Remembrance culture

It is approaching May 8th, also known as liberation day in Norway. This time it’ll be 69 years since World War 2 ended, and 9 days later we celebrate our constitution. This year the celebration will probably be especially national romantic as our constitution is 200 years old. It makes me think; how close is the public version of reality, and is there a difference between the public and private memory?

book cover hitler's legacy
Perhaps there are some similarities between German and Norwegian remembrance culture?

I’m sure it’s not a new word, but it was to me because I haven’t read much about the war before. I read the book The Legacy of Hitler a few weeks ago, and the Norwegian researcher Anette Storeide used the term memory culture. She’s talking about all forms of review of the past, for example memorials, history books, museums, speeches and films. Storeide points out that people have memories, but so does states. School books and official memorials are actually a state-authorized version of history.

Individual/private recollection may differ from the official version. That is one of the messages I got from the book The Legacy of Hitler. The German government has recently taken responsibility for Germany’s actions and settled the past (according to the author), but this work didn’t begin in earnest until the 1990s. In the decades before the country was united, the Nazi regime’s crimes were suppressed and hidden away. In many families members who experienced the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945, were referred to as either victims or opponents of the regime. Many related the war crimes exclusively to an elite around Hitler. The focus was constantly on themselves and how they had suffered.

It should be noted that this was traumatic for the Germans as well, but all this happened because many had taken an active part in trying to destroy anyone who did not fit with Hitler’s vision. The rest had remained silent and accepted the atrocities. How they could see themselves as victims is strange. After the war many Germans were mostly concerned with their own pain. One of these pains was the large number of German women who were raped. The Soviet soldiers alone raped 1,5 million German women on their way to Berlin.  The number of women raped by American, French and British soldiers was smaller, but still significant. The most famous story was published in a book in the U.S. in 1954. When the book came out in Germany five years later, it was criticized for destroying German women’s honor.

After the war there were seven million forced laborers, detained and deported people. These were classified as displaced person, DP. The situation was particularly serious for the Soviets, because it was considered an act of treason to allow the enemy to capture them. So it was dangerous for them to return home. The Allies supported them. Everyone had a difficult time financially after the war, and many Germans believed that the DP’s were better off than themselves. Once again they were more concerned about themselves and not about what these prisoners and forced laborers had undergone.

Those who waited for a public confrontation with the Nazis were disappointed. The denazification was pretty random, and many Nazis occupied positions after the war. There were also some who received symbolic verdicts. The Allies tried to classify people according to how heavily involved they had been in the Nazi system. People called this system Persilschein ( schein means evidence and Persil was a household detergent) . This classification was easily circumvented by neighbors that vouched for each other. They washed themselves clean by not recognizing some of what they had done. It also undermined this work when the United States and the Soviet Union gave the best scientists key positions in their home countries. Werner von Braun for example became an important figure in NASA. United States and Russia have a false recollection culture as well.

When the Germans took over the denazification from the Allies, they adopted several amnesty laws. Many of the positions in government and industry in the 1950s were taken by the same people who had had these during the Nazi time. As part of the very inadequate compensation settlement that the Allies established, the Germans would restore Jewish property that the Nazis had seized. This aroused strong discontent among in the German population. In addition to the agreement with the allies being much less than the original proposal in 1946, the agreement also referred to the war crimes as “crimes committed in the German people’s name.” In other words, the German people were not responsible.

When the war ended there were 10 million German soldiers in the Allied war camps. 3.3 million of them ended up in Soviet camps, and 1.3 never came home again. The last survivors were not released from the Soviet until 1956. The borders also changed after the war, and between 12 and 14 million Germans fled or were expelled. It is estimated that between 2 and 2, 8 million of them died while fleeing. This was another thing that received more attention after the war.

