Thursday, May 19, 2011

Norway under occupation.

(This is the fifth of a series of posts on the Norwegian experience in the Second World War.)

When Germany invaded Norway in April 1940, the Norwegian king, Haakon VII, had no intention of stepping down or of becoming a puppet of the German occupation.  As the Norwegian defenses collapsed, he sailed for Britain and established a Norwegian government in exile.
King Haakon VII.  Imperial War Museum Photo MISC 77700
For many Norwegians, the situation in the summer of 1940 must have looked hopeless.  It wasn't clear when or if Norway would ever be liberated.  Germany dominated Europe from the English Channel in the west to the Polish city of Warsaw in the east, and there was a real possibility that in the next few months Britain itself might fall to German forces.   The Soviet Union and the United States at this point were still neutral.   So, from standpoint of 1940, there was little prospect that Germany would be defeated in the near future.

The Germans appointed Josef Terboven, a German Nazi party official, as Reichskommissar for Norway.  The Norwegian civilian government stayed in place, but was expected to follow orders issued by the Nazis.  The German occupation of Norway, especially initially, was less brutal than the occupation of other countries, such as Poland.  The Nazis held that Norwegians were "Nordics," and thus deserved better treatment than the supposedly racially-inferior Poles.  The German occupation tried to convert the Norwegian population into supporters of Nazi Germany.
Vidkun Quisling in 1942.
Imperial War Museum photo MISC 17435
The most prominent Norwegian who collaborated with the Germans was Vidkun Quisling, head of the Nasjonal Samling (NS) party.  His prewar following had been tiny, but he cooperated with the Germans during and after the German invasion and brought his followers into positions of power in Norway's government.  In 1942, he was given the post of Minister President of Norway.  The NS tried to seize control of all major organizations in Norwegian society.  Quisling's goal was to win the Norwegians over to the German side--so that Norway would become a full-fledged ally of Germany.  This poster bears the cross-in-a-circle logo of the Nasjonal Samling party, and declares, "With Norwegians for Norway!"
Courtesy Stiftelsen Arkivet.
The Nazis attempted to recruit Norwegians into their paramilitary organization, the SS, which included combat units (known as the Waffen SS).  The SS played the leading role in organizing the mass murder of Jews throughout occupied Europe.  In an attempt to induce Norwegians to join the Waffen SS, the below recruiting poster drew on Viking imagery--
The poster reads: "With the Waffen-SS and the Norsk Legion Against the Common Enemy/against Bolshevism."  Bolshevism was another term for Communism, and the creators of the poster were trying to draw on anticommunist sentiment to lure recruits into the SS.  Around 5,000 Norwegians did end up serving with the German armed forces.  The poster below roughly translates as, "The front with Bolshevism/Where are you today?"  (The hammer, sickle, the red star, and the color red were all symbols of communism.)
Courtesy Stiftelsen Arkivket.
But Quisling's efforts to reshape Norwegian society ran into stiff opposition.  When the NS attempted to take control of sporting organizations--sports such as skiing and skating were a big part of Norwegian culture--hundreds of thousands of their members rebelled by going on what some have termed "a sports strike."  This mass refusal to participate, writes one historian, turned "national championship competitions to third-rate contests with only a handful of spectators."  (Riste, Norway 1940-1945, 27).

Most Norwegians were Lutherans (a branch of Protestant Christianity), and the Lutheran church itself was an official state-sanctioned church.  When the Nazis tried to seize control of the church to use it for their own ends, more than ninety percent of pastors quit their posts.  In 1942, when the occupation government required that all schoolteachers join a Nazi educational association, more than eighty percent of teachers objected.  The authorities threatened to fire the protesting educators, but decided against this, presumably deciding that such a course would be impractical, and instead imprisoned more than a thousand teachers, five hundred of which were dispatched by a single overloaded boat to a remote prison camp with poor food and sanitation.

Increasingly, the Nazi occupation authorities relied on violence to maintain control.  When Oslo workers held a strike in 1941 to protest a cut in the milk ration, the occupation authorities killed two union members.

In such dispiriting conditions, humor played a crucial role in maintaining Norwegian morale.  Here are a few jokes that Norwegians made at the expense of their occupiers:

A German soldier was visiting the Viking Ships, but thought them nothing to brag about.  "You may not be impressed by these ships," replied the guard, "but with them, the Norwegians did after all manage to attack England." (Stokker, Folklore Fights, 161-62).

