Sweden and the Spanish Civil War

On the outbreak of hostilities in Spain, Leon Blum, the prime minister of the Popular Front government in France, initially agreed to send aircraft and artillery to help the Republican Army in the war with the Nationalists. However, after coming under pressure from Stanley Baldwin and Anthony Eden in Britain, and more right-wing members of his own cabinet, he changed his mind.

Baldwin and Blum now called for all countries in Europe not to intervene in the Spanish Civil War. The first meeting of the Non-Intervention Committee met in London on 9th September 1936. Eventually 27 countries including Germany, Britain, France, the Soviet Union, Portugal, Sweden and Italy signed the Nonintervention Agreement.

On 22nd February 1937, the Swedish government proposed a new law to prevent its citizens from becoming involved in the Spanish Civil War. It was approved by both Swedish houses on 5th March 1937.

However some Swedes did take part in the fighting. Most of these joined International Brigades. When Juan Negrin announced that all foreign volunteers fighting with the Republican Army on 25th September 1938, would be unilaterally withdrawn, there were 150 Swedes in Spain.

It has been calculated that 507 people from Sweden fought in the Spanish Civil War. Of these 142 were killed in action, two died of typhus and one died in a prisoner of war camp.

Primary Sources

(1) Sweden's Non-Intervention in the Spanish Civil War proposal passed on 5th March 1937.

§1. If one tries through gifts, payment or promises of reimbursement or any similar way, or through threat or abuse of higher rank to make anyone enlist for warservice in Spain, sentencing, where it will not be sentenced according to common law, to prison up to 6 months or a fine.

§2. If a Swedish Citizen enrolls for war service in Spain, punishment with prison up to 6 months or a fine.

§3. Tickets whose purpose is to travel to or through Spain can only be sold to the one who has received special permit to travel to Spain through his Majesty or through an Office which has been authorized by his Majesty, or to foreign citizens, who belong to his Majesty's stated country, who has been authorized by an authorization Office in this country to travel to Spain. If anyone breaks what has been decided, punishment with prison up to 6 months or a fine.

§4. About Swedish ships destined to Spain: it is the Commander's duty to: see to it that the ship does not take any passenger destined to Spain who does not have the permit mentioned in §3 or without hinderance under §5, second section in the Seaman's law and §10 in the law of Seamen's working hours; prohibit the crew from disembarking in Spain, unless service demands; and to see to it that any other person travelling along does not embark in Spain, unless he has the permit mentioned in §3. If the Commander neglects this paragraph, punishment will be by fine.

§5. About Swedish ships destined to Spain his Majesty has the authority to demand that the ship should embark from a certain port to let a special authorized Controlling Officer embark or board, and that above-mentioned Controlling Officer should be allowed to go along with the ship and, as regulated in detail, control the cargo and the passengers, and the Commander is obliged to allow war ships belonging to a country stated by his Majesty to be investigated, if the Controlling Officer is on board. If the Commander neglects this paragraph, punishment will be by fine.

§6. What in this law regards Spain also relates to the Spanish possessions and the Spanish zone of Morocco

§7. If violation of §2 has been committed outside Sweden independent of what is stated in Chapter 1, §1 in the penal code, the violation may be prosecuted here in Sweden. The prosecution should in a case like this be carried out at the municipal court in Stockholm. Legal court cases of violation of §4 and §5 as stated in the Seaman's law §89 should have the same applicability. Other violations of this law than the one now mentioned should be prosecuted in the common court. The prosecution is executed by the common prosecutor.

§8. The fines imposed according to this law should fall to the Crown. If means to pay the fines are missing, they should be converted according to common law.

§9. His Majesty should inform necessary stipulations about the application of this law.

(2) Conny Andersson was born in Örebro, in the middle of Southern Sweden. He was politically active, much against the will of his foster parents. In 1928 he joined the Social Democratic Youth Organization. Conny Andersson studied at a Folk High-school when the Spanish Civil War broke out. At New Year 1936/1937 he went to Spain. He participated in the battles at Jarama and Brunete. His ear drums were ruined at Brunete which made the army dismiss him before summer 1937. The interview originally appeared in Swedes in the Spanish Civil War, P.A. Nordstedt & Söners Förlag, 1972.

