Wartime Sweden, 1939-1945

Hjordis Genberg & David Niven, 1939-1945
Hjordis Genberg modelling for Leja in 1941, and a promotional Swedish postcard for David Niven’s 1944 movie ‘The Way Ahead’. (The Hjordis photo is courtesy of the Nordiska Museet).

Hjördis spoke and wrote at some length about her adventures in the first half of the forties, but rarely referred to the war that was surrounding her country on all sides.  She told Woman’s Own: “Being Swedish I was a pro-British neutral”, and only alluded to its effect on her life, such as expressing shock at the amount of food freely available during her first American visit in December 1945.

Over-all though, apart from a frustrating inability to travel, Hjördis’ rapid success in Stockholm between 1941-1945 may have helped to make the war feel like a fairly distant backdrop.

Modern Housewife

One person who wrote at length about life in Sweden at the time was Stockholm housewife Astrid Lindgren, who kept a diary of her hopes and fears, along with observations on everyday life.

(Astrid’s diary has been published in English as ‘A World Gone Mad’. She is better known as the author of the Pippi Longstocking books).

Astrid recorded that Germany’s invasion of Poland on 1st September 1939 triggered a sharp increase in stockpiling among the Swedish population: “The amount of hoarding is unbelievable.” Food rationing was initially threatened and then quickly introduced, although the products in question and the amounts allowed fluctuated in the following years.

Astrid noted that people on the streets of Stockholm looked: “Pretty much the same as usual, only a bit more gloomy.” Despite the fact that the first shots of the Second World War took place a mere 120 miles from Sweden, it was the Soviet invasion of Finland on 30th November 1939 that caused real fear in the population and made the war feel much closer to home.

“Germany will have to take the blame in perpetuity for letting the Russian barbarians loose in Europe,” a terrified Astrid wrote in December 1939. Stories of Soviet atrocities in Finland and the Baltic states reached Swedish ears long before the horrors of  German occupied Poland.

In February 1940, Swedish radio broadcast an undisguised leave-us alone message: “Any potential invader would find her way very hard in northern Sweden. Machine-gun nests cover the front with an impenetrable line.”

What’s going to happen to us?

Boarded-up shop display windows in wartime Stockholm.
Boarded-up shop display windows in wartime Stockholm. The city was felt to be in danger of bombing raids. The worst that happened was an accidental raid by Russian bombers which hit a suburb in 1944 – ironically during a black-out exercise.

Following the German invasions of Denmark and Norway in April 1940, the stream of atrocity stories began to flow from Norway as well as Finland, aided (bravely at the stage of the war) by the Stockholm daily Dagens Nyheter, which Astrid noted took every opportunity to air their anti-Nazi views.

According to British visitor George Gibson, the paper spoke on behalf of “the overwhelming majority” of Swedes, although: “German propaganda reduces ours to nothingness. Berlin newspapers are flown to Stockholm the same day; London journals arrive five days late.”

In 1940, news soon reached the population that Germany was demanding to be allowed to transport troops through northern Sweden. It was an unpopular arrangement that the Swedes only felt strong enough to stop in October 1943.

“Soon we won’t be able to wish for a German defeat any more, because the Russians are on the move once again,” Astrid noted after the fall of France. “In the last few days they’ve occupied Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. And a weakened Germany can only mean one thing for us Nordic nations – that we’ll be overrun with Russians. I can’t think of anything more appalling.”

Meanwhile up north

In Vivsta, 20 year-old Hjördis Genberg must have been aware of a general mobilisation taking place in Norrland, and a blackout imposed “until further notice”. However, when her father succumbed to cancer in August 1940, the war may just have felt like a dark sideshow to his illness.

Life went on for Hjördis, and in 1941 she and her sister Ann-Marie moved to Stockholm, where Hjördis eventually landed a position as a student model.

By that time there were (literal) material shortages in the fashion industry. According to Swedish radio in 1941: “Trouser legs will be cut narrow, as was fashionable years ago. Flaps will not be allowed on pockets. Lack of material for clothes is the reason for this measure.”

Foodstuffs were rationed but still needed to be bought. Hjördis mentioned that for a time she and her sister could barely afford to eat anything.

Astrid Lindgren was better off than Hjördis and Ann Marie, although her diary was still rather food-obsessed, She did, however, recognise how fortunate she was to be living in Sweden: “It’s become completely clear to me that, as things stand, there’s no country in Europe left so untouched by the impact of war as here, in spite of a considerable rise in prices, rationing, and increased unemployment.”