In September 1941 when martial law was declared in Oslo, a list of various offenses was posted, declaring "You will be shot if you...etc., You will be shot if you..., You will be shot if you..."  To these, someone added: "You will be shot if you haven't already been shot!" (Stokker, "Heil Hitler; God Save the King," 174.)

Satire could be expressed graphically as well.   The link below depicts the cover of a Norwegian magazine that appeared in 1943.  The illustration linked to below may at first seem innocuous, but Norwegians would have recognized the mustachioed father figure as Hitler, while the awkward child looks more than a bit like Vidkun Quisling.

The artist as well as the editor of the magazine were imprisoned for their impudence. (Stokker, Folklore Fights, 97-101).

During the war, the occupation authorities censored the newspapers to exclude anti-Nazi sentiments.  To find out what was actually going on, Norwegians tuned their radios in to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), but this became more difficult in 1941, when the occupation authorities confiscated radio sets.  The following poster sought to discourage Norwegians from listening to the British radio reports, and declares, "Think about it!"
Courtesy Stiftelsen Arkivet.

An illegal underground press appeared, providing Norwegians with another source of information free of Nazi censorship and bias.
The resistance worked in other ways to undermine the German occupation, collecting information about German ship movements and radioing it to the Allies.  For the most part, the Norwegian resistance acted with restraint when it came to using violent methods.  Norway had a population of three million people at the time, and the Germans, terrified of an Allied amphibious invasion, stationed three hundred thousand soldiers in Norway--this meant that about 10% of the people living in Norway were German occupation forces.  Any kind of guerrilla-type effort to drive out German forces was doomed to failure.  Furthermore, it was no secret to anyone that throughout the Nazi empire, any kind of violent resistance resulted in horrifying reprisals aimed at civilians.  For example, in 1942, when two members of the Gestapo were shot and killed as they tried to arrest two members of the resistance in the Norwegian town of Telav├ąg, the Germans responded by arresting the town's adult male population, who were transported to concentration camps from which most never returned.  The town itself was razed. 

Norwegians did sabotage industrial facilities and in 1945 conducted an extensive campaign targeting the nation's railways.  The Norwegian resistance cooperated with the British, who actively sponsored such networks all throughout Nazi-occupied Europe through a secret organization known as the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

The SOE and Norwegians worked closely to disrupt the German heavy water production program. Heavy water is a substance that can be used to prepare the radioactive ingredients for an atomic bomb, and was a key component for the German approach for building such a weapon.  The Nazi atomic program relied on a facility at Vemork, Norway, for its supplies of heavy water.  In February of 1943, a team of Norwegian commandos who had been flown into Norway by British intelligence infiltrated the defenses at Vemork and detonated explosives that damaged the plant and temporarily brought an end to heavy water production.   Later that year, American heavy bombers struck the plant, causing additional damage.  At this point, the Germans decided to call off further production of heavy water at Vemork, but their effort to transport the remaining heavy water to Germany was unsuccessful, as a boat ferrying the containers of heavy water across a Norwegian lake sank, the victim of Norwegian saboteurs.

Those who joined the resistance did so at great risk.  The German secret police, or Gestapo, sought to infiltrate the resistance movement with undercover informants.  Over the course of the war, about 40, 000 Norwegians were arrested and imprisoned.  An estimated five hundred of those who participated in the resistance movement gave their lives. 

In Kristiansand, the Gestapo headquarters was located in a building, the Arkivet (or archives) that before the war had served a more innocuous purpose as a government repository for documents.  Below is the Arkivet as it looks today--
Today, the Arkivet has been converted into a museum dedicated to telling the story of the Gestapo's cruelty in the Second World War.  In late April 2011, my wife and I took a tour of the Arkivet.  Our guide was Stein Christian Salvesen, head of information at the Arkivet.  Much of the information in the following few paragraphs he related to us over the course of the tour.

Norwegians suspected of resistance activities were imprisoned in the Arkivet's basement, where the Gestapo tortured them in an effort to learn about the resistance movement.  The Gestapo used various means to pressure suspects into giving up information.  For example, a suspect would be made to lie down on the floor, and portable heaters would be placed some distance on both sides of head.  As the interrogation continued, the heaters would be placed closer and closer to the suspect's head.  Another method was water torture, in which a vessel containing water was placed over a suspect's head.  Water would slowly drip onto the suspect's head.  At first, the drops had little effect, but after a while, the drip of water became torturous.

