Chapter 1, Before the First World War: Varangians and Other Forerunners
In Viking times there were Scandinavian warriors, Varangians, in the Byzantine lifeguard. Since that time Swedes have served in many other foreign armed forces. They have done so for economic gain as well as for the sake of military experience, to escape boredom, and even some through forced enrollment. With the coming of the 1800s political ideas became an important factor.
From the tenth century until the thirteenth century warriors from the Scandinavian lands traveled to Miklagård, the Viking name for the Byzantine city of Constantinople, today's Turkish Istanbul. They wanted to be Varangians and be enrolled into the prestigious Väringjalid (the Varangian guard). Scandinavians, with their exotic weapons, were seen as the best guarantee for the security of the Byzantine leadership. In Persia (Iran) between 1910 and 1920 and in Ethiopia and Spain during the 1930s, Swedes came to be seen with the same great trust and confidence as the Varangians had been. Before we report on the twentieth century Varangians, however, we need to give an overview of their predecessors during the previous three centuries.
Up to 1814, the last time Sweden as a nation was at war, Swedes in the armed forces of foreign states were not an unknown phenomena, but because Sweden's own military was more active in that period, there were fewer Swedes who joined the military of other states. In those days it was necessary to occasionally resort to the enrollment of thousands of German, Scottish, Irish, and Swiss mercenaries to reinforce the Swedish Army. Paradoxically enough, even at this time, Swedish units could be hired out by the Swedish Regent to foreign princes during a lull in the Swedish campaigns!
A rather exotic example of a Swede who himself chose to serve in foreign uniform during Sweden's Great Power epoch is Nils Matsson Kiöping, who in 1650 went into the service of the Persian Shah and took part in his campaign against Afghanistan.
During the following century over 400 Swedish officers fought under the French flag. In the beginning they were mainly Swedish prisoners of war who in accordance with the custom of the time were offered to change prisoner status for war service. Later young Swedish officers came voluntarily to France to join a Swedish-led regiment there, that from 1742 was called "Royal Suédois" (Royal Swedish). At that time France led the world in military theory and the regiment also offered ample opportunities for practicing the art of war. Royal Suédois participated in the battle at Gibraltar in 1782, that strangely enough, was part of the American Revolutionary War.
From Chapter 10, In the Service of the Third Reich, 19391945: Toward the Precipice with the
Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht
The Führer voiced harsh criticism of the Swedes for the very meager volunteer contingent they had provided for the struggle against Communism in the East, and even Reichsmarschall Göring described the Swedes as decadent. The Finns on the other hand earned broad praise for their pluck.
Bräutigam, army liaison officer for Alfred Rosenberg
at Hitler's HQ, in his diary, 16 July 1941
There were Swedes who swore eternal loyalty to the leader of the Third Reich. Most wore a death's head emblem in their uniform caps. A total of 200 Swedish citizens were in German uniform in the Second World War. The poor recruitment from Sweden was a fiasco for Berlin. The Swedes on the Eastern Front, however, participated in the largest battles that Swedes have ever experienced. Several of them witnessed the Holocaust.
"Under Germany's leadership Europe is going into a war of the people against the Red Empire. On the flanks march Finland and Romania. It has become Finland's great and noble mission to secure a bridgehead in the North against the Red Czarism," wrote the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet following Hitler's surprise attack on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941.
For many inhabitants in the North it appeared in the late summer of 1941 that Nazi Germany would have control of Europe from far northern Norway to the French-Spanish border for a protracted period of time. The defeat of the Soviet Union was expected, even in London, to be only a matter of time. Rommel and his Afrika Korps would soon be in Cairo. And then the victorious German tank armies would reach the Persian Gulf from the west and north and the oil supply for Germany would be secure.
When the Third Reichs war successes reversed in the East and the Red Army fought back with its masses of armor and men, the divisions of the Waffen-SS got the reputation to be the elite "fire brigade" of the German Eastern Front. Both the quality and motivation among the Swedes and other foreign SS-volunteers varied greatly, however, a complex blend of political fanaticism, idealism, and more prosaic motives. The multinational Waffen-SS must be seen in the context of the European fascist movements of the time, and the polarization between communism and fascism during the years between the world wars.
A majority of the Swedes in the Waffen-SS were members of the Swedish Nazi party. "If I fall, my blood will have been shed for the Aryan fellowship and I will have died for my ideals," wrote Hans Lindén from Stockholm in his diary in 1941. Others were traditionally pro-German through their upbringing and several had German family connections. Remarkably--in contrast to the fact that many were "believers" in the Nazi cause before they joined the SS--many Swedes would ultimately become deserters, disillusioned with the reality of the Waffen-SS.
The low number of Swedish SS volunteers was a disappointment for the government in Berlin. It was considered nearly a fiasco. Of the total 180 Swedes who at some time were part of the Waffen-SS only about one hundred were sent to the front line, mainly on the Eastern Front. These individuals experienced the most extreme combat against an unmerciful opponent. The SS-volunteer Gösta Borg, from Stockholm, described the Red Armys offensives in the final phase of the war as "earthquakes of TNT and masses of tanks, that smashed apart everything in the way: terrain, weapons, and people."