Patrick Salmon. Scandinavia and the Great Powers 1890-1940. London: Cambridge University Press, 1997. xix + 421 pp. Â£45.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-521-41161-5.
Reviewed by Rasmus Mariager (Department of History, University of Copenhagen)
Published on H-Diplo (April, 2001)
The length of time that has elapsed since the British historian Patrick Salmon published Scandinavia and the Great Powers 1890-1940 in the autumn of 1997 does nothing to detract from the relevance of this commentary on what is, after all, one of the main contributions to our understanding of Scandinavia's position in international politics in the period. The book is a complex study. It analyses the interrelationships between the Scandinavian countries, as well as their relationships to the great powers. It also analyses the relationships of the great powers to Scandinavia, including conflicts and coincidences of interest. The great powers are defined as the group of reference powers who were important to the Scandinavian countries, i.e. Great Britain, Prussia/Germany and Russia/the Soviet Union, while the Scandinavian countries are defined as Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. Iceland does not play a major role in the study.
By way of introduction, the author modestly explains that he reads neither Finnish nor Russian and that the linguistic foundation of the book is, therefore, somewhat unbalanced. This does not seem to be a major loss, however, because the book is based on unusually extensive reading and bears witness to impressive research into not just Scandinavian but also British, German and Russian/Soviet history. The author has also reviewed a vast amount of archive material on foreign policy and trade policy in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany and, especially, in Great Britain.
Why this subject? And why this particular (and long) period? Salmon answers that during this period the Scandinavian countries became increasingly important pieces in the political, economic and military rivalry between the great powers, a fate they shared with, for example, the Balkans. Technological and military progress as well as increasing trade were important aspects of this process and studies of the period highlight two fundamental aspects: the significance of foreign trade and technological-military progress for international political relationships, i.e. that these relationships can serve as a means with which to classify material prosperity as well as a means to examine political influence. Another important reason for the long time span is that the study does not restrict itself to periods of crisis. An analysis that looks at periods of conflict as well as periods of stability provides a structured approach to the interrelationships between the states and shows clearly that while the small states were deeply interested in the great powers throughout the period, the great powers were also highly interested in the small states during periods of conflict. But - and this is significant - the study also shows that, apart from periods of high tension, Scandinavia gradually assumed greater importance in the eyes of the great powers during the half century from 1890 to 1940.
On the theoretical level, Salmon's book is based on Michael Handel's perception that "while the weak states are frequently more vulnerable than the great powers, they are not helpless" (1). The basic premise of the book is that the Scandinavian countries were not just passive elements in bigger political games but that they were capable, to a certain degree, of promoting their own interests in the international political arena. During World War Two, Denmark, Norway and Finland were, however, militarily involved in the conflicts. Sweden was the only exception. The idea that small states were able to influence the policies of the great powers seems well-founded, not just with reference to Salmon's own study but also for the period after 1945. More recent Danish studies have shown how Denmark has, on occasion, been able to influence NATO policy to suit Danish interests - and at the very least create separate policies for Denmark. Norway also succeeded, albeit to a lesser extent than Denmark, in influencing NATO policies in the early years of the alliance, e.g. on the question of stationing allied planes in 1952/53.
The book's analysis is political, economic and military. Specifically, it studies "the changing place of Scandinavia in the political, economic and strategic calculations of policy makers in Britain, Germany and Russia ... It also focuses, however, on the Nordic states themselves." If we ignore the book's political science framework, the study is to a certain extent reminiscent of the historical works of the German 'Fischer' school; i.e. studies of the recent past, in which political, trade and military analyses are combined and then set in a continental (even global) context.
The study gets down to work right away in the first chapter, entitled "The end of isolation: Scandinavia and the modern world," in which Salmon accounts for the increasing interest of the great powers in Scandinavia from the last decade of the 19th century and well up into the 20th. The title suggests that the Scandinavian countries had been isolated from international politics before this period. The question is whether historians interested in previous periods would agree with this analysis. At any rate, this is not the impression derived from Jörg Philipp Lengeler's German dissertation "Das Ringen um die Ruhe Nordens," about British policy towards Northern Europe and Denmark in the early the 18th century. But the book has to start somewhere and Salmon's choice of starting date seems in many ways to be well founded. He shows, convincingly, how Prussia achieved increasing (political) economic influence, if not dominance in Scandinavia up to World War I. One of the interesting points is that the rivalry between the German and British states was not formal as it often consisted of private companies competing for market share. Nevertheless, British authorities did get involved and did try to promote the interests of British companies. But competition was fierce and the British lost ground. Whether it was because of fierce German competition or whether the American continent, parts of which belonged to the British Empire, was simply more important to London, is not fully explained. But the fact that the British strategy was defensive is clear. The author also shows how both Denmark and Sweden feared increasing German influence. If Germany got its way, the question was - seen through Danish eyes -whether or not the Danish economy and industry would be completely subordinated to Germany's. And what about the language, Salmon asks? Would Denmark just be a vassal state? At the same time, he points out that even though the Scandinavians' national pride and economic interests meant they were irritated and angered by Germany's political and economic power, they also admired much of what Germany stood for (p. 49).
