WORLD WAR II: The forgotten history of Sweden's aid contribution to Greece during Axis occupation

Fundraiser for the Greek Red Cross in Sweden with great support. A little girl outside Dramaten.

Despite the lively debate about Sweden's actions during World War II, few seem to know about the country's largest international humanitarian effort during the war: the aid shipments to famine-stricken Axis occupied Greece.

Sweden's actions during World War II still arouse strong feelings - the dominant story has revolved around Sweden's cowardice and opportunism, with an emphasis on the policy of concessions and trade with Nazi Germany.

80 years ago, however, a Swedish humanitarian effort was launched that helps put Stockholm's neutrality in a partly different light.

Although the operation was described as the largest international humanitarian effort during World War II, it is almost forgotten today.


The background was the horrific scenes that took place on the streets of Athens in the winter of 1941-42.

During German occupation, Greece was hit by a famine that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

READ MORE: The Battle of Gorgopotamos: Brits and Greeks in World War II.

When the situation was at its worst in January and February 1942, up to a thousand people died a day in Athens alone.

In Sweden, the situation was brought to the attention of the Greek-based author and artist Gunnar Cederschiöld, who reported on the crisis in the Stockholms-Tidningen newspaper.

Help would eventually come, but from an unexpected place.

An international commission under Swedish leadership was tasked with distributing relief shipments for the remainder of the war.

Although the situation in Greece remained very strained, a new famine of the same magnitude as the winter of 1941-42 could be avoided.

This relief effort undoubtedly became one of Sweden's most important international efforts during the Second World War.

The immediate cause of the famine was the occupation of the Axis powers.

By the autumn of 1940, Italy had invaded Greece, but Mussolini's dream of re-establishing a Roman Mediterranean empire had stalled.

The following spring, the Germans came to Mussolini's rescue.

A blitzkrieg from the northeast put the Greek army in a hopeless situation.

As early as April 27, 1941, Athens fell.

The Axis powers divided Greece into different occupation zones, while the civilian administration was managed by a puppet government.

This regime was almost as unpopular as the occupiers, and also lacked administrative skills.

At the same time, the Germans and Italians made so-called requisitions, which had catastrophic effects.

To avoid giving away grain to the collaborationist government or the occupying power, many farmers withdrew their crops from the market.

As a result, grain supply to the cities was curtailed.

Added to this was the Allied strategy of cutting off the continent from food imports in order to put pressure on the German economy.

The blockade had been successful during the First World War and was now repeated to an even greater extent.

When the first reports of an impending humanitarian catastrophe in Greece began to circulate, the British were therefore cold-hearted.

According to international law, it was the occupying power's responsibility to arrange the food supply in affected areas.

As the situation worsened during the winter of 1941–42, voices were raised abroad to help the hard-pressed Greek people.

Greek exiles in the United States formed the Greek War Relief Association, but as long as their activities were limited to individual shiploads from Turkey, the famine continued.

To remedy the disaster, a large-scale international effort would be required.

In the end, the British and Germans agreed on a compromise. The fact that the warring parties could agree on a negotiated solution to this issue was unique.

It was based on the fact that Canada, in particular, donated wheat while Sweden provided commercial ships.

Under these conditions, the British agreed to lift the blockade, but in return demanded that none of the relief shipments ended up in the hands of the occupying forces.

All distribution of rations would be monitored by an international commission.

The Red Cross offered to lead the work, but the British and Americans did not trust the organisation's independence due to its connections with the Germans and Italians in Greece.

The question went instead to the Swedish government, which accepted the offer.

In this way, an international commission was organised to administer the humanitarian effort, where half of the delegates consisted of Swedes and the other half delegates from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The work was to be led by the Swedish diplomat Paul Mohn.

The fact that the British and Americans trusted the Swedish government more than the Red Cross says something about the confidence that the Allies had in the Swedish government.

This is even in the context of 1942, when the policy of concessions to Germany was still extensive.

The fact that the British made this exception to the blockade was partly because of the Greek peoples heroic struggle against the Italians and Germans, but the Allies also did not want to make themselves unpopular by forcing the Greek people to starve.

The Germans, for their part, saw no reason to stop the relief shipments.

