Stockholm — Swedes are not by nature a demonstrative people, but it was possible this week to detect a new fighting glint in their eyes. From Trelleborg in the south, where the weather was mild, to Riksgransen in the far north, where snow was falling, Swedes followed the war of nerves taking place at the Karlskrona naval base, where Soviet submarine 137 remains aground inside Swedish territorial waters.
At last Swedes were able to regain a sense of national pride, which many felt evaporated during the nation's neutral stance in World War II.
Then they were forced to watch as iron ore from their mines at Kiruna was exported to Germany to feed the Nazi war machine. And they had to suffer the humiliation of seeing trainloads of German troops, en route to and from occupied Norway, pass through their country.
''Many of us felt powerless in those days. We felt we should have stood at the side of Britain and America to fight for freedom,'' said Karl-Axel Fransson from the little village of Gesunda in the heavily wooded area of Dalarna, a few kilometers from the Norwegian border.
Instead the Swedes could only take part by helping the steady stream of refugees that came across their border. Fransson, who served in the Swedish Army during the war, reflected the view of a large minority of the Swedish people.
But Social Democratic Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson kept Sweden out of the war. In his book ''Sweden - the Nation's History,'' American historian Franklin D. Scott says: ''Many were uncomfortable as they watched the sufferings of their neighbors . . . but fear and friendships, hates and hopes were all subordinate to the conviction that Sweden must remain out of the conflict.''
The years of affluence that followed the war led to a crisis of conscience for many Swedes. They felt ill at ease in the consumer society they created in a land that was unscathed while the rest of Europe lay in ruins.
This conscience-searching has led to an ambitious program of foreign aid to the world's poorest nations, today still running at 1 percent of gross national product despite harder economic times.
Hans Blix, a former foreign minister, who was a member of the Swedish delegation to the Cancun summit, said: ''We have no colonial history. We give aid to show our human solidarity.''
The need for something more in life than summer houses, new Volvo cars, motorboats, holidays abroad, and now, video recorders, has often led the Swedes to embrace causes unpopular elsewhere in the West.
The national crusade against US involvement in the Vietnam war saw Olof Palme , then prime minister, marching with the North Vietnamese ambassador in one massive demonstration. It also led to a campaign against Swedish goods in the US that worried exporters.
Many times in the past the Swedes have been accused of leaning too far toward appeasement of the Soviet Union.
The case of the nation's ''lost hero,'' Raoul Wallenberg, is one example of this.
Wallenberg was a diplomat attached to the Swedish Embassy in Budapest who saved the lives of an estimated 100,000 Jews from Nazi death camps during World War II by buying their freedom from Adolf Eichmann with cash raised by Jewish organizations in the US and giving them temporary Swedish passports.
When the Red Army ''liberated'' Hungary in 1945, he was suspected of spying and taken to the Soviet Union where Russians say he died two years later in Moscow's Lubyanka Prison.
However, since then there have been persistent reports from Soviet dissidents who have been allowed to emigrate that Wallenberg is still alive inside the Soviet prison system.
The Wallenberg case has become a cause celebre culminating earlier this year in his being granted honorary United States citizenship by President Ronald Reagan, the first honorary American since Sir Winston Churchill.
An official investigation in Sweden revealed that in the early days of the Wallenberg affair the Social Democratic government did little to secure his release largely because they feared irritating the Russian bear.
It was only after the Social Democrats lost the 1976 general election after 44 years in power that any real pressure was put on the Soviets to release Wallenberg.
Now Swedes, who often tended to look a little shamefaced when they discussed their nation's neutrality, could hold their heads up higher as they watched their boyish-faced foreign minister, Ola Ullsten, deliver a no-nonsense rebuke to the Soviet Union for ''this flagrant violation of our territorial rights'' by the Soviet submarine.
Peak time news casts quoted leader articles from the world's press applauding the stand they were taking.
There was a new spirit in the little nation of 8.5 million people who suddenly realized that they too could make a stand for their rights - and that they had every reason to feel proud about it.