World War II: Neutral Countries

Figure 1.--A large mumber of countries attempted to keep out of World War II by declaring neutrality. Many of the counries were subsequently invaded by either NAZI Germany or the Soviet Union. In the end, only one of those countries would have a major impact on the outcome of the War--the United States. Hitler understood this and avoided conflict with America. He attempted to complete his conquest of Europre by invading the Soviet Union befpre the United States intervened. As war clouds developed Americans became coming home, but after the fall of France (June 1940). Lisbon in neutral Portugal becmw one of the few ways oit of German occupied Europe. Here a Swedish-Americam family is headed home on the 'SS Exeter' from Lisbon. The family is that of Per Gustav and Ruth Wykman. Wykmam was a Swedish diplomat who was working in Finland and thgen in the Fotreigmn Ministry in Stockholm. Ruth was the sister of Vice-Ptesident Henry Wallace. As neurals, thge Wykman family in the middle of the War was able to travel through NAZI-occupied Europe, from Finlnd to Portugal.

Most countries as a result of the carnage of World war I wanted no part of another war. Most attempted the expeiancy of neutrality. This worked for some countries. Here geography was major factor. Countries bordering on Germany and the Soviet Union were hard put tomaintain their independe. The Germans before the War forced sevral countries into th Axis. The Germeans and Soviets after sining the NAZI-Soviet-Non Agression Pact (August 1938) conducted open season on neutrals. After launching the war, Hitler and Stalin invaded more than 10 countries attempting to hide behind the protection of neutrality was a way for small countries to avoid war in an international system functioning unfder the rule of law and diplomatic conventions. It was to prove to be a useless policy in a world dominated by ruthless totalitarian powers bent on aggresion and conquest. Countries bordering those countries or caught between them found themselves with few alteratives. Many countries were able to stay out of World War I by declaring neutrality. Only Belgium and Greece were neutrals attacked by beligerants. The German invasion of neutral Belgium shocked the world and launched the War. This was much less true of World war II. In fact, most countries which declared neutrality would attacked by either the Axis powers (or forced into the Axis) or by the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union might be coinsidered a neutral, but was in fact a valuable NAZI ally until attacked by the NAZIs. The United States was also a neutral and despite strong neutrality laws was aiding Britain and France even before Hitler launched the War. As a result, the list of neutral countries normally included those few countries which managed to maintain their neutrality without being invaded by the Germans. Of course this worked only becuse they made significant concessions to the Germans, essentially buying them off. British Primeminister Churchill likened it to a group feeding a crocodile, hoping to ppease it and be the last one eaten. In the end, only the failure of Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, enabled these countries to avoid a German invasion and takne over. The European countries which managed to remain neutral were: Ireland (Eire), Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey.

World War I Neutrals

Several countries remained neutral. America maintained its neutrality for much of the War until the Germans in 1917 declared unrestricted submarine warfare. An important neutral country was the Netherlands. A significant portion of the population was pro-German as a result of British brutality in the Boer War (1899-1902). The Dutch strongly sympathized with the Afrikaners. There still was a strong anti-British feeling in the country. The Dutch opened its doors for Belgian refugees when the Germans occupied the country in 1914. The Dutch also sent food and clothes to the remaining Belgians as far as the Germans allowed it. Immediately after the war Holland took in hundreds of starving Austrian children. Some of them stayed in the country and later married Dutch citizens. Also the German Kaiser was granted asylum in 1918 and was offered to live in a castle at Doorn while his compatriots had to endure extremely hard times after Germany had lost the war. Kaiser Wilhelm II died in 1941, ignored by the NAZI authorities. The Dutch during the World War II German occupation could not help but reflect that their compassion with the Austrians and Germans was repaid by a brutal occupation administer by Arthur Seyss-Inquart, an Austrian. The Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norways and Sweden) all remained neureal during the War. Switzeland was another important neutral country.

NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (August 1939>

NAZI Foreign Minister Ribbentrop and newly appointed Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs Molotov on August 23, 1939, signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. At the time of thesigning, British and French delegations were in Moscow trying to reach an understanding with Stalin. Hewas convinced, however, that they were tring to draw him into a war with Hitler. The two countries which until that time had been bitter foes, pledged not attack each other. Any problems developing between the two countries were to be delt with amicably. It was last for 10 years. The Pact shocked the world and the purpose was immedietly apparent. It meant that Germany could attack Poland without fear of Soviet intervention. Thus after defeating Poland, Germany did not have to fear a full-scale European war on two fronts. What was not known at the time was that there was a secret protocol to the pact which in effect divided Eastern Europe betwen the two countries. This protocol was discoered after the end of the World War II in 1945. The Soviets continued to deny this protocol until 1989. The NAZIs 8 days after signing the Pact invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, launching World War II. Britain and France declared war September 3. Poland's fate was sealed on September 17, when the Soviets invaded Poland from the east. Although the Soviet's did not enter the War against Britain and France, the Soviets were virtual NAZI allies as they provided large quantaies of strategic materials, especially oil. Communist parties in Britainand France opposedthe war effort. The Communst Party in America opposed President Roosevelt's efforts to expand defense spending and assist Britain and France.

Failed Neutrality

Countries bordering on Germany and the Soviet Union were hard put to maintain their independence. The Germans before the War forced several countries into the AXis. The Germans and Soviets after signing the NAZI-Soviet-Non Agression Pact (August 1939) conducted open season on neutrals. Germany and the Soviets were the only countries that wanted to go to war. Even Germany's Axis partner, Italy, was hesitant to go to War--until France was obviously defeted. After launching the war, Hitler and Stalin invaded more than 10 countries attempting to hide behind the protection of neutrality (Finland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luembourg, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Yugoslavia, and Greece). This was seen as a way for small countries to avoid war in an international system dominated by the rule of law. It was to prove to be a useless policy in a world dominated by ruthless totalitarian powers rejecting the rule of law both domestically and internationally. The two countries were bent on aggresion and conquest as well as murder on a massive scale. Countries bordering on Germany and the Soviet Union or caught between them found themselves with few alteratives. Many countries were able to stay out of World War I by declaring neutrality. Only Belgium and Greece were neutrals attacked by belligerants. The German invasion of neutral Belgium shocked the world and launched the War. This was much less true of World War II. In fact, most countries which declared neutrality would be attacked by either the Axis powers (or forced into the Axis) or by the Soviet Union. This would change after World War II. Few European countries were willing to place their faith in neutrality again.

Successful Neutrals

There were countries that were able to maintain their neutrality. This was for the most part either because they made themselves useful to the NAZIs (Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland) or becuse geography made an invasion complicated or at least difficult (Ireland and Tirkey). The Vatican survived because the onus of Germany seizing the Vatican far outweighed the limoted advantage gained. Because of the horrendos attricities committed by the NAZIs, the neutrals like to think it was their military that saved their contries and not because they mde themselves useful to the NAZIs. You hear this a lot from the swis and to a lesser extent the sweedes. In fact the only European country able to resist the NAZIs was Britain (because of the Channel and the Soviet Union. Of course this changes after Hitler launched Barbarossa, but until suffering enormous loses in the east, no other country hd the military cpability of resisting the NAZIs.


