Neville Wylie, ed. European Neutrals and Non-Belligerents during the Second World War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xi + 368 pp. $70.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-64358-0.
Reviewed by Thomas J. Mayock (retired military historian)
Published on H-Diplo (February, 2003)
"Neutral against Whom?"
Neville Wylie of Nottingham University draws from thirteen scholars some from British academia but most abroad, to produce a fine collection of papers on the European neutrals during World War II. Wylie himself contributes an introduction and a paper on Switzerland to the collection. His overarching theme is the exploration of how the war looked to those countries which chose neutrality, and to consider the pressures which afterward sucked many of them into the maelstrom.
Wylie's introduction explains how World War II's total and ideological warfare made light of the rights of neutrals codified in the Hague Agreements of 1907 and already battered in the Great War. If they had no air defense, the neutrals saw their airspace being routinely violated by the belligerents, who also had no qualms about mounting "special operations" in neutral territory. The growth of economic interdependence during the interwar years heightened the neutrals' trading importance and, pari passu, their peril. In a big war, no nation of any consequence could be totally neutral.
The book divides neutral countries into the categories of "phoney war," "wait and see," and "long-haul." The first category includes those countries that fell to the Germans in 1940 under circumstances that in three of them--Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands--sparked substantial post-war recrimination. All of these countries were "satisfied" powers with nothing to gain from a war, but a neutral status worked well on in Denmark.
The sketches that follow are designed to introduce the various authors and their work. Wylie has said that it took him much longer than he anticipated to edit the collection. The result of his efforts is a well-organized and interesting series of articles.
The Congress of Vienna has been praised for the wisdom and comparative durability of its settlements, but the nation it cobbled together--the Kingdom of the Netherlands, on France's northern frontier, to protect Germany--did nothing to protect France or its own peoples a century later, particularly since Belgium separated from the Dutch in 1831. Bob Moore of the University of Sheffield concludes that in 1939 the Dutch had no choice but to choose the neutral posture that had served them well in 1914. No conceivable amount of defense spending could hope to prevent Hitler from entering. Considering the case hopeless, neither France nor Britain would extend guarantees. The Dutch authorities were fairly realistic; they provided guides for their officials as to how far they could go with an occupier without sliding into collaboration. In the end they drew a harsh civilian administration from the Germans which succeeded in transporting a large percentage of the Jewish population. After the war the official Dutch history was very critical of prewar Dutch neutrality but in later years the verdict is that not much else could have been done.
The case of Belgium is infinitely more complex. When King Leopold III cut loose from his French alliance in 1936 to proclaim neutrality he unhinged the defense of northern France, without preventing a German onslaught. The prewar Belgian forces maneuvered against both French and Germans. He then surrendered his armies without notifying his allies and made overtures to the Reich, electing to stay in occupied Belgium. One would have thought that they would have finished the monarch, but such were the tensions in the country. The king was allowed to return for a time and the pre-war political arrangements were resumed, as if nothing had happened. A good many Belgians had desired a German victory and the Rexist Leon Degrelle had even recruited a division to fight in Russia. Appropriately, Alain Colignon from the Centre d'Etudes et de Documentation Guerre et Societes Contemporaines in Brussels tackles this story, where neutrality was a political football.
Somewhat more protected by its isolation, Norway clung to the neutrality that had served it during the Great War along with the comforting thought that the British Navy would always come to the rescue. After all, the Norwegian Queen was Queen Victoria's granddaughter. Very little was spent on defense. The Labour Government distrusted the officer corps for various reasons, among them the prewar fascist politicking of Vidkun Quisling. Foreign Secretary Halvdan Koht was pro-British but a strict neutralist. He was up against the Allies' determination to open a substitute front in Scandinavia since they were reluctant to bite the bullet in France. They notified Koht that they would be mining the Norwegian coast to interrupt Swedish iron ore shipments to Germany, a prelude to a possible move against Sweden and other adventures. While he was mulling a report on this, he heard that the Germans were on the move. A day later he and the government were being pursued through the countryside by the Wehrmacht. Having drawn Norway disastrously into the war, the British response was sufficiently amateurish to cause the fall of the Chamberlain government.
All this was vigorously investigated in Norway at the end of the war. Never particularly popular, Koht was particularly scrutinized and the dust has still not entirely settled. Patrick Salmon of the the University of Newcastle, who has written on the subject previously, takes us through the extensive literature.
As for Denmark, Hans Kirchoff of the University of Copenhagen sees its policy as similar to Norway's: keep the country free from favoritism to Britain to avoid any unpleasantness from the southern neighbor. After a brief resistance, the Danes were allowed to govern themselves under the German eye. Germans and British shared Danish agricultural exports. The result was that the Danes escaped the war's ravages and even managed to get practically all their Jews safely to Sweden.
Italian neutrality is explored by Brien Sullivan, an American defense expert and scholar. While proclaiming his solidarity with Germany, Mussolini reluctantly declared Italy a non-belligerent in September 1939 purely because the Italian services were unready for war. He was roundly denounced for creating a category of unneutral neutrality, but non-belligerence also described the status of the United States, the USSR, Turkey, and many another. From then until the defeat of France in June 1940, it allowed the Duce to intrigue with and against the Allies, and most of the states of southeastern Europe. Then he joined Hitler, an act that doomed the Italian but maybe also his German friend. Sullivan recounts the dizzying sequence of plots and counter-plots, including the coups meditated by Vittorio Emanuele III.
