The Dark Sides of Norwegian History

For although we desire the soothing effects of a resolution, we are not ready to renounce the freedom to question.

Marcel Gauchet, The Disenchantment of The World: A Political History of Religion (Princeton University Press, 1997).

Earlier this year, the Norwegian Book Critics Award – Kritikerprisen – was awarded to Professor of English Literature at the University of Oslo, Tore Rem, for his seminal book Knut Hamsun – Reisen til Hitler [Knut Hamsun – The Journey to Hitler].

Rem’s book is one of many publications in recent years which have formed part of an historical shift in how the Norwegian reading public interpret Norway’s history during World War II (1940-45). University of Oslo historian Synne Corell in a 2010 book based on her fine and subtle narrative analyses of how nationalistic post-War Norwegian historians shaped the hitherto hegemonic perceptions of the role of Norway and Norwegians during World War II for post-War generations in her doctoral dissertation, points to scholarly findings from Denmark and The Netherlands suggesting that the so-called ‘third generation’ of historians are more inclined to adopt the point of view of the war’s victims.

I am not an historian by training, but definitely identify as part of this ‘third generation’ by virtue of age and scholarly inclination.

Like my contemporary Correll and Rem before her, I grew up with a certain narrative about Norway and Norwegians acts and attitudes during World War II and the Nazi Occupation of Norway from April 9 1940 to May 8 1945. This narrative was what I encountered in curriculum textbooks at school, what was taught by my teachers at various levels, and what I was exposed to in the media and the public sphere at large. That was a narrative in which there was a small coterie of national traitors linked with Vidkun Quisling (1887-1945), who on the eve of the German Nazi invasion of Norway on April 9 1940 – codenamed Weserübung – committed a coup d’etat and pronounced himself Prime Minister of Norway and established a collaborator regime in which his Nazi party, the Nasjonal Samling [National Unity] played a central role. Quite apart from this, most Norwegians, we were duly told, either actively and heroically resisted the Nazis, or engaged in passive resistance. One should not make light of the hard existential choices faced by Norwegians during World War II – which included my grandparents on both sides – all staunch and life-long social democrats in the post-War ‘age of social democracy’ – and as such not at all sympathetic towards the Nazi German occupiers in Norway and their Norwegian collaborators. But I recall that even as a teenager, this narrative, with its clear binaries between good and the evil Norwegians and the good Norwegians and the evil Germans struck me as too simplistic. Germany had its dramatic and shape-shifting coming to terms with Nazism and the role that ordinary Germans after all played in it before and during World War II in the 1960s already. In Norway, it would take until the 1980s and 1990s before historians and other scholars started to question the dominant interpretations of Norway’s World War II. And the shift has certainly been monumental and significant also for Norwegian self-perceptions. In the post-War hegemonic narrative, little attention was paid to the fate of Norway’s small Jewish population during World War II, the central role played by Norwegian Nazified state police in their deportation to the Holocaust, and to the role that some 5000+ Norwegian volunteers to the Waffen SS are likely to have played on the killing fields of the Ukraine during Operation Barbarossa (1941-42), in which countless numbers of Jewish civilians – men, women and children – were massacred in what could be described as a trial run for the industrial extermination of the Holocaust after the Wannsee Conference’s Endlösung against European Jews was set in motion in 1942. Nor did we hear much about the fact that Norwegian industrialists ranging from Norsk Hydro onto the state-controlled Norwegian Railways [Norges Statsbaner, NSB] profited enormously from co-operation with the Nazis occupiers during World War II and in all but a few cases were never held responsible for what their companies had involved themselves in. In the case of Hydro, that included the production of crucial materials for the German Lüftwaffe, as the historian Anette H. Storeide documents in a recent study.