Ireland was neutral during World War II even after the true nature of the NAZI regime was revealed. It was still technically a member of the British Empire. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) fought a vicious guerilla war against the British (early 1920s). The campaign was led by Michael Collins who was later assinated when he negotiated a settlement with Britain. Eamon de Valera who opposed the settklement became president of the Irish Free State. At the time that war broke out, the Irish Free State was moving toward independemce. There was considerable bitterness about continued British control of Ulster--the primary reason for Collin's assasination. The IRA conducted a bombing campaign in London (Summer 1939). The Irish government denied responsibility for IRA actions. With the outbreak of war (September 1939), there was no desire to join with Britain to fight the NAZIs. There was great anti-British sentiment combined with the memories of losses during the last war. There was even some sentiment for the Germans, primarily a artifact of the anti-British feeling. The Chamberlain Government considered offering Ireland Ulster and unification if Ireland joined the Allies. Ulster protestants were outraged. President Eamon de Valera at any rate rejected the offer. The Roosevelt Administration wanted to use Irish ports to ship war material to Britain as a way around the Neutrality Acts. President de Valera refused. He was also upset that the United States was shipping large quantity of arms to Britain and not providing arms to Ireland. De Valera decided to support anti-Roosevelt isolationist opinion in the November 1940 presidential election. DeValera made a Christmas radio broadcast to the United States supporting isolationism. He then attempted to influence Roosevelt's special emissary, Wendell Willkie on a visit to Great Britain and Ireland (January 1941). De Valera continued efforts to obtain American arms, strangely by taking on President Roosevelt. He dispatched Frank Aiken, aenior IRA leader and Irish denense minister. The American ambassador in Ireland, David Gray, supported the idea, but advised de Valera against chooding Aiken. He also explained to de Valera that America was only likely to provide arms if they cooperated with efforts to support Britain in the War and advised working with the the British Purchasing Commission. Aiken left for America (March 1941). De Valera claimed in his annual St. Patrick's Day address that Ireland was under blockade from both sides and that neutrality protected Ireland from 'the hazards of imperial adventure', hardly likely to build bridges with Churchill and Roosevelt. Aiken's visit was a much larger diplomatic disaster. He dramatically displayed the anti-British views that dominated his and President de Valera's policies. He thoroughly alienated President Roosevelt and other administration figures who had been struggling with the Isolationits. He declined to use the letters of introduction to senior Democrats, including Mrs. Roosevelt that Ambassador Gray had given him. Aiken spent the last 7 weeks of his visit rather than meeting with Administration figures to discuss arms, but conducting an anti-Administration speaking tour. The result was that the President Roosevelt would have nothing to do with him or Ireland. Relations between Ireland and tghe United States became frosty indeed. With the pssage of Lend Lease (March 1941), vast quantities of arms were approved for Britain and eventually many other countries. The Irish Government submitted a note asking about the intentions of the United States regarding Northern Ireland (October 1941). The issue at stake was stationing of personnel there associated with Lend Lease. The U.S. State Department essentially slaped them in the face, suggesting that they inquire with the British government because Northern Ireland was a part of the United Kingdom. [Girvin, p. 287.] There would be no American arms for Ireland. The Irish government ignored reports of German attrocities. At the very end of the War de Valera even sent condolences to the Germany government upon Hitler's death. While the Irish Government remained, not all Irish citizens were neutral in the fight against Fascism. Approximately 10 percent of the Irish Army deserted to join up with the British to fight the Germans. They were with the British Army that entered the Reich and liberated the NAZI concentration camps. They were harshly treated by the Irish Government after the War when they returned home.


Dr. Antonio de Oliveira Salazar ruled Portugal as a dictator with Fascist trappings. He maintained a neutral policy, but there were strong pro-Axis support in the country. Portugal also had a histoically special relationship with Britain that even preceeded the Napoleonic Wars. Salazar's adoption of Fascist policies (political dictatorship, police state rule, bans on trade unions, strident anti-Communism, and corporatist social and economic policies) gave his regime a Fasist aura. He supported Franco in the Spanish Civil War. As a result his regime was approved as sufficebntly Fascist by Hitler and Mussolini. Portugal was of some importance to Germany in World War II. Portugal was the principal source of Wolfram ore which yielded tungsten. This was a critical material because tungsten-hardened steel alloys had many military applications in machine tools, armor plate, armor-piercing projectiles, and other uses. The Germans pioneered the use of tungsten. As a result of these and other NAZI purchases, the Salazar regime benefited from the War. Salazar insisted on payments in gold. Here accounts vary as to the extent to which the regime profited from the War. NAZI inteligence agents were active in Portugal as were British agents. Portugal's role is complex. Salazar also cooprated with the Allies, especially as the German military situation shifted. Salazar leased the British important bases in the Azores for naval campaign in the Atlantic. Of course given Anglo-American naval power, he had no real choice. He also permitted Jewish and other refugees to escape the NAZIs by both boat and air.


The Spanish Civil War !936-39) is seen by many as a preview of World War II. It ended (Match 1939) months before World War II broke out in Europe. Spain maintained its neutality and never entered the War. During the first years of the War, Spain sided with the Axis and offered some support. Volunteers participated in the campsaign against the Soviet Union. Franco refused Hitler's demands to let German troops pass through Spain to seize Gibraltar. He also refused German demands to turn over Jews to the NAZI killing machine. Franco kept Spain out of World War II, although it was a close-run thing. He did consider joining Hitler, but was not offered sufficent enducements. In the end it was geographpy that kept Spain out of the War. Its peninsular situation meant it was more exposed to the Royal Navy than any other country on the Continent and thus more threatened. And Hitler's fixation on the East meant that he was not going to delay his plans with a distracting invasion in the West. It also mean that the NAZIs were forced to pay for the resources, espcially wolfram obtained from Spain. While Spain stayed out of the War, children were still affected by the ligering impact of the Civil War.


