Norway, 1940: The Parliament (Stortinget) Was Willing To Sacrifice King And Government – Book Review


By Silje Pileberg

During World War II, the Presidium of the Norwegian parliament was hoping to strike a deal with Nazi Germany. Historian Øystein Sørensen has been trying to understand why.

“It is easy to moralise with the wisdom of hindsight. But I think it is more interesting and fruitful to try to see things from the point of view of the people who in 1940 had no idea what the future would bring,” says Øystein Sørensen, Professor of history at the University of Oslo.

In his book “Svik 1940?” (Betrayal 1940?), he writes about Stortinget and its leaders – the “Presidium”. In 1940, they were on their own in Norway after both the government and the King had fled the country.

Legally, the latter were still legitimate authorities, but they had no power to rule in Norway during the occupation.

The country was occupied by Nazi Germany, and in the so-called “Council of the Realm” talks, which took place from June to September 1940, the Presidium negotiated with the Germans for a political solution for Norway.

At these negotiations, the Presidium – and many other Norwegians – were willing to sacrifice both the King and the government in order to come to an agreement.

“This is a rather discreditable episode in recent Norwegian history, not least compared with our proudest moments, such as 1814,” says Sørensen.

The verdict in retrospect

In retrospect, the actions of these politicians have frequently been condemned – first by the Commission of Inquiry of 1945, which was set up immediately after the war.

“I have tried to look at these events objectively, without making any moral judgements. Instead, I have sought to understand and explain.”

Sørensen is very familiar with the history of the occupation of Norway, but in his work on this book, he has read even more, including texts from numerous archives and other sources.

“They’ve left us in the lurch”

“Reading Norwegian newspapers from summer 1940, the impression is quite unison: the war is over, and Norway is no longer at war with Germany. Needless to say, the newspapers were subject to German censorship.

Nevertheless, they convey a mood that can help us better understand the dilemmas and perspectives that abounded in summer 1940.”

For example, in an editorial in the Norwegian daily newspaper Dagbladet in June 1940 it was written (by German diktat) that “The King and government (…) have left us in the lurch; we must now try to manage without them.”

Moreover, leading politicians and lawyers were unclear in their advice to the Presidium.

Sørensen believes that the general mood in Norway may have been one reason why the Presidium acted as it did. Another may have been the outlook in Europe at the time.

Could Germany win the war?

“Before the war broke out in 1939, France and Germany had reasonably similar military capacity. Germany had spent four years waging an exhausting trench war against France during World War I, without getting anywhere,” says Sørensen.

In June 1940, by contrast, France was defeated by Nazi Germany in a matter of weeks.

“It was unbelievable. And this happened at exactly the same time as the Presidium was negotiating a deal with the German occupying forces. They must have thought there was a fairly good chance that Germany might win the war.

Then it would be out of the question for Norway’s government and royal family to return.”

At the same time as, even if Germany ended up not winning the war, the Norwegian negotiators probably wanted to ensure the best possible situation for as long as the occupation lasted, Sørensen argues.

“They wanted to defend Norway’s democratic institutions and try to avoid pure Nazi rule. To that end, they were willing to sacrifice the King and the government.”

Vidkun Quisling was to leave the country

After the Nygaardsvold Government fled Norway in April, a so-called “Administrative Council” was established. The Germans wanted this to be a counter-government, but the Council insisted on being a purely administrative body for the occupied territories.

The German authorities accepted this for as long as the hostilities lasted. However, once the Norwegian military forces had capitulated, the Germans wanted a proper government in Norway.

In summer 1940, the Presidium finally agreed to ask the King and the government to resign. One of the conditions was that Vidkun Quisling would not be allowed to have any power in Norway.

The German Reichskommissariat (Commissariat of the Realm) was also to be abolished and replaced by a more modest institution.

A long history of compromise

Sørensen thinks that Norwegians’ national horizon of experience also played a role in their protracted belief that they would manage to strike a deal with the Germans. From 1814 to 1940, the political sphere had been characterised by a culture of compromise and willingness to negotiate.

“Every time there was a crisis or conflict with the potential to escalate, the solution ended up being a peaceful compromise. This was extraordinarily beneficial for Norway. The union with Sweden is one example.

By autumn 1814, important elements of what had happened at Eidsvoll on 17 May – the drafting and signing of the new Norwegian constitution – had already started to be compromised away.”

In 1814, Denmark had given Norway to Sweden in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, leading to protests and the formation of a Norwegian constitution. When Sweden attacked that summer, the war ended before it had even begun. The solution was a compromise – a union with Sweden.

This was a peaceful and successful arrangement that lasted until the end of the nineteenth century, when once again, the solution was a compromise.

In 1905, Norway was given its independence in exchange for demolishing the newly built fortresses along the border with Sweden.

“Not a single shot was fired. And since then, Norway and Sweden have largely enjoyed good neighbourly relations. The problem in 1940 was that Nazi Germany was not Sweden.”

At that time, no-one in Norway knew how far Germany would be willing to go.

“Even though Norway knew as early as summer 1940 that the Nazis were anti-Semitic, no-one could foresee the Holocaust.”

According to Sørensen, Norway knew that Germany was a brutal superpower, but they nevertheless believed that it would be possible to come to some kind of an arrangement.

They had also experienced – in the early days of the invasion – that they were treated much better than, for example, Poland.

“Norwegian politicians thought they could play on this apparent goodwill towards Norway. But they were wrong. As Norway eventually found out.”

“Don’t make deals with bullies”

It turned out that the deal that the Presidium thought they had entered into with the German authorities in June 1940 was only provisional and was not respected by the Germans.

Hitler eventually decided that Vidkun Quisling was to be appointed as “Minister President” of Norway. In addition, the Council of the Realm, which was intended to be a non-Nazi Norwegian government that cooperated with the Germans, ended up bringing in more and more representatives from the Nazi Nasjonal Samling party.

After repeated attempts at negotiations, talks finally broke down in September, and the occupation entered a new stage.

Sørensen finds that we can learn a number of lessons from this part of Norway’s war history. One is: do not enter into compromises with a counterpart that will not abide by the overarching rules of the game.

“In terms of military power, Sweden was much stronger than Norway in 1905, but they honoured the agreement the two nations had reached. Nazi Germany did not – and nor does Russia, for example, seem to be doing today. Once you realise that you are dealing with a brutal bully, great caution should be exercised when accepting to negotiate and compromise.”

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