillings were removed from the corpses before their cremation.

Furthermore, many of those targeted by the Nazis were made to transfer their assets in Swiss banks to German banks where they could be looted - and later the Nazis hid their ill-gotten gains in Swiss accounts.

As the war turned against the Axis, the Swiss came under exceeding pressure to cut off trade with the Germans. It took actions, setting quotas and halting the sales of munitions in October 1944, but continued to allow goods to go through the country, which was not supposed to include 'war goods' or troops. The country was concerned that blocking coal exports to Italy would cause them to lose their own supplies as well; the Allies thought about taking action themselves but decided against to protect their own relations with Bern.

As well as going business with both sides and serving as a communications conduit, the country - being of course right next to Germany - played host to a host of spies, most notably the Office of Strategic Services, the US clandestine agency that was the direct ancestor of the CIA. Allen Dulles was based in Bern; one of his agents in Germany, the diplomat Fritz Kolbe (considered the most important US agent in Germany of the war) would frequently bring out documents to him there. When it became necessary to smuggle information out on microfilm, this was sent from Bern via a chain of couriers to Algiers (Vichy territory and with whom the US still had diplomatic relations). Dulles later become the fifth Director of Central Intelligence and the first civilian to hold that role.

Did it benefit them

The country was of course not invaded, but there were some border skirmishes between Swiss and German troops.

Switzerland was also subjected to repeated airspace violations by both sides, especially damaged Allied bombers returning from Italy. The crews that ended up in Switzerland were interned (frequently in ski resorts that were empty of tourists), but it was a sight better than a German POW camp. Allied POWs fleeing often made for Switzerland, including some Colditz escapes, although none of them ever tried to jump the Swiss border fence on a motorcycle, contrary to The Great Escape.

There were also a number of incidents of accidental bombings after some spectacularly bad navigation errors, this time by Allied pilots led to them dropping bombs on Switzerland intended for Germany. As a result, the policy was that single aircraft were forced to land, but formations were fired upon. While the Americans generally tried to minimise the damage from this (knowing the reputation damage this was causing), some of their commanders were far more hostile in attitude; some argued that the country was full of Nazi sympathisers and deserved to be bombed! In the end $4m dollars was paid in compensation during the war for a 1944 bombing of the town of Schaffhausen that killed about a hundred people; a further $18m was paid in 1949.

The Swiss did open fire on German planes during the invasion of France, resulting in 11 aircraft being downed. This resulted in Hitler and Goering ordering German saboteurs to cross the frontier and attack the airfields; the team were captured before they could do any damage.

The trading restrictions and difficulty importing many types of food (Switzerland's alpine landscape is good for livestock and associated products i.e. milk, but not for growing wheat) led to an extensive, albeit not entirely consistent rationing scheme.

It is estimated that Swiss-German trade only contributed 0.5% to the war effort and was not enough to significantly lengthen the war. However, the whole economic relationship did cause a major taint over the country afterwards.

After the war, relatives of those killed faced major problems in retrieving their assets from Swiss banks; getting into the dormant accounts required death certificates... which weren't exactly the sort of thing the Nazis issued for the victims of the Holocaust. In 1995, the World Jewish Congress began a class-action lawsuit in the US against Swiss banks like UBS, expanding this from assets in dormant accounts to compensation for looted artworks and damages as a result of being refused asylum in Switzerland. Investigations in the US Senate and separately by the Clinton administration followed, placing pressure on the Swiss banks (the US refused to allow a merger between two of them there) and government. A settlement was reached in 1998, in which the banks would pay out $1.25bn; $379.4m to account holders or their heirs (the precise amount to each holder was determined by taking the 1945 value of the account and multiplying by ten to account for average long-term investment performance), the rest going to other victims of the Nazis.

While the Swiss government refused to take part in this settlement, they did take their own action, establishing a separate compensation fund and their own investigation.

In 1996, an Independent Commission of Experts (also known as the Bergier Commission) was established by the Swiss legislature to investigate the country's relationship with Nazi Germany. Made up of Swiss and foreign historians, it was allowed access to government and corporate archives. It issued its final report in 2002 and concluded that the country failed in its international responsibilities both before, during and after the war; in particular, financial assistance with pre-1933 covert rearmament made it easier for Hitler to start the war.

Surprisingly, the SVV was not closed down in 1945 - it lasted until 1948 when a bribery scandal apparently finished it off. 