Unlike the areas in Eastern Europe where the Germans intended to create a Lebensraum, there were no explicit plans to exterminate the Greek people through famine.

The occupation was primarily a result of Italian great power dreams and Germany's strategic considerations regarding the Mediterranean.

The offer of outside help was a way for the occupiers to solve the supply problem without having to waste resources themselves.

In the spring of 1942, the first Swedish ship reached Greece, but it was not until November of the same year that regular deliveries began.

Despite the fact that the ships were provided with flags of Sweden and the Red Cross, the voyage across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean was very dangerous.

Due to mines, submarines and torpedo planes, the crews were in constant danger.

In the summer of 1942, for example, the Swedish cargo ship S / S Stureborg was sunk off Cyprus by an Italian torpedo plane, killing 19 of the 20 crew.

M / S Camelia was detonated outside Saloniki in 1943, and M / S Wiril was attacked by British bombers in the port of Chios in 1944.

The commissioners' work on the ground also involved difficult hardships, where they risked crossfire between Allied airstrikes, Greek partisans and German forces.

One of the Swedes on site was Sture Linnér, who in his memoirs describes the situation when he traveled the 40 miles from Athens to Thessaly to begin his work as a provincial delegate:

"Broken gravel roads, blown up bridges, military barricades, mines, sudden machine-gun salvos from occupiers or partisans…

"When I walked out of Hotel Pallas on the first working day morning, I did not reach my office until I was stopped by delegations and individuals asking for help.

"Same story over and over.

"Villages looted by the occupiers of everything, but grain and food in general.

"Or burned as reprisals from some partisan attack nearby.

"Innocent civilians who have been put to death, sometimes in the most barbaric forms. Hunger.

"Lack of medicine of all kinds.

"Lack of clothes.

"Lack of everything.

"Except for dignity, kindness, unwavering will for freedom."

Linnér, later a longtime employee at Svenska Dagbladet, diplomat and professor of Greek, had been recruited to the Commission because he was educated in Greek at Uppsala University.

Like virtually all the Swedish delegates, he had very strong sympathies for the Greek people and ill-concealed aversions to the occupiers.

When the International Commission began its work in the summer of 1942, large sections of Athens' population depended on help from the city's soup kitchen.

Mohn saw the system as corrupt and inefficient, and succeeded in abolishing it after holding a referendum, in which dissatisfaction with the system became apparent.

In the future, most of the grain that reached Greece was ground immediately after unloading at the port city of Piraeus and then distributed to local bakers who sold the bread at fixed prices.

The Commission's task was to control deliveries and prevent theft and sales on the black market.

Mohn considered it necessary to act pragmatically and improvise in order to keep the German occupiers, the Greek people and the Allies happy.

However, the fact that he was more interested in practical solutions than bureaucratic rules of the game and careful documentation contributed to the disagreement between the Swedes and the Swiss delegates from the Red Cross.

The latter accused the Swedes of acting too independently.

The Swiss were obviously disappointed of having been passed to the back seat.

The British, for their part, were clear that they wanted the Swedish government to continue to have full control over the Commission.

To appease the Red Cross, the Swedish Foreign Ministry was still forced to make a sacrifice: in 1943, Mohn was fired and replaced by diplomat Emil Sandström.

This irritated the Swedish delegates in Greece, who considered the new leadership to be top-down and formalistic.

The Commission continued its work even after Greece's liberation in 1944 and was replaced in March 1945 by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).

By then, over 600,000 tons of food had been distributed to the Greek people, as well as medicines, clothes and shoes.

Exactly how many lives were saved thanks to these relief shipments is impossible to calculate, but the deliveries prevented a new famine and catastrophe similar to that winter of 1941-42.

After the war, Greece expressed its gratitude for the operation, but both the famine and the humanitarian operation have played a hidden role in Greek historical culture.

This is largely due to the fact that the tragedy was overshadowed by the devastating civil war that followed liberation.

Even in Sweden, the effort is largely forgotten, despite - or perhaps precisely because of - that this was the "finest hour" of Swedish neutrality.

As one of the absolute greatest humanitarian efforts of the Second World War, one may ask why it does not deserve a more obvious place in the history books.

Björn Lundberg is a professor of history at Lund University.

This article first appeared in Swedish on Svenska Dagbladet.

Guest Contributor

This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor