Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 4
Nils Kaare Dahl (1909–1996)
I ONLY knew Nils Dahl for the last seven years of his life, but what I learned about him and what he told me made a lasting impression. He came from a very privileged Norwegian family. His great grandfather had been the Governor of Halden under the Danish Crown when Bernadotte invaded in 1814, and when Halden opened it gates. He was thus one of the ‘Men of Eidsvoll’, the leading Norwegian citizens who called on the Swedish King to accept the crown of a constitutional Norway. Like those who signed the American Constitution, the ‘Men of Eidsvoll’ are the Founding Fathers of Norway. Nils was educated at the Royal Military Academy, and, with his family firm being involved in surveying, he trained as a civil engineer. He became a reserve officer in the Norwegian army. In 1929 he joined both the Norwegian Communist Party, from which he was soon expelled as an oppositionist, and the quite unique association of intellectuals around the journal Mot Dag (Towards the Dawn). Originally set up to draw students and intellectuals around the Labour Party, from 1926 to 1929 it was linked to the NKP, but with the ultra-left turn against ‘right-wingers’ the Mot Dag association became associated with the IVKO (the international opposition inspired by Brandler and Thalheimer). It was a group with very progressive and advanced ideas for its time in many areas of social and political life.
He disagreed violently with the Labour government’s defence policy. From the late 1920s the bourgeoisie assumed greater control of the armed forces, which became more useless for national defence, as the officers feared and hated the workers more than any possible aggressor. Parts of all the guns in the barracks were removed and kept in separate secret places to prevent the workers arming themselves. This did not help when the Germans invaded in 1940. The Labour government built up the state’s defences, and dissolved the labour movement’s own defence organisations. The Workers Defence, which was set up after a decision by the Trade Union Congress in 1931 to defend the workers against ‘any violent illegal attack’, to defend labour movement properties and to prevent a Fascist coup, was dissolved, together with the Workers Athletic League, which had on occasion been mobilised for street fighting against Fascists. Nils thought all of this was evidence that the labour movement was abandoning class struggle for class collaboration, and more recently was to criticise the present generation of young comrades as not sufficiently accustomed to arms.
In 1931–33 he went to Berlin to train in the specialised area of photographic aerial surveying, which was the ‘coming thing’. There he represented Mot Dag within the IVKO, to which they had affiliated in 1929, and he became a bodyguard for Brandler and Thalheimer. Even when he was 80 he was a tall, fine-looking man, and when he was younger he must have been a splendid and powerful figure reminiscent of the Vikings of old, while his knowledge of arms would have been a further deterrent. He fell ill and returned to Norway just before Hitler’s accession to power. In Norway he became a full-timer for Mot Dag and eventually a trade union official in the Building Workers Union, one of the biggest in Norway, a key centre of debate within the unions, where he helped to establish a progressive team-working system for pricing building works controlled by the union members, which is still in use. He played a major rôle in the production of a six volume Workers Encyclopædia with contributions from many of the foremost Norwegian intellectuals and academics of the day, which popularised and made available Marxist ideas in that language. When Leon Trotsky was forced to leave France in 1935, he was given refuge in Norway. There Nils, who was one of the few sympathisers to own a car and who had come under the influence of Walter Held (Heinz Epe), helped the exiles, and he stayed with Trotsky for two periods, having long discussions with him.
During the Moscow Trials, he attempted to defend the accused in left wing papers, for which the Stalinists tried to get him expelled from his union and the Labour Party. He and all of Trotsky’s supporters were really tested, for both the NKP, the right wing conservatives and Quisling’s Fascistic party were all in agreement that Trotsky should be deported. In his words: ‘It was confusing, as one didn’t know where the main enemy was. Blows came from so many and unexpected places.’ After Trotsky’s expulsion from Norway in 1936, Nils played a rôle among the many highly talented refugees from Nazism who had come to Norway, including Held and Daniel Guérin, as well as Willy Brandt. When the war broke out in 1939, Norway was neutral, but none of the Norwegian Trotskyists supported the line of the Fourth International during the Russo-Finnish Winter War, so though they defended the local Communist Party against bans and proscriptions, they also upheld the right of the Finns to nationhood. Walter Held and Nils Dahl seem to have supported Max Shachtman’s view on Finland, but not his actual split. Alas, we in Revolutionary History never really discussed this point with him. In the opinion of this writer, history has decisively shown that Held, Dahl and the Danish Trotskyists were correct on Finland, as opposed to Trotsky.
