Trivia 008: Total Defense

I try to keep these trivia newsletters light-hearted and fun. That being said, I also like them to be topical, when possible. And so, given the current state of global politics, I have decided that today’s entry will be about Swedish military doctrine during the Cold War.


Throughout the Cold War, and to this day, Sweden (and its neighbor, Finland) has remained separate from NATO. In order not to antagonize the sleeping giant next door, they maintain neutrality, choosing to focus on their own defenses. However, during the Cold War, the Swedish military was aware of the danger their country was in. If the Soviet Union ever went to war with NATO, Sweden’s airspace would be directly in the way for aircraft headed to northern Europe and the UK. Therefore, the USSR would likely make an attempt to secure Swedish airbases and territory.

As a result, Sweden decided to implement a “total defense” policy. Their whole society would be trained to resist any kind of invasion, and preparations would be made so that all citizens knew what to do in case of an attack. Every single household in Sweden received a pamphlet entitled “If the war comes“, describing what to do in the event of an invasion. (A similar pamphlet was first issued in 1943, after the Nazi invasion of Norway and Denmark, and the USSR’s invasion of Finland) It was also printed in the back of phone books, so it would be easy to find. These pamphlets included information about how to respond to air-raid sirens, what to do in shelters, and how to evacuate.

Most importantly, these pamphlets stated that Sweden would never give up – “Resistance shall be made all the time and in every situation. It depends on You – Your efforts, Your determination, Your will to survive!“. They boldly declared that any declaration of surrender, no matter who it came from, was not to be believed – “Every statement that the resistance will cease is FALSE!“.

This strategy also bred a generation of military officers trained to uphold the mission above all else. Knowing that command lines would likely be cut and that communications would be spotty, soldiers were taught that they needed to think on their feet. They needed to be able to act independently at all times, even if it meant questioning their own orders. The mission objectives were paramount, even if they were countermanded. This sometimes caused friction in political situations, as when the Swedish Nordbat-2 battalion was sent to Bosnia as UN Peacekeepers. Thanks to conflicting jurisdictions and uncertain political situations, battalion commanders were often told not to engage in combat. However, the Nordbat-2 battalion chose to disobey direct orders from the UN and Swedish government, stating that their objectives were to defend the citizens at any cost. As a result, they were lauded as heroes for the many people they saved.


In 2015, Sweden reimplemented this total defense policy, as a result of Russia’s invasion of Crimea. They also reintroduced military conscription in 2018. Let’s hope they never have to apply it. The new “If the war comes“pamphlet has good advice on what supplies to prepare in case of an emergency situation, so it’s worth a read.


Well, writing this article has probably put me on a watchlist somewhere. But eh, aren’t we all on some watchlist or other? Anyways, hopefully next week will bring less depressing news. If you know anyone who would like to receive these, please have them send an email to [email protected] And if you no longer want to be reminded of rising global tensions, let me know and I can take you off the list.

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