In response to:
Planning an Aryan Paradise from the May 13, 2021 issue
To the Editors:
In “Planning an Aryan Paradise” [NYR, May 13], Martin Filler writes about Nazi Germany’s plans for occupied Norway (1940–1945). His prime focus is how the Nazi Weltanschauung manifested itself in buildings, visual arts, and urban planning in Norway during the occupation. However, when he makes forays into the general history of Norway, he misses several important points.
Filler writes that “Norway has never had a national reckoning about what occurred under Nazi occupation.” This sentence can only have been written by a writer with little knowledge about Norwegian war history.
Two interpretations are in order here: (1) Did Norway as a nation have no reckoning with the Nazi heritage in a political, moral, or legal sense? (2) Did the resistance know in advance about Nazi plans to deport the Jews?
Legal retribution started immediately after the German surrender on May 8, 1945. Between this date and the last court case in 1951, 92,805 cases against Norwegian collaborators were examined. Twenty-five Norwegians were executed, twelve Germans.
Parliamentary democracy was reestablished in a matter of weeks in the summer of 1945. Full elections took place that autumn. In a political, legal, and moral sense, retribution in Norway after the war was deep and swift. The Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling’s party, Nasjonal Samling, received only 0.06 percent of the vote in the last election before the war. The party was generally hated in 1945.
Filler seems to have received his opinions about the resistance by reading some recent books on Norwegian wartime history, specifically Hva visste Hjemmefronten?, Marte Michelet’s book on what the resistance knew about the fate of the Jews during the occupation. This work has been criticized for its sloppy archival research and ideology-driven conclusions. Michelet has been generally judged as lacking respect for contextualizing her information. It therefore misinterprets historical events. She has apologized to several descendants of wartime resistance fighters. An entire book was published with detailed empirical refutations of her claims.
No one denies that some quarters in the Norwegian resistance harbored anti-Jewish feelings. But to imply that the resistance fighters who worked under a Nazi tyranny knew in advance what would happen to the Jews and did not act adequately to save them—that is simply groundless.
Filler then writes that “what set the stage for the Nazis’ astonishingly rapid roundup…of Norway’s Jews” can be “illuminated” by Bjørn Westlie’s book Det norske jødehatet (The Norwegian Hatred of the Jews). Filler goes on to say that “the consistently anti-Semitic editorial stance of the country’s most influential newspaper, Dagbladet,” contributed to create an atmosphere of prejudices against the Jews. Again, Filler’s claims are groundless. Westlie never discussed Dagbladet, which was a consistently anti-Nazi liberal daily, in his book. In fact, Dagbladet’s international editor, Ragnar Vold, was an articulate anti-Nazi who helped refugees out of Berlin and warned against Hitler early on.
Of the 2,100 Jews who resided in Norway at the time of the German invasion, 754 lost their lives; 1,216 fled or were rescued.
Finally, following a report by Westlie on the confiscation of Jewish assets by the Quisling regime, a public commission was appointed in 1996 to examine the handling of Jewish property by Nazi authorities in occupied Norway. In 1997 the Norwegian Parliament decided unanimously to give Norwegian Jews NOK450 million (approximately $45 million) in damages. This transcended ordinary legal principles for compensations for war losses and was justified by the extraordinary character of the tragedy inflicted on the Jews.
The Norwegian restitution scheme provided a standard for related cases in Europe. In 1999 Norwegian prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik was awarded the Raoul Wallenberg Prize for “prominent moral leadership in connection with the restitution process.” In 2012, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg offered a public apology for the crimes committed on Norwegian soil by German Nazis and their Norwegian collaborators.
As a result of this Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the Norwegian state donated Villa Grande, Quisling’s wartime residence, to a foundation to commemorate the Jewish tragedy. The building was transformed into the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies. Oslo is the only Nordic capital with a center of that kind.
Norway is surely not on all accounts a moral example. Its Holocaust history is full of deeply regrettable incidents and tragedies. But it would be unfortunate if Filler’s offhand words on Norway’s lack of reckoning about its World War II treatment of its Jews should stand as the last word on this issue.
Professor of Political Science
University of Oslo and Bjørknes University College
Bjørn Westlie, Ph.D.
Department of History
Oslo Metropolitan University
Martin Filler replies:