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« Barcelona and the Spanish Civil War | Main | Ondaatje and Colonialism »

Norway During World War II

Nazi brass entering Oslo, 1940.The Germans invaded Norway on April 9, 1940, on the pretext that the country was about to be bullied or even overrun by British and French forces. Yes, these two countries did see Norway as a strategic stopping place from which they could open up a northern German front. But Norway and Great Britain had been on tenuous terms for decades. London had recently demanded that Norway take part in the German blockade and that the massive Norwegian merchant marine be requisitioned for British service to tote supplies. In March, 1940, Great Britain drew up plans for an invasion of Norway, mostly to cut off the German trafficking in Swedish iron ore, but also to draw Germany away from France in the hopes of starting a northern front. The British set April 5th as the date for mining four strategic harbors in Norway, the French requested a delay of three days, and the Germans pounced.

Germans burning a Norwegian village, 1940.They began a blitzkrieg campaign and under its cover sailed right into Oslofjord. The Norwegian military was able to sink the main German ship carrying infantry and command controls, as well as scuff up a few other vessels--but such moves were mostly to delay the Germans long enough that the king and parliamentary leaders could flee. Other ports--Stavenger, Trondheim--offered almost no resistance. French and British troops did land on April 14th in an attempt to take back the country; they were roundly defeated by an increased German troop presence--and left the country for good on May 2nd. Within three days, all formal resistance in southern Norway had come to a halt. However, guerilla warfare kept flaming up in the north--and was not fully extinguished until June 10th. Because of this, Norway is the country that resisted the Germans the longest, a day over two months, a source of current pride in Norway.

The ineffectual Norwegian government-in-exile took up residence in London (through complicated diplomatic maneuvering) and the Germans set up the Nasjonal Samling (National Gathering Party) to rule from Oslo with almost 300,000 troops garrisoned throughout the country. Resistance in Norway (known as the Milorg, containing about 40,000 sabateurs and espionage agents) began to gather steam almost immediately. Despite the seemingly poor showing by the government and its official forces to withstand the Nazi invasion, the people of Norway proved quite resilient. By 1942, there was a sophisticated system of underground communications throughout the country that allowed for news to be widely and quickly dispatched. This network also brought about countless acts of passive resistance, including teacher strikes, sick-ins, and labor slow-downs. There were also outright acts of sabotage.

The largest act came when Milorg was able to thwart German plans to build a nuclear program in Norway. Berlin had hoped to make Norway a haven for the creation of still-new and very dangerous nuclear weapons. The facilities could be far away from the Fatherland. But the Milorg was able to disrupt supplies of crucial deuterium (or heavy water) through targeted sabotage. Specific facilities were bombed. A ferry transporting railway cars of deuterium was sunk in Lake Tinnsjø. (The Germans denied any heavy water in the cars. However, a barrel was extracted from the lake in 2005 and did contain deuterium.)

In response to such fierce resistance, the Germans established a few internment camps on Norwegian soil, almost solely for the containment and execution of political prisoners. Most of the camps were modified, existing prisons. They became well-known for torture, particularly attempts to get information out of captured Milorg fighters.

One of the strangest fates befell Norwegian women. Because of their Aryan looks, many thousand were forced to become birth mothers for German soldiers in the hopes of bearing more Master Race babies for the Reich under the rubric of the Lebensborn program. True, some complied willingly, perhaps a survival strategy; others were raped and held captive. After the war, these women were treated harshly by both the reinstalled goverment and the local population: they were forced into the abandonned German camps and they were labeled tyskertøser ("whores of the Germans"), their children, naziyngel ("Nazi spawn"). Most were eventually deported to Germany, never to return. The most famous of the naziyngel is Anna-Frid Lyngstad, one of the two female singers in the Swedish pop group Abba.

Antisemitism in Oslo, 1941.Norwegian Jews suffered a different fate. There were a little more than 2200 Jews scattered throughout the country (mainly in Oslo and Trondheim) when the Germans invaded. A small concentration camp was built in the far north, near Falstad. Here, 150 Jews were murdered, most in mass graves. However, the vast majority of the Jews captured and deported were sent to Auschwitz. In all, at least 765 Norwegian Jews were murdered. Many of the deportations happened because Nazi sympathizers turned in individuals or families. Most of the remaining Jews slipped across the border into Sweden and either blended with the more ethnically diverse populations among the officially neutral Swedes or set sail for the West. By mid-1942, there were no known Jews in Norway. Twenty-three Norwegian Jews survived Auschwitz.

The village of Kirkenes burning in 1945.When the Germans finally withdrew, after the Russian liberation, they left behind a scarred land. Norway's GDP was reduced by over forty-five per cent, the largest drop of any occupied country. The Germans also carried out a scorched-earth policy, burning vast swaths of forests, blowing up villages, and obliterating the infrastructure. Many Norwegians had survived the war by slipping over the porous border into Sweden. Over 42,000 returned with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Even today, the scars of war can be felt throughout Norway. It was one of the founding countries of NATO. It now maintains a large army for defense. And its population is well known for intense frugality, almost austerity.

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