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About Norway

norway_about_palace.jpgIn 1905, after being ruled from Stockholm since 1814 and before that by Denmark for 424 years, Norway once again became an independent, self-governing nation. In a plebiscite to choose between a Republic and a Kingdom, a majority of almost 4 to 1 voted for the latter and Prince Charles of Denmark became King Haakon VII of Norway.

The new king ruled over a country where only four percent of the land was arable, the remainder comprises mountains, lakes, and forests. Lacking coal, Norway was, at first, dependent on England for its small manufacturing base. But Norway's mountainous terrain offered an alternative and hydro-electricity, long in use on rural farms, began to be applied for social and industrial purposes. Fish, forestry products, fertilizers, and an expanding merchant fleet boosted Norway's reputation abroad and provided security and harmony at home. Politically, Norway had a reputation for advanced ideas and in the first nine years after 1905 the modern principles of political responsibility, state-ownership and social equality began to flourish.

Norway had flourished before. Centuries before the union with Denmark the longboats of the Norwegian Vikings had left their marks on a world then unknown to most Europeans; from Constantinople to 'Vinland', from the Volga to the Seine. Though terror was the Vikings' historic trademark, colonization, a primitive form of trade and even, eventually, Christianity were their testament to the future.

King Olaf II established Christianity in Norway and became St.Olaf after his death at the battle of Stiklestad in 1030. What was to become the greatest cathedral in northern Europe was built over his grave in the capital Trondheim. Pilgrims continued to visit the site for centuries and his name reputedly worked miracles throughout Europe. Oslo became the capital in 1299, from 1624 its name was changed to Christiania as a sop to the Danish King but reverted to Oslo in 1924. During Danish domination the city was not much more than an administrative outpost and only Christian IV of the many Danish rulers ever made more than cursory visits to the city, or indeed to the country.

Bergen, the port on the west coast was much more important than Oslo commercially but Bergen, too, was an outpost - of the Hanseatic league. Since the middle of the 14th century the German traders, protected by their favorable agreements with the Danish court, comprised a 'state within a state'. A law that forbade foreigners to trade north of the city, and the Hanse's often brutal suppression of competitors, entrenched their position which they maintained until the gradual demise of the Hanseatic League towards the end of the 16th century.

A treaty with Denmark in 1536 stated: "Norway.shall henceforth be and remain under the Crown of Denmark, the same as any of the other provinces, Jutland, Funen, Zealand or Scania and it shall henceforth neither be nor be called a kingdom in itself, but an integral part of Denmark and subject to the Danish Crown for ever." Though the full force of this degradation was never implemented, Norwegians remained little more than a spectator in European affairs for almost 200 years. The Reformation and the 30 Years War passed them by. Only the rise of Sweden as a power,(and a threat to Norwegian territory), roused the Norsemen's ire. As Europe battled, Norway remained neutral quietly building a maritime foundation and increasing its wealth by the sale of timber, which, by 1650 had supplanted fish as the main export. The ever increasing need for ships, the buildings and dykes of Amsterdam and the re-building of London after the great fire in 1666 all relied on trees from Norwegian forests. At the close of the Great Northern War (1700-21), a young Norwegian sea captain Peter Tordenskjold, became a national hero when he defeated the Swedes in naval battles at Dynekilen and Baahuslen.

After the setback of the 'black years' between 1738 and 1742, when increased cold decimated the countryside, Norway experienced growth in population, land cultivation, and wealth. Shipping, the main beneficiary of European wars and the American declaration of independence in 1776, increased dramatically as the century ended. During the same period a few isolated demonstrations against the 'status quo' indicated the first stirrings of hope for freedom from Danish rule.

The break finally came however, not through internal dissent but because of external great power politics when Napoleon was defeated in 1813. At the Treaty of Kiel in January of the following year Denmark, which had backed Napoleon, conceded Norway to Sweden - and the spark that led to independence was struck. Norwegian opinion was appalled by the news and prominent leaders determined to defy the unacceptable union with Sweden. At the home of wealthy industrialist Carsten Anker in Eidsvoll a representative gathering drafted a constitution that was strongly influenced by the new documents in America, Spain and France. The Norwegian resistance to the new union, and the lack of international support for their cause, were not sufficient at the time to deter its implementation. However, at his election to the vacant throne of Norway the Swedish king gave a solemn oath binding himself and his successors to respect the constitution - which specified a limited monarchy.

Norwegian national identity and aspirations grew during the remainder of the 19th century inspired mostly by the writings and actions of Henrik Wergeland whose name is still paramount at the 17th of May celebrations. Other writers like Welhaven and Bjornson followed in Wergeland's footsteps and gave increasing impetus to the demand for independence. Internationally Norway stepped out of the shadows as the paintings J.C. Dahl, the music of Ole Bull and Edvard Grieg, and the writing of Henrik Ibsen became known and appreciated. Norway's rivers, mountains and fjords also contributed to international awareness as salmon fishers, mountaineers and sailors, mostly wealthy nobility from England, discovered their unspoiled nature.

Financial problems, increasing religious differences and falling agricultural viability were facts of life in Norway as in other European lands. Many Norwegians chose emigration as the solution to these problems and from 1825, when the first emigrants left Stavanger for America, to the first decade in the new century, the trickle grew to a flood. It is estimated that 800,000 Norwegians emigrated to the United States in this period and there are now more Americans of Norwegian descent than there are Norwegians.

