Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 4

Nils Kaare Dahl

The Norwegian Tragedy

THE TEXT below is a summary by Mike Jones of Den norska tragedien (The Norwegian Tragedy) by Harald K. Johansen (pseudonym of Nils Kaare Dahl) published in Swedish in Stockholm by Federativs (a Syndicalist body) in 1943. [1] Notes by Ted Crawford have been added. Many of the judgements made at the time by Nils Dahl on the individuals and events have been proved correct, but what is remarkable is that this was written at the time with little documentation to go on, except the current newspapers and what Nils had taken out of Norway. His own shrewd views on the people that he knew and the analytical weapons of Marxism are responsible. Copies of this Swedish book are now rare.

This is an account of Norwegian events as they unfolded from the German invasion on 9 April 1940 until the Allies decamped by sea along with the Norwegian government, King and Crown Prince. It was written almost immediately after the events that he described, and many of his judgements have been confirmed by much later historical research. Dahl starts by discussing the Great Powers’ attitude to and plans for Scandinavia up to the attack. Initially, the Allies wanted to cross Norway and Sweden to help Finland during the Winter War against Soviet Russia, and a force was assembled to do this, though it was later dispersed. Norway only refused transit rights to Finland after the Swedes had already done so. The Allied plan was to hold the Swedish ore fields by force, as well as Narvik. Not all Swedish ore left by Narvik, and Dahl asks if the British did not really know that. A large part was taken by train to Central Sweden and smelted there, and then shipped by sea through the Baltic, and this continued to be so after the defeat, so Dahl questioned as to whether the whole policy was designed to draw both Norway and Sweden into the war on the Allied side. [2] Dahl asserts that the Swedes were very badly armed, as they had sent all their spare munitions to Finland. Dahl states that Narvik and the ore seem to have been a pretext, and when the Winter War ended in March 1940 Chamberlain needed to appear as if he was really waging war, while the French government was under political pressure as well. [3] Dahl argues that any attempt by Britain to involve Norway in the war seemed quite irrational. Germany’s need of Norway (Denmark was only important as a stepping stone) involved not so much Swedish ore, but the need to break out of the British blockade of the North Sea.

On the Winter War itself, Dahl was very clear that the Finns had the right to defend themselves, thus totally rejecting the orthodox Trotskyist view. Germany was worried that as the war went on the Allies would intervene militarily, and so Hitler needed it finished, particularly as the Red Army was not doing very well. Dahl believed that the Germans sent instructors and organisational help for the big Soviet offensive on the Karelian isthmus in March 1940 which broke the Finnish defences and advanced to Viborg (Viipuri) so that the Finns were exhausted and had to ask for terms. [4] Germany put huge diplomatic pressure on the Swedes not to aid the Finns, thus helping the Soviet Union, and the Swedish Foreign Minister was replaced under German pressure. After Finland had made peace, and during the fighting in Norway, the Finnish radio stations in their Norwegian broadcasts supported Norway against Hitler. It is clear that claims that Finland was a ‘Fascist’ country and a German ally at this point were nonsense.

Dahl criticises the Norwegian Labour Party for a lack of bold leadership and decision at the moment of the German attack. However, he thought that this was not because the Labour Party leaders were ‘bad men’ and had personal flaws, but because they were reformists and parliamentarians. The Storting (parliament) left Oslo together with the state apparatus, which soon returned to Oslo as it was a reactionary stratum. Parliamentary sessions were held in the still unconquered parts of Norway, and the Labour Party was keen to maintain democratic norms. Dahl argues that the constitution allowed for a temporary dictatorship in time of war, but Norway had no military tradition, while some ministers had even been in prison for militant pacifist activity in the 1920s. Norway had next to no foreign policy experts, but it was so tied to Britain through its shipping and trading links that it has always followed the UK in such matters. The leading foreign policy expert was Mowinckel, a ship owner, though he never foresaw quite how things were going to unfold, and bourgeois figures like Hambro had an international outlook with their better education, language skills and money. The Labour Party leaders came from a municipal background, and were capable in town hall politics, but foreign affairs were a closed book. Once the Winter War in Finland was over, many people in the government thought that the crisis was past. Dahl goes into the behaviour of the Labour Party in great detail.