In the case of the NSB, as documented in an important new book by the historian Bjørn Westlie, that included the use of tens of thousands of Russian and Yugoslav prisoners of war as slave labour in order to build the extension of the national rails from Mo i Rana to Fauske in the province of Nordland, a 14 mile stretch over challenging mountainous terrain  (the Nordlandsbanen), during the war, an undertaking which cost the lives of thousands of prisoners. NSB had a fair number of social democrats and even Communists in its ranks of employees: What is perhaps surprising here is the degree to which the central administration of NSB in Oslo managed to impose its will of co-operation with and submission to the German Nazi occupiers with hardly any protests in the lower ranks, even among those NSB employees who must personally have witnessed the working to death of Slavic slave labourers.  There were certainly powerful vested interests in promoting a certain narrative about Norway during World War II in the Norwegian media too: Bjørn Westlie has in a previous book documented how the conservative (now liberal-conservative) newspaper Aftenposten, to this very day Norway’s most influential daily newspaper, from 1942 to 1945 willingly submitted to the new Nazi rulers. Westlie (page 143) notes that the anti-Semitism of articles in which Jews were referred to in Aftenposten during the war was “particularly strong.” And it is not as if anti-Semitism in the pages of Aftenposten was something exclusive to the World War II: Editorials dating back to the 1920s evidence a fair amount of anti-Semitism among Aftenposten’s editors at the time.

Aftenposten employed Norwegian Waffen SS volunteers on the killing fields of Eastern Europe such as Ulf Breien and Egil Hartmann as foreign correspondents, in Theo Findal had a Berlin correspondent who was very much and enthusiastic partner in Joseph Goebbels propaganda apparatus and crowned it all by publishing Knut Hamsun’s eulogy for Adolf Hitler on May 7th. This happened in a context in which the Norwegian social-democratic and Communist press was banned and illegal as a matter of course. The profits generated by Aftenposten during the Nazi occupation meant that the paper had a significant market advantage on the social democratic and Communist press, which had to be built from virtual ruins after the war.  No one at Aftenposten was ever held accountable for the newspaper’s editorial stance during the war. In the aftermath of the war, Aftenposten was merely fined Norwegian kroner 100 000,- for its collaborationist stance.

There is nothing new in denials or whitewashing of the actual historical record as part of processes of nation-building or national reconstruction in any country of course. Yet this way of looking at Norway’s World War II past has in fact persisted well into our time. Synne Corell offers a telling example in the form of the terms the Norwegian historian Finn Olstad uses to describe the rounding up of a Jewish family in the small town of Sandefjord in Eastern Norway in the autumn of 1943 in a city history of Sandefjord financed and published by Sandefjord’s city council in 1997. According to Correll (pages 32-35) Olstad writes about the arrest of the Lahn family from the perspective of the police and describes it as having been “among the tasks the police had been forced to undertake” that were “among the most uncomfortable.” Uncomfortable for the police – that is. Corell effectively demonstrates how Olstad’s use of terminology effectively obscures the simple fact that local police officers from Sandefjord complied with an October 1942 police order instructing all local police forces to look out for Jews over the age of fifteen in Norway. Olstad seems unable to tell his readers in a straightforward manner that the Lahn family, who were arrested by local police officers in Sandefjord, perished in Auschwitz. Similarly, a prominent Norwegian historian in a much-read and cited biography of Vidkun Quisling in effect downplays Quisling’s and his party’s anti-Semitism and seemingly wholehearted support of the extermination of Norwegian and European Jews.

The same historian would later go on to publicly embarrass himself in Norway and tarnish his scholarly record through his endorsement of the ‘scholarly credentials’ of the prominent Holocaust denialist, Nazi sympathizer and revisionist British historian David Irving. 

As the Norwegian lawyer and researcher at the Holocaust (HL-) Center in Oslo, Christopher S. Harper notes in a fine recent article in the Norwegian journal Samtiden 1/2015, though it is not known what Quisling actually knew about the Endlösung  which had been decreed at the Wannsee Conference on January 20 1942, there is hardly any doubts as to his direct threats and incitement to violence against Norwegian Jews from 1941 and onwards. In a speech in December 1941, Quisling as prime minister for the collaborationist regime in Norway called for the “extermination of those who are opposed to us”; in a speech in August 1942 he proclaimed that the ground on which “Norway’s rightful place in the world” would be built was “Germany’s victory over Jewry.”  A former Norwegian Supreme Court Judge has in recent years also hard-headedly defended Norwegian courts’ acquittal of the senior Oslo Police officer Knut Rød (1900-1986) after the war.  Rød was as a police inspector in charge of the operation in Oslo and Akershus on November 26 1942 in which some 523 Norwegian Jews were rounded up and arrested and transported aboard the German ship M/S Donau to the gas chambers of Nazi-occupied Poland. Norway had approximately 2100 Jewish residents at the time of the German invasion in April 1940, making up no more than 0.8 per cent of the total population of Norway at the time. 772 Norwegian Jews were arrested and deported in 1942-43.

