Monday, February 20, 2006

Nonviolence in World War Two: What Happened in Norway

(Thanks to Rebecca Glasscock for this--a social movement that is very inspiring for me, as a teacher)

Nonviolence in World War Two: What Happened in Norway
Learn Peace Project: A Peace Pledge Union Project
Peace: Theory and Practice
Action for Peace



The Germans believed that the most effective way of promoting Nazi ideals would be through the schools. In the autumn of 1941 the Nazi minister of education issued a series of orders. Portraits of Vidkun Quisling, as Norway's Nazi party leader, were to be hung on school walls, and anyone who removed them would be punished. Textbooks were to be revised to conform with Nazi views. No English texts could be used, and German, not English, was now the second language which every child must learn. Teachers must also educate their pupils thoroughly in Nazism.

The teachers were appalled. Their underground group met repeatedly to discuss what they should do. Meanwhile they were in no hurry to obey the education minister's commands.

Membership of the Norwegian Nazi party had been growing, from around 4,000 before the invasion to 40,000 in January 1942. Quisling's recruiting success was noticed in Berlin. He was brought back out of the cold and unexpectedly offered the post of 'Minister President' (prime minister). Almost his first act was to establish a new Nazi-oriented Teachers' Association with membership compulsory for all teachers. He quickly followed this up with a Nazi Youth Movement (based on the Hitler Youth movement in Germany), compulsory for all children aged between 10 and 18. Some of these 400,000 young people, Quisling said, would be selected for training as Nazi party members.

Courage and endurance

The teachers were now faced with the choice of submitting or losing their jobs and pensions. Their underground association came up with the answer: mass action. The teachers were to write to the education department, rejecting membership of the new association. Their letters were to be written with exactly the same wording and posted on the same day: February 20, 1942. Two days later a manifesto against Nazi control of Norway's education system was read aloud by clergy in churches throughout the country. There were 14,000 teachers in Norway, and 12,000 of them rejected Quisling's demand. As one teacher said: 'It was a matter of conscience. We couldn't have looked our families and friends in the face if we hadn't taken this stand.' By the beginning of May Quisling had to acknowledge his failure. 'You have destroyed everything for me,' Quisling told a teachers' meeting angrily.

There was a price to pay. From March 15 (the deadline for accepting membership in the new association) over 1,300 teachers were arrested - which meant that schools had to be closed. Most of these teachers were interned in a concentration camp outside Oslo. 700 were selected to face special punishment: forced labour in the Arctic alongside Russian prisoners of war. They were first packed into railway cattle trucks and taken to a transitional camp, where they endured punishing physical and mental hardships: little food, forced 'gymnastics' in the snow, kicks and blows, hard labour, untreated illness. They were told that they were being made fit for hard physical work; the intention was to break their spirit. Some did give in, agreed to join Quisling's new association, and were released - reassured by understanding colleagues that they should feel no guilt.

499 teachers now faced another cattle-car journey. This was followed by a sea voyage, in conditions that horrified even the Nazi doctor who went on board to make a report for Quisling. The ship had room for only 250 passengers, but all 499 were crammed in. Many could not even lie down, though they were now ill with 'pneumonia, gastric ulcers. asthma, bronchitis. haemorrhage and mental derangement'. 'The water supplies are totally inadequate, and there are only two lavatories,' the doctor added. Quisling replied, 'The measures taken against Norway's teachers are a direct consequence of their treasonable activities': they had had their chance to recant.

Once they were in the Arctic things eased a little: slightly better conditions, poor but regular food. The work was still hard: unloading supply ships. It was also dangerous for people untrained for it - there were a number of injuries and one death. On the whole they were better treated than the Russian prisoners they worked with, some of whom were shot. Each day the teachers were marched down the long road to the docks, and each day the local people turned up to watch them in respectful silence. They were now famous throughout the country. When, in early November, they were finally released, they returned home to be welcomed as heroes.

To Read the Whole Story of the WWII Nonviolent Resistance Movement in Norway

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