Sweden was the only Scandinavian country and one of the few Europen countries not to be drawn into World War II. Like many countries, Sweden proclained its neutrality. Sweden remained neutral in World war I and hoped to do so again after World war II broke out in Europe. When the NAZIs invded Denmark and Norway (April 1940), it was expected that Sweden would be next. In the end no military action took place on Swedish soil, but tht does not mean that Sweden was not affected by the War and played a part in it. Sweden acceeded to German demands to use the Swedish railroad system to move men and material into Norway, but only after the Germans were securely in control of the country. When the NAZIs invaded Denmark and Norway (April 1940), it was expected that Sweden would be next. We do not know to what extent Hitler considered invading Sweden and what disuaded him from doing so. The NAZIs finally concluded that Sweden would prove more useful as a neutral country. Sweden's primary role in the War was to supply raw materials (mineral ores, especially iron ore), finished steel, and manufactured goods to NAZI Gemany. Surrounded by the NAZIs, Sweden had few options. Cut off from other trading partnes, Sweden proceeded to expand trade with the Germans and Swedish raw materials supported the Gernman war effort until late in the war.


Switzerland like the Netherlands was committed to neutrality. Unlike the Netherlands they were able to maintain their neutrality. Historians have asked why Switzeland suceeded. The central reason is probably that they had a creditable military force. The Swiss were prepared to fight and by withdrawing into their Alpine national redoubt could have put up a substantial resistance. The Panzers would have been lkess effective than on the flat terraine of Poland France, and Russia. There is no doubt that the NAZIs would have succeeded, but it would have been at considerable cost. There is also no doubt that if they had prevailed in the War that Switzerland would have disappeared. Switzerland has a large German population, part of which was pro-NAZI. NAZI forbarance also reflected the fact that Switzerland was useful to the NAZI war effort. Swiss raw materials and industrial production could be imported. In addition, the Swiss played a role in finanzing the German war effort. Gold looted from the occupied countries could be used in Switzerland. Swiss acquiesence to NAZI demands were understandable after the fall of France (1940), but many observers believe that it continued long after the fortunes of war changed and the danger of NAZI invasion passed. Unlike Sweden, the Swiss returned Jewish refugees who managed to reach Switzeland to the Germans. This continued even after D-Day.


The Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers and fought with Germany during World war I. As a result it was one of the great European empires that were destroyed by the War. Modern Turkey emerged fter the War. Turkey remained neutral in World War II. Although often given little attention in World War II histories, this was of major importance in the outcome of the War. Germany's most significant weakness was oil. Turkey would have provided a significant threat to the Soviet Caucasian oil fields and would have provided an important ally to the Germans in their 1942 southern offensive. Turkey almost certainly could have seized the oil fields in Iraq that supplied the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean and the 8th Army in Egypt. Hitler was very interesting in drawing Turkey into the War. And as aWorld War I ally, there were links. The Germans also had a great deal to offer the Turks, especially the Pan-Turkic natiinalists. The Germans thought they had convinced to enter the War. Here we are not sure, but the disaster at Stalingrad cerainly settled the issue. Churchill also worked hard on getting Turkey to join the Allies. [Denniston] Just before Barbarossa Turkey signed a Friendship Treaty with Germany (June 18, 1941). A joint statement following the signing indicated a desire for further economic cooperation. The Germans in particular were interested in Turkish chrominum ore. The Turks promised to cooperate with the Germans to close the straits to Soviet shipping. [Documents, 12: 105 and 13: 3] In the end, however, Turkey wisely remained neutral.

(The) Vatican

The Vatican is a religious enclave of 108 acres in the center of Rome. St. Peter's dominates the Roman landscape. The question of Pope Pious' conduct during the War is enormously controversial. The Vatican was during the Wzr surrounded by first Fascist (1940-43), NAZI (1943-44), and then Allied (1944-45) forces. The most dangerous time was the NAZI control of Rome after the Italian surrender (September 1943) until the Allied liberation (June 1944). The Pope had no army, but he had enormous influence among Catholic around the world, especially in Europe. The Pope did speak in guarded terms abot Fascist aggressions and attrocities. In one of his radio addresses he spoke against those "forgetful of moral ties and bent on replacing right by force". He never specifically condemned the NAZIs. Of course if he had done so Hitler would surely have occupied the Vatican and perhaps destroyed it as well as other Church properties, many of which were harboring Jews and other refugees. The Pope allowed Italian prelates to hide Jews, saving many. He never condemned or even exposed the Holocaust nor the assault on riests in Poland and other countries. Nor did he condemn Catholic prelates, especially in Slovakia and Crotia, who engaged in horrendous attrocities. The Pope opened church oroperies to refugees resulting from the fighting . He also did important work with POWs. Many of the criticisms of the Pope seem valid. It must be said that it is much easier to criticise the Pope after the War by individuals whi were not at the time in NAZI occupied Europe. In particular it seems somewhat unfair to criticise the Pope when the Allies themselves did not expose or condemn the Holocaust.