In a comparative perspective, the percentage of Norwegian Jews who perished in the Holocaust/Shoah was relatively high – of the 772 Norwegian Jews deported, only 34 survived the Holocaust/Shoah. That high percentage of extermination could hardly have been achieved without Norwegian police officers acting as willing accomplices in the rounding up of Norwegian Jews across the country. Rød was during the war a member of Quisling’s Nazi party National Unity as well as of the Nazified Norwegian state police. In the later stages of the war, however, he made contact with the Norwegian resistance against the Nazis, which would appear to have become extremely useful after the war. For after the war, Rød was arrested and charged with treason. On the basis of testimonies in his defense from central members of the World War II Norwegian resistance against the Nazis, Norwegian courts twice acquitted Rød in 1946 and 1948. Rød’s defense successfully argued that he had become a member of Quisling’s party and a prominent member of the Oslo police corps in order to assist the resistance against the Nazis in Norway. Among Rød’s extremely powerful supporters were Jens-Christian Hauge (1915-2006), a commander in Milorg, the military resistance against the Nazis from 1942 and onwards, who went on to be Norway’s Minister of Defence in the first Labour Party government established after the war, and later Minister of Justice. According to Hauge’s biographer the historian Olav Njølstad, the lawyer Hauge at an early stage after the war opined that Rød as part of a group that had started collecting information about Norwegian Communists (a strong rival for power for the Labour Party in the immediate aftermath of the war) could be very useful.   The exact role of Hauge in the Rød case is not known, and probably never will be, as Hauge remained throughout his life very much remained a behind-the-scenes power broker who was very circumspect about the many roles he played in his career. In 2008 it was discovered that Hauge’s name appeared on the list of Norwegians linked with the Office of Strategic Studies (OSS), the precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

In any case, Norwegian courts did not pay much attention to Rød’s documented role in the deportation of Norwegian Jews, leading historians to suggest that unlike in other Western European countries under Nazi occupation during World War II, participation in deportation of Jews was not seriously considered as the criminal offenses that they were by Norwegian post-War courts.

That of course raises the profound question as to whether Norwegian Jews who had been deported and massacred were considered Norwegians whose deaths anyone were accountable for at all by ordinary Norwegians and Norwegian society at large after the war. The exiled Norwegian government, through its diplomatic delegations in London, Bern and Stockholm were certainly made aware of the forced deportations of Jews from Norway, and received news of the ongoing Nazi extermination of Jews in the concentration camps of Poland when these news started appearing in international news media. But as Christopher S. Harper documents, doing anything at all to assist Norwegian Jews does not seem to have been high on the list of priorities for the exiled Norwegian government.  Harper cites a response by the Norwegian exile government’s foreign minister Trygve Lie (later to become the UN’s first secretary general in 1948), written in response to a letter from the World Jewish Congress about an impending mass massacre of European Jewry written on the day that the deported Norwegian from MS Donau Jews arrived at their final destination of Auschwitz on December 1 1942. That letter is worth quoting in full:

“It has never been found necessary for the Norwegian government to appeal to the people of Norway to assist and protect other individuals or classes in Norway, who have been selected for persecution by the German aggressors, and I feel convinced that such an appeal is not needed to urge the population to fulfill their human duty towards the Jews in Norway.”

Or, in ever so few words, the Norwegian post-war credo: ‘real’ Norwegians are inherently and naturally good and virtuous and do not need to be told to uphold the rights to life of minorities in their midst.

The great merit in Prof Tore Rem’s award-winning book is its meticulous and relentless documentation of Knut Hamsun’s (1859-1952) Nazism and Anti-Semitism. In the post-War era, that side of Hamsun was a constant source of embarrassment to the admirers of one of the greatest sons of Norwegian modern literature, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1921 for his novel Growth of The Soil (1917).

