World War II and the Scandinavian Monarchies
Across Europe, even among those monarchies which survived World War II, none had as much influence as they did before the conflict. The war itself, however, was not always the direct cause of this but, nonetheless, it came at a time when wider events over a number of years brought about such an outcome. The fact is that the monarchs who reigned during the time of the Second World War had considerably more authority, regardless of any actual constitutional changes, than those who came to the throne after the conflict was over.
This was certainly
true in the Low Countries but, while perhaps less noticed, was equally
true in the monarchies of Scandinavia. Even the one country which
managed to avoid actually participating in the war, the Kingdom of
Sweden, was not untouched by the conflict or unaffected by the wider
repercussions of both the First and Second World Wars. The monarch on
the throne throughout the period was His Majesty King Gustav V who is
remembered as the last Swedish monarch to date to intervene in the
affairs of his government.
That would be the last time that a Swedish monarch would directly intervene in government. The collapse of Russia, spread of communism and the economic disaster that accompanied the end of World War I, worked to pull Sweden dramatically to the left. In 1917 the King tried to appoint another conservative government but found no support, the most power being held by what amounted to democratic socialists on the one hand and less-than-democratic socialists on the other. Still, World War II played a part as well and in a way related to World War I. The Queen consort, Victoria of Baden, was a German and in the First World War the King was widely believed to be sympathetic with the German Empire and the cause of the Central Powers. Similar accusations would be made concerning the King and Nazi Germany in World War II which certainly had a more negative impact on his popular perception than any possible sympathy on his part for the Kaiser would have had. Little to nothing on that score can be proven but the allegation alone was enough to do damage.
All of this was used to smear the character of King Gustav V after the war ended in an Allied victory. However, few people care to consider the basic fact that if the Germans wanted to move troops through Sweden they were certainly capable of doing it whether the Swedish government agreed or not. Given the depleted state of the Swedish armed forces, the Germans could have conquered the country and occupied it with as little difficulty as they did in Denmark and Norway. At a time when Sweden was literally surrounded by Germany, German allied Finland and German occupied Denmark and Norway, the British could have done nothing to help them and Hitler could have wiped out Sweden easily if they had defied him. Under the circumstances, a refusal would have been hailed as noble and courageous in the rest of the world but it could easily have resulted in invasion, occupation and the total loss of Swedish independence. If the King did intervene to urge the government to let the Germans move through, in such a situation, it would be hard for any rational person to say he did wrong.
The Kingdom of Denmark was supposed to be Germany’s “model protectorate”. They assured the Danes that they were friends, not conquerors and that their independence would be respected with German occupation forces remaining only so long as was necessary for the war situation. The Danes didn’t buy it and soon began carrying out acts of sabotage. Their monarch, King Christian X, condemned such actions, as he was bound to, but also defied the Germans as far as he was able. He refused to enact anti-Semitic legislation they pushed, refused to hand over Danes to the hands of German justice who had been caught in acts of sabotage or helping Jews escape to Sweden and he famously continued his solitary horseback rides every morning through the streets of Copenhagen. The Germans wanted him to stop, particularly as these came to be occasions of outbursts of public support for the monarchy and Danish patriotism, but the King refused. When the Germans demanded he accept a German escort to act as his bodyguard on such occasions, the King famously said that every Dane was his bodyguard. King Christian X did finally have to stop though when he was thrown from his horse and injured in late 1942 (allegations that the horse had Nazi sympathies have not been corroborated).
In truth, however, the wartime prestige of the monarchy was no more than King Christian’s ‘Indian Summer’. After World War I there had been a dispute over the territory Denmark had lost to Prussia in the 1864 war. The Danish government wanted the inhabitants to vote on whether they wished to rejoin Denmark while Danish nationalists wanted the territory annexed outright. King Christian X agreed with annexation, intervened and the government fell which the King replaced with a more conservative temporary government until the next election. This was the “Easter Crisis of 1920” and it resulted in a fierce left-wing backlash against the monarchy led by the Social Democrats. Faced, for the first time in her ancient history, with the loss of the Danish monarchy, King Christian X had been forced to retreat, dismissing the government he had just appointed and accept his status as a virtually powerless monarch. The war years boosted his prestige but it did nothing to change the political situation. The monarch retains some considerable powers on paper but Danish judges have interpreted these to belong to the King’s government and not the King (or Queen in today’s case) personally.
One other point of contention for Danish monarchists, widely overlooked in foreign lands, which resulted directly from World War II was the loss of the Danish Kingdom of Iceland to republicanism. From 1918 to 1944 Iceland was an independent kingdom in personal union with the Crown of Denmark. However, in May of 1940 British troops invaded and occupied Iceland. The local government protested this violation of their neutrality but made no effort to resist. The British later handed the keys over to the United States and in 1944 a referendum was held which resulted in Iceland becoming a republic, severing all ties with the Crown of Denmark. King Christian X showed impossibly good grace by sending them his congratulations but many on the right in Denmark felt betrayed and not unjustly so. As they were under German occupation at the time, they could hardly argue their own case for maintaining their existing relationship with the island and even if there was nothing untoward about it, one cannot escape what political pundits today would call very “bad optics” to have a referendum during wartime while being occupied by a foreign army which is at war with the foreign army occupying the ‘home’ country.
It would be hard to overstate the significance of the King during this time of crisis for Norway. He had taken the lead in rejecting the German demands to submit peacefully to their occupation, expressing his desire to abdicate if the government chose to cooperate with the Nazis and as the King he was the living symbol of Norwegian government legitimacy in the fight and in the years of exile. Unlike Denmark, there was no room for any doubt at all that the fate of the Norwegian monarchy depended on an Allied victory. The Germans had a willing client in Vidkun Quisling standing ready and after efforts to coerce the government in Norway to depose the King, the top German official simply declared on his own that the King of Norway had forfeited the Crown and that he, nor any of the Royal Family, had any right to ever return to Norway again. King Haakon VII was the symbol of Norwegian resistance to the Germans, he was also very much the “voice” of the resistance due to his BBC radio addresses to Norway and thanks to him the Norwegians were able to contribute a great deal more to the Allied war effort than most people realize. He was extremely popular as a result of all of this and when he died in 1957 he was mourned almost as much in Britain as in Norway.
Like his father, King Olav V never made any trouble for the politicians but, seeing which way the winds were blowing perhaps, he also made an effort to be seen even more as “down to earth”. The closest his father ever came to a confrontation was taking a drink of illegal alcohol after coming into a hotel, cold and soaked. King Olav V would not even go that far, even using public transportation during the energy crisis of 1973. He could also often be seen driving his own car. All of this had the intended effect on public opinion as this egalitarian style caused him to be dubbed, “the People’s King”. Again, to be sure, the current Norwegian monarchy started out a much shorter chain than their neighbors in Sweden or Denmark but, nonetheless, one cannot escape the fact that the style of the monarchy even in Norway was rather different in the first reign after the war that it had been before the conflict, whether the war actually had any impact on it or not.