The term ‘neutral’ in the context of war is strictly defined. When a country takes the formal stance of neutrality, it gains specific rights and responsibilities. While there are many reasons that a state might take the stance of neutrality, it often is a response to a difficult political situation that a country needs to navigate with one of the sides. The rights and responsibilities of a neutral country are primarily defined by the Declaration of Paris of 1856, Hague Convention V, 1907 (neutrality in land war), and Hague Convention XIII, 1907 (neutrality in maritime war). They are as follows:
- A neutral power is responsible for making sure that none of the below acts are carried out within its territory in any official capacity.
– The territory of a neutral country is not to be invaded.
– Belligerents are forbidden from moving troops, equipment, or other war supplies through the neutral territory.
– Belligerents cannot build or utilise any stations on neutral territory for wartime communications
– Troops cannot be recruited for war in the neutral territory by any power.
- A neutral power is not responsible for the following:
– Independent parties leaving their territory for the purpose of joining the war.
– all exports of war supplies from its territory.
– stopping communications equipment owned by private individuals from being offered to war participants.
During WWII, several countries took a neutral stance for all or part of the war. These include the United States, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Ireland, Sweden, Turkey, and Argentina.
While the United States eventually entered WWII, they remained neutral for the first two years. The president of the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt, continued a legacy of Isolationism in the United States. There was a strong belief that a powerful military, the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and avoidance of conflict would keep the United States safe. Additionally, the general populace did not consider the squabbles of European nations their problem and was not willing to risk the lives of their young men. Trying to enter the war in 1939 would have been political suicide.
However, a series of events changed Roosevelt’s mind, and he thus began trying to gain public support for the war. Chief among these were the sinking of US submarines by Germany and the stated goal of Japan to conquer North America. Roosevelt strategically increased news coverage of the war to garner sympathy, but it took Pearl Harbor to give him the support he needed. The bombing of Pearl Harbor sparked outrage amongst US citizens, as well as shattering the false sense of security provided by the oceans to the East and West.
Spain, unlike the United States, remained neutral for the entirety of the conflict. A tenuous balance existed between Spain and Portugal, where either both or neither would remain neutral. For its part, Spain leaned slightly toward the axis due to a set of similar political ideas with Germany. Additionally, leader Fransisco Franco remembered the assistance Germany provided during their recent civil war.
However, the economy of Spain was still weak after the civil war, and they relied on exports from the US that might disappear if they joined the axis. Additionally, there was no tantalising enough bounty for Spain to risk war with the United Kingdom. There are some who speculate that if the UK had suffered a land invasion by the Germans, Spain may have joined the Axis. It is unclear whether this would have happened, as they still had the Iberian Nonaggression Pact (which forbids aggression between Spain and ally-leaning Portugal) to contend with.
Like Spain, Portugal was neutral for the entirety of WWII. Portugal wanted to stay out of the war as much as they could because of their close relationship with Fascist Spain. During the Spanish Civil War, Portugal had backed Fransisco Franco’s regime. Joining the war would mean joining the allies (due to alliances) and would thus burn bridges with axis-leaning Spain. Additionally, Portugal was loathed to give up the respect of Mussolini and Hitler, which they enjoyed because of their part in the Spanish Civil War. Portugal hoped that this respect would keep them safe from invasion.
Complicating matters, despite their desire for neutrality, Portugal had one of the longest-lasting military alliances in history with the UK. However, Portugal had reached an agreement that allowed them to maintain their neutrality. The UK gave them permission to stay out of the war to avoid provoking Spain (which the UK government considered unavoidable). In a public declaration, the UK announced that they “were not in need of Portugal’s help.” It was tacitly understood that if Spain were to join the axis, Portugal would join the allies.
Despite their neutrality, Portugal still influenced the war in many ways. One of these was in the arena of espionage. Portugal’s secret police left espionage activities unhindered unless they interfered in Portugal’s domestic interests. Among these operations were efforts to destabilise Spain, so that they might have a more ally sympathetic government. Additionally, false information was frequently passed to Germany through Lisbon by double agents, or Axis informers recruited by Germany. The creator of James Bond, Ian Flemming, was based in Lisbon during this time.