The book was published in 1943, but the introduction says that it was delayed for some time owing to the author’s references to sensitive matters such as the ‘elastic neutrality’ of the Swedes. The main reason why he was regarded with great disfavour by the Norwegian bourgeoisie becomes clear from the book. He pointed out that after the invasion during the night of 8–9 April, though the Norwegian government published on the 10th a declaration to the people signed by Johan Nygaardsvold, to which the King appended two sentences giving his total support, and which was broadcast on the 11th, this text lacked clarity on what kind of resistance it was calling for, and whether this was military or merely passive. It was not a declaration of war. Dahl saw it as simply a call for further negotiations, which was also the view of the Oslo bourgeoisie and the Germans. The bourgeoisie worked to get the Germans to drop that part of their ultimatum that Quisling be recognised as part of the government. Dahl saw this as ambiguous, and as an indication that not all bridges had been burnt.

Immediately he heard the broadcast, Hambro went on the radio in Stockholm to declare that Norway was at war with Germany, but German diplomatic pressure forthwith barred him from broadcasting in Sweden, while their embassy issued a statement that Germany was not at war with Norway.

Meanwhile, an intermediary went to see the King at Nybergsund, but he refused to negotiate. Later that day both Nybergsund and Elverum were bombed and machine gunned by the Luftwaffe; 54 civilians being killed in Elverum, and another 110 wounded. Dahl cites Hambro’s book as hinting that the mediator gave away the King’s whereabouts to the Germans, who then tried to murder him. On 13 April the King issued a new declaration calling upon all Norwegian men and women to do everything they could to regain freedom for ‘our dear country’, and denouncing the ‘unchivalrous’ German attacks on peaceful civilians. He thanked those who had stayed with him and the government at their posts in the fight for Norwegian independence and freedom, and asked everyone to remember those who had died for the country.

Dahl saw this statement as the basis for a real national uprising, which was the only way that the Germans could be defeated. Military resistance should have been quickly organised within the country, and linked with resistance in the German-occupied area to hit the enemy behind the lines. The government should have called for a people’s war, mass mobilisation and active resistance, though not individual terror. Legal limits should have been disregarded by virtue of the higher principle of human rights and the right of the oppressed to rebel. He believed there were elements of this in the King’s speech, but that it was too abstract and needed to be far more concrete, such as an appeal to transport workers not to move German supplies, building workers not to repair damage to airfields, and that the people should obstruct the invaders as much as possible. These kind of mass actions would, he thought, have eventually developed into armed formations of workers and street fighting. Dahl drew a comparison with Marshal Timoshenko’s appeal to the Soviet population in the occupied areas, and regretted that the Norwegian government never went that far, and confined itself to abstract slogans in that key period at the beginning of April. A Major Sunde, a liberal and a lawyer, did send out such an appeal on the radio from London on 24 April, but by then it was far too late.

By insisting on Norwegian acceptance of a Quisling government and thus putting a traitor and Nazi at the helm, the Germans created the possibility of a revolutionary civil war, and the limited and abstract appeals of the government of 11–13 April were enough to start the process. Some students tried to blow up a bridge between Oslo and Fornebu airfields, and a few armed groups were formed. The Germans greatly feared such a development, and warned on 12 April that ‘franc-tireurs’ and saboteurs would be shot. The Oslo bourgeoisie, although bitter, as from being the boss they were reduced to being German subordinates, were also terrified at this possibility. Hambro seems to suggest this situation in his book when he recounts that a delegation of industrialists met the German Ambassador, Dr Bräuer, and explained that if Quisling was not removed there would be trouble. Bräuer understood and promised to remove him, while the industrialists promised to try to prevent the war turning into a national uprising.

Of course, such a popular uprising, although directed against the Germans in the first instance, would, once the masses were armed and aware of their power, probably turn against the ruling class, and there was no guarantee that after victory the bourgeoisie would remain in power, since in the course of struggle respect for bourgeois law and order would break down. It was no coincidence, therefore, that the leaders of the apparatus of ideological oppression, Paal Berg (Chief Justice of the High Court, or Justicarius) and Bishop Berggrav (Head of the state Lutheran church) were the chief spokesmen of the tendency that wanted a deal with the Germans. The result was the so-called Administrative Council.

From an abstract nationalist viewpoint both Quisling and the Administrative Council were traitors, as both wanted to end the war and subordinate Norway to Germany, but whereas Quisling was prepared for Norway to be totally subordinate, the Administrative Council wanted the bourgeoisie to keep control of industry, law and order, and so forth. They wanted to deal with the Germans as equals so that the oppression would be exercised through them, but indirectly, while Quisling was an open traitor and tried to hinder and sabotage Norwegian military resistance. Paal Berg and Berggrav simply discouraged people from going through the lines to join up, and encouraged people to work for the Germans on the docks, by clearing airfields and so on, while confusing people with speeches about German chivalry and decency. Thus their rôle was more passive than that of Quisling.

