The Stockholm Telegram
A play in two acts set in wartime London and Stockholm  


17 June 1940: France asks Germany for an armistice. In London, the Swedish Ambassador, Bjorn Prytz, meets the British Foreign Office Under-Secretary, Rab Butler.  That evening he reports back to the Foreign Minister in Stockholm in one of the most controversial telegrams ever written. But did it tell the truth? Why did the British Government forbid its publication? And must expediency always determine the truth? 


St James's Park, 17 June 1940

PRYTZ

After my meeting with Rab Butler I drove back to the legation and sent a telegram while everything was fresh in my mind. For added credibility I left some of what he said in English. I had cast my bread upon the waters.[1] 

09:00, 18 June 1940: CABINET ROOM, RIKSDAG, STOCKHOLM.

A bright, cool summer morning. The First Movement from Sergei Prokofiev’s 6th Symphony plays from 06:00. PRYTZ enters and observes the Swedish War Cabinet arrive singly and in twos and sit down at the table in their customary positions: possibly HERMANN ERIKSSON with PER EDVIN SKOLD; ERNST WIGFORSS; CHRISTIAN GUNTHER; PER ALBIN HANSSON with ARVID RICHERT. There might be some mimed conversation. The mood is serious, tense and expectant. As PRYTZ speaks the music fades out.

PRYTZ

At 9 a.m. the next morning, the Swedish envoy in Berlin, Arvid Richert joined the War Cabinet to report on his meeting with the German Foreign Minister two days earlier.

ARVID RICHERT

I took a very firm line with Ribbentrop.

PRYTZ

He always took a firm line - after the event.

ARVID RICHERT

I told him that transporting medical staff was one thing, but their request to use our railways to transport troops on leave between Norway and Germany compromise our neutrality and my government would refuse.

PRYTZ

During the invasion of Norway the government gave in to German demands to transport medical personnel to Narvik when it was clear that the real purpose was to transport troops, weapons and equipment.[2] Richert even told me once that he had seem troops disguised as medical staff boarding a train for Narvik.  

ARVID RICHERT

Ribbentrop sighed and walked over to the window, and I thought I had convinced him. I really did. But he suddenly span around, his face silhouetted by bright sunlight.  and delivered a chilling ultimatum. As the Germans now occupied Norway we were no longer justified in rejecting their ‘reasonable’ request. Unless we accepted they would consider it ‘an unfriendly act’.

We all know what that meant. German tanks rolling across the border or the Luftwaffe destroying one of our cities.

Everyone ponders the enormity of what ARVID RICHERT has said.

PER ALBIN HANSSON

What would you recommend, Minister?[3]

PRYTZ

Statsminister[4] Per Albin Hansson. He believed that most problems would sort themselves out.

ARVID RICHERT

This was no bluff. A refusal now would be catastrophic.

PER ALBIN HANSSON

Thank you, Minister. That’s very helpful.

/ARVID RICHERT gets ready to leave.

/Do stay with us, Minister. We must all now come to a decision.

I think we have three options, gentlemen. First, to call Ribbentrop’s bluff. This would risk casualties and destruction on an unthinkable scale.

Secondly, we could accede to their request but slap trade sanctions on them, despite this being incompatible with our policy of basing trade purely on economic, not moral considerations. Reduced trade with Germany would harm the economy and cause severe hardship domestically. Not a good move with a general election in three months’ time. And we could expect German retaliation to be … well … severe.

Thirdly, we could negotiate with the Germans. Advantageous because of the flexible nature of neutrality. We could bend it under pressure without breaking the spirit of it.

What do you think, gentlemen?

ERNST WIGFORSS[5]

I agree with the Statsminister. As far as I’m concerned, as democrats our responsibility is to preserve democracy here in Sweden, not to fight Nazism. I say we should agree to their demand.

PRYTZ

Finance Minister Ernst Wigforss. For him charity began and ended at home.

HERMANN ERIKSSON

When we caved in to German pressure over humanitarian transits to and from Narvik they hoodwinked us by sending troops and equipment. Well, they did, didn’t they?

Silence. His eyes rake the whole room. All look ahead stone-faced, except for PER EDVIN SKOLD, who looks at him.