Back to the forests

Wood piled in the streets of Stockhom, 1944
Wood piled in the streets of Stockhom, 1944

The greatest shortages were of coal and oil, both of which needed to be imported. Germany was well aware.

According to the Dundee Daily Herald in September 1941: “Swedes are so short of coal that there will be only ten ‘hot water days’ allowed this winter. The streets are piled with wood.”

“The Germans put pressure on Sweden now and then – as when they stopped imports from South America,” Ferdinand Tuohy reported for The Sphere magazine. “At the same time they send ‘furlough’ troops through Sweden.”

German obstruction was circumvented by something that Sweden had in abundance. Trees. Forests were utilised to provide charcoal and wood gas as a substitute for petrol. A quarter of Sweden’s 275,000 cars were running again by 1943. And that was despite the Germans stopping their “safe conduct by sea” policy for Swedish shipping between January and May.

In 1944, the Newcastle Evening Chronicle decided to go a bit mad on the wood theme: “A Swede today washes with wooden soap, puts on a wooden dinner jacket, drives to the party in a taxi running on wood fuel and is received by his hostess wearing an elegant gown made of wood. These are a few of the things done with wood by Swedish scientists to cheat the German blockade which cuts off most of the country’s pre-war imports.”

“Taxi and bus drivers pouring charcoal chips into generators fixed on the back of their vehicles and pumping a small lever to secure proper combustion are now a familiar sight in Stockholm. A lack of vegetable oils meant no more soap for Swedes until scientists found that oil produced from liquid resin would do just as well.”

A pain for heavy drinkers

Orancia advert, 1944
Swedish advert for Orancia – an orange drink. Fruit was not rationed in 1944, with Spanish oranges cheap and plentiful.

In September 1944, the US Rotarian magazine’s Stockholm reporter Albin Johnson wrote that: “Foodstuffs are ample, even if the safe-conduct boats, bringing chiefly tobacco, gasoline, coffee, and oranges are stopped. (Sweden) still clings to what is left of the normalcy which gave her people the highest individual and collective standard of living of any people on earth. One eats well in Sweden, and things are getting better. Restaurants demand coupons, but bread, butter, meats etc are more than sufficient. Coffee and tobacco are luxuries.”

Not all restrictions were in place because of the war. Sweden’s answer to Prohibition was the Bratt System, which had been introduced in 1917 to control (though not eliminate) alcohol consumption.

“The liquor problem is a pain for heavy drinkers,” Albin Johnson wrote sympathetically, and with a straight face, I assume, “since the laws are designed to limit and control consumption rather than to ration stocks.”

Hjordis Genberg modelling at a Swedish Red Cross event in Stockholm, 1944.
Hjordis Genberg modelling at a Swedish Red Cross event, held at the Royal Cinema  in Stockholm, 9th May 1944.

“Women receive less, a discrimination perhaps due to the fact that the government is worried about the growing number of women chronic alcoholics.”

“For temperance reasons the laws strictly limit the amount that can be sold in restaurants and cafes to one client at one time and in one place, and under the Bratt System food must be consumed concurrently and drinking must be done at tables. Drinking ‘on your feet’ or at a bar is strictly forbidden. Cocktails are frowned upon and the bartender himself must place the water or soda in one’s whisky.”

In addition, spontaneous dancing could only take place in a few registered venues: “Recently the Swedish Government has become concerned about the morals of the younger generation. Sweden has tightened up on dancing.” Only six licenses were handed out in Stockholm, which authorised two tea dances or dance-related evenings per week. [Talking of tea, it was made out of apple leaves in wartime Sweden].

“The Swedes still demand the tuxedo or white tie on the dance floor. A rather heavy tax is exacted for each dancing couple, which is added to the drink or dinner bill. In Stockholm, where there are 70,000 more women than men, the laws are not popular.”

A little bit of heaven

Central Stockholm, all lit up in 1944. On the left is the Royal Cinema an don the right Meeths department store
Central Stockholm, all lit up in 1944. On the left is the Royal Cinema and on the right Meeths department store

“To a traveller who has seen bomb-pitted Britain, Stockholm seems like a little bit of heaven,” Albin Johnson wrote in 1944. “Brilliantly lit streets; well filled shop windows with plentiful supply of luxury products; well-dressed men and women and well fed people; movies, the theatre.”