There have been several specious lines of defense of Hamsun’s political errors: from the court psychiatrists who argued that Hamsun had during World War II suffered from permanently declining mental capabilities, to the literary critics who until our age argued that Hamsun’s oeuvre, with its long-term and disturbingly negative portrayals of Jews, had to be read in splendid isolation from the artist’s politics. Hamsun considered the psychiatrists’ diagnosis a life-long stigma, he was if anything proud of his “serving Germany in order to serve the Norwegian people” (Rem, page 332), and claimed never to have been told by anyone during the entire World War II that what he wrote in Norwegian newspapers was wrong. Rem effectively punctures this myth too, by pointing to a number of letters Hamsun received from Norwegians opposed to the Nazis during the war (Rem, page 122). The Norwegian author Ingar Sletten Kolloen, whose two-volume Hamsun biography from 2003-04 was a bestseller in Norway and appeared in a translation published by Yale University Press in 2009 are among the Norwegian apologists for Hamsun who have ascribed his publicly expressed Nazism and anti-Semitism to the German Nazi propaganda machinery, and even to its censorship. Hamsun’s own family took an active part in the white-washing of Hamsun’s actual political record: his much younger and long-suffering actress wife Marie Hamsun, if anything an even more committed and convinced Nazi and anti-Semite than her husband (Rem dryly notes her friendship with Julius Streicher of the vile anti-Semitic journal Der Stürmer) wrote apologetic and in Norway much-read personal memoirs, as did Hamsun’s young son Tore Hamsun. After Rem’s book, denials of Hamsun’s Nazism and anti-Semitism will no longer be possible. Hamsun support of Hitler’s regime in Germany came early: 1935 and 36 sees the great author irate over the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee’s awarding of the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize to the German dissident, pacifist and Nazi resister Carl von Ozzietsky (1889-1938), at the time already in German concentration camps where he would die for his role in exposing Nazi Germany’s re-armament and violation of the 1918 Treaty of Versailles. “This fool in the concentration camp”, Hamsun wrote (Rem, page 97). Unsurprisingly, Hamsun outrage was shared by the conservative Aftenposten, which in its editorials condemned the Nobel Peace Prize Committee’s awarding of the prize to a German who had broken German law. By 1936, Hamsun had enrolled as a vocal supporter of Vidkun Quisling and his Nazi party National Unity (Rem, page 101). Rem also documents that Hamsun was a long-term subscriber to the Norwegian anti-Semitic magazine Nationalt Tidsskrift [The National Magazine] , established in 1916 by the rabid Norwegian anti-Semite, the typographer Mikal Sylten (1873-1964).

This magazine regularly featured extracts from the classical anti-Semitic tract The Protocols of The Elders of Zion. In line with the editor’s conviction concerning the purported global Jewish conspiracy, which he thought also threatened Norway, Sylten from 1925 onwards dedicated much space in the magazine to the publication of lists of ‘known Jews in Norway and abroad, and [Jewish] foreigner’s businesses in Norway.’ According to Sylten, ‘camouflaged Jews” had “sneaked their way into Norway” and exacted a ‘fateful influence’ over the development of the Norwegian people (Rem, page 129). Sylten’s lists would by 1941 become part of the German Gestapo’s systematic collection of material on Norwegian Jews, though Wilhelm Wagner, the Gestapo’s point man on ‘the Jewish question’ in Norway, tasked with preparing lists identifying Jews living in Norway for the Gestapo, was apparently greatly annoyed by Sylten’s sloppy attitude to the question of what a Jew was and wasn’t.

Hamsun reveled in the attention the Nazi propaganda machinery paid him and his work. Hamsun was the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbel’s (1897-1945) favourite author, and his work was throughout the war printed in cheap state-funded editions made available to German troops all over Europe. In June 1943, Hamsun features as a keynote speaker at a conference for Nazi journalists in Vienna. It is during this trip that he is invited to visit Der Führer at his mountain resort at Berghof near Salzburg in Austria.