The question of Scandinavian fascination with the Germans and the British in the first half of the 20th century is a subject not properly illustrated by Danish research. Even though the Danes were probably closer to the Germans in terms of language, lifestyle, customs, etc., the question is whether sections of the political and intellectual elite were more fascinated by the British, their political system, technological progress, etc. The fact that Great Britain had been Denmark's potential protector since the middle of the previous century certainly influenced the view held of Britain by many Danes. The question is, in other words, whether the relationship to Great Britain was measured by a different yardstick than the relationship to Germany. Having said that, it also has to be asked whether or not the author is being somewhat bold by not distinguishing between various social and political groups in Denmark and Sweden. As far as Denmark is concerned, it is well known that the Social Democrats were more or less a clone of the German sister party between the wars. But what about the right-wing parties? Were they also German-oriented in their politics? And what about the army and the navy? Should the navy's British orientation not be pointed out, at least? And what was the position of the diplomatic corps? In Danish diplomatic circles there was a 'German course', a 'German school' and 'the Germany experts'. The fact that this political/diplomatic orientation towards Germany was based more on fear than admiration is clear enough.
The main thrust of Salmon's book is not about cultural links and psychological identification, but he does mention the question himself and also returns to the subject in chapter 8, in which the British cultural institution, the British Council, is brought into the picture (especially pp. 295-305). In the 1930s, Great Britain waged a propaganda offensive in Scandinavia, but, in Salmon's interpretation, the British Council could "do little to counteract the growing impression of British weakness in the face of the international challenge of the totalitarian states" (p. 298). This assessment may be correct and it is commendable that Salmon addresses the question of cultural propaganda. However, he does not seem able to document its impact properly. It is a problem Salmon shares with most cultural propaganda researchers.
Scandinavia in European diplomacy up to World War I is the subject of the second chapter. The British historian A.J.P. Taylor called the years from the turn of the century until 1904 "the epoch in which an Anglo-Russian conflict seemed the most likely outcome of international relations" (2). This, of course, placed the Scandinavian countries in a difficult position, especially after the German chancellor Caprivi's 1893 statement that Denmark, in the event of a confrontation between Great Britain/France and Germany, would naturally find itself on the side of Germany's enemy. Salmon unravels the political games and intrigues that surrounded alliances and power struggles between the major European powers. His analysis covers not just the European context but also the Moroccan crisis, the Russo-Japanese war, etc. One of Salmon's points is that the international crisis and the Björkö Agreement can only be properly understood if the Scandinavian implications are considered, especially the problems associated with conflicts in the Scandinavian union and Norway's independence, as well as German-Russian worries about Denmark's geo-strategic position as keeper of the Baltic Sea. Regarding the question of the great powers' reactions to the Scandinavian crisis in the first decade of the 20th century, Salmon places great emphasis on the fact that the British lost influence in Northern Europe from 1905 to 1908 on the political, military and economic levels. The possibility of a German-Russian alliance in the Baltic Sea was not excluded by the British-Russian entente of 1907. The North Sea and Baltic Sea negotiations also minimized British influence in the Baltic. Added to this were, as previously mentioned, Britain's commitments elsewhere in the world. This point of view clashes with, among others, Walther Hubatsch's opposite view (p. 81).
The chapter is followed up by an exciting but quite complicated analysis of the Scandinavian countries' positions in the strategic deliberations of the great European powers in the event of a future great war. The presentation contains analyses of the internal rivalry inside the armed forces in the individual major powers - and between the countries. The central point is, of course, the unification of Germany in 1871, which threatened Great Britain's position in international politics. The chapter also covers the military and economic rivalry between the major powers, including preparations for economic warfare.
Chapter four, about Scandinavia during World War I, corroborates two of Salmon's main themes: firstly, that Scandinavia slowly but surely played an increasing role in European power politics during the period studied, and secondly, that the Scandinavian countries, despite a period of high international tension, were capable of, if nothing else, then at least turning the situation to their own advantage. The small Northern European states succeeded in keeping out of the military conflict during the war. Salmon also documents how differently the Scandinavian countries experienced the war. Under German pressure, Denmark mined the Great Belt but tried to be as even-handed as possible after that. Norway suffered harsh treatment at the hands of the British, despite the British naval attaché in Scandinavia characterising Norway as the most anglophile country in the region. Norway was the object of massive British-German political-economic competition, which saw Great Britain instigate a trade embargo against Norway while Germany placed great demands on Norwegian shipping. Sweden, which on the face of it operated a pro-German neutrality policy, was exposed to quite severe economic pressure from Great Britain. When Sweden later balanced its neutrality policy cf. the trade agreement with the allies in May 1918, it was, however, confronted with yet another problem, i.e. the German victory over Russia. The fact that Germany was to lose the war in the end led to the formation of Finland as the fourth independent state in Scandinavia in 1917.