Since it was carved up by the victorious Allies after the Great War, Hungary was predicted to join any effort to overturn the settlements. Tibor Frank of the University of Budapest explains how Hungary got most of its territory back in the post-Munich awards without sacrificing neutrality and was awarded some of Transylvania as well, but then was dragged into the war by Germany. Even so, Hungary passed thousands of Polish soldiers through to the west. The premier, Paul Teleky, committed suicide when Hungary joined the attack on Russia.
Regent Prince Paul of Yugoslavia was an anglophile forced by the eclipse of his Great War allies to try to keep afloat amidst the demands of Italy and Germany, all the while conscious of the fragility of the conglomerate Yugoslav state. Dragoljub Zyinojinovic of the University of Belgrade shows how the Prince managed this with considerable skill until forced to opt for the Tripartite Alliance, whereupon his army officers deposed him and declared for the Allies. In view of the destruction promptly wrecked on his country there is something to be said for the proposition that the Regent was right.
Once the Germans came to terms with the USSR and the French were defeated, the Romanians inevitably lost the territories acquired at the end of the Great War. Oil was the only card King Carol could play and Maurice Pearton of University College London thinks that he played it well, until forced by Russian pressure into the German camp.
Russian pressure also drove Bulgaria into Berlin's arms, although after defeats in two previous wars King Boris would have preferred to remain neutral. Vesselin Dimitrov of the London School of Economics quotes Boris as claiming to be the only true Bulgarian patriot in Bulgaria, the rest being pro-Germans, or pan-slavists, and his wife, Italian. In the end, alone of the defeated Axis countries, Bulgaria actually managed to regain territory. Enrique Moradiellos of Extramadura University and Elena Hernandez-Sandoica of Madrid University have contributed a fine article on Franco Spain's progression from a declared posture of solidarity with the Axis to a fairly neutral position. After the collapse of the Western Front in 1940, the Caudillo was willing to join the war, but he was regarded by the Germans as more trouble than he was worth in view of the ruinous conditions left by the civil war. Spanish workers were sent to Germany and a Blue Division to Russia; U-boats and Abwehr received clandestine assistance. All this began to fade after the Allied invasion of North Africa which provided British and American forces sufficient to secure the Gibraltar Strait.
Portugal, while on the periphery of Europe, was nonetheless endangered by the clash of arms. Fernando Rosas of the University of Lisbon shows that Premier Salazar felt that he had not only to keep Portugal neutral, but Spain as well, lest Spanish expansionists take the opportunity to invade. Otherwise, Portugal had to favor her old alliance with the English, who had the Portuguese Atlantic Islands as hostages.
The neutral Irish Republic had no armed force capable of resisting a major attempt on its territory, which could only come from Britain. The Irish fiercely resisted growls from Churchill and Roosevelt to reunite with Britain, to enter the war, or grant naval bases, all the while cooperating quietly with the British, who said the the Irish were particularly good at uncovering plots, having much recent experience along that line. There was never any danger of a German invasion, for Ireland was naturally screened from the Continent by its geography; no chance of a reenactment of the French incursion of 1798 or of the Races of Castlebar. Eunan O'Halpin of Trinity College, Dublin, shares the verdict of most scholars.
Paul A. Levine of the Centre for Multiethnic Research at Uppsala University is a scholar of the Holocaust. He is critical of a Swedish neutrality that permitted shipping vital war materials to a genocidal Germany after danger of a German invasion had passed. On the other hand, he details the policy that allowed Swedish officials to take up for individual Jews and groups of Jews. He encourages a reevaluation of the record in Sweden.
Wylie would change the traditional view of Swiss neutrality. Beginning with the exploits attributed to General Guisan, he examines with a good deal of realism other topics on which he will expand on in a forthcoming book. Since the volume focuses on recent research in the homelands of the neutrals it tends to be at variance with the victors' version of events. It also tends to view neutrality issues in light of the politics and society of the nations involved. As World War II recedes into history, its heroics lose their appeal while its excesses are writ large.
Wylie points out that the neutrals had some say in what happened to them and he has chosen a handsome dust cover, an April 1940 political cartoon showing a large number of birds representing European countries about to kick German cuckoo eggs--fifth columnists--out of their nests. This is misleading since there is nothing much about fifth columns in the book, and fifth columns, as distinguished from fascist sympathizers, were debunked by Louis De Jong, who produced the official history of the Netherlands during the war as long ago as 1956.
Otherwise the book is attractively presented. There are handy short identifications of the contributors and the notes are at the bottom of the pages, albeit in tiny type.
. The title of this review comes from the (probably apocryphal) response of a citizen on being informed that his country was neutral.
. Louis De Jong, The German Fifth Column in the Second World War, translated by C.M. Geyl (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956).
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Thomas J. Mayock. Review of Wylie, Neville, ed., European Neutrals and Non-Belligerents during the Second World War.
H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.