When the Germans invaded Norway in April 1940, all the Trotskyists there regarded the situation as that of a non-imperialist country invaded by the Nazis, and insofar as the Quisling government was immediately proclaimed, they also considered the conflict to be a civil war against the Fascists. They did not even know if the British had joined in for three or four days. He deals very fully with this short and critical period in his two books, some of which is summarised below. Nils did not hesitate but joined the mobilised forces at Hønefoss, bringing with him some anti-Fascist refugees, including veterans of the Spanish Civil War. They formed part of a column of troops in central Norway that was forced back into the mountains, and eventually had to surrender at Segelstag Bridge. The exiled friends of Nils, however, would certainly have been shot, as they would not have been covered by surrender terms, so, with the refugees, he skied off into the mountains, buried the uniforms, weapons and documents that they had on an isolated farm, and, coming down into another valley unoccupied by the enemy, hired a car and pretended that they were civilian Norwegian refugees returning to their homes in Oslo as the Germans had ordered. There the foreign comrades could be hidden, and eventually smuggled across to Sweden.
All the Norwegian troops who surrendered were sent back to their homes, and the officers had to give their parole not to continue the fighting. But Nils contacted some smugglers, and crossed by boat to Strömstad in Sweden. He took care to be arrested by the Swedish police rather than the army, who would have sent him straight back to the Germans, and got their permission to telephone a relation, a cousin of his father’s, in the Embassy in Stockholm. He had with him the documents that he had saved. After giving a talk to the Swedish General Staff on the recent fighting, he secretly left Stockholm and travelled north on the railways towards Narvik until two stops before a station near the border with Norway, where he had learnt that there would be police checks on people. He made off into the mountains on his skis, and crossing the ranges came down among the Norwegian, French and British troops who were still fighting in the far north of the country near Tromsø. Looking at the map, it seems he must have been a very hard man. There he commanded a battery of artillery and liaised with the French Army, the Chasseurs Alpins. But when France surrendered in June, the French and British forces were withdrawn. Nils again refused to surrender, took off his uniform, and pretended to be a civilian going home with a boatload of others to Trondheim. He got back to Oslo from that place by train, where he found he was in trouble with the Norwegian army for taking money from the regimental chest when he had escaped with his anti-Fascist friends, and for not keeping proper accounts. He made a tremendous fuss, saying his honour was impugned, and said that he would retrace every step and give an absolutely full account of his expenditure. This gave him the cover and opportunity to find his cache, get hold of all his hidden documents to take eventually to Sweden, and to hide the arms more conveniently elsewhere. After the war he gave a full account of his view of the period in Stormaktenes kamp om Norge og Skandinavia 1939–40: en militærpolitisk studie. I. Det tyske angrep på Norden (The Great Power Struggle over Norway 1939-40: A Politico-Military Study, 1: The German Attack on the Nordic Countries, Oslo 1948). This deals with the first few days after the German attack. An interesting and unusual point that he makes was that the young officers and NCOs in this conscript force were mostly ex-students who had often been influenced by the Socialist ideas of Mot Dag. German military reports of the time that he cites refer to these as ‘young fanatics’. They were much keener on resisting the Nazis than many of their elders. Alas, since the book was totally ignored at the time, he never followed it up with any further study.
In the early months of the Occupation, Nils took an active part in preparing the labour movement for the repression which he knew would come. He went back to Sweden legally in October 1940, and collaborated with the Swedish High Command by building a network to supply information about the Germans. He was flown out of that country to Britain in 1943. He had left a piece to be published by a Swedish Syndicalist trade union publisher under a pseudonym (Harald K. Johansen, Den norska tragedien, Federativs, Stockholm 1943, published from a Norwegian manuscript). As it gave an account of the first 48 hours of the German invasion in 1940, when the government and King got away to Elverum just north of Oslo, and had to decide what to do, this caused a row, and he was threatened with a court-martial. In the confusion the young reserve officer and Trotskyist was present, and spoke in the discussion. To his amazement, and quite contradicting his Marxist preconceptions, though the right wing wanted to make a deal with the Nazis, the King and Crown Prince were determined to fight it out. The King broadcast to the nation to resist, and furiously denounced the Luftwaffe for its ‘unchivalrous’ behaviour in bombing civilians. From that moment sabotage started. In England he met an activist from the Polish Bund, Lucjan Blit, and sought to find out what had happened in Russia to his friend Walter Held.
