Sweden and Sarajevo

by Tom Tredway

Sweden is mentioned but once in David Fromkin’s Europe’s Last Summer, (Knopf, 2004), the latest and one of the most readable treatments of the First World War to have appeared in the last decade. So why should readers of the Pietisten be concerned with the book? One reason is that the author’s work validates a claim made by him and by other historians that one cannot understand the twentieth century without thinking carefully about the Great War, which was in many ways the “turning point in modern history.” A second reason is that Fromkin’s work presents the latest and often revisionist historical writing on the origins of that conflict. As such it provides readers with an important update on the explanations of the war which many of them (at least the older ones) got in Western Civilization courses at North Park or the University of Minnesota. And a third reason is that World War I changed even neutral Sweden forever, turning it finally from the rural and churchly land which some Swedish-Americans still idealize into the prosperous secular socialist country which Scandinavian-American Pietists seeking their Old World roots encounter when they do go back to Sweden.

Beginning just ninety years ago, the Great War was the event that defined the twentieth century, Fromkin, a Professor at Boston University, insists. It led to the fall of three great dynasties, the Romanovs, the Hohenzollerns and the Hapsburgs. It destroyed the world financial and economic dominance of Great Britain and her Empire. It bled France white. It bought Lenin and Marxism to power in Russia. And it forced a world role on the United States, however reluctant our country was to accept it. World War I was the first conflict in which the lethal implications of modern science and technology, as well as their blessings, were clear. And the bourgeois paradigm for comfortable life was shattered by the enormous social and cultural upheavals that accompanied and followed the conflict.

The peace which ended the war began to be revised almost before it had been signed, and the greatest reviser of that peace, Adolph Hitler, came to power directly because of his country’s unwillingness to accept the guilt and the damages for the war which the victorious western democracies forced upon Germany. No one can seek to cope with modern (or post-modern) life who does not try to understand the blood bath which Europe underwent between 1914 and 1918.

Europe’s Last Summer bears reading because it is a graceful and powerful summary of the latest historiography on the causes and outbreak of the First World War. We have seen recently works by two Oxford historians which are excellent treatments of the entire war. Martin Gilbert’s The First World War: a Complete History, (1994) is the book to read for a one volume consideration of the war itself. And Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War (1998) is a brilliant and provocative effort to answer the great riddles which emerge from the conflict, riddles such as why men on both sides fought so long and fiercely for a war whose official aims they had long rejected, or why Britain, which enjoyed great economic superiority in 1914, managed to waste it, emerging in 1918 almost bankrupt. But for a three hundred page overview of the causes of the war and an intelligible summary of the recent scholarship which has revised earlier interpretations of the pre-history of the war, Fromkin’s work is unequalled.

What most of us learned in college history courses or by reading Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August (1962) is that after decades of peace and progress and a summer of the finest weather in memory, a sudden holocaust swept over Europe in August, 1914, started evidently but strangely by the assassination of the Austrian heir in Sarajevo in late June. But Fromkin makes clear that Europe’s leaders had long expected and prepared for exactly the terrible war which did break out six weeks after Sarajevo. Much mid-twentieth century scholarship suggested that the system of alliances that grew up in the decades before the war was its single most important cause. (The lesson the U.S. took from this was to stay out of international alliances; hence the isolationism of the twenties and thirties, some of which revived in the fifties and sixties in this country.) But basing his argument on recent German research, Fromkin argues that it was the Germans, and especially General Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, chief of that country’s General Staff, who were most bent upon using the Sarajevo crisis to provoke war.

Von Moltke believed that a conflict was inevitable sooner or later and that it lay in Germany’s interest to fight that war sooner, when Germany’s position vis-à-vis her potential French and Russian enemies was relatively stronger. The Germans particularly feared the growing industrial and military power of the Russians. So for Fromkin the war was long in coming but hardly represented an almost inexplicable break from decades of peace and prosperity. And primary responsibility for its outbreak lies in many places, but most of all in the headquarters of the Imperial Army in Berlin.

When one remembers that the men who invaded Poland twenty five years later, starting the second phase of the twentieth century’s world conflict, were operating out of the same sense of Weltpolitik that pervaded German military thinking in 1914, one is left with important questions about the role of Germany in the entire twentieth century, not to mention nagging doubts about the matter of preemptive war.

But what about Sweden, mentioned only once in Europe’s Last Summer and that in passing? (Sweden and, yes, Norway, von Moltke believed, should be mobilized against Russia, should Britain enter the war.) As Franklin Scott’s magisterial Sweden: The Nation’s History (1988) makes clear, that country was forever changed by the First World War. Until the middle of the nineteenth century Sweden was an agrarian and relatively poor land on the margin of Europe. It was from this rural poverty that perhaps one-third of her population emigrated to the New World in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When war broke out in 1914 Sweden determined to remain neutral. The sympathies of her people, the government and the royal house were divided, but in the first years of the war Swedish trade was primarily with Germany, involving both raw materials and some manufactured goods. This trade grew to the point that when the British blockade of Germany became effective, Sweden was seriously hurt. The blockade was lifted in early 1918 after Sweden agreed to certain British conditions, which shifted Swedish trade toward Britain and away from Germany. In the years during and after the war the demand for Swedish materials and products grew, and Sweden prospered greatly. There was a kind of “peace dividend,” when resources previously devoted to defense were redeployed in the domestic economy. Sweden was now free of the threat of German and Russian military power. The country learned from the Great War that neutrality was in her own interest, a lesson she remembered during the Second and the Cold Wars.

When the Great Depression hit Europe at the beginning of the 1930s, Swedish socialists completely abandoned pure Marxism in favor of a socialistic gradualism that combined state and private economic and financial policy. This legendary Swedish “middle way” greatly intrigued European and American observers, especially since Sweden recovered from the Depression more rapidly than did other western industrial democracies, most of whom were more leery of socialism than were the Swedes. It was in the same period during and after the war that Swedish society became secularized, church attendance and influence declined, and the nation grew into the Sweden which many pious Swedish Americans regard with such mingled nostalgia, admiration and puzzlement. What has happened to the Sverige which their ancestors left? Well, it has grown prosperous and secular. That leaves many Swedish Covenanters and Lutherans in a position somewhat like that of devout Roman Catholic Quebecois who when they “return” to modern France find a secular materialistic land quite unlike the pre-revolutionary one from which pious priests and peasants emigrated in the eighteenth century to Canada. You can’t go home again.

During the Viet Nam era a reader of the Moline (Illinois) Dispatch wrestled with the question of what had happened to Sweden since the forebears of Swedish-Americans in the Mississippi Valley crossed the Atlantic a century earlier. Now Olaf Palme’s Sweden was leading the criticism of the United States’ Asian policy and harboring American draft evaders. For that Moliner the answer was clear: the best Swedes had come to the U.S., leaving the rest to desert the Church and embrace socialism! If that answer does not satisfy readers of Pietisten, they might consider the changes toward prosperity and secularism which came during and after World War I, when Sweden became industrialized and then saw the benefits of that growth shared with the whole population through a system of state-private socialism. To understand many of the origins of those changes and to place them in the larger historical context, one might turn to Fromkin’s Europe’s Last Summer. It is well-written, accurate and provocative, even though Sweden, sadly, is mentioned only once.

Tom Tredway is a teacher of history and president emeritus of Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. He is the author of “Conrad Bergendoff’s Faith and Work: A Swedish-American Lutheran, 1895-1997.”

See all articles by Tom Tredway