December 21st to 22nd, 2017
From Kiruna, we traveled into Norway, heading for Narvik. From the train, the land looks like it has been dusted with talcum powder. With the acute angle of the sun, the shadow and colour combinations are endless. This is a land of stark contrasts that is also reflected in their long history.
Throughout WW1, Norway tried to remain out of the conflicts. Rather, they supplied both Germany and Britain with vast supplies of fish. Anti-German sentiment in the Norwegian population enabled the government to highly-favor Britain with support from the large Norwegian shipping fleet while keeping Germany appeased by still trading with them. It was a delicate balance that was going to cost dearly in the end.
The Norwegian historian Olav Riste refers to Norway as The Neutral Ally. When Norway gained independence in 1905, their new government decided that in all matters of international conflict, they should remain neutral. Since the European powers had no desire for unrest in Scandinavia, they signed an agreement respecting Norway’s neutrality. The generally-agreed sentiment was that Norway should remain neutral if war broke out, relying on help from Great Britain if attacked.
By Christmas Eve, 1916, such a trading position had become untenable to the British government. Norway had been using its massive merchant fleet to sell fish as well as copper ore, nickle and iron to Germany. That had become vital to their war effort. In the same way, Norway imported huge amounts of coal from Britain that supported their industry. Britain threatened to cut off their supplies. The Norwegian Government felt they had no option but to comply with the demand. This coincided with Germany’s expansion of unrestricted submarine warfare that began in early 1917. A total of 436 Norwegian vessels had already been sunk from 1914 to 1917 and by the end of the conflict, 847 ships and 1,150 sailors would be lost. This created an increasingly anti-German sentiment throughout Norway. Throughout the war, both commerce and political sympathies tied Norway and Britain together while simultaneously challenging their long-term relationship.
By the start of WW2, Hitler had already recognized the strategic importance of Narvic. It was a natural, deep-water harbor that remained clear of ice right throughout the winter. More importantly, it was close to the massive Kiruna iron-ore deposits that were deemed vital for Nazi manufacturing. By 1933, the radical Norwegian politician Vidkum Quisling had left the Farmer’s Party and founded the fascist Nasjonal Samling. The party had little influence until April 1940 when they tried to seize power on their own terms during the German invasion of Norway. Their first attempts failed but from 1942 to 1945, Quisling served as the puppet Prime Minister of Norway, supporting the Nazi occupation. He directly participated in Hitler’s genocides, particularly among the Yugoslav people in Norway.
By the end of the war, the Norwegian War Tribunals had found over 50,000 Norwegians guilty of some form of treason. Of these, only 25, including Quisling. were executed.
Neutrality here in Norway was challenged by a mass of conflicting allegiances that are typical of those found in any country going through a war. There is never a clear black-and-white separation between the “good” and the “bad” forces. Once war comes to a country, then for the generations who experience it, it never really ends. At the Narvik War Museum, they express this clearly as you walk in:
There was war, there is war. This is something I had been thinking through recently as I reflected on my father’s experience fighting in Europe. For my father, it seemed like the war ended but it never really did. He lived in the light of what he went through until he died; none of this left him, ever. I grew up as a boy with few if any “war toys” and no guns. He talked about the great experiences but only towards the end of his life did he begin to share about the awful experiences of losing companions and about the futility of the war he had been part of. My mother shared with me harrowing experiences of living through the Blitz in London.
In 2012, I walked through Dachau Concentration Camp in the snow and spent some time alone in the prisoner’s yard, listening, feeling the cold, Before we started, our guide at Dachau, Tobias, had cautioned us:
“Please do not try to make sense of what you see here. There is no sense to any of it. None of this gained Hitler or the Nazi’s anything. None of it made political or financial sense in any way that would benefit the German people. Rather, it robbed us of a rich vein of German society, some of our finest lawyers, doctors, painters, scientists, musicians and thinkers.
If you believe evil actually exists as something real, then here it existed for no other reason except to do evil. Evil is in no way, ever, logical or amenable to reason.”
The contrasts the museum expresses here can touch you deeply. The two boys below are sitting on an unexploded German G7 torpedo in the fjords. This was the standard weapon used throughout the conflict here. Deadly when it worked, however it frustrated the Germans immensely. They had obtained its navigation technology illegally from the Japanese in 1928, in violation of their agreements with the Allies. However, its guidance systems could not cope well with being this close to the Magnetic North Pole and it was always erratic.
Approximately five hundred Norwegian women worked as Red Cross nurses during the German occupation. These Front Sisters treated the sick and wounded, mainly along the front lines of the Soviet border. Many, but not all were members of the Norwegian Nazi party. Most were in their early twenties, the youngest being only sixteen. Usually, nurses were unarmed but each of them were issued with one of these German “Red Cross Daggers”, in-violation of typical Red Cross protocols of the time.
This doll was carried aboard a fishing boat by a one-year old child, escaping across the fjord in January, 1942. At that time, the Germans had sent their most feared warship into the fjord, the Tirpitz. The photo below shows the depth of its armor plate, retrieved from the wreck later. It took the Allies seven attempts to sink it, resulting in the death of 971 of its 1,700 crew.
The pictures below are of a German Personal Submarine. Based on the design of the G7 torpedo, it was intended for a one-way trip.
Such is the desperation that war engenders. We turn our greatest creative efforts into our most destructive assets.
This is some of the stuff that I do not love.