Switzerland has a history of what is known as “armed neutrality.” In a variety of wars, they have declined to join either side and instead took a defensive approach. This tradition began after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Sweden signed the treaty of Paris at this time, and it was agreed that Sweden would serve as a neutral buffer zone between France and Austria. This long history of neutrality had left them ill-equipped for an offensive war, and while the mountainous topography and standing army of the Swiss would be enough to discourage invasion, they were not able to advance.
Despite their disadvantaged position, Switzerland is one of the only European countries whose economy improved because of WWII. They had a robust private sector industrial system that was churning out weaponry for the war. They sold approximately 900 million francs worth of supplies between 1939 and 1944. Two-thirds of this went to Germany, while some of the rest went to Italy. As a result, much of Germany’s wealth flowed right into Swiss pockets. Much of the looting done by Nazis was laundered into clean money through Swiss banks, although the responsible parties and details of these transactions are unclear.
Unlike many of the neutral countries on this list, Ireland’s chief concern was internal. The wounds of the civil war in Ireland were very fresh, and there were large and violent factions that were both pro and anti-fascist. As a result, there were fears that joining the war on either side would reignite violence. The IRA was additionally known for being unpredictable. Ireland briefly contemplated joining the allies when the possibility of a United Sovereign Ireland was proposed, but the representatives of North and South Ireland disliked each other so much that the idea was scrapped.
Once a united Ireland was off the table, it seemed nothing would convince Ireland to join the war – not even several German bombs that landed there instead of the intended UK. Ireland built up defences and military to push back both German and British invaders and considered both equally likely.
Sweden had a history of what they called “nonbelligerency” following the Napoleonic wars. They lost over 1/3 of their land in these conflicts and distanced themselves from political alliances in the intervening years. When Germany invaded Poland, Sweden immediately declared its neutral status, although whether it fully adhered to this is debated by historians. For much of its history, Sweden controlled the territory of Finland. Although this regime collapsed in the 19th century, Sweden still supported Finland in many ways, making it something in-between a territory and a sovereign state.
The argument against Sweden’s neutrality comes from the lack of neutrality displayed by Finland. Finland was drawn into the war on the Axis side due to an alliance with Germany. During this time, Finland supported the axis on the Eastern Front. Although they fought for the axis, they primarily hoped to regain territory lost to the USSR and provided refuge to Jewish people. However, the fact remains that Sweden indirectly assisted the axis in their fight against the Soviet Union through Finland.
Turkey remained neutral in WWII until late in the war. Despite territorial losses in WWI, Turkey was not invested in regaining those lands, as they had mostly been vacated by Turks. As such, they had nothing to gain by joining (unlike Finland). They leaned toward the allies and warned them of the dangers of fascism growing in Germany in the 1930s but were reassured that any attempt to conquer Europe would not succeed. Indeed, they were repeatedly assured they could stay neutral until extremely late in the war. When Paris fell anxieties skyrocketed in Turkey. It became apparent that a conquering of Europe may indeed be possible. The desire of Mussolini to control the Mediterranean, along with the risk of Germany attempting to conquer the middle east through Turkey drove them into joining the Allies in February of 1945.
Argentina has gained a reputation as a place where Nazis fled following WWII, but they were a neutral power during the war. The primary fear that kept Argentina from joining the Allies despite pressure from the United States was a war’s potential to upset the Argentinian Economy. Argentina exported substantial amounts of foodstuffs all over Europe, something that taking a side would jeopardise. Additionally, internal divisions in the country made their position on which side to take even more fraught. One of the factions responsible for the division was a substantial German immigrant population, while it was not all pro-Nazi, did contain a substantial amount of support for Hitler. In 1944, a pro-fascist party took power in Argentina and gave asylum to an estimated 300 Nazi war criminals. This is the most well-known action Argentina took regarding WWII.