On 15 April Quisling left office, and was thanked by Berg for his work on Norway’s behalf and his patriotic attitude, while the Administrative Council took over responsibility for law and order in the occupied areas. A proclamation was issued explaining that the High Court had appointed the Council, and the Norwegian people were called upon to go about their business as usual and to act legally, while sabotage was denounced as counter-productive. The various bosses’ organisations and a section of the TUC backed up this appeal. (Paal Berg later became a ‘resistance’ leader, so Dahl might not be thanked in 1943 for pointing all this out.)

Dahl believed that this non-Nazi, non-pro-German government could have been accepted by the Nygaardsvold government on 10 April, but by the 15th it was too late. An Anglo-Norwegian military alliance had commenced, and the first British troops had landed in Norway, while Norwegian soldiers had engaged both the Germans and the Quisling youth groups. Mobilisation was complete, and contact between the Oslo bourgeoisie and the military command was almost non-existent. After the confusion and contradictory orders of the first 48 hours, the troops were now in action, and would not have believed an order to stop fighting. What is more, after the German air attack on Elverum and Nybergsund, all talk of and belief in German respect for human rights and international law had disappeared, together with any faith in German promises.

In response to the creation of the Administrative Council, the legal government issued on 17 April a statement welcoming the fall of the Quisling government, pointing out that Norway had only one legal government, appointed by the King and unanimously approved by the Storting. It regarded the Administrative Council as an emergency measure for the occupied areas, which had of necessity to take orders from the Germans, but it was not an alternative to the real government, as it neither represented the will of the Norwegian people, nor had any basis in Norwegian law. It existed purely to give some protection to the rights of Norwegian citizens when Norway was occupied, and would have to step aside when the legal government regained power. The statement went on to affirm that the King and government would do everything possible to liberate Norway and regain its independence as soon as feasible. It added that ‘all Norwegians must help this liberation struggle as they want to be, and want to be called, Norwegians’.

The declaration showed that the government had understood very little. The statement that the government wanted to do all that it could to push the Germans out of the country was in fact a call for civil war – precisely the result that the Administrative Council wanted to avoid. Dahl saw this as the inevitable result of five years in government, when the Labour Party saw its main aim as the collaboration between classes, and had thus lost sight of class contradictions. And, though it stated that the Administrative Council lacked all basis in Norwegian law, it failed to take a clear line against it. To illustrate this point, Dahl describes how Berg sent a telegram to the King, apparently assuming that he would see the class nature of the situation more easily than the Labour politicians and so, by by-passing the elected government, solve the tricky legal situation of the illegal Administrative Council. The letter mentions that the Germans had offered to negotiate with the government, but that this had been rejected. It stressed that ‘the initiative must now come from the Norwegian side’, and asked the King to persuade the Crown Prince to make an appeal on the radio to the people in the occupied areas to refrain from sabotage and destructive behaviour. On the 19th the Germans finally told the Norwegian Ambassador in Berlin to leave, and the gloves were off.

In the war itself, 10,000 Norwegians soldiers took part in the fighting in the south, and all were volunteer reservists who had reported to the local depôts in the hope of being given arms. [5] Because of the very confused situation and the lack of clarity in calls to resist by the government, only about a thousand men from Oslo got through the lines to join the fighting. What prompted them in the confused situation was the existence of the Quisling government, but, apart from these few, most of the urban working class saw no action. The Norwegian TUC and the Norwegian Communist Party did not call for resistance in the initial stages of the invasion, and some trade union bosses returned to Oslo to collaborate. The NKP was neutral in the south, though their members there did not necessarily obey the call to refrain from resisting, striking or carrying out sabotage. In the north the NKP members rallied to the colours and fought. Dahl believes that this was because the Soviet Union had distinct interests in North Norway.

