HM - Feb. 2016 - Ward

The History File


Norway and the Holocaust

By Kyle Ward
St. Cloud State University
St. Cloud, MN

World history teachers consistently face the challenge of coverage. Lacking adequate time to engage students in an in-depth analysis of the past, world history teachers often feel compelled to paint historical events with a broad stroke, glossing over many significant details.  For events such as the Holocaust, quickly hitting the main points can leave students with a series of stories about horrible brutality and staggering numbers, but these images might not help them truly understand the significance of this event.

In order to move away from this model, teachers might consider going more in depth by looking at how German policies impacted those nations that were under the control of the Nazis during the war. For example, by examining  how the Holocaust impacted the nation of Norway and the small Jewish population that lived there during that time, students can learn about the major events and causes of the Holocaust while considering how it impacted areas typically not mentioned in history textbooks.

"The Scream"
By Edvard Munch
1893, Norway

Norway’s involvement in World War II started after the German military’s rapid victory in Poland in 1939.  After defeating Poland, German leaders decided to invade Western Europe, first striking Denmark and Norway. In the early hours of April 9, 1940, German leaders ordered the start of Operation Weserubung, Germany’s planned assault to quickly conquer these two Nordic countries.  With German tanks and soldiers pouring across the Danish border and knowledge of recent events in Poland, Danish King Christian X decided to not put up a sustained fight. 

While the Danes capitulated in about six hours, Norway, which was completely caught off guard by the German invasion, resisted.  What is often forgotten about this story is that the Norwegians, along with some help from the British and French armies, were actually able to hold off a complete German victory until June 10, 1940. And, unlike in Denmark, Norway’s King Haakon VII escaped the Germans and set up a government-in-exile in England for the remainder of the war.

Due to the military resistance against the invading Germans and the flight of King Haakon VII, the Germans treated Norwegians, and therefore the country’s Jewish population, in a more oppressive manner than what took place in Denmark. This situation was even more confounded by the fact that in Norway there was a pro-Nazi organization led by a Nazi sympathizer named Vidkun Quisling, whose name would become synonymous with being a traitor.  Quisling, a career politician in Norway, had organized a political party called the Nasjonal Samling (the National Union Party). Although in existence since the 1920s, this political party never even reached 2% of the national vote and failed to elect a single representative to the Norwegian parliament.  This lack of nationwide backing did not halt Quisling and his desire to spread his pro-Nazi ideology throughout Norway.  In fact, even before the German occupation, Quisling became known for his anti-Jewish speeches in the late 1930s and early 1940s.  

Quisling Villa
Oslo, Norway
The irony is that Norway never had a sizeable Jewish population during this time period. In fact, it was not until 1851 that the Norwegian Constitution, which had originally banned all Jewish people, finally recanted that policy.  But even with this change of heart, Norway was still not a major destination for Jewish immigration, which makes sense if one considers that between 1860 and 1910, a large number of Norwegians were leaving their own nation and immigrating to places like the United States. By 1940, Norway still only had approximately 1,700 Jewish citizens, which was a very small percentage of the total population.

Since Quisling was aware of the lack of Jewish population in Norway, his speeches often focused on his belief that it was not the size of the Jewish population in Norway, but rather the impact of their ideas that they spread among the population.  And when Quisling discussed these destructive ideas, he was specifically warning Norwegians about the threat of socialism that was coming out the Soviet Union.

Shortly after the Nazi invasion on April 9, Quisling claimed that he and the Nasjonal Samling were in charge of Norway.  Hitler, who over the years seemed to tolerate Quisling but not actually support him personally, quickly put his own man in charge; Josef Terboven.  As soon as Terboven took over, his main goal was to Nazify the Norwegian population.  This policy had mixed results, in that some unions, like the Teachers Union, resisted the occupiers.  Unfortunately, it was groups like the Norwegian police that seemed to be more eager to join and follow the Nazis.  This conversion of so many of Norway’s law enforcement would have major consequences for the small Jewish population in Norway.   

With the Nazis in control, these occupiers passed and enforced anti-Jewish laws.  Norwegian Jews lost their radios, and were later expelled from any public service; a few were incarcerated on trumped-up charges.  By October, 1941, the Norwegian State Police also required all Jewish citizens to have a “J” stamped on their identity cards.

On October 26-27, 1942 the State Police arrested all the Jewish males in Oslo, followed a month later by the rest of the women, children and elderly who were left behind.  Once the Jews had been incarcerated, Nazi officials boarded them on the S.S. Donau, and they were sent to Auschwitz.  Of the 795 who were deported, only 25 would survive until the end of the war.  Fortunately, the rest of the Jewish population had escaped Norway, with many getting aid from Norwegian resistance fighters, who typically led them into Sweden, where they remained until the war ended in 1945. 
If used in a history class, this tragic story would highlight for students the impact of the Holocaust, by emphasizing its effect on one small community not typically discussed in history courses.  It would also enable students to understand the war in a wider scope, as it emphasizes the role of resistance to the Nazis’ policies and offers students the chance to question the role of Norwegian citizens and the decisions they were forced to make during this time.