“Concert halls are popular and talent runs from the Chilean chanteuse Rosita Serrano, to Wilhelm Furtwängler as guest conductor of the Stockholm Symphonic Orchestra. The movies are perhaps Sweden’s greatest indulgence. ‘Casablanca’, after a run of nearly a year, was going strong when I left, and the audience cheers lustily when the Frenchmen drown out the Germans with the Marseillaise. That demonstration has been made the subject of numerous protests from Berlin.”

David Niven’s ‘The Way Ahead’ was premiered in the UK two days after D-Day. It was a movie made to galvanise public support behind the Allies’ final push of the war, hence ‘The End’ caption being replaced by ‘The Beginning…’.

In Sweden the movie premiered in January 1945 to positive reviews such as: “Both fun and very exciting,” and “An excellent English military film.”

By 1944 Swedes could cast their hopes to the western allies. As far as the Soviets were concerned, Astrid Lindgren’s reaction to the discovery of Polish mass-graves in the Katyn forest showed that she was still fearful: “God preserve us from the Russians.”

English magazine The Sphere explained:  “One thing we need to remember is that the Swedes have to live next to the Russians, ‘the hereditary enemy’.”

Still, not everyone in Sweden felt the same way:

“Norwegian and Danish refugees express their contempt of our terror of the Russians,” Astrid Lindgren wrote in 1944. “But we know it’s justified.” Fear of Nazi Germany meanwhile turned to revulsion, as news of excesses in Norway and Denmark continued to pour in.

Charities such as the Swedish Red Cross became more and more active. In May 1944, Hjördis was one of the NK models to take part in a fund-raising party at Stockholm’s Royal Cinema. In 1945, Swedish royal Count Folke Bernadotte fronted the Red Cross in flying to Germany to arrange the release and rescue of concentration camp prisoners.

Swedish Red Cross delegation withFolke Bernadotte
Swedish Red Cross delegation with Count Folke Bernadotte, in front of  an ABA aircraft – painted orange with “SWEDEN” in large letters.

“Travelling to Sweden these days is a complicated matter,” Albin Johnson reported in September 1944. “Prior to last November the Swedish airlines operated spasmodically between the United Kingdom and Sweden, flying blacked out, when conditions were favourable, over the Skagerrak route. Then two planes were shot down with heavy loss of life and the service discontinued. For five months the only entry and exit was over-the-top on blockade runners. The ABA is again resuming its service, carrying only neutrals approved by Berlin, and mail.”

ABA (AB Aerotransport) kept their service running by using converted Boeing B17 Flying Fortress bombers, stripped of arnament, which could fly higher and further than the unfortunate aircraft they replaced. The destination airport in Aberdeen had to be swapped for Prestwick, near Glasgow, which also provided an onward connection to America.

VE Day

Kungsgatan, Stockholm. VE Day, 8th May 1945
Kungsgatan (Kings Street), Stockholm. VE Day, 8th May 1945

Even before VE Day, Astrid Lindgren recorded that Norwegian, Danish and Swedish flags were flying together in Stockholm. On VE Day itself:  “[We] struggled our way along Kungsgatan through the excited crowds. We saw three policemen outside the German tourist office as we walked past, and there was a cover over the window. I’ve lost count of the amount of times the windows were smashed during the war.”

In July 1945, Hjördis’ employer the Nordiska Kompaniet was described by a American visitor William Stoneman as: “One of the finest department stores in the world… jammed full of things you can’t buy anywhere else in Europe, barring possibly Switzerland.”

“You can get a taxi and the telephones work, something that just doesn’t happen elsewhere in the Europe of 1945.”

At the same time, Hjördis and her fiancee Carl-Gustaf Tersmeden were planning to expand their horizons beyond a Sweden described in a US magazine as “almost hermetically sealed from the outside world by Axis-dominated neighbours”.

Carl worked for ABA through to early 1945, when he joined his family’s wood pulp company to prepare to travel to the Americas on their behalf. By November, when coffee, tea, cocoa, petrol and tobacco rationing ended, he was on his way to Brazil. (Brazil fought on the Allied side from 1942, after suffering heavy loss of life off its coasts due to Axis submarine activity).

Ironically, shoes and fabrics came off the Swedish ration list on 26th November 1945, less than two weeks before Hjördis sailed to join up with Carl in Baltimore. The wider world beckoned. Hjördis would never live in Sweden again.

Next page: Mrs Hjördis Tersmeden