The travel to Spain was organized by the Communist Party, all expenses paid. Special guys were running it, guys with contacts. It had to be done discretely. We never said that we were going to Spain, just that we were going away.

On New Year's Eve my group left Stockholm. It was no doubt that the big group of politically active people amongst us were Youth Communists. But I believe that the majority of those who left for Spain didn't belong to any political party. The recruitment - if one should use such a word - took place so that guys from Söder (Southern Stockholm), as well as here and there amongst the sailors, started talking about Spain whenever they would meet. A lot of sailors would go ashore in Spanish ports. I'd say that we, the Scandinavians, consistently abode by the theory that we were, first and foremost, Anti-Fascists. We claimed, with certain right, that we were fighting in Spain for our country, our democracy, as well. At the same time we knew this could be the start of a new World War. And it was up to us to try to stop that from happening. This was so clear within the Radical Movement in Sweden. We could read it between the lines and we would hear it at the lectures - we were on the eve of a new War.

(3) Gösta "Göken" (the Cuckoo) Andersson was born in Masthugget, Gothenburg. He worked at a ship as a sailor when the Spanish Civil War broke out. Gösta went to Spain at January, 1937. After some initial battles he was put into a group of "Partisans". He describes several of the events in his own book called Partisans. Gösta Andersson returned to Sweden in November 1938. The interview originally appeared in Swedes in the Spanish Civil War, P.A. Nordstedt & Söners Förlag, 1972.

If we had laid anchor in Spain I would've taken off already then. But we only went to other Mediterranean ports - and then home. I signed off back home in Göteborg. After that I worked for about a month and a half at the Eriksberg shipyard. Then I was fired. At the end of the year, they'd fire most people, to save money, and then they'd take them on again. But that's not the reason I left for Spain. I've been fired from a lot of jobs in my days. I met Sixten and Rolf Aronsson at Interclub, and international sailor's club that existed over the entire world. We talked about Spain. Then we left.

(4) Harry Ericsson was born in Gävle, north of Stockholm at the east coast in Sweden. When the Spanish Civil War broke out Harry was trying to find a job in Stockholm. At winter 1937 he took the train to Copenhagen and further down to Spain. He fought at in the Thaelmann Battalion at Gudalajara and Brunete. For a short while he was sent on partisan missions. The interview originally appeared in Swedes in the Spanish Civil War, P.A. Nordstedt & Söners Förlag, 1972.

The group I left with was the first to walk over the Pyrenees, since the border had been shut. We were in Paris for four weeks. And then in a little village closer to the Spanish border. There we hid with a family for an entire week, one German and four Swedes. We weren't allowed to go outdoors. Then one night, they came and fetched us and we could continue. Some kilometers from Perpignan we met a bunch of Americans. First we took a bus, until we were on the edge of Perpignan. Then a bunch of taxicabs came driving. We had to jump into them, just a few of us at a time. When we had almost reached the railway bridge there in Perpignan we had to jump out - while they drove slowly. Then we had to crawl over the bridge. We saw some border patrol guards when we'd reached the other side, but they disappeared. It seemed like some sort of cooperation. We were given a guide. I don't know if he was a Frenchman or a Spaniard. But we walked all night over the mountains.

The first frontline I came to was Guadalajara. I had wanted to get to the fighting sooner, but had to obey my orders. There was some drilling first. I was put in the Thälmann Battalion - but not in the third Scandinavian company - in the eleventh company. There were Swedes, Germans and Danes there. Back then Herman Wohlin was kind of in charge of it all. You didn't think so much. You were just there. And Herman, he was like everyone's father. But the Company Commander was a Captain, Zeokila Anton.

When we came as rookies to Guadalajara, we were put in the reserves. We didn't get to hold a rifle even once, as we lay in the olive tree groves. You had to wait for someone to be killed. Then you could take his gun. You had your uniform and steel helmet, though. The first few days… it was so exciting. You had dreamed… but could never have imagined what it would be like. The only rule was: Make it on your own. You could play hero, if you wanted, and definitely never show that you were scared. It was just to walk straight ahead.