Vatican City 

Why they stayed neutral

The Holy See had only regained its independence in 1929 with the Lateran Treaty, that mandated its neutrality in international affairs - it couldn't even get involved in mediation unless all parties agreed. In any event, it is the world's smallest country, has a population of just over 1,000 and is entirely surrounded by Italy, which was of course governed by Benito Mussolini. The Pope was prohibited from getting involved in Italian politics as well - so he was unable to condemn the Italian invasion of Albania in April 1939.

In addition, Adolf Hitler was hostile to Catholicism and Christianity in general; while brought up a Catholic, he never attended Mass after leaving home and reportedly planned after the war to eliminate Christianity entirely.

It was therefore important to not overly antagonise someone who controlled a country with a lot of Christians living there and who would end up in control (direct or otherwise) of most of Europe.

What they did instead

Pius XII, who had previously reached a controversial agreement with Berlin as Cardinal Secretary of State, had been elected to the Papacy in March 1939, on the third ballot. He knew what war was likely and tried to organise a meeting between the major European powers to prevent this. It failed to materialise - for one thing, the Pope's proposals (including that Poland should cede the Free City of Danzig to Germany) were seen as pro-German by the British and Poles.

After the (relatively) rapid fall of Poland, Pius thought the war would end quickly and hoped for a negotiated settlement; Hitler had not attacked the Low Countries at this point in time. In October 1939, he issued the encyclical Summi Pontifcatus, which while naming few names, attacked totalitarianism and specifically called for Poland to get its freedom back. The Germans did not like this statement and stopped the letter from being printed there, so the French dropped copies by air instead. Certainly the Allies welcomed the move.

Indeed the Nazis didn't think that the Vatican was neutral; in 1940 von Ribbentrop led the only German delegation allowed an audience with the Pope and asked him why he had sided with the Allies. Pius listed the atrocities that had been carried out by the Nazis.

Concern about the Nazis or other fascists invading the Vatican led to the Swiss Guard obtaining more weaponry and gas masks to defend against an attack; this did not come to pass.

Pius was frequently asked by Axis leaders to reorganise dioceses and appoint new bishops to them, frequently because the leaders didn't like the current ones and also to reflect their announced changes to the borders of countries i.e. annexation into Nazi Germany as happened with large parts of Poland and the Alsace-Lorraine areas of eastern France. He generally refused this... with the exception of Poland.

While Pius generally did not see fascist leaders, he did get a private audience to Ante Pavelić, the Croatian dictator installed by the Germans in April 1941. Pavelić's regime (whose followers were known as the Ustaše) engaged in a level of slaughter and mass murder only exceeded by the Nazis themselves. This controversial action led to an unnamed British Foreign Office official dubbing Pius "the greatest moral coward of his age". There was no public condemnation of forced conversion of Serbs to Catholicism, although a private memorandum was sent - Pius did not want to cause a schism.

Shortly after this, the German armed forces invaded the Soviet Union. Pius issued an exemption to a letter condemning communism issued by his predecessor in 1937 and barring Catholics from helping it to allow for military assistance to the USSR. This resolved any issues American Catholics had over Lend-Lease.

At any rate, the US entered the war at the end of 1941 following the attack on Pearl Harbor... however, the Vatican opened diplomatic relations with the Japanese Empire the following year.

In December 1942, with most of Europe under Nazi control, the Pope issued a Christmas address over Vatican Radio attacking the extermination of people on the basis of their race, but again not naming particular cases. The Gestapo interpreted it as an attack on the recently started 'Final Solution', but Polish Catholics thought it was referring to attacks against them, the Polish government in exile wished he had been more specific in denouncing the Germans. At any rate, Pius didn't really raise the matter in a public address again.

It is not that Pius was unaware of what was going on; he was getting lots of reports from people about the extent of the Holocaust, including by Montini who commented in a September 1942 letter that "the massacres of the Jews reach frightening proportions and forms". However, he appears to have come to the conclusion after much prayer that a specific denunciation or for that matter excommunication would have not stop the mass murder and could well make things worse, by causing the Germans to go after Catholics as well.

One criticism of Pius is that he left Cesare Orsenigo, a sympathiser with Italian fascism, in place as Apostlic Nuncio to Germany i.e. the Vatican's ambassador. Orsenigo did raise the matter of Nazi persecution with Hitler in November 1943; Hitler literally ignored him, standing by the window and looking out during large parts of the conversation.