Instead of just looking at the great powers' policies towards the Scandinavian countries, Salmon also studies the countries' domestic policies, and their significance for the individual countries' positions during the war. Unsurprisingly, one of Salmon's points is that Denmark, Norway and Sweden had to react to and adapt to external circumstances to a great extent during World War One. That Danish decision makers - via H.N. Andersen - sought to mediate between Germany and Great Britain and Sweden's Wallenberg turned to Great Britain in August 1914, were exceptions (pp. 118-123). But cunning adaptation and reaction to external circumstances (including the ability to profit economically from the war) was also a method of safeguarding Scandinavian interests - which brings us back to one of Salmon theses - the fact that Scandinavia's neutrality and military non-interference was, on the whole, in the interests of the warring nations does not disturb the picture.
Chapters 5 and 6 (pp. 169-205 and 206-273) are written with some gusto and depict and analyse Scandinavia's foreign policy positions and relationships to the great powers until the end of 1930s. The presentations are convincing. Salmon shows how the great powers' interests in Scandinavia intensified in 1920 with the instability in the Baltic area (the formation of Finland, Estonia and Latvia) and the Soviet Union's pressure on the Baltic region. Great Britain now withdrew its fleet from the eastern Baltic but also continued its stabilising policy in the region, as London looked with increasing scepticism at the Communist Soviet Union's influence, not just on the Baltic states, but also on Finland. Thus, Salmon depicts and analyses the North European balance of power between the Soviets on the one hand and Great Britain on the other hand. Seen from a British perspective, the situation was not made any easier by local Communist parties sprouting up in the Scandinavian countries, most strongly in Norway and Finland. He also correctly points out the strong roots of the Social Democratic parties in the Scandinavian societies.
However, there is one point at which the presentation in chapter five seem somewhat cursory, and that is the question of the so-called Greenland conflict. From 1921 to 1933, Denmark and Norway disputed sovereignty over south-west Greenland. Salmon mentions in brief (p. 170, 183f, 198) that the conflict took place and that it was settled by the International Court in the Hague and he points out the tensions in Norwegian relationships to Denmark and Great Britain. However, the conflict is wound up somewhat perfunctorily -especially in the light of the unhappy consequences of the conflict for Danish-Norwegian relationships, in all probability all the way up to the occupation in 1940, but also in the light of the conflict's long-term nature and the fact that it bears witness to Danish as well as Norwegian imperialism. The Norwegian historian Ida Blom approached the question from a Norwegian point of view in her 1973 thesis. In Denmark, Bo Lidegaard has shed some light on the conflict with his 1996 thesis - a couple of essays have analysed the question in greater depth and a Swedish presentation of the conflict also exists.
Chapter seven analyses Great Britain and Germany's economic links to Scandinavia in the period from 1916 to the mid-1930s. The last two main chapters lead the reader towards the culmination of the study: the German attack on Denmark and Norway. Again, the main emphasis is on German-British competition for dominance of Scandinavia. Salmon acknowledges German nazification attempts and he concludes that towards the end of the 1930s there were "sufficient Nazi sympathisers in each of the Nordic countries ^Å to form a core of potential conspirators which might be activated if German interest turned towards the north" (p. 287).
The book is rounded off by an epilogue which includes a retrospective review as well as a brief outline of the period until the creation of NATO in 1949, when the countries' paths really diverged. The fact that the process of placing the countries into some kind of perspective ceases in 1949, says something about Salmon's view of what were the most important foundations underpinning relationships between the countries. It may only be implicit, but he does stresses the primacy of security policy. This may be very reasonable in the light of the Cold War's military rivalry. However, such a perspective tones down the significance of external economic relations and trade-policy for the countries' relationships to one another, and one of Cold War research's latest fashion crazes, i.e. the ideological and cultural side, is overlooked.
In his introduction, Salmon writes that "Small states hanker after the world as it ought to be; great powers deal with the world as it is." That is why small states have a tendency to promote and protect their own interests via international organisations such as the League of Nations and the United Nations. Referring to the ex-Finnish president Paasikivi, Salmon explains, however, that "small countries would be imperialist too, if only they were big enough." (pp. 18-19). The funny thing about the above quotations is that they turn things on their head in relation to the method by which we generally consider the position of small states in international politics. Normally, it is claimed that the small states (i.e. us) per se stand for productive and altruistic policies. Bearing in mind the militarisation of Denmark's foreign policy after the end of the Cold War, all the evidence suggests that Salmon is right. Seen in this way, it is refreshing to read a presentation of Scandinavia's history, written by a non-Scandinavian.
In conclusion: Scandinavian and the Great Powers 1890-1940 can only be characterised as a standard in its field - i.e. the political, economic and military rivalry between the great powers and the Scandinavian countries. It is something as rare as a wide-ranging and sharply formulated synthesis, based on secondary literature and the author's own archive studies of the region's position in international politics through half a century. The thesis that the Scandinavian countries were capable of influencing the outside world and, if nothing else, got the best out of the various high-tension situations is documented. If I am to point out one weakness in the study, it is the treatment of the ideological and cultural side. In this context, Salmon lacks a solid research tradition as a sparring partner. On the whole, however, Salmon has supplied us with a study that will probably remain a standard reference work for years to come.
. Handel, Weak States in the International System, London 1981, quoted in Salmon, p. 4.
. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918, quoted in Salmon, p. 53.
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