(5) Per Eriksson was born in Kragenäs, Bohuslän (Swedish west coast - north of Gothenburg) 1907. He worked as a seaman when the Spanish Civil War broke out. In January 1937 he left Sweden for Spain. He joined other Scandinavians in the Thaelmann Battalion. He was wounded at the battle of Jarama. The interview originally appeared in Swedes in the Spanish Civil War, P.A. Nordstedt & Söners Förlag, 1972.

The conditions were bad, especially the hygiene, but it got better later on. We were quartered in a bullfighting arena. In dressing-rooms, bull-pens... they had placed beds all over. We also used the old barracks of Guardia Civil. All the locations were equally bad. The worst thing was the latrine. You had to crowd, stand and shit in a drain. Sometimes you couldn't help it but you stepped in the excrement and you got some on you. There were piles of it every morning. It was completely crowded when thousands of people wanted to get in and then... at ten-eleven o'clock somebody came and poured lime on top before they were going to take the crap away. But sometimes it was left several days. So it smelled bloody awful. And when it rained and so on and the slush... It was all under and around the bleachers. We were not used to the greasy food either. Some people seemed to have dysentery, as they ran all the time. Yes, it was awful before they got used to the wine, food and olive oil. You nearly throw up at first. But it went away. Then you ate anything as long as you were hungry.

Since I had received a General Certificate of Education, I spoke a little German. Therefore I was placed as an orderly in the Battalion Staff, to keep contact with the Scandinavian Company. We came to Morata de Tajuna at night. It was a little city just behind the frontline. But we had some problems with the communication. My German wasn't quite good enough. Next morning, when the company marched towards the frontline, they forgot me at the Staff Headquarters. Suddenly I was all alone with the Sergeant Major, Herman Wohlin from Gävle. Then came a bomb attack that destroyed Morata. Windows, walls… it was all blown to smithereens. We had had enough time to run down into a cellar. Our kitchen was bombed as well, but the truck, the cooking wagon, was still usable. But later we drove it out to the front. We came to the Brigade Staff Office. There we asked where we could find Battalion Thälmann. They told us to go left. I walked that way, amongst hills and olive trees. But I couldn't find our boys. Instead I ran into Battalion Dimitroff, with guys from The Balkan countries. I followed the Bulgarians and Rumanians when they advanced. That's when I heard the first noises from the front. It sounded as though someone was hammering on a roof, or like the noise from a carpenter's workshop. There was consistent hammering. They said that Thälmann was out on their right flank. So I moved right, and finally reached Thälmann's left flank. The first person I saw was a German Battalion Officer. I think he was in charge of the First Company. His name was Willi, and he was walking straight through the rain of bullets. He never threw himself to the ground, just walked around, straight and tall, pointing with a stick and commandeering his men forward. It seemed like he didn't even notice all the bullets flying around him. He was used to it, as he had fought in the First World War. But later he was killed. He told me to continue out to the Battalion's right flank, because that's where the Scandinavians were.

Most of Barcelona's population were gathered around the big street Diagonal. I think there were a million people there. The city had been bombed every single hour for months. But this time the Republican airplanes were up in the air, patrolling. There was a troop-parade. There were "carabineros" in their green uniforms, Guardia Nacional and different fractions from the army, tank-troops… while the Air Force was roaring by above. Then the International troops came, straight from the front, in their shabby army-pants and shirts, not at all as well groomed as the others from the frontline. But then the crowd went wild. People were cheering and shouting. The women brought their children and handed them over to the soldiers in the International Brigade. They wanted to give them the best thing they had. It was a fantastic sight.

(6) Elis Frånberg was born in the northern part of Sweden in 1904. In Spain Elis Frånberg fought with the Abraham Lincoln Battalion at Brunet and Belchite. The interview originally appeared in Swedes in the Spanish Civil War, P.A. Nordstedt & Söners Förlag, 1972.