In an article in the paper of the Norwegian International Socialists, Nils commented that the October Group of Norwegian Trotskyists did not survive after the war, and stated that ‘the long years of underground work under the Nazi regime resulted in the comrades being unable to carry out political work under normal circumstances’. In the postwar world he took an active part in Scandinavian anti-imperialist struggles, including defending the rights of the Samish people (Lapps) of Norway, was a supporter of the United Secretariat – he had attended the Fourth International cadre school of 1947 – and later represented Norway at many of their international conferences. He also took part in re-establishing a revolutionary organisation when it finally became possible in the 1970s. Young people on the left remember him vigorously defending a book stall at the university against a Maoist assault while in his 70s. Latterly he participated in the meetings of the IS group in Norway, and, as long as his health permitted, always attended the ‘Marxism’ conference of the SWP in London. It was there that I introduced him to Harry Wicks, but alas by then he was already becoming deaf, and found it difficult to communicate with this fellow veteran. He married for the second time Mildred Gordon MP, the widow of an eminent member of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, Sam Gordon, who looked after him devotedly despite the heavy burden of her parliamentary duties. The last few years of his life were not so happy, as he became unable to read, and his deafness cut him off from people. He died in a nursing home in Norway, and the IS comrades there were very kind and supportive of him in his last illness, frequently visiting him, and greatly helping Mildred at that difficult time. After his death when Mildred went to clear up the house, to her amazement she found a light machine gun and a dozen rifles, all in good order, boxes and boxes of ammunition, uniforms and gas masks carefully hidden – just in case. It seems that Nils was always serious about preparing for a workers’ insurrection, even if that possibility appeared remote.
As a small tribute Revolutionary History intends to publish something on Scandinavia in a future issue, and, if we can, some extracts from, or perhaps a summary of, his main works (a summary of his book in Swedish is printed below). Their aim was to rebuff the attempt by the bourgeoisie to blame the labour movement for the war. At the time that his last book was published in 1948 – he had to do it himself – and with the onset of the Cold War, no-one took any notice of it, and it was only in the last few years that scholars started to recognise his important testimony. By then, of course, the political dangers to the ruling class of telling people what respectable right wing people had been doing in 1940 had disappeared.
In other circumstances Nils Dahl might have played a considerable and distinguished rôle as a commander – perhaps the commander – in a revolutionary army, but history was to judge otherwise. He could have done so much in the right circumstances. He lacked neither the brains, nor the heart – nor the courage. At the Nazi invasion many would have wrung their hands, gone underground, or made for the border. He was no sectarian, thought coolly in a difficult situation, and with great bravery carried out what history would later call the Proletarian Military Policy. Had things turned out differently, and had revolutionary upheavals occurred as everyone expected, he would by his actions have aligned himself with the best elements of the working class who sought to struggle against Nazism.
We have lost a great revolutionary fighter and friend whose rôle and true worth few in the broad Trotskyist movement recognised.
He is survived by his wife, Mildred Gordon MP, his daughter Kari Petrie, and his son Johan Jacob Dahl.
Much of the information in this obituary has been culled from Revolutionary History, Volume 1, no. 2, pp. 9–11; Volume 1, no. 4, pp. 39–43; and Volume 2, no. 2, pp. 33–42, where much more can be found on his discussions with Trotsky and his researches on the fate of Walter Held. Our warm thanks go to Magne Svendsen of the Norwegian TUC and Solveig Halvorsen of the Norwegian Labour Movement Archive for providing precise details of his publications, and also to the Norwegian International Socialists, who sent us a collection of their material. We still seek further information on articles that he may have written.
Updated by ETOL: 30.9.2011