A restless Swedish skeleton – of events in the aftermath of WW II
I have an acquaintance who some years ago decided to dig into her ancestry. As most parishes in this neck of the woods have kept detailed tabs on people since the early 17th century, it isn’t that difficult to construct a family tree, and most of these old records are available on line – a treat for the amateur genealogist.
Thing is, my acquaintance presumed she’d only find interesting (as in fun and exciting) things up her family tree. As one of my English colleagues now and then says, ’interesting’ is not always a positive – and in her case, the things she dug up were definitely interesting but not all that much fun. After all, finding out your great-great-grandmother was hanged for three murders is not exactly something one wants to brag about. Or maybe one does.
Sometimes, the same thing happens when you’re reading about historical events. Certain incidents in which my country has been involved make me squirm, and while I know I’m not responsible – how can I be? I was neither around nor in a position of power – I still feel a twinge of shame. Like when Sweden’s government allowed the German Wehrmacht to transport the troops going to invaded Norway through Swedish territory. Or when Sweden initially refused to accept Jewish refugees. And then we have the deportation of the Baltic soldiers…
Eh, what? Deportation? And what were Baltic soldiers doing in Sweden anyway?
In the last days of the World War II, former Wehrmacht soldiers fled the Baltic states by sea (together with thousands upon thousands of civilians) all of them determined to escape Stalin’s forces – none but the truly insane wanted to end up in Joseph’s clutches. The Soviets bombed the fragile vessels, and hundreds died in the cold waters of the Baltic Sea. During those first few days of May, over 3 000 ex-soldiers landed in Sweden, and were more or less immediately interned in one of two camps.
Most of these soldiers were German, but 167 were Estonians or Lithuanians or Latvians – young men who had voluntarily (or in some cases forcibly) enrolled in the German armies so as to fight that most hated of enemies, the Soviet Union. The Baltic States at the time were fledgling nations, having regained their independence in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the First World War. When Soviet tanks rolled in, Stalin’s orders were simple: annex the states, and kill or deport whoever doesn’t conform. Several hundred thousand were either killed or sent off to the Gulag, there to die a slow, slow death.
When Germany capitulated on 8 May 1945, one of the conditions of that capitulation was that any German POWs were to be transferred into the jurisdiction of whoever they had last been fighting. Understandably, the German soldiers fighting on the eastern front were terrified of ending up in Stalin’s less than tender care, which was why they fled to Sweden to begin with. In the case of the 167 Baltic soldiers, their situation was even worse: seeing as Stalin hand now annexed their former countries, they were labelled traitors. Traitors were generally shot.
Sweden had been neutral during the war. Well… Initially, Sweden had carefully courted Hitler’s Germany, convinced the Third Reich would win. The cultural ties between Sweden and Germany were strong, but when Germany invaded Denmark and Norway, public opinion began to change, and by the time the war was over, most Swedes considered themselves far closer to the Allies than Germany. Opportunistic? Absolutely.
Anyway, as Sweden was neutral, it was not obliged to honour the terms of the capitulation, e.g. the assumption was that soldiers who made it to Sweden would be granted asylum in Sweden. In the summer of 1945, the Soviet Union sent a note to the Swedish government, requesting that all those former German soldiers presently in Sweden who had been on the Eastern front on May 8th, be turned over to them. Note that the Soviets only requested those that had effectively been fighting on the front as per midnight May 8. Most of the soldiers who’d arrived in Sweden, had left before that, fleeing in the face of the Soviet advance.
On the face of things, Sweden could have handled this by simply encouraging the soldiers presently held in comfortable captivity to become civilians and sort of melt away. No one was going to expend too much effort and time in chasing down 3 000 potential soldiers in a post-war Europe that was, in many places, reduced to heaps of rubble.
Alternatively, of course, the Swedish government could have replied that they had no soldiers interned that had been at the front on May 8. This would not have been much of a lie. Instead, the Swedish government seems to have been afflicted by a burning need to prove themselves to the Allies, and what better way to do so than comply with the request from the Soviet Union? Hmm…
The government met and debated. There was a lot of fear re the powerful neighbour to the east, and the Swedish ministers had no desire to poke the Russian bear into rage. Some of the members of the cabinet were very doubtful as to the request, and one proposal was made whereby Sweden would agree to the deportation only if the UK and the US approved it. The other proposal was to acquiesce to the Soviet demand with no caveat. For some reason, the Swedish Prime Minister, Per Albin Hansson, decided to go with the latter suggestion.
To be fair to Mr Hansson, he had spent most of the war dancing some sort of uncomfortable political foxtrot, having one single goal: to keep Sweden out of the war. We may not be proud of it, but Hansson’s politics paved the ground for the huge economic boom in Sweden during the 50s and 60s. Acquiescing to the Soviet request was therefore yet another turn in this complex dance. In actual fact, the Swedish government was scared shitless by Russia. Far too aware of just how tarnished the Swedish reputation was after our passivity during WW II, the cabinet could not see how they could refuse the Russian request – or question the Soviet approach to human rights. After all, thousand upon thousands of Soviet soldiers had died in the recent war…
In secret, the Swedish government informed the Soviets that they had approximately 3 000 soldiers in their camps and would be happy to deliver all of them into Soviet hands. The Soviets replied that they were glad to hear this, but the Swedish authorities had to ensure the prisoners were “healthy and strong”. Ships would be sent over in due course to collect the prisoners, but for now there was no reason to announce the upcoming deportation, as this might worry the prisoners in question. The Swedish government agreed – besides, some of them were worried this whole matter could blow up in their face once the public found out.