Then we forced the press to moderate their anti-German rhetoric. This leave traffic concession could be a step too far.

He suddenly softens.

But do we have any choice?

PRYTZ

Trade Minister Hermann Eriksson. He believed that Hansson was a cowardly idiot but wasn’t brave enough to say it in public. 

PER EDVIN SKOLD

It would be a step too far. We must face the truth: we have already colluded in the German subjugation of Norway.

ERNST WIGFORSS and ARVID RICHERT glare at him.

PRYTZ

Defence Minister Per Edvin Skold. The voice in the wilderness.

PER EDVIN SKOLD

If we concede now there will be yet more demands and even more deviations from legal neutrality. Eventually we shall be colluding with the entire German / war effort. 

ERNST WIGFORSS

/ Absolute rub/bish.

PER ALBIN HANSSON

/Gentlemen: we must keep cool heads.

ERNST WIGFORSS

I’m sorry. But I see it like this: as a small state we either bend or face being broken.

HERMANN ERIKSSON

On reflection, I think we might be justified in bending our neutrality.

PER EDVIN SKOLD

Would we really? As democrats it is our duty to fight Nazism, whatever the circumstances. If we don’t we shall be condemned by future generations. The Norwegians fought heroically to the end. The British defiantly man the ramparts of their island fortress. We bend like broken reeds in a breeze.

HERMANN ERIKSSON

That’s worth bearing in mind.

CHRISTIAN GUNTHER  

Well, I disagree.

PRYTZ

Foreign Minister Christian Gunther. So afraid of self-incrimination that he hardly ever wrote anything down.

CHRISTIAN GUNTHER  

The Minister of Finance was right. We are a small state. Six and a half million Swedes squeezed between eight-seven million Germans on one side and one hundred and seventy million Russians on the other. Only pragmatism has ensured our survival. And what we need now is small state realism. The records will prove that our concessions to Germany were limited and only made under extreme duress.

ARVID RICHERT

I agree with the Foreign Minister’s analysis.

ERNST WIGFORSS

And so do I. By negotiating we shall protect our economy and keep our citizens free and safe. Avoiding the destruction of war is its own justification.

HERMANN ERIKSSON

There’s sense in that.

PER EDVIN SKOLD

Not if the RAF bomb the / railway yards at Gothenburg …

/A SECRETARY enters and stands by the door.

PER ALBIN HANSSON

Yes?

SECRETARY

Excuse me, Prime Minister: I have an important telegram for Mr Gunther.



[1] Ecclesiastes 11:1: “Cast thy bread on the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.” (King James Bible). The telegram was actually sent at 7.30 pm.


[2] Publisher's review of Blodsporet by Espen Eidum (2012): "For two months in the spring of 1940, one of Hitler's favourites, General Eduard Dietl, fought against the Allied force at Narvik. At the same time, Nazi Germany pumped cargo by cargo with food, clothing, winter equipment and soldiers by rail through neutral Sweden to the hard-pressed German troops in the north. All with the blessing of the Swedish government. Over the next few years, Swedish railways transported two million German soldiers, huge quantities of military equipment, wounded and prisoners of war through Sweden to and from occupied Norway - all while the Swedish authorities did their best to hide from the outside world what was really going on. Call the "Blood Trail" a kind of history book for the post-war generations. For this is the story of what the official Sweden said yes to when it opened the doors for the German "transit traffic" to Norway during World War II. And this is the first time this story is being told from Norway. Espen Eidum (46) is a daily journalist in the newspaper Forward in Narvik."


[3]A Minister was a head of a legation in a foreign country. After World War II, the terms ‘ambassador’ and ‘embassy’ became the norm and the rank of Minister became obsolete.


[4] Prime Minister. Pronounced: staatsminister.


[5] “ … writing in 1954, Ernst Wigforss, Minister of Finance, states that: [d]uring the war, we had hardly felt any need to justify our neutrality by any other argument than our own interest in avoiding the destruction of war. . . When sometimes we were told that fighting Nazism was a duty for democrats, the usual and natural reply was that we fulfilled this duty by defending our own country and keeping democratic freedoms there intact as much as possible.” (N&M)