Feature: Exporting Visions and Saving Children- The Swedish Save the Children Fund

Ann Nehlin is a researcher at the University of Stockholm in Sweden.  In March 2014, she gave a VAHS seminar on the relief efforts of the Swedish Save the Children Fund in the mid-twentieth century (listen to the podcast here).  In this blog post, she reveals how the organisation navigated the difficult politics of the Second World War and its aftermath.

That children should be exempted from war and political conflicts, regardless of their nationality and religious affiliation, is considered self-evident by most countries’ governments and non-governmental organisations.  The number of nations that ratified the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child in 1989 is a clear sign of this.  However, looking back historically, we can see that upholding this principle has been difficult.  In the aftermath of the two world wars when nationalistic currents and political conflicts in Europe were strong, politics appear to have played an important role in determining how relief activities for children were performed.

This is particularly visible in Swedish international relief activities directed towards children during and after the Second World War.  The task of preventing nationality, politics, religion, or background from influencing how, where, and to whom relief was directed was hampered by the politics of neutrality adopted by the Swedish government at this time.  However, philanthropic organisations such as the Save the Children Fund have played an important role in bringing attention to and dealing with such issues in Sweden.  The organisation has had a large impact in shaping politics and policies relating to children’s welfare.

Child Transport from Finland
Child transport from Finland. Photo courtesy of the Finnish Archives of National Defence, SA-Kuva.

At the outbreak of the Second World War the Swedish government stipulated neutrality, which in brief meant that it did not participate in armed conflicts or side with any of the warring countries.  With regard to the reception of refugees the Swedish government followed the so-called ‘Nordic prerogative’, meaning that it prioritized ethnic Nordic neighbours.  This was also the case for Swedish international relief work.  Swedish relief was mainly directly towards the Nordic countries and the bulk of that relief went to Finland.  The Swedish Save the Children Fund chose to work with the government’s outlined policies and thereby gained the government’s trust.  The organisation expanded rapidly, from a modest 260 members in 1937 to 47 000 members by 1947.  Apart from an enormous increase in members, it gained a position as an informal advisor to the Swedish government, recommending where and to whom Swedish relief should be provided.

The close cooperation of the Swedish Save the Children fund with the Swedish government enabled the organisation’s growth, but it did come at a cost.  The Swedish Save the Children Fund was a member of the international Save the Children Fund.  This relationship required the Swedish organisation to take part in international relief activities.  Honouring this requirement, however, was complicated by the Swedish organisation’s commitment to its government’s politics of neutrality.  The international Save the Children Fund forwarded requests to the Swedish branch for support for relief actions in Europe during the Second World War, but these were mostly declined.  The Swedish Save the Children Fund did not want to go against the Swedish government’s politics.

Even if Sweden did not directly participate in the war, it was still affected.  After the government decided to enforce a politics of neutrality, it began to juggle how this was to be upheld; this balancing act was to last throughout the war.  Towards the end of the war, concerns about the potential post-war consequences of these policies began to surface and the Swedish government tried to counteract possible international critique by increasing its international relief work.  A substantial amount of money was allocated to relief and a government committee, responsible for all Swedish international relief, was established.  The decision to increase relief efforts triggered a “turf-war” amongst Swedish NGOs and the Swedish government as each competed for control over the distribution of relief.   One of the outcomes of this struggle was that the Swedish Save the Children Fund further enhanced its position.

The Swedish government’s changing standpoint on international questions towards the end of the war resulted in the provision of relief for non-Nordic countries.  This was primarily carried out by the Swedish Save the Children Fund and the Swedish Red Cross, but was supported by the Swedish government.  Not only did the increase in Swedish international relief work provide an opportunity to redeem Sweden’s dented reputation, but it also permitted the export of a Swedish visions of industry, childcare, and politics —a Swedish model of society.

The Swedish Save the Children Fund and the Swedish Red Cross established children’s homes and apprentice homes in France and Germany and, in the early 1950s, in Israel.  Locations for these institutions were carefully chosen and relief work was concentrated in specific areas to ensure that this relief was as visible as possible.  For example, one children’s home was established in Normandy in France.  One reason to pick these particular area ―apart from the need of local children― was that Swedish industry was well established in the region.  A children’s home would “complement and give life” to this industry.  Normandy was also geographically close to Sweden, which meant that transports of supplies and different kinds of materials, such as prefabricated Swedish houses, was easy and not too costly.

The children’s homes were decorated with Swedish textiles, Swedish equipment, and were staffed by Swedish personnel who were trained in modern Swedish childcare.  The establishment of the children’s homes was met with great interest and the institutions received many prominent visitors who were interested in modern Swedish childcare.  According to the Swedish Save the Children Fund, this generated much-needed goodwill for Sweden.

Swedish relief work was also directed at Germany.  Germany offered the opportunity not only to export Swedish welfare, but also a Swedish model of society.  After the war, it was not only considered important to demilitarise the Germans, but also to denazify or reorientate them.  This was intended to turn Germans into citizens who could live and function in democratic societies.  The Swedish Save the Children Fund actively participated in this task.  It set up children’s homes and apprentice homes in Germany, the interiors of which were carefully planned.  The organisation aimed to make the homes as homely as possible, using the best that Swedish industry could offer, as in the homes in France.

Swedenheim in Oberhausen

Swedenheim in Oberhausen, Germany. Photo courtesy of the Swedish Red Cross.

The establishment of the apprentice and children’s homes was considered a success.  Pompous inaugurations were held both in France and Germany and prominent people from the UN, government ministers, and members of the press and radio were invited to celebrate the Swedish contributions.  The Swedish Save the Children Fund planned to hand the management of the different homes over to local authorities once the institutions were up and running and staff trained.  However, this did not always work out as desired.  A representative of the Swedish Save the Children Fund who toured Germany in 1954 pointed out that the management of some of the homes had been neglected, which reflected badly upon Sweden.

The Swedish Save the Children Fund only made modest contributions to Jewish children during and after the war.  As late as 1947, the organisation declined a request from the Jewish World Congress to support transports of Jewish children from east to west, arguing that this could be considered a political act.  In the early 1950s the organisation did however carry out extensive relief work in Israel in conjunction with the Swedish government.  The Swedish Village Kfar Achim was established, mainly by the Swedish Save the Children Fund.  Seventy-five prefabricated houses were transported from Sweden and constructed on site.  There was also a nursery, yet again fully equipped with the best Swedish industry had to offer.  Here, too, pompous inaugurations  were held to celebrate Swedish gifts and contributions.

At this time, Swedish politicians were proud of the emerging Swedish welfare state.  These politicians generally considered that the Swedish democratic system could serve as a model for other countries.  The Swedish Save the Children Fund eagerly assisted in exporting Sweden and Swedish visions.  However, by doing so, it on several occasions compromised its utilitarian founding principle: to help as many children in as many places as possible.  The Swedish organisation repeatedly declined to subordinate itself to its international parent organisation or participate in relief work for children in places where it was most needed.  The need to restore Sweden’s international reputation and generate goodwill for the country frequently overshadowed humanitarian goals.

Exporting Visions and Saving Children

Ann Nehlin’s book, Exporting Visions and Saving Children- the Swedish Save the Children Fund, was published in 2009.

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