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.
In 1907, when he came to the throne, King Gustav V had extensive legal authority in political matters. However, in the reign of his father, parliament had more strongly asserted itself and, originally, King Gustav V went along with this new way of doing things. This changed with the coming of World War I. The King favored increasing Swedish military strength while the recently elected Liberal government did not. When a crowd of concerned citizens demonstrated in front of the palace in favor of strengthening the Swedish military in case the country were to become engulfed in the upcoming conflict, the King acted on his own to address the crowd, whose views were in accord with his own, to assure them that this would be done. The Liberal prime minister objected to this, King Gustav V responded that he was well within his rights to speak to his subjects on such a matter, as both their sovereign and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, which prompted the government to resign at which time the King appointed a more conservative administration to replace them.
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.
The most serious accusation in this regard, though again, it has never been proven, revolved around the King interfering in government again. The issue was the 1941 demand from the Germans, at the time of the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union, to allow German military forces to move from Norway, through Sweden to their fellow Axis partner of Finland. According to the prime minister, King Gustav V intervened in this matter, threatening to abdicate if the government did not accede to the German demand. Anti-royal controversialists often mention this in conjunction with another allegation, accusing the King of sending congratulations to Hitler for his victories against the “Bolshevik pest” of the Soviet Union. Others have claimed that the King similarly favored allowing Allied troops to move through Swedish territory but that it was the government which refused and there is no doubt that the King also spoke up on behalf of the Jews and that he tried to arrange peace talks to end the war early on.
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.
There was, in any event, no shortage of gossip and allegations against King Gustav V, even among his fellow monarchs. There were rumors that he tried to interfere in the Norwegian succession, bypassing the King and Crown Prince for the royal grandson, today’s King Harald V and King Haakon VII of Norway reputedly referred to the King of Sweden as ‘the old scoundrel’ and believed him to be pro-German. The fact that Sweden would have been much the worse off by taking a hostile attitude toward the Germans or the fact that a great many Jews found refuge in Sweden because of its neutrality, did not amount to much in the post-war years where mere mention of the word “Nazi” and any hint of being in the least bit tainted by anything less than a zealous commitment to their extermination is sufficient to cause people to switch their brains off and become totally irrational. After Gustav V died in 1950 at age 92 he was succeeded by his son King Gustav VI Adolf and by the next decade republicanism and the total abolition of the monarchy had become mainstream. By the time of the next monarch, new constitutional changes saw the Swedish Crown stripped of absolutely all residual powers, which did tend to thwart some of the arguments of the republicans as there is no president on earth with less power than the King of Sweden.
The Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway are a different story. Both were pulled into World War II for the same reason. The short version is that Winston Churchill was so convinced the Germans would violate Norwegian neutrality that he decided to violate it first, laying mines in Norwegian territorial waters. A landing by ground forces was also planned by the whole British campaign in the far north was an utter fiasco. Germany responded with swift and overpowering force. To move against Norway, Germany had to go through the Kingdom of Denmark. After a long period of decline from the ranks of being a major power, as well as a long period of peace which many people thought would last forever (something seemingly everyone is likely to do), the Danes were practically powerless to resist the German invasion. So, they basically didn’t and the Kingdom of Denmark was occupied in less than 24 hours.
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).
By the end of World War II and the German occupation, the Danes and their monarch never seemed to be closer. It was a stark contrast to how the unfortunate King Leopold III of the Belgians was treated for also remaining in his country during the German occupation. King Christian X of Denmark was admired and respected by almost everyone and his prestige seemed to have never been greater. Yet, even in the oldest monarchy in Europe, which has weathered the republican storm better than most with its very deep roots, no monarch after King Christian X would ever have quite the same level of power and influence in state affairs. It is hard to see how the war played a part in this change, yet that it happened cannot be denied. The monarchy before the war was very different from the monarchy after the war, or, at least, after Christian X. Under his successor, King Frederick IX, the Kingdom of Denmark began to change, becoming, as it was known, a “democratic monarchy”.
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.
