Neutral agencies

20e eeuw

The wish for a more comparative and transnational analysis of Neutrals at war was directly met in the afternoon session. With essays about neutrality in Spain, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Swiss, the afternoon session definitely had a comparative character. The debate focused on the question: “What does a neutral do?”. After all, neutral parties in wartime were compelled and sometimes forced into action. The strict lines between the worlds of the belligerents and neutrals began to blur. At the same time, efforts were made to separate those at war from the neutral parties, that were often still involved in several aspects of the conflict.

Carolina Garcia Sanz strongly argued that there should be paid more attention to the Mediterranean countries and their neutral policies during World War I. These countries are often overlooked and, especially in this comparative and transnational perspective, should be studied more intensely. It became clear, in Anne Rosenbusch’s speech as well, that domestic tensions in most of the neutral countries played an enormous role in the debate on being neutral. In Spain for instance, there was a split between the Germanofilos (among them: the conservative ruling elite, the Spanish church and the traditional monarchy) and the Francofilos (the liberals hoping for modernization). But, interestingly enough, being pro-German in Spain did not mean that you were interested in German war politics or anything similar. In Spain it was about what being pro-German could bring Spain at the end of the war. Spain’s monarch, Alfonso XIII, got active in many humanitarian actions. Alfonso hoped to regain some sort of political significance in the world. This internal strife along with external pressures from the belligerent nations made neutrality in Spain some sort of ‘balance act’: avoiding active military participation while engaging with belligerents to get something out of the war.
An interesting question was raised by Michael Olsansky in the debate that followed. The Spanish military elite were pro-neutral in World War I, but in 1921 Spain started a disastrous war in Marocco. Going into war obviously does not fit in being neutral. So what is neutrality really in this time? Being engaged in a World War seems to mean something different than waging a colonial war in, in this case, Marocco. Apparently, being neutral in World War I is seen as something completely different than waging a colonial war.

Michael Olsansky also focused on interpretations of neutrality. He presented his article ‘Under the Spell of the League of Nations: Different Notions of Neutrality in the Swiss Military Elite at the End of the First World War‘, where he researched the Swiss views on neutrality. By giving an overview of the various lines of discourse within members of the Swiss military who voiced their opinion for or against the joining of the League of Nations, Olsansky illustrates how the views on and the understanding of neutrality were drifting apart during the First World War. The debate in Switzerland concerning neutrality was anything but uniform. The casestudy also demonstrates the indirect participation of Swiss military leaders in political decision-making. Those opposing the joining of the League of Nation referenced constantly and relentlessly to an absolute interpretation of Swiss’ neutrality. This was the idea of true neutrality, an exclusive right of a form of neutrality which was not on the same level as other states, who had never experienced ‘eternal neutrality’. Thus the opposition claimed an exclusive right to an unique neutrality which had saved the country from giving in to the temptation of war. Unlike this group, those members of the military who were in favour of joining the League of Nations did not have great spokespersons who were well known throughout the country. Therefore we cannot really speak of an independent discourse of Swiss military officers who were in support of the League of Nations.

Presenting his paper ‘Three kings posturing? Royal diplomacy and Scandinavian neutrality in the First World War’ Michael Jones discusses the meeting of the three kings – Gustav V of Sweden, Haakon VII of Norway, Christian X of Denmark – in Malmö. This meeting in 1914 was one of the major events for the neutral powers of Northern Europe in the initial stages of the First World War and was virtually unimaginable in the previous years. From 1905 onwards, there had not been any regular meetings between members of the royal families of these three countries, which had drifted apart. In his research, Jones offers a cultural historical approach of Malmö and the contemporary perception of this meeting. Three levels can be found, with first and foremost the exploration of the symbolic and ritual dimensions as constitutive elements of politics. Secondly, the question of Scandinavianism and the greater policy integration in Northern Europe. The third level, most importantly, concerns the political and neutral aspects of the meeting. (For those interested in the meeting in Malmö, have a look at this website:

To conclude, the afternoon session brought us various dimensions of neutrality in Europe during World War I. It also provided new ideas and insights to fill in the gaps in the history of the Great War and include the neutral parties. See more at

Marloes van Fulpen en Ester Zoomer


© KNHG 2024 Website: Code Clear