“New start”
Waffen-SS was sentenced as a “criminal organization” in Nürnberg. Wehrmacht was not convicted and became the basis for the new, clean defense. In the late 1950s there were 12,369 former Wehrmacht officers and 300 former SS members in the new Bundeswehr. There were also 30 barracks that had been named after German heroes of the war. So it’s doubtful whether it was the break with the past they claimed it was.

When it comes to how surprising the war was, Jews were increasingly ostracized from society. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Jews were banned from all public positions. In 1935 marriage between Jews and non-Jews was prohibited. Jews also lost their citizenship, and in 1936 Jewish children were barred from public kindergartens, and in 1938 Jewish students were banned from public schools. It should have been obvious how this would end, but the Kristallnacht, 9th November 1938, removed all questions anyone might have had.

After 12 years of Hitler Germans had developed a culture of denial. There was some improvement in the 60s, after the trial of the famous Nazi Eichmann in Israel, but at the same time Willy Brandt was designated as a traitor when he ran for office. He had been a political refugee in Norway in the 1930s and stayed illegally in Berlin in 1936 to build up a resistance group. In retrospect, it was seen as unpatriotic, and it resulted in more trouble in 1961 when he received the Norwegian St. Olav Order for his efforts during the war.

There are indications that some people have not changed their attitude. The author Daniel Kehlmann believe his country still haven’t put this behind them. He talked about that when he promoted his book F in Norway. A bestselling book was published in 2002 that confirms that impression. In Jörg Friedrich’s book Der Brand – Deutschland im Bombekrieg 1940-1945 the focus is on Germany’s material and cultural damage. The book even claims that the bombing was a planned destruction from the British and American side.

We are victims!
This is a general trend in German culture after the war. One of the first blockbuster in West Germany was “There Fragebogen ” ( questionnaire ) in 1951. The book portrays the Allied denazification as unfair and humiliating. The blame for the war was put on a few key Nazis, while the German people had been opponents of the Nazis. The 17th edition was published in 2003, suggesting perhaps that this attitude has not changed that much. There were principally three types of artists after the war, those who had left Germany before the war, those who had lived in a kind of internal exile and those who had collaborated with the Nazis. After the war, a writer like Thomas Mann, who had opposed Hitler from his exile in the United States in the 30s, tried to discuss recollection culture. He believed that the entire German population had to accept blame for what the Nazis did, but people chose to listen to those who had lived in internal exile. It was only in the 70s one could trace critical voices. Before that it was only a matter of entertainment and things that could make one forget. The movie industry went in the same direction.

To sum this up the German memory culture has been focused on what they lost. They didn’t think much about the fact that it was their own actions that killed 50-70 million people and caused unspeakable suffering, including on themselves. They had difficulty seeing the suffering they had subjected the entire continent to and beyond.

Are we any better?
How is it in Norway? What is our recollection culture? I have written so extensively on Germany to illustrate what a remembrance culture or lack of one is, and to show that we have much in common with the German way of dealing with the war.

When it comes to the actual fighting, it took a long time before it was spoken and written extensively about the resistance movement in northern Norway. I have a feeling that the government chose to make some myths. Today it’s easier to find information, but I think you still have to be proactive. The Narvik Campaign for example has a great status abroad, but hasn’t been discussed much in Norwegian textbooks. What I remember best from my own school books is the scorched earth tactics, which meant that the nazis destoyed as much as possible as they fled Northern Norway in 1945. There was little or nothing about the details, however.

One of my favourite TV-shows is the British detective series Foyle ‘s War, and Narvik is mentioned a few times because one of the key characters in the series has an injury from this battle. This isn’t just mentioned because the author, Anthony Horowitz, wants to impress with his knowledge of history, but because the name Narvik resonates among those families in the UK who remember the war. It is also remarkable how little interest there has been about making films about these dramatic events in Norway. We turn Operation Vemork (sabotage of Nazi shipment of heavy water from Telemark to Germany) and Max Manus (famous resistance hero) into pop culture, but forget the obvious. The battle of Narvik was the first one Hitler lost.