The heat was indescribable. But the Spaniards had taught me how to control my thirst. You were supposed to have oranges. They don't eat oranges like we do, they suck out the juice. I heard of people who drank wine all the time. That won't quench your thirst. It's madness - like drinking lager on a hot day. It'll just make you thirstier. I also managed quite well since I never took off any of my clothes. I saw the Moors. They would catch Moors. The Spaniards were scared to death of the Moors, since they were renowned for their brutal torture methods. But they were excellent shots! And can you imagine: They wore large hoods and slouch hats. And thick clothes. That's the method. That's the way to do it. That way you are well protected from the sun. I would find yanks who had ripped their shirts off. They had sunstroke and were usually beyond help. They would drink water like never before. I never drank water.

The Lincoln Battalion lost a great deal of men that day. The first aid station was in a small abandoned house behind the groves. During the day they had raised Red Cross flags. I was told that there were half a dozen doctors there as well.

When night fell the battalion's Commander, Colonel Merriman, a professor at the University of Los Angeles , came. He told me to grab some of the telephone boys and go fetch a man who had been lying wounded and screaming all day - some hundred metres in front of us on the plain. We lay in a little depression by a road. But it was hard getting anybody to go with me.

They'll have to shoot us before we go out there, they said. We're exhausted!

Well, you have to, I told them.

Finally I got two boys with me. We went out and carried the wounded man back. They carried the stretcher very unsteadily, as they were utterly worn out. Then a doctor came up to us. I think the kid had some six or seven bullet wounds in him. The Moors were situated behind entrenchments in the city, and would shoot at anything that moved. Maybe the kid had been waving his arms every now and then.

The Fascists still had control of the church in Belchite. There were probably underground passages there, because some of our boys would suddenly fall over, shot, while they were walking down streets several hundred metres from the church. It seemed as though the Fascists had crawled out through the passages. Also, there was a company of Franco's surrounded on a hill. I don't know if the Fascists had any positions in the mountains themselves, because I never went to take a closer look. But there were armoured trenches running all around that they had dug. I was given orders by Merriman to run a wire, one and a half or maybe two kilometres long. There was hardly enough cable. We had to run the wire via some trenches the Fascists had abandoned. There I was supposed to set up an observation post. We crept into the trench, set up the phone and spoke with the colonel. He said:- Now the tanks are going to attack. But first we are going to shoot with our artillery at the hill.

"All ready here", I said. The trenches we lay in were no more than two hundred metres from the earthworks around the hill, or cliff or whatever you would call it. I had a periscope. When I looked through it I would sometimes see the heads and arms of the boys on the other side. The first grenade from our artillery hit the very top of the hill. They asked me on the phone about the impact.

"You have to lower your aim," I said. The next grenade exploded ten metres behind me.

"This is nuts" I said. You hae to raise it again.

"We'll be done in a minute", they said.

I saw tanks advancing from two different directions. The sound of the firing was deafening. Then I saw a white flag being raised from the Fascist trenches, and I called immediately.

"Now they're… they're giving up, I said. So you can stop now. With the bombing."

But the hard part was that - my boys had left me. I was alone. There was no infantry there, or anything else for that matter. The whole Fascist gang came up out of their trenches. They walked down the hill, coming straight my way. I was unarmed. I had one revolver, but it was a revolver I had taken from a dead Italian Officer. There was no ammo in it, even though it hung there in its holster. I had to leave the pit, go up and meet the Fascists. They could see that my holster wasn't empty.

I pointed at the ground and showed them how to lay their guns in a pile. There was… There was a young boy. More than half of his hand had been shot off. There were no fingers left. Some of the things.

Outside of the trenches lay two tanks of wine. The prisoners threw themselves over these wooden barrels, broke them and drank it all. Because of their thirst for water… which had almost killed them then. Three officers came last. They shouted commands and the troop stood in formation. I pointed at the church. That's the way they were supposed to go. But at the same time our patrols came and marched away with them. It was some fifteen or twenty men I had dealt with. I don't know. They could have shot me any time.

(7) Gösta Karlsson was born in Hällefors, Västmanland in 1915. In March 1937 Gösta Karlsson went to Spain. He fought at Ebro and was wounded in his face. The interview originally appeared in Swedes in the Spanish Civil War, P.A. Nordstedt & Söners Förlag, 1972.