The war of 1914 to 1918 left Norway in a poor state. Much of her fleet had been destroyed by submarines during the war and the country was ill-prepared to face the shock-waves caused by international financial problems of the twenties and early thirties. By 1932, however, an economic upswing started and from 1935, when the first labor government gained power, to the outbreak of war in 1939 the national income rose by more than 1,400 million Norwegian kroner. Deserting its policy of isolation, Norway had joined the League of Nations in 1920 and in 1939 the president of the Norwegian Storting, Carl Joachim Hambro presided over the League. In the thirties, too, a new export was born as tourists discovered Norway, the 'peaceful corner of Europe, a land that had remained tranquil for more than a hundred years.

The peace was brutally broken on April 9 1940 when Germany attacked Norway despite the Norwegian government's declared neutrality of 1939. The Germans needed the Norwegian ports on the west coast and nearly the entire German navy, six army divisions and a large air contingent headed for eight Norwegian towns and cities along the country's lengthy coast. The Norwegians were practically defenseless, most of the navy had been mobilized, but only to guard the country's neutrality. On an average, coastal forts were only 50 per cent manned. The army had mobilized 7,000 soldiers in southern Norway but another brigade of 4,800 men, guarded northern Norway. The guns of the fort at Drobak in the Osloford delayed the German attack on Oslo and allowed the King and government to flee the city but Narvik, Trondheim, Bergen, Stavanger and Kristiansand fell to the Germans, virtually without loss.

The King and government managed to escape to London where the government resumed its activities in London based on the authority given by parliament in the fateful hours of April 9. In Norway, 'Minister President' Vidkun Quisling led the much hated puppet government and in doing so had the dubious honor of becaming one of the few politicians ever to bequeath his name to the language. The fierce resistance in Norway was bolstered by the knowledge that King Haakon, and the government, had resolutely answered "no" to the German demands for submission after the invasion. The merchant navy - the world's third largest at the time - made a great contribution to the allied cause even as it suffered heavy losses in men and ships. The war, however, brought considerable financial gains, which assisted Norwegian reconstruction after the war.

At the election of 1945 the Labour Party gained a majority and appointed a government led by Einar Gerhardsen, later to be known as 'the father of the country'. In the years immediately after 1945, Norway maintained a low profile in foreign policy. It was hoped that the United Nations, under the leadership of its first Secretary General, Norwegian Trygve Lie, would be a sufficient guarantee of security. Norway loyalties remained firmly with the west; in 1949 Norway joined NATO at the same time as Denmark and was later a recipient of Marshall Aid.

Joining the EU, however, was another matter even though Denmark, Sweden and Finland joined at various stages. The contentious choice in splintered the political arena in Norway and a 1972 referendum rejected the membership 53% to 47%. Twenty two years later the question was thrashed out again and a new referendum returned almost the same result - 52.5 % against, 47.5% for - but with a voter turnout of 88.5%, almost 9% more than in 1972. Critics wonder what all the fuss is about. The Agreement on the European Economic Area (EEA), which was signed by the EU and the EFTA countries in 1992, ensures Norwegian participation in the development of the EEA, gives the country access to the EU common market and opens the door to co-operation in a number of adjacent areas. Norwegian industry is guaranteed equal terms of competition with other EFTA and EU countries on the Western European market and institutions have been established which give Norway influence over the formulation of future rules in the areas covered by the Agreement.

In the sixties, exploration in the North Sea indicated rich oil fields and by the seventies Norwegian oil and gas production was in full swing. In later years deposits were found in the Barents Sea but major production is now centered in the Norwegian Sea, off central Norway, with Stavanger emerging as the 'Houston' of Norway; as important in this modern age as Bergen was in the middle ages. Oil has changed Norwegian trade and industry as severe cost increases have made it difficult for the 'traditional' industries to compete internationally. High interest rates and an inflated kroner continue to plague the Norwegian economy and the 'blue-eyed sheiks' have to contend with almost exorbitant prices for most consumer and capital goods.

In a way, Norway, as a high cost land helps to maintain the bonds between the relatively newly independent country and its former rulers. Thousand of Norwegians daily 'invade' Sweden by car and coach to buy everything from corn flakes to cars and Norwegians pack the ferries that ply between Norway and Denmark to have 'a night out' in connection with their shopping spree.

In 1905, when the Danish prince chose to be called Haakon he re-established a tradition that had lapsed with the death of Haakon V in 1319. By the end of the 20th century Norway had become, if not a major, then at least an important member of the international community. Explorers Amundsen and Nansen, the artist Munch and scientist/adventurer Thor Heyerdahl personified the image Norway. The new cruise industry brought Norwegian shipping further renown. The official peacekeeping and philanthropic activities built prestige and its social profile elicited envy. The recent 'break with accepted tradition' marriage of Prince Haakon Magnus is perhaps a sign of new times. Where will he lead Norway in the 21st century? If indeed he ever does.

T.K Derry 'A Short History of Norway' George Allen and Unwin London 1960

Geoffrey K. Ward
Asker, Sept 30, 2002.