Unna Alakats east of Narvik
There was a network of Norwegian bases on the Swedish side of the border during the war. These were used by agents involved in sabotage, intelligennce, smuggling people into Sweden and weapon back etc. This photo shows a group cleaning up after the war in Unna Alakats east of Narvik

We have probably more a collective remembrance in Norway. There seems to be a consensus in Norway about what to include and what is considered to be significant. Vemork, a select few heroes such as Max Manus and Gunnar Sønstebø, and the royal family seem to be especially important parts of that image. This probably had a powerful unifying function, and I’m sure it was very important. We have largely concentrated on the myth that the entire population stood up against Quisling. Every little thing has subsequently been interpreted as part of the resistance.

We don’t write much about the women who fought in the war or the many cowards that waited and supported the side that seemed to be winning the war. There were certainly some who profited from the war, even people who were not convicted as traitors. I don’t know what is being talked about in the town of Kongsberg, but I can imagine it took a long time before they talked about the Kongsberg Weapons Factory, which profited from the sale of arms to the Nazis during the whole war.

At the start of the 1950’s, Parliament decided that the Soviet war graves in northern Norway were to be opened and moved to the remote island Tjøtta in Nordland. This happened about the same time that Norway ratified the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Many people in the county of Finnmark participated in the struggle against Hitler on the Soviet side. These were called partisans. Many of those who survived were kept under surveillance and suspicion in Norway. There was some recognition when King Olav laid down a wreath at the memorial to the killed partisans in 1983, but it was only when King Harald gave a speech at the same memorial in 1992 that this excuse was expressed directly. I don’t know if the government did the same, but I think it would have meant more if it came directly from those with political power.

Another story that doesn’t correspond with the official myths, and therefore isn’t very prominent, is the one about the Austrian Friedrich Leinböck-Winter. He was involuntarily conscripted into the Luftwaffe and sent to Kristiansand as a medic. From his beginning in Norway he began recruiting a network of resistance groups of 4-5 men. They called themselves the Norwegian Freedom Movement. This movement sadly wasn’t allowed to work for very long before they were betrayed by a Norwegian 16 year old boy.

leif tronstad
Leif Tronstad was a professor of unorganic chemistry. He organised the sabotage in Vemork that prevented the Germans from getting heavy water.

Another hero was Professor Leif Tronstad who volunteered for the resistance; his talent was organizing resistance groups. He was a backer who did not survive the war, and was forgotten.

On the surface the process dealing with the traitors was extensive, but in reality it was quite random. Some people got off lightly, especially those who were guilty of economic crimes, while others were branded a traitor just for being a passive member of the NS (Quisling’s party). When the Nazis took over the social structure in 1940, it wasn’t easy to determine what was necessary cooperation with the occupying forces, and what was betrayal. It seems that those who took these decisions in 1945 meant it was easy. I wonder sometimes if this was an accusation aimed at someone like a revenge, or to deliberately hurt someone, but that’s of course just speculation on my part.

This superficial treatment of the issue was followed up with more of the same stuff. The Norwegian government requisitioned the entire Norwegian merchant fleet in 1940, and formed Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission ( Nortraship ). There were about 1000 ships and it was the world’s largest shipping company. In addition to running commercial shipping, these ships became a part of the war on the Allied side. When the war was over Nortraship had NOK 4.5 billion at their disposal (1945 value) . After various insurance settlement the government was left with a profit of 818 million NOK. 4000 war sailors died on the job and many of the survivors had mental and physical damage. Many felt betrayed by the government after World War II, and I think they had reason to feel that way. The Stoltenberg 2-government announced in late 2011 that they would establish a history project where they would search for unsung heroes of World War 2. That was rather late!

