Commonwealth and Foreign
THE ALAND ISLANDS QUESTION
By JOACHIM JOESTEN
THERE is no exaggeration in saying that the Aland group of islands constitutes, together with the problem of the Belts and Sound, the most important strategical issue in Northern Europe. Except, indeed, for the Balearic Isles, there is hardly to be found in European waters another archipelago so fraught with dangerous potentialities.
Suppose an imaginary great Power were to seize control of the Aland Isles, establishing there strong bases for its navy and air force. Instantly that Power would be threatening the " life-lines " of four nations : Germany, Russia, Sweden, Finland. Whoever controls Aland, with offensive aims, is, as a glance at the map shows, in a position :
(a) to cripple Germany's supply of Swedish iron-ore. There is no room in this article to point out to what an excep- tional degree the Reich's armaments industry is dependent on Sweden's ores. Taking this dependence for granted, it is interesting to note that three out of the four export harbours, from which Sweden's ore flows into Germany's steel mills, are located within easy reach of Aland, viz. : Lulea, next in importance only to Narvik (on the Norwegian coast), Gdvle and Oxelosund. The former two might be shut off hermetically, as Aland would be like a bolt shot across the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia, and the latter could be easily attacked from the air, if not blockaded.
(b) to throttle Russia's Baltic trade and bottle up her fleet in the Gulf of Finland. For Aland is placed menacingly on the left flank of the entrance to the Gulf, as Dago and Oesel are on its right.
(c) to dictate terms to Sweden. Aland, indeed, points at the very heart of Sweden. Taking off from the largest island in the group, the enemy's bombers would have to cross no more than about 3o sea miles to reach Sweden's shores. The rich Miilar Valley, Central Sweden with its powerful industry, indeed Stockholm itself would live under the constant threat of devastating air raids. It is as well to remember that the distance from Aland to Stockholm is only about one-half of that from Majorca to Barcelona ! The sinister role played by the Italian bombers from Palma gives a striking idea of what a great Power on Aland might do to the capital of Sweden.
(d) to break the commercial backbone of Finland—the coast- line from BjOmeborg to Helsingfors. All Finland's vital lines of communication with Sweden, Germany, Western Europe, pass across or near the Aland group of isles.
Considering these potentialities, it is no wonder that Europe's statesmen should have puzzled for more than a century over the problem how best to prevent Aland from causing mischief. Needless to say, the development of modern aircraft increased their anxieties.
Under the international convention of October zoth, 1921, which was signed by ten Powers (Denmark, Esthonia, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Latvia, Poland, Sweden), under the aegis of the League, Finland was explicitly pledged not to erect or maintain on the Aland Isles military, naval or air bases of any description. In case of war, or open threat to Aland's neutrality, Finland may lay out mines in the waters of the archipelago, but all final steps for safe- guarding Aland's status are to be taken by the League Council.
The legal situation, then, is clear enough. The Aland Isles are neutralised and no change whatever of their status can take place without the consent of the League of Nations Council. In these circumstances it is, to say, the least, strange to witness the persistent campaign for the re-fortifica- tion of Aland which has been going on, crescendo, for three years, and is now reaching its climax.
This campaign was opened in October, 1935, by an article which the Finnish admiral Gustav von Schoultz published in the widely circulated review Suomen Kuvalehti. Ever since Admiral v. Schoultz has been, in speech and writing, prime mover of the " Fortify Aland ! " campaign, to which by now all the militarist, Fascist (Lappo) and anti-Russian elements in Finland have rallied.
Nazi Germany betrayed at an early stage her none too platonic interest in this agitation. On April 16th, 1936, Deutsche !Fehr, the official Reichswehr review, published an
article by Admiral von Gadow openly inviting Finland and Sweden to conclude a direct, bilateral agreement for re-forti- fying Aland, heedless of the League where Russia migh7.
protest. (Although the Soviets did not sign the Aland Convention of October zoth, 1921, and at the time even explicitly declared themselves not bound by it, their entry into the League, it is generally admitted, implied acknow- ledgment of Aland's neutral status). And on April 17th von Schoultz came out again in Hitler's own Volkische Beobachter.
This drew a virulent reply from Isvestia, where Karl Radek, on May 4th, 1936, denounced these " ravings of two admirals " as a direct threat against the Soviet Union. Once Aland wag re-fortified, Isvestia argued, it would suffice for a Lapp° Government to come into power at Helsingfors to provide Germany with a first-class naval and air base for attacking
the Soviet Union.
That such misgivings, which the Soviet Press has uttered
frequently since, are not entirely groundless was made per- fectly clear by the sharp flare-up of the campaign at the beginning of this year. In November, 1937, the Nazi Zeit- schrift fur Geopolitik, in a long article about Aland, warned Finland of coming " unpleasant surprises " if the isles were left much longer unfortified.
What the announced surprise would look like was revealed, on January 3rd, 1938, by Valentin Sjoberg (" Sir V. "), foreign editor of Stockholm's Aftonbladet. It is a matter of general knowledge in Sweden that V. Sjoberg's articles often convey first-hand information from highest military and diplomatic
circles in Germany ! He wrote :
" . . . The Gulf of Bothnia must be kept open, at all costs, for the shipments of iron-ore to Germany, . . . and since Aland can shut off the Gulf, it is Germany's interest to seize control of the archi- pelago, unless Finland and Sweden, by fortifying it, are ready to guarantee that the isles will never fall into Soviet Russian hands, in the event of war. . . ."
Everywhere in Sweden, as well as in the rest of Scandinavia, the article was taken as heralding a German coup de main on the isles, if Finland resisted much longer the pressure which Germany has brought to bear on her for several years now,
even diplomatically. A pressure, the plain purpose of which is to force this country into committing a clear-cut violation of international law !
If Valentin Sjoberg's article betrayed (intentionally, it may be assumed) his sources of inspiration by the very bluntness and brutality of the tone, another spokesman of German interests in Sweden, Dr. Sven Hedin, the well-known explorer, was no less peremptory in a speech he made, on February 7th, 1938, before the students of Lund University. Dr. Hedin too admonished Finland and Sweden to agree forthwith about the fortification of Aland, justifying his demand with the usual hints at the "danger that threatens us from the East."
There is no mistaking the significance of the Scandinavia- wide campaign of which these utterances represent only a few examples. If further evidence of what is brewing were needed, the current reports of German purchases of land on Aland, secret visits by Reichswehr officers (September 9th, 1937), &c., provide it. Taking all this together, the general uneasiness that is now being felt, both in Finland, Sweden and on the archipelago itself, about this uncalled-for agitation, is easily .understandable.
At a recent meeting of the Aland Diet (on February 16th, 1938), at Mariehamn, both the governor of the archipelago, Hr. Rothberg, and the speaker of the " landsting " expressed the grave concern of the population at the fortification propa- ganda and admonished the Finnish Government to abide firmly by the international convention of October zoth, 1921. There is little doubt that the Helsingfors Government honestly strives to resist the pressure to which it is being subjected, on the Aland issue, both from within and from without. The best way to aid it in its defence of an international treaty would undoubtedly be if at least some of the signatories of the Aland Convention helped to restrain in time that country which is attempting to violate it.