Torture sessions were often conducted in a centrally-located chamber in the basement.  This central room had no walls that bordered on the outside of the building, and thus it was more difficult for passers-by to hear the screams of those being tortured.   Over the course of the war, thousands of Norwegians were imprisoned in the Arkivet, and 307 people were subjected to extensive torture.

One of those tortured was Arne Laudal, a Norwegian army officer who after the German invasion had secretly become a leader of the resistance movement in southern Norway.   In 1942, in a surprise raid at his home, the Gestapo arrested him and brought him to the Arkivet, where he was beaten by interrogators seeking the names of other members of the resistance.  Laudal was executed in 1944.
Arne Laudal
Photo from Stiftelsen Arkivet website.
Another prisoner at the Arkivet, Louis Hogganvik, was subjected to whipping.  Hogganvik, while a prisoner, committed suicide in January of 1945.   The Nazis kept his death a secret from the public.
Louis Hogganvik
Photo from Stiftelsen Arkivet website.
During the war, the Germans also brought more than 100,000 Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) to Norway to work on construction projects.  Many Russian POW's perished from the abysmal conditions in these camps.  As Mr. Salvesen pointed out, more Russians died in Norway in World War Two than Norwegians.  Norwegians sympathetic to the POWs tried to smuggle food to them.  The photographs below show artwork and toys constructed by Russian POWs and given to Norwegians.

Each year, thousands of school students tour the Arkivet to learn about its history.  As Mr. Salvesen told us, the point is to help students understand that the kind of abuses that happened during the Nazi occupation of Norway are also occurring today around the world.
Above is a tapestry on display at the Arkivet illustrating the Norwegian wartime experience.   The black car in the lower right-hand represents the return of King Haakon VII, who received a hero's welcome.

Today, Norwegians honor the suffering of Soviet prisoners of war.  One of the POW camps was located in Kristiansand.
In what is today a forested park in Kristiansand called Jegersberg, a marker notes the place where, at the close of the war in 1945, some of the prisoners of war were murdered.   The plaque above states that five Russian prisoners of war were shot and killed here on 28 April and 5 May 1945.

Last December, the fourth-grade class from nearby Presteheia elementary school laid a wreath at the memorial site.


Dahl, Per.  Heavy Water and the Wartime Race for Nuclear Energy. Bristol: Institute for Physics, 1999.

Gjelsvik, Tore.  Norwegian Resistance 1940-1945, trans. by Thomas Kingston Derry, London: C. Hurst and Company, 1979.

Hassing, Anne, "The Churches of Norway and the Jews, 1933-1943," Journal of Ecumenical Studies 26  (Summer 1989), 496-522.

"Hitler's Sunken Secret." This is an episode from the PBS documentary series NOVA exploring the sabotage of the ferry carrying heavy water across a Norwegian lake.  A transcript is available at:

HL-Senteret: Center for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities website:

Riste, Olav.  "Norway," in The Oxford Companion to World War II, eds. I.C.B. Dear and M.R.D. Foot, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Riste, Olav, and Berit Nokleby.  Norway 1940-1945: The Resistance Movement (3rd edition, originally published 1970), Norway: Nor-Media A/S, 1999.

Stiftelsen Arkivet website:

Stokker, Kathleen.  Folklore Fights the Nazis: Humor in Occupied Norway, 1940-1945. (originally published by Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995) Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.

Stokker, Kathleen.  "Heil Hitler; God Save the King: Jokes and the Norwegian Resistance 1940-1945," Western Folklore 50 (April 1991), 171-190.


  1. good blog.. Im working on a University assignment and wondered what kind of credibility you have as a historian (Such as PHD or masters) to citethis page?

    1. Thank you for your note.

      I have a doctorate in history from the University of Iowa, and my specialty is American history.

      If you are doing a college project such as a research paper, I think that it would be best to draw directly on the sources that are listed at the bottom of the page. Feel free to cite me as a source, but for specific evidence and statistics and the like, I think it'd be a better bet to tap into the sources listed at the bottom of the page, which generally are written by experts in the field.

      The entry for Norway in the Oxford Companion to World War II would be a good place to start.

      If you have specific questions about the Arkivet, you can also e-mail them with questions, and they may be able to give you answers.

      Hope this helps,

      William Thomas

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