Special Cases

Any discussion of neutrals has to include two special cases, the Soviet Union and the United States. They were potentially the two most powerful,countries in the world. Unlike most neutrals it eem imconceivablr that any one would attack either. The Soviets were neutral in that they did not go to war wih the Axis, at leat at first (1939). THe did, however go to war, attaking and annexing neigboring countries in whole or in part. The Allies did not declare war on the Soviets, although they considered doing so. In the ewnd, sanity prevented it. The Allies did not have the military capability of efeating the Germans, letbalone the Germans and Soviets combined. The Soviets also remained neutral in the Pacific War, at least until the NAZis were defeated in Europe. The Soviet Union might be coinsidered a neutral, but was in fact a valuable NAZI ally until attacked by the NAZIs. Theyfir nearly 2 years provided the NAZI war machine huge quantaties of the critical raw materials the lacked, most importantly oil. The United States was also a neutral and despite strong neutrality laws was aiding Britain and France even before Hitler launched the War. Ironicall, the one ciuntry with the capability of waging global warfare, ws the country most determined to stay out ofvtheWar. The American people were strongly against entering another WEuropean War. As the war progressed, however. they accepted President Rooevelt 's determination o aid the Allies. Until Pearl Harbor (Devember 1941), A,erica was theireticall neutral, but a very unneutral neurtral. Aid to the Allies, especially Lend Lease kept Britain in the Wae. And the U.S. Navy launched an unclclared shootin war in the North Atlancic 3 months before Pearl Harbor.

The Soviet Union

The Soviet Union was never a neutral country during World War II at least in the sense of not being involved imn the War. In Fact it was Stalin in alliance with Hitler that launched the War by invading Poland. The British and French did not, however, declare war on thesoviet Union. opnly NAZI Germany. When Stalin invaded Finland (November 1939), the Allies (Britain and France) considered declring wae on the Soviet Union, but widely decided not to do so.So while the Sovirts were conducting a series of aggresions in Eastern Eutope, the country was neutral toward Britain and an ally of the Axis. But that did not mean that it was not a aggressor nation. Once Hitler invaded (June 1941), the Soviet Union became the lead country in the sruggle against NAZI Germany. At the same time while signing an agreement with the Polish Government in eile, the Soviets continued to wage a struggle against the Polish nation.

United States

Of all the countries at the time of World War II, the United States was the only country with the indistrial and agricultura; potential to wage a global war effort. It was also the countru most determined to remain neutral and stay out of the war. President Roosevlt understood the dangers, but most Americans did not. And as a result, Congress passed neutrality laws designd to prevent the country from entering another war (1930s). This played into the hands of the totalitarian powers. Hitler and Stlin were intent on subgegating Europe before America could come into play as it did in World War I. Once Europe was in the hands of the totalitarians, the world balance pf power would be irrevoavly altered. And a the same time, Japam in the Pacifiv was intent on using the situation in Europe to carve out a bast new empire in the Southern Resource Zone. Thankfully for mankind, the British managed to survive the NAZI onslight and President Rooselvelt artfully slowly brought Americans around, if mot to enter the War, at least to become the Arsenal of Democracy to make sure Britain survived. Here he faced an extended fight with Isoltionist movement intent on keeping america out of the War.The sitation bgan to change when the ductaors has a falling out nd Hitler turned his war machine east and invaded the Soviet Union. This was aided e queston became whether Hitler could complete his conquest before America entered the War. America proved to be the least neutral of the neutral countries. After President Roosevelt not omly supplied Britain with Lend Lease material, but eventully ordered an undeclared naval war in the North Atlantic against NAZI U-boats. In the end, the question was answered by the Japanese who attavked the U.. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, beining the United States and its massive industrial power into the War.


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Created: 4:20 AM 1/20/2012
Last updated: 2:41 AM 4/18/2016