Before that, however, Mussolini had been ousted by his own inner circle after the Allied invasion of Sicily and placed under arrest. When the new government negotiated an armistice with the Allies, the Germans occupied the rest of the country.

As a result of the Italians changing sides, a large number of Allied prisoners were released by their Italian guards, many heading for Vatican City. To stop them from getting in, fearing a compromise to its neutrality as a result, the Vatican implemented an identity card scheme. Well, a lot of people did during the war, including the United Kingdom.

The Vatican had contacts with elements in the Wehrmacht opposed to Hitler and passed on some information to the British; however, the British refused to have contacts with these groups after the invasion of Denmark and Norway in May 1940, fearing they were actually plants working for the Nazis after a previous incident in late 1939.

As well as diplomatic actions, Pius organised humanitarian aid through the Vatican and also set up an information office to assist those looking for POWs and refugees, which was run by one Giovanni Montini. It would respond to 11 million requests for information until its work concluded in 1947.

Individual Catholics (as well as of course other denominations of the Church) were themselves very active in fighting against the Nazis in a variety of ways; including sheltering Jews and escaped POWs. One notable example was Hugh O'Flaherty, an Irish priest working in the Vatican, who would later get a CBE from the British government among other awards and got a film made about him. However, this was in fact supported by the Vatican directly behind the scenes, including hiding 3,000 Jews in the Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo, the Pope's summer house outside Rome (which was not under Italian jurisidiction). People also sheltered there from air raids. Pius would later order prelates in Hungary to shelter Jews being deported from there to the camps.

This was of course just in the Vatican itself, others in Europe would pay the ultimate price for trying to slow down Hitler's campaign of mass murder. There are those alive today who owe their lives to actions taken by the Catholic church.

The Allies entered Rome on 4-5 June 1944, a day before Operation Overlord began. The Pope held audiences with several Allied leaders, including Churchill, who he called on not to punish the Italian people, although he accepted the need for war crimes to be punished.

As the war concluded, a number of Catholic priests began organising escape routes for wanted Nazis and those in the Croatian Ustaše, sheltering them in Vatican facilities and facilitating their escape, via issuing false papers, to places like South America. This was not endorsed by Pius of course, but it shows that people in the Church had other loyalties as well.

Did it benefit them

There are claims of a Nazi plot to kidnap the Pope in September 1943, however, whether this really existed or not is something still disputed by historians.

The Vatican was bombed twice while Rome was under German occupation. The first incident on 5 November 1943 just damaged a lot of windows and has never been firmly attributed. The second on 1 March 1944 was definitely done by an Italian plane, killing one worker and injuring another - the plane then hit a tree on the nearby Janiculum hill and crashed a short distance away, killing the pilot.

The Provisional Government of Poland i.e. the one installed by the Soviets and who would form the communist regime of the country were not happy about Pius' actions, or indeed Christianity in general, and would use them as justification for revoking the Concordat of 1925, which protected the Church's rights in the country. The Papal Nuncio was expelled, something which was repeated among the other Soviet occupied states. There would be no Apostolic Nuncio to Poland until the end of communism in 1989.

Having suspended the creation of new cardinals during - an important power for a Pope looking to shape the church after he has left the scene as his successor is appointed by and from those under 80 - Pius appointed 32 new cardinals in 1946 to fill all the vacancies that had arisen and another 24 in 1953.

Many were high-profile resistors of Nazi actions, but the latter batch contained a controversial name. Aloysius Stepinac had been Archbishop of Zagreb under the fascist Croatian puppet state and initially welcomed the Ustaše, but later grew more critical without publicly breaking with them. In 1946, the communist Yugoslav regime put him on trial for war crimes and collaboration. He was convicted in a highly controversial trial with many breaches of due process and sentenced to 16 years in prison; after five years he was released by Tito to house arrest after domestic and foreign pressure. He died in 1960 still under confinement and was declared a martyr in 1997 by John Paul II, beatifying him at the same time, something that caused controversy. In 2016, his conviction was overturned by the Zagreb County Court.

Pius died in 1958; Montini succeeded him as Paul VI. There have been no Popes named Pius since, although interestingly the lead character in the drama The Young Pope (played by Jude Law) took the name Pius XIII.