It is important to clarify that many of the men sheltering in Sweden were guilty of atrocities. Some of them had been instrumental in the massacre in Jews in the Baltic States, others had happily raped and plundered. But the majority were soldiers caught up in the last few months of the war, young men who in some cases no longer had a country, in others no longer had a home or a family to return to – the Allied bombing of certain parts of Germany had been extremely brutal and effective.
Whatever the case, turning them over to the Soviets was effectively putting them at the mercy of a government which did not recognise human rights, and reasonably the Swedish cabinet knew they were condemning all the deportees to extended captivity and/or death.
In preparation for the deportation, the former Wehrmacht men were moved to new camps. This time, the barracks were surrounded by barbed wire fences, and the POWs weren’t exactly stupid, so they quickly understood what their Swedish hosts were planning on doing. Some of these men had family in Sweden, people they shared their suspicions with. Rumours started. It was becoming increasingly difficult for the government to keep this under wraps.
In mid-November, the Swedish press was called to a secret press conference where the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary informed the assembled journalists what they were planning to do, while requesting the press keep this secret while security was beefed up round the camps. Two newspapers chose to go public a couple of days later. The public reaction was one of outrage – not so much on behalf of the German soldiers, but definitely when it came to the Baltic POWs, men whose countries no longer existed.
The government was adamant: the prisoners were to be deported. The Swedish Communist Party, SKP, suggested going one step further, deporting all the 30 000 civilian refugees as well. (It took SKP a long time to admit Stalin’s Soviet was far closer to hell than a Worker’s Paradise, as can be seen here). Fortunately, this request was met by a resounding “NO” from all the other parties.
In the camps, the prisoners went on hunger strikes. Some went even further – one stabbed himself in the eye with a pen, others chopped of their fingers or committed suicide. Things were rapidly getting out of hand, and the press bayed “outrage”, members of the public protested, and in view of all this, the Swedish government decided to postpone the deportation of the Baltic POWs. The German POWs, however, were to be deported immediately.
The resulting scenes were chaotic. When the police arrived to initiate the deportation of the Germans, they were met by desperate men, men who’d used barbed wire to tie themselves to easch other, men armed with shards of glass, with razors. The resulting mess was known as bloody Friday, and 1 000 men were hospitalised as a consequence of attempted self-mutilation or suicide. Those unharmed, or only slightly wounded, were transported aboard the Soviet ship Kuban. The hospitalised Germans were transported over the coming weeks, and by December 16th, all but 540 Germans had been sent off to Soviet captivity. Of these, 310 were allowed to return home.
The Baltic prisoners were up next. More than aware of the public opinion, the Swedish government attempted to negotiate with the Soviets, but Stalin was not to be swayed: he’d been promised the Baltic POWs, and he wanted them, full stop. The Russian bear had growled, and the Swedish government cowered and whined. On January 25th, 1946, 146 Baltic prisoners and 240 Germans were carried aboard the Soviet ship Beloostrov. One desperate lieutenant tried to kill himself with a drill. One man threw himself at the window of the bus he was in, broke it, and tried desperately to slice his veins open on the jagged glass. The men had to be dragged aboard the ship, one man managed to kill himself on the quay, and Swedes in general were horrified. The Swedish government, however, had done their duty – but the strain is said to have caused Mr Hansson’s heartattack six months later.
As stated above, no doubt some of the 2 846 men deported by the Swedish government had committed atrocious acts. They deserved to be punished for participating in massacres of Jews, in rape and pillage. But turning all of them over to the Soviets, to extended sentences in the Gulag, to execution – no.
It is said that the Soviet forces wasted no time. The moment they were out of Swedish territorial waters, some prisoners were supposedly dragged out on deck and shot, before being pitched overboard. The majority, however, both Germans and Baltics, arrived safe and sound on the other side of the Baltic Sea.
Of the Baltic prisoners, 3 were executed, 23 were sent off to the Gulag, and the rest were held imprisoned for a shorter period of time before being released – of which 40 were later re-arrested and sent to the Gulag. The Germans to a large extent disappeared into the dark chasm that is the Gulag – as did so many of the German soldiers unfortunate enough to be on the eastern front when the Third Reich formally capitulated. Not that many ever made it home. All of them were for ever marked by their experiences.
As stated already at the outset, this is an incident that still has Swedes twisting inside. While some representatives of the then ruling party have repeated over and over that it was the right thing to do to deport all those soldiers, public opinion remains as it was: we are ashamed. Or I am, at least.