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Norway 1905-2005

War or peace?

The end of the union between Sweden and Norway in 1905 is one of very few examples of a peaceful dissolution of a union in the twentieth century. However, it was accompanied by military moves, and there was always the threat of war looming in the background. During the course of summer and autumn 1905, Sweden and Norway made quite extensive preparations for war. In both countries, there were small, but extreme groups that were willing to go to war for the sake of their national pride. The atmosphere was extremely tense and volatile, and there was something of an arms race on both sides, which could easily have led to a war between Norway and Sweden in the worst case scenario. A violent solution to the conflict would have had to have been either dictated by ultra-nationalistic and heroic motives, or caused by an accident or misunderstandings during the military build-up. There were no other motives for a war. Structural and political factors pointed towards an amicable solution.

The Swedish–Norwegian union was a loose union. The countries were autonomous in most respects. The main purpose of the union was common defence, but there was no shared defence organisation. In terms of internal affairs, trade and industry, and culture, Sweden and Norway were independent neighbours. It was through the shared King and foreign policy that the union had meaning. Nor were there border disputes or minority problems between Sweden and Norway. A Swedish attempt to restore things to their original order would probably have been met with unanimous resistance by the Norwegians. It would not have harmonised with the objective of common defence as the basis for the union. In other words, there was little to gain from military action against Norway. The Great Powers were also putting pressure on Sweden to show moderation in the talks. The dethronement of the King and the separation from the union were primarily an attack on the personification of the union. The fact that the King himself immediately voiced the opinion that weapons should not be used against Norway sent a powerful message to the rest of Sweden. Although the formal ties between Sweden and Norway were few, there was much extensive interaction and contact between the two countries. Linguistic, cultural and religious similarities promoted understanding between the two neighbours. Both countries had traditions of peace and arbitration, and the Swedish labour movement showed solidarity with their Norwegian comrades.

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Mobilized soldiers, September 1905Photo:  The National Library