In 1963, a play called The Deputy by Rolf Hochhuth depicted Pius as having failed to take action or speak out against the Holocaust; versions were produced in several countries, including on Broadway. The play was naturally highly controversial and it led to Paul VI opening part of the diplomatic archives of his predecessor the following year, four priest-historians going through the documents, publishing an eleven volume selection between 1965 and 1981; the documents were presented as is in their original language (mostly Italian).

In 1999, a International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission was set up by the Holy See to evaluate said documents. Made up of three Jews and three Catholics, the panel looked through the archives and came up with 47 questions that it felt it could not answer just by the published documents in a preliminary report the following year; hoping for full access to the Vatican Archives. When access was refused by the Vatican claiming that the documents had not been fully catalogued, the Commission suspended its work amid some controversy - one take on the events can be found here.

At any rate, declassifications elsewhere (such as in the US and the UK) have helped historians get a better idea of what was going on at the time.

In this author's opinion, Pius was placed in a difficult position - he did not want the Vatican invaded, but I honestly feel that he could have done more and would have been entirely justified in going into exile, possibly in the United States or Ireland.While Pius himself was not afraid to end up in a concentration camp, I do not believe God wants us to make ourselves martyrs when there are other options.

Linked to the Swiss banks issue, a lawsuit against the Vatican Bank and the Franciscan order was filed in the US courts in 1999, alleging that gold looted by the Ustaše had ended up in Vatican property and or the Vatican Bank, being used to assist Ustaše members in escaping. The case was eventually dismissed on the grounds that the US courts had no jurisdiction in the matter after getting to the Federal Appeals Court level as the sovereign immunity doctrine bars one state from being sued in another state's legal system. As such the facts were never established, although the Vatican did admit a large shipment of gold had turned up in Rome in 1946 and they had chosen not to return it to the then communist and Soviet-aligned Yugoslavia.


Argentina was a very late arriver to the war, joining on the Allied side in March 1945, so will be counted as a neutral for the purposes of this article.

Why they stayed neutral

Argentina was very far away from the main theatre of conflict indeed; while ships heading between the Atlantic and the Pacific would have to go near Cape Horn if they couldn't use the Panama Canal (an option not available to the Axis, as the Americans controlled it and would do so until 1999), they didn't have to get particularly close to the country itself in order to make the transit.

At any rate, the economic situation wasn't great - the Great Depression had badly hit the country, causing a mass migration from rural areas to the city. An economic interventionist policy was implemented, but in a conservative way, with one aim to replace imports with local production. Also to avoid 'over production' that would cause prices to fall for Argentine exports, large quantities of corn were used as fuel for locomotives on the British built railway system... at a time when there were serious issues with hunger.

There was a significant number of German immigrants in the country and the government wasn't overly friendly to the UK (namely over some rocks with penguins on them that they would have a war over in 1982). Most importantly, it was really something a long way away that they could safely stay out of.

In addition, the army itself was pretty Germanophile in its stance. This was something dating back to 1904, at which time Hitler was still a teenager- very few army leaders eve actually supported the German leader personally. This support was based more on an admiration of German military history than any opposition to democracy.

Because Argentina wasn't entirely democratic. President Roberto M. Ortiz, himself a backer of the Allies, was elected in 1937 in a presidential election that would not be described as 'free or fair' with reports of ballot stuffing and voter intimidation among others.

Ortiz, however, had serious health problems, namely diabetes, pretty much as soon as he took office. Vice President Ramón Castillo was effectively the main ruler, becoming acting President in 1940.

While much of popular opinion and most of the main parties supported the Allies with some Anglophiles actually wanting Argentina to declare war, the army chose to remain neutral. Whether Castillo could have gone against the army, or indeed wanted to is a matter of interpretation. The army would retain considerable power, as we shall see.

What they did instead

In December 1939, the Battle of the River Plate took place off the coast of Argentina and its neighbour, the also neutral (but inclined towards the Allies) Uruguay. The full story of one of the key early naval engagements of the war, which saw the pocket battleship Graf Spee damage three warships before making for the neutral port in Montevideo, then be scuttled by its Captain, Hans Langsdorff, rather than leave as he believed a superior British force was waiting for him at sea. The crew ended up in Buenos Aires, where Langsdorff shot himself three days later and he was subsequently buried in that city. The fuller story is told elsewhere. Argentina played little role in this bar being the location where the crew ended up, but it was a key event of the naval war.

Speaking of the British The UK in particular needed Argentine beef to help feed its population and as a result, a diplomatic mission to the country led by Lord Willingdon (who possessed the wonderful 'common name' of Freeman Freeman-Thomas) led to commercial treaties in which thousands of cattle were sent from Argentina to Britain free of charge. These were decorated in the Argentine colours and had 'Good luck' written on them. Quite what the cows made of all this is not known, but there was criticism from some parties for the simple reason that Argentina was suffering from problems with malnutrition.

When Pearl Harbor happened, the US wanted every Latin American country to declare war on Japan to provide continent wide resistance but Argentina declined; it also declined to cut off financial links with Germany, including hosting subsidiaries of big companies in the Reich, such as I.G Farben - who had the patent for Zyklon B, which was used in the gas chambers of places like Auschwitz.

Plans were made to invade the disputed islands off Argentina known them as Las Malvinas and the British as the Falkland Islands, but not put into effect. That would wait for nearly four decades and is beyond the scope of this article.
Ortiz finally resigned in June 1942 and died a month later. As a result Castillo become President. The six-year term of office was up in 1944 and unable to run for a second consecutive term as per the Argentine constitution at the time, it was arranged that former President Agustín Pedro Justo would run again... but then he died suddenly in 1943, aged 66. Castillo's alternative was Robustiano Patrón Costas, a major landowner and sugar baron, who was pretty unpalatable to the military.

They were not prepared to engage in another massive electoral fraud for him; they were no longer keen on conservative policies and feared that Costas would end Argentine neutrality. So they decided to organise that stereotypical favourite thing of Latin American politics... a coup, forming a group called the United Officers' Group - GOU in Spanish.. This was planned for the elections... but ended up being launched much earlier due to rumours that the war minister was about to sacked.

It got a bit farcical at times; both the US and Germany thought the coup was against them... indeed the Germans actually burned their documentation! 10,000 soldiers led by Arturo Rawson (his family were of American origin, hence the surname) entered Buenos Aires and Rawson declared himself as President. He spent precisely three days in power before the rest of the GOU, unhappy at his pro-Allied stance and his cabinet choices forced him to resign, replacing him with Pedro Pablo Ramírez. He gave Rawson an ambassadorship of Brazil, which had the advantage of getting him safely out of the way while also meaning he could retain some dignity.

This new government implemented economically progressive policies (i.e. reducing rent) but also imposed restrictions on unions and closed a Communist newspaper - the Communists had become pro-war after the invasion of the USSR.

They also asked the US for military aid... and were rejected on the grounds that they still had diplomatic relations with Germany, as well as selling them food. This forced the resignation of the Argentine chancellor but more pressure was to come.

The US blacklisted Argentine companies, limited supply of newsprint (i.e. the low-cast paper needed to actually produce 'dead tree' newspapers) only to pro-Allied newspapers, boycotted goods, stopped the export of technical equipment to the country and halted scheduled loans. They also threatened to accuse the Argentines publicly of backing an attempted coup in Bolivia and trying to receive weapons from Germany - which was a tad unlikely as that country needed all the munitions it could get at that point of the war.

Ramírez broke off diplomatic relations with the Axis powers in January 1944, which annoyed the military to the extent that he was overthrown in another coup. The new leader was Edelmiro Farrell (Irish paternal grandfather, in case you were wondering), who appointed one Juan Perón as Vice President - he also held the post of Minister of War.

Farrell was still committed to neutrality and when he made his clear to the US in March 1944, they cut off diplomatic relations, barring US ships from visiting Argentine ports and dubbing the country "the Nazi headquarters in the occidental [i.e. Western] hemisphere".

However, by mid-1944, it was increasingly clear to everyone that the Allies were going to win. Perón realised that they would dominate global politics for decades to come and it was time to back the winner; the alternative would be isolation or worse actual attack - the US did seriously consider taking action in concert with Brazil.

With relations also improved by the departure of US Secretary of State Cordell Hull due to ill health, the Argentines moved swiftly against the Nazi presence in the country and ignored German blockades.

At this point, they had effectively ceased being neutral and so I shall terminate this part of the account.