I had never been in any battle before the offensive at Ebro. I shot a few shots at Ebro in May, but that hardly counts. Then, on the night of the 25th of July, we rowed over the river in boats. When we reached the other side, we were fired at. I jumped out of the boat. I could stand on the bottom. I was going to shoot, but I had got water in the rifle, and had to quickly remove the bolt to dry it out. Then I shot some rounds and threw a grenade up the slope. But by then the Swedish company had already broken through. We rushed forwards. There were no Fascists left in the positions on the riverside, but they had left a lot of stuff, like ammunition girdles and leather bags. We didn't have anything like that. I carried my ammunition in a trouser leg that had been sewn together. We had used Russian guns first, but they were later exchanged for Czech carbines. The Poles were given the Russian guns, so that each company would have uniform equipment. The offensive continued. You can't remember everything. But I do remember the Scandinavian Death-hill at Corbera.

One morning we were going to storm. We advanced towards the Fascist positions, but met heavy defence from the side. We received contra-orders. We had to retreat to our original positions. I was in charge of a light machine-gun together with a Danish guy. When we reached our positions he got a ricochet in his back. It ripped off a little piece of meat. He gave me the machine-gun and said: "Goodbye, comrade! I'm done for."

I pulled up his shirt to take a look. It wasn't that bad. The wound was bleeding a lot, but we managed to bandage it. Maybe he had gone into shock. It was a Czech machine-gun. We took care of it for a long time, the Dane and me - until he was wounded. After that I was alone among the Spaniards. They had never received any military training. At times, when there wasn't much fighting, I would sit and train them, taking my weapon apart and putting it back together. During my time as a conscript back in Sweden you'd got used to that kind of stuff. But I wasn't licensed to use any machine-gun when I left home. You had to learn it all down there."

Yes, if you compare it to the conscript days. To go from shooting with a wooden plug to the real thing… it can turn out that way. But I saw it more as a job, actually. You went to Spain to help, and part of that help, when you were on the font, was to try and eliminate the enemy. Before we came to Ebro I was already used to it, having to take aim at people and shoot. What you remember… is mostly how people around you would get killed or wounded. I saw eight or nine Scandinavians killed in one single artillery-explosion. We were going to relieve the others out on the front. We marched in column, advancing through a grove, but were discovered by enemy planes, and got all hellfire over us from the artillery. That's when they died. We were headed over a hill. In front of it was another hill, lower than the first. That's where we were going. But we found a cave we could take cover in. There they couldn't reach us with the artillery fire, and we waited in there until it calmed down, before we headed for the positions. If you can really call them positions. There were no trenches. We had to dig little by little. It wasn't easy. You'd start out with a little pit, and make it bigger with time… until we had trenches with connections backwards as well. I was wounded three or four days before we were going to be pulled off the front. It took place at Sierra Caballs. I was temporarily outside of the trenches that evening, behind them. They were shooting with grenade launchers in the dark. I heard the hum - sort of like birds, when the grenades go by high above you. But if they hit anywhere close by you don't have any time to hear anything.

You just hear a sizzle and then it's over. The grenade hit close to me. I had a burning sensation in my cheek. I had blood in my eyes and couldn't see anything. I called for the medics. They came, but couldn't see the wound in the dark. I took his hand - and took it to my cheek so he could feel the wound. He bandaged my entire head. The medic… a Catalan… led me some kilometres backwards to the stretcher carriers. They carried me into a first-aid tent. I was given a shot. Then they lifted me into an ambulance. I fell asleep there and woke up in a hospital. I can't remember where it was situated. I said to a friend: "I think I've gone blind." But then I pulled down the bandage and noticed that I could see perfectly clearly. I had been bleeding a lot, but I hadn't been in much pain. It got worse later on. The piece of shrapnel was stuck in my right cheek. The wound got infected. My whole face swelled up, and then I was in a lot of pain. I was in a convalescent home when they removed it fifteen days later. They were missing material there. So they took the piece out without any anaesthetic.