At the start of the war, Dahl thought it important that the open traitors and tentative collaborators were denounced; this was not done. Volunteers turned up to enlist and were sent back home by the officers, which caused demoralisation. Indeed, although the government wanted immediate mobilisation, the high command ordered a normal mobilisation, which meant reporting for duty in two days time. Dahl says the Navy was keener on a fight than the Army, and had alerted ships and shore batteries. The Commander of the Armed Forces, Major-General Laake, after delaying the mobilisation as described, changed into civilian clothes and did a vanishing act, for which he was dismissed by the King. [6] Colonel Ruge, an Inspector of Artillery, was promoted to general and put in charge, but although a brave man and good soldier, he had to take over in the worst circumstances. Once the Allies abandoned Central Norway without telling the Norwegians – which caused great demoralisation and cynicism, above all in the Trondheim area – Dahl believed that the battle for Norway was really over. Northern Norway was sparsely populated, had no industry except the export of primary products such as fish, was partly inhabited by the Lapp (Samish) minority, and could not maintain a resistance for long. The Germans who had landed in Narvik at the start of the war were beaten and penned up near the Swedish frontier in a ‘motti’ – a Finnish word he uses to compare the cutting up of Russian columns in the Winter War in the northern wastes by the Finns, and they were stuck in isolated strong points that were worn down and eventually overrun. Dahl points out that it was the Norwegian troops rather than the Allies who succeeded here [7], but then the Swedes came to the German’s rescue after pressure was applied, and the German wounded together with naval survivors from the action in Narvik Fjord, who were not much use as soldiers, were evacuated through Sweden, and fresh German troops arrived. [8] At the time he wrote this, Dahl was uncertain as to whether such troops had come from Central Norway or not, but he reports rumours that they had.

General Ruge was offered the chance of leaving Norway when the Allies evacuated on 7 June 1940, but he chose to remain and surrender with his troops. He then refused to give his parole, which would have meant his release to go back home, as was the case with the rest of the Norwegian troops. His presence in prison in Norway was a beacon for resistance feelings, and he was sent to a fortress in Germany. Dahl had a high opinion of the character of Ruge, who was a soldier not a politician, but who stepped forward in a situation when most Norwegian senior officers were useless. [9] Dahl speaks of the need for a special type of person in the kind of situation that arose when Hitler attacked Norway, individuals who had the ability to see what was happening, and the boldness, decisiveness and courage then to carry out the necessary action.

As for the Norwegian population, it was only after the Norwegian soldiers had been released to return to their homes that the mood changed from one of defeatism to much greater hostility to the Germans. During the war, the majority of the population had been passive, opposed to the war, and this was particularly so in the country districts and, above all, among the more prosperous in the country areas. Efforts at working class resistance, such as the strike in the naval shipyard at Horten, were broken by the Germans with the help of the TUC. Even after the war, the dishonesty about this period continued, as Foreign Minister Koht, who made a speech on the radio from London in early May denouncing Bishop Berggrav, was bitterly attacked in the Oslo papers at the time, and, more significantly, his statement was omitted from the official White Book published by the Norwegian government as an account of these events. Koht was never forgiven by the bourgeoisie.


1. The standard works in English on the campaign in Norway are official history: T.K. Derry, The Campaign in Norway, 1962; J.L. Moulton, The Norwegian Campaign of 1940, 1966; and François Kersaudy, Norway 1940, 1990 (first published in French in 1987).

2. All modern commentators find the allied diplomacy and strategy totally muddled and badly thought out, but do not say that it arose from their right wing political attitudes and sympathy among some of their members for some of Hitler’s policies.

3. The French were even keener to involve the Allies in Scandinavia.

4. There seems to be no evidence for this, though it was believed at the time, and there is a cartoon in Punch to this effect in January 1940.

5. A total of 1,355 Norwegian servicemen were killed and wounded (together with 400 civilians killed mostly by bombing) according to Norwegian figures cited by Moulton and Derry.

6. Technically, he retired, as he had passed the retirement age of 65 the day after the invasion! Unofficially, his behaviour was attributed to incompetence rather than defeatism.

7. Dahl is correct here, though the British and French historians do not emphasise that, even with most of their country occupied, hastily levied Norwegians proved more formidable warriors in the mountains than the Allies’ picked troops.

8. Between 19 and 22 April ‘a train had crossed Sweden and reached Narvik with both food and medical equipment. On the 25th another train with five wagons also brought 300 “health service personnel”’ (Kersaudy, p. 202). This is not mentioned by Derry or Moulton in earlier accounts.

9. Ruge told his own story in Krigens Dagbok (War Diary) Oslo 1946. He retired after the war with the rank of Lieutenant-General.

Updated by ETOL: 30.9.2011