“Neutral nations managed to tiptoe through a global conflict, avoiding war while protecting their own interests.”
By John Anthony Miller
ALTHOUGH MANY NATIONS in the global community proclaimed their neutrality during the Second World War, most ultimately leaned toward either the Axis or the Allies for various reasons.
In fact, many of these non-combatant countries were involved in the conflict, some secretly, others more blatant, without officially violating their interpretation of neutrality. Consider the following:
The United States
After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the United States stayed on the fence, relying on its own Neutrality Acts, laws passed during the 1930’s that banned arms sales and loans to combatants. With bloodbath of the Great War was still fresh in everyone’s memory, many American voters and legislators alike were eager to avoid entanglement in yet another European conflict.
But after France fell in June, 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt convinced Congress to amend many restrictions in the Neutrality Act and the “Lend-Lease” program was born, allowing U.S. aid to Great Britain. The policy was expanded to Russia after the Nazi invasion in June of 1941, as well as any other allies fighting the Axis. The United States officially remained “neutral” until December 8, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Although some European nations pledged their neutrality, they were still attacked or occupied. The Nazis conquered Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. And Iceland was occupied by Great Britain and, later, the Americans. Others survived the war as neutrals, often showing preference to one side or the other, and swapping loyalties as needed.
Sweden, officially neutral, allowed Nazi troops to use its rail system during the invasion of Russia in the summer of 1941. They also sold iron ore to Germany throughout the war and allowed German troops to transit through Sweden when on leave from Norway. But Sweden was also a refuge for those fleeing Nazi persecution and, in 1943, following a German order to deport all Jews from Denmark, almost the entire Danish population of Jews, 8,000 in all, successfully escaped to Sweden. Later in the war, Norwegian and Danish fighters trained in Sweden to prepare for the liberation of their homelands.
Having only just finished fighting a bitter Civil War in 1939, Spain officially chose no sides during the global conflict. Yet the fascist government of Francisco Franco had clear sympathies toward the Nazis and even provided a regiment to fight alongside the Germans on the Russian front. Spain’s cozy relationship with Berlin caused considerable concern for the Allies, the fate of Gibraltar and its strategic significance hanging in the balance. As the war continued, Madrid became a hotbed of international espionage.
Interestingly enough, a Spaniard would become the most important Allied spy of the war. Juan Pujol, known as Garbo for his uncanny ability to outsmart the Germans, was originally a poultry farmer from Barcelona. An opponent of Franco and the ruling nationalists, he fed disinformation to the Nazis for the entire war. In fact, his phony intelligence was so prized by Hitler that the German dictator awarded Garbo the Iron Cross, German’s highest military honor. Pujol survived the war, passing along to Berlin details of imaginary million-man armies and fake convoys that kept German resources pinned or diverted. His greatest coup was convincing the Nazis – or at least giving them reason to doubt – that the planned invasion of Normandy was a feint and the real invasion would occur near Calais. The Germans thought Garbo had a network of agents throughout Britain. In reality, information was concocted by Garbo and his handler, Tommy Harris, and relayed to the Germans, who never suspected it was inaccurate.
Perhaps history’s most famous neutral nation, and protected by natural barriers – the Alps, Switzerland could not escape involvement in the Second World War. To preserve its banking empire, and to ensure a continued supply of German coal, Bern announced its neutrality and never wavered from it. Yet the national government still allowed the safe passage of trains between Italy and Germany. Although Hitler initially planned to invade the landlocked nation, he instead turned his attention to England. Switzerland’s location adjacent to Germany made it a natural center for espionage, and both the Allies and the Axis stationed spies throughout the country.
Perhaps the most interesting neutral nation was Portugal. Governed by the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, the country was blessed with significant amounts of tungsten – a valuable mineral used to harden steel for applications like armour, armour-piercing shells, and bearings. Portugal sold its tungsten to both Germany and the Allies, usually for payment in gold. The nation was also a haven for refugees from Europe and North Africa, both the poor and the wealthy, including exiled royalty from the conquered nations of Europe. Given the flood of refugees, fleeing politicians, and European royalty, Portugal became a magnet for international espionage. Informants ranged from hotel chambermaids to diplomats – all providing information on convoy routes, secret locations of manufacturing centres, and anything else anyone was willing to buy.
Perhaps the most spy-infested city in the world at the time was Estoril, a resort town a few kilometres from the capital of Lisbon. A beloved playground for the fabulously wealthy, many of Europe’s exiled royals remained there long after the war had ended. It was best known for the Casino Estoril, where spies from each side watched the patrons as well as each other. The city’s most famous resident during the Second World War was Ian Fleming, who would later create the legendary fictional spy, James Bond. Fleming was a British Naval Intelligence officer assigned to Operation Goldeneye, eventually the name for his Jamaican home as well as the 17th James Bond movie. The objective of Operation Goldeneye was to closely monitor the Spanish-Axis relationship, primarily to protect Gibraltar if Spain either joined the Germans or was invaded by them. A frequent visitor to the Estoril Casino, Fleming would later use that backdrop to create Casino Royale, his first James Bond novel. It’s been suggested that his inspiration for James Bond was a Yugoslavian agent – probably a double agent – named Dusko Popov. Nicknamed “Tricycle,” Popov was a notorious playboy known for his affinity for beautiful women, normally having one on each arm at any given moment.
Portugal remained officially neutral throughout the war, fiercely anti-Communist yet fearful of a Nazi invasion. The country had a long-standing relationship with Great Britain, however, and midway through the war allowed the use of the Azores Islands to the British and Americans for anti-German submarine operations.
Neutrality often served everyone’s purpose. With the exception of those countries strategically located and subsequently invaded, neutral nations traded with, or accommodated both, the Allies and the Axis to the benefit of all parties. In the end, neutral nations got what they wanted – peace and trade – even if they did occasionally show preferences. Somehow, they managed to tiptoe through a global conflict, avoiding war while protecting their own interests.