When Swedish Farmers Marched.

Apr, 2019


     In the years before the First World War, as tension mounted on the continent, the Swedish political parties drew their own internal battle lines. The Conservatives championed a stronger defense, opposed by the Liberals and the Social Democrats. In 1911 the ruling Conservatives, led by Arvid Lindman, decided to build a new armored cruiser, expensive to be sure, but one which they argued would be necessary to defend the nation.

     A few months later, after the first election under the new suffrage laws, the Liberals formed a new government with Karl Staaf as prime minister. One of their first measures was to postpone the building of the cruiser. They also refused to extend the period of compulsory military training, which had been introduced in 1901 to replace the old system of keeping professional soldiers. Like the Social Democrats, the Liberals foresaw a world of peace, a thawing out of hostilities, an international community where conflict would be solved through mediation, not arms.

     The response of the Conservatives was swift and decisive. Within months, 16 million crowns were collected privately to build the cruiser. Throughout the country, Lutheran State Church clergymen preached from the book of Moses: “If ye will do this thing, if ye will go armed before the Lord to war, then afterward ye shall return, and be guiltless before the Lord.” Sven Anders Hedin, renowned explorer, issued A Word of Warning, a pamphlet which described an imagined Russian invasion and planted fear in millions of readers already shaken by rumors of Russian spies and mysterious thefts of secret military documents. 

     In February 1914, some 30,000 Swedish farmers traveled to Stockholm to demonstrate for a stronger defense. The event was viewed by some as an inspiring, non-partisan coming-together in the face of a common threat. Others saw it as a cleverly staged Conservative coup in which the farmers served as puppets.

     On the morning of the 6th, when church bells rang under a heavy sky, the demonstrators gathered by provinces in churches around the city. After the services, the farmers marched through the streets, six by six, in close columns, a black mass of bowlers and overcoats. On their lapels they wore blue and yellow cardboard badges, echoing the words on their lead banner: “With God and the Swedish farmers, for the King and the country.” 

     Crowds cheered as the farmers made their way towards the royal palace, past the proud facades of old mercantile houses, and across the square with its equestrian statue of King Gustaf Adolf II, under whose reign, in the early 1600s, Sweden had ranked among the great military powers of Europe. The farmers crossed the bridge over Strömmen, where flags whipped in the strong wind. A few stones were thrown. There was still no sight of the sun.

     At the palace, a massive structure built in the Italian Renaissance style in the early 18th century, the farmers filled the inner and the outer courtyards and the surrounding grounds as well. In the inner courtyard they formed an open square around the royal tribune. White handkerchiefs waved from the palace windows; Queen Victoria, of German birth, could be glimpsed behind a curtain.

     Shortly King Gustav V, in full military dress, entered the courtyard. In his mid-fifties, lean and tall, measuring a good six feet, he appeared vigorous and proud. Upon mounting the rostrum, he delivered a speech which even the most seasoned commentators would pronounce a rhetorical tour de force.  He spoke of the bond that had always existed between the Swedes and their kings, how the Swedish farmers were the very bedrock of the monarchy. His cause, he said, was the same as that of the farmers. His convictions were their convictions and must never be compromised. “The defense question,” he said, “must be solved, fully and without delay.”

     Shouts of hurrah echoed within the courtyard walls. Bare heads bowed to “A mighty fortress is our God.” That evening, some two thousand farmers dined in the palace with the king and the queen. The others gathered around the city, which was feverish with agitation and pent-up emotions.  A young socialist cried “Long live Russia!” and had to be protected by police.

     Two days later, about 50,000 workers demonstrated outside the government building, where Social Democrat leader Hjalmar Branting reminded Prime Minister Staaf of his promise to cut defense preparations and asked him not to yield to the pressure exerted by the king and the farmers. From Staaf’s point of view, however, it was no longer only a question of defense. It was a question of who was to rule the country: the king or the government led by the prime minister. The king, by pledging allegiance to the cause of the farmers, had acted without the advice and consent of his ministers. Exceeding his constitutional rights, he had attempted to impose his own will against that of the government, and for this he must atone.

    The king only partly backed down; this was not the first time he had tried to assert his personal power. At Staaf’s request, he conceded that his position in the defense question was not locked in by his courtyard speech. However, he refused to surrender his right to speak, uncensored, to his people on any subject at any time. On February 10 Staaf resigned. The king asked Hjalmar Hammarskjöld, a reactionary Conservative, to form a new cabinet.

     At the April elections, the Conservatives regained majority and Hammarskjöld remained in office. With the outbreak of the war three months later, Sweden quickly announced its neutrality. The war also made for a speedy solution to the defense question. A week after Germany declared war on Russia, the Swedish parliament approved a five-year naval building program which would include the construction of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. It also approved Hammarskjöld’s proposal to extend conscription to 340 days for the infantry, 365 days for the cavalry, and 360 days for the navy.

     Sverige, the cruiser built with private money, was launched in Gothenburg in May 1915. All hotels were filled beyond capacity. The sun shone from a high, clear sky; the hills, the roofs, any place that offered any kind of view, were dense with spectators. The king arrived by special train from Stockholm. Accompanied by the princes Carl and Wilhelm, he looked cheerful and rested. Surrounding warships fired their cannons as the royal cutter crossed the Göta river to the shipyard, where the towering hull of Sverige rested on a giant cradle. The king’s speech was short and congratulatory. The last mooring undone, Sverige moved, slowly at first, then faster, taking to the water with an unexpected grace.





by Birgitta Hjalmarson

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