Finally, any talk of Iceland, monarchy and World War II, will usually produce some mention of the so-called conspiracy for a Nazi monarchy. I mention it only because someone is bound to speak up if I do not but there really is not much to say on the subject. It was never a conspiracy, never something that was going to happen, it did not happen and so is hardly much of a story. An important, though often left-out point to make clear though, is that this suggestion of a Nazi monarchy in Iceland was made *before* the Germans had occupied Denmark (seat of the existing Icelandic monarchy) and thus also some time before the Allied occupation of Iceland. There is some variation in accounts of this episode but the usual version is that a group of pro-Nazi Icelanders approached the German government about making Prince Friedrich Christian zu Shaumburg-Lippe the King of Iceland. The Prince had been a fairly early member of the Nazi Party, joined the Brown-shirted Storm Troops (SA) and rose to be an assistant to Dr. Joseph Goebbels in the Propaganda Ministry. He was in fact, considered to be on the leftist, socialist, side of the Nazi Party. In any event, it didn’t happen. The Prince said Goebbels favored the idea but Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop did not. However, regardless of that, it is not as though Iceland was ruled by a pro-Nazi party at the time, so such an offer would have had no real meaning anyway.
Last, but not least, we have the situation in the Kingdom of Norway. The Norwegians were the most recently independent of the Scandinavian monarchies, having detached themselves from a personal union with Sweden in 1905. The people voted to establish a monarchy rather than a republic and invited Prince Carl of Denmark to take the throne as King Haakon VII of Norway. He realized that there had been a sizable minority who had favored a republic and the recent democratic process which had brought about the break with Sweden was a sign of the times so he knew from the outset that his royal powers would be limited and was partly chosen for the very reason that he made no objection to such restrictions. By 1928 he was obliged, by the democratic process, to appoint a government led by the Norwegian Labor Party which advocated abolishing the monarchy (something later dropped from their program).
World War II spread to Scandinavia, as mentioned, because of events in Norway. Denmark was a mere stepping stone, invaded and occupied within a day. Norway would take somewhat longer for, as Norwegians at the time proudly said, “we are a longer country”. The British effort to establish a Scandinavian front was a total fiasco, very ill-organized and the German attack was swift, efficient and overpowering. King Haakon VII knew his country stood no chance and immediately made plans, upon the outbreak of war, to establish a government-in-exile in Britain. The Germans did their best to capture him and the Royal Family but in an arduous series of movements, they were able to elude them and ultimately take a British warship into exile. The German attack had begun on April 8 and the last major Norwegian stronghold fell on May 5 with the King and party leaving the country on June 7. The King and Crown Prince Olav, the symbols of Norwegian resistance, went to England while other family members were sent to safety in the United States. Pockets of Norwegian forces carried on fighting for much longer and, of course, Norwegian forces in exile and underground resistance movements persisted in fighting for the duration of the war.
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.
His son and successor, King Olav V, had played a major part in the Norwegian war effort, being appointed an admiral in the Norwegian navy, a general in the Norwegian army and in 1944 the Norwegian Chief of Defense. He oversaw the Norwegian contribution to the Allied armed forces and at the end of the war was in charge of dealing with the disarmament of the surrendered Germans. Nonetheless, by the time he came to the throne, things had already changed from what they had been in the war years when his father was so identified with Norwegian patriotism that “H7” became the symbol of the resistance. Although, legally, the royal powers did not change, having been limited at the outset, there was definitely a new, more republican, sentiment about the country. When King Haakon VII had come to the Norwegian throne, he had been given a proper coronation. For King Olav V there would be no coronation, only a church service after his swearing-in ceremony which was officially boycotted by the ruling Labor Party (though some members attended anyway).
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.
What we can see is that many monarchs had an increased status during the war years due to the state of emergency that, of course, ended when the war was over. There was also an increase in national unity because of the war which, likewise, ended when it was over. This was something that some monarchs commented on as being regrettable. The status of many monarchies also saw the status of the monarch decline with the status of the country due to things like de-colonization and the polarization of the world into an American camp and a Russian camp. European monarchies also often saw leftwing parties come to power after World War I, then brought back after World War II and with a huge influx of American aid money which made unsustainable spending programs and social welfare states take root which governments have become more desperate to try to uphold. It is certainly no coincidence that the leftist parties pushing these policies have invariably been either openly anti-monarchy or at the very least possessing a very republican mentality even if not openly calling for the establishment of a republic.