One of the great merits of Marte Michelets best-selling book from 2014 Den største forbrytelsen [The Greatest Crime], which won the prestigious Brage Award for academic prose in Norway last year, is its detailed exploration of the ways in which Norwegian anti-Semitism (whether of Nazi or non-Nazi variety) both before and during the war intersected with issues of class. Michelet follows the tragic destiny of the family of Sara and Benzel Braude, emigrees from shetls in Kovno, Suwalki and Vilnius in Lithuania who settled in Norway in the early 20th century. They were solidly working-class, living like the majority of Jews in the capital of Oslo in working class districts along the Akers River which divides the capital’s East and West. Many Jews were politically leftist, and active in Norway’s social democratic or Communist movement in the 1930s. The Braude’s sons Isak and Markus become part of the Communist youth in their youth. The Braude family is contrasted with that of Stian Bech Jr., who as the black sheep in an elite family of lawyers from Oslo West would become a notorious police officer and Nazi during the war. So why was Norway so interesting for the German Nazis in the first place? Why, in such a small country, where there no less than 370 000 German soldiers at its height? Quite apart from Norway’s strategic location close to Nazi Germany’s arch enemies the Soviet Union and the UK, there were other and more ideological reasons. “I love Norwegians!,” the Reichsführer of the German Schützstaffel (SS) Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945) is said to have exclaimed upon arriving for his first visit in Norway in 1941. Historians Terje Emberland and Matthew Kott in a monumental book first published in 2012 document in meticulous and unflinching detail the reasons why. And these reasons had to do with Norway’s and the blond ‘Aryan’ Norwegians long-standing and privileged place in Nazi Germany’s ‘racial scientific project.’ The notion of a superior Nordic ‘race’ closely linked with the German ‘race’ was in fact a social and political imaginary nourished by Norwegian eugenicists and anthropologists who worked closely with and maintained a great deal of correspondence with Nazi Germany’s key proponents of Rassenkunde or the ‘science of races’, namely people like the anthropologist Eugen Fischer (1874-1967) and Hans Günther (1891-1968). In Norway, the most enthusiastic proponents of the idea of a ‘Nordic race’, which was meticulously measured and photographed, included the military medical doctor Halfdan Bryn (1864-1933) and the pharmacist and eugenicist John Alfred Mjøen (1860-1939). With the exception of two fine historical studies by Torgeir Skorgen and Jon Røyne Kyllingstad ,precious little attention to this part of disciplinary history has been paid by Norwegian historians. Mjøen, a scientific dabbler if there ever was one, in 1935 proclaimed that German racial scientists “were about to create world history” (Skorgen, page 226) and attended the 1935 Nuremberg Rally of the German NSDAP at which the Nuremberg Laws which sat the German Nazi persecution of Jews in full swing were announced.  As for Norwegian anthropologists, few if any anthropology graduates in Norway since the establishment of anthropological departments at Norwegian universities in the 196os will ever have heard about Bryn and Mjøen. And relatively few Norwegian medical students will ever be taught that some of the staunchest social democratic medical practitioners in Norway in the inter-war era actually to a degree supported programmes of racial eugenics which targeted Norway’s travelling Romani-speaking communities in the form of sterilization programmes introduced in 1934.

This winter, Norwegian television viewers flocked to the screens in their millions to watch a serialized remake of the 1965 Hollywood classic Heroes of Telemark featuring Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn, produced by the national broadcaster NRK. This series follows the heroic young Norwegians who in February 1943 managed to blow up Norsk Hydro’s production plant at Vemork in Telemark, used to supply Nazi Germany with tungtvann required for the German war machine’s experiments with nuclear armaments.

Though popular media in Norway and abroad continue to flog the line that the heroes of Telemark virtually single-handedly ‘stopped Nazi Germany from obtaining the Atomic bomb’ there appears to be little or no credible evidence that this had much of an overall effect on the progress of German nuclear experiments during World War II. The Germans had already by the summer of 1943 shifted production to Germany. A 2008 dramatization of the troubled life of the World War II resister and saboteur Max Manus (1914-96) became a blockbuster.

After all, these dramatisations represent what most Norwegians probably would like to see and to know about Norway and Norwegians’ role in World War II to this very day: Blond, heroic Norwegians courageously fighting the overwhelming might of the evil Nazi German occupiers. These Norwegians actually existed, and their personal sacrifices and heroism still need recording. But the overall reality of Norway’s and Norwegians’ role in World War II was of course far more complex, and the body of serious scholarship pointing to that very fact has now finally become impossible to ignore.

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