War children from World War 2, defamatory called the German kids, were badly treated. Mother and children were ostracized from the community and the government did nothing to protect them. Some were sent to orphanages in Germany, others had equally unstable childhoods in institutions or with foster parents in Norway. Parliament were not able to apologize until 2003, and two years later they offered a compensation scheme. I don’t know what happened to the investigations, but there have been allegations of war children being used for experiments with LSD. According to the TV channel that ran that story this was something CIA was involved in.

Gaustad Hospital started with lobotomy in 1942 as a measure to deal with overflowing hospitals. Parliament decided in 1996 that all survivors would get a compensation of shameful 100 000 NOK. Is that the price of a life these days?

After the war, Travellers were forcibly sterilized in Norway. Children were forcibly placed in foster care, and the traveller lifestyle was criminalized. Norwegian authorities have dealt with this in recent years, but a public apology didn’t come until 1998.

These are just a few things I remember after they have been featured in the news, but there is probably a lot more. It’s the same attitude we see today in relation to immigrants. I think the fact that the Norwegian authorities don’t insist on new citizens respecting Norwegian culture is disrespectful to them as well. They have clearly decided to stay here. It’s just a question of what the government intends to do about it. The way it works today there are different rules for immigrants and Norwegians.

Public denial influences the private
I was thinking mostly public memory while I wrote this. There is a long history of not dealing with the past, but I think the private remembrance culture is influenced by this renouncement. We have created a myth that we are working with the right people. We didn’t cooperate with Hitler, we went with paper clips on our collar (a WW2 sign that you were a true Norwegian), we love Semites (Arabs are Semites too by the way ) etc. Today we cooperate with the United States, a country that has managed the world since World War 2, but is perhaps as much a part of the problem as the solution.

I also think remembrance culture in connection with the debate the progressive party politician Tybring Gjedde started. He feared that immigration would destroy the Norwegian culture. How is Norwegian culture and history reflected in books, movies, newspapers, nightlife etc? We know that it is strongly represented in the official Norway, in speeches, museums etc. A few weeks ago the story broke that the City of Oslo doesn’t have an inventory of the more than 18,000 pieces of art they own. No one could tell you were they are. I also remember the bickering that went on when politicians in Oslo discussed the new Opera House and the Munch Museum a few years ago. Thor Heyerdahl and Henrik Ibsen are perhaps the two biggest stars we have internationally, but what do they mean to us? The museums are pretty well hidden and the state channel NRK is more interested in reality shows than to create good drama based on our cultural heritage, like BBC is doing so brilliantly with theirs.

We say that we are tolerant and want immigrants welcome. Anything else is seen as unacceptable, but when immigrants move in next to us, we move out. We like to portray ourselves as better than others, but I don’t like the myths we have created about ourselves. I don’t usually listen to speakers on Constitution Day ranting about how we must not forget the war. It is often said that the victors write history. It shows us that historiography is far from the objective discipline many think it is. History has to do with identity. I suppose that was Tybring Gjedde’s point, but it isn’t easy to determine whether the identity we have is the right one, or whether it is even Norwegian.

I’ll gladly listen to the next Constitution Day-speech that removes all the layers of lies and tell the unvarnished truth. Otherwise I will be the first one throwing up on May 17th. Not because I’ve been drinking, because I don’t, but because I am allergic to lie. Perhaps history shows us that it is not enough to talk about not forgetting. It is equally important to point out which version we remember. Germany has been through a long process and they take more responsibility for the war than they have done before. Governments have a tendency to block out memories, while individuals today often create their own versions of the truth.

This is something the government needs to clean up. One of the ways they can do that is to make sure that they don’t need to sort out anything afterwards, but when it happens, don’t wait 40 years to offer an excuse! We are still a nation that is participating in war. I hope the current representatives of the Norwegian authorities take responsibility for the public remembrance culture so that future representatives don’t have to sort it out.


Source: Arven etter Hitler av Anette H. Storeide
Thanks to Roger Albrigtsen for letting me use the image from Unna Alakats . Albrigtsen is a local historian and has written a book on these bases.


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