Outside of the country, 4,000 Argentines would serve with the British armed forces, including dual national Maureen Dunlop, who served as a ferry pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary and made the cover of magazine Picture Post in 1944 when pictured brushing hair from her face when exiting a Fairey Barrucuda.

Did it benefit them

Germany commenced major espionage operations against Latin America in 1940, focussing in particular on Argentina, setting up a secret radio network (as well as using couriers on Spanish-flagged ships) to get economic information, merchant shipping updates, details on US military movements etc. This actually seems to have done more to help the Allies than the Axis - who intercepted the messages and could learn who was actually working against them in those countries.

In 1943, the British caused a diplomatic incident by arresting Osmar Alberto Hellmuth, newly appointed Argentine consul to Barcelona in Spain, when the ship taking him was making a routine call at Trinidad. He was in fact planning to go to Germany for discussions with officials and to pick up a load of German weaponry for the country. There was a formal protest... but the British found written instructions and he talked after interrogation. At that point, Argentina, aware of the ramifications if the whole thing came out, cancelled Hellmuth's appointment and let the British do what they saw fit with him. Hellmuth spent the rest of the war in British custody and returned to Argentina in October 1945, where he was cleared of espionages in 1947.

The following year (1944), a few months after breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany and Japan. the Argentines arrested most of the German agents in the country, effectively shutting down the network.

The blockades naturally led to economic problems but also to loss of shipping to German U-boats. One example was Uruguay, which was encountered by U-37 off the coastal of Portugal on 27 May 1940 and fired on; but the torpedo missed. The captain then noticed the neutral markings and ordered the ship to stop with a shot across the bow. Found to be full of maize after a search, the Captain, Victor Ohern couldn't find a signature on the sailing order and suspicious of the ship's intentions (unbeknown to him, it had been bound for Antwerp in Belgium but the German invasion had to led to it being ordered to divert to Limerick in Ireland) decided to sink the vessel, giving the 28-man crew 20 minutes to get to the lifeboats before he set off scuttling charges and fired a few shots from the deck gun to speed things up. The crew, according to the German report, weren't angry about the whole affair and they wished each other luck as they parted. Unfortunately, only one of the two lifeboats with the master and twelve others was picked up by a Spanish trawler - the other fifteen crew were never found.

Elections were held in February 1946 and Juan Perón (who had briefly detained by his colleagues in October 1945 until popular protest led to his release) was elected President in a handy 11-point win made easier when the US ambassador leaked a report accusing him of fascist ties. He would remain in office until 1955 when he was overthrown by another military coup; his controversial rule is worth an article in itself.

The new government quietly allowed about 300 Nazis fleeing Europe to hide out in Argentina. The most famous of these was Adolf Eichmann, who did the organising of the Holocaust, who stayed there until 1960. Then he was subjected to what is today called extraordinary rendition, being captured by Mossad agents and spirited back to Israel for what would be a televised trial shown all over the world in 1961. He was found guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes among other offences, sentenced to death and hanged the following year. All this did not exactly do wonders for the reputation of Argentina in world affairs.

Before all that, however, two German U-boats, which had been at sea when the war ended, chose (by decision of their crew, an unusual act for a German vessel) not to scuttle themselves as per the orders of Admiral Doenitz and also not to surrender themselves to the nearest Allied units; they would both make their way to Mar del Plata in Argentina and surrender there, although some of the crew had been allowed to head for Norway before the risky trip south. One of the subs, U-530 got rid of their weapons and codebooks before handing themselves over, while U-977 handed them to the Argentine navy as a goodwill gesture. Both crews were detained and interrogated over claims they had helped senior Reich leaders to escape, something analysis of their logs proved wasn't possible. The crews and submarines were then handed over to the Americans, the crews being eventually released while the latter ended up being used for target practice, a common fate for old warships even today.

As a final note, Juan Perón's brand of politics, which can be described as right-wing socalism remains hugely influential in the country; the last two Presidents of the country (although not the incumbent one) come from the left-wing side of what is a broad movement.


I was going to cover Saudi Arabia as well but the material out there is limited and I couldn't really do it the same level of justice as the other articles.

In short, there were very few true 'neutrals' in what was, as the name implies, a global conflict. With the winning side likely to dominate much of the world, you had to put your money on one horse or another; some of course ended up backing the wrong pony and it would cost them later, although not as much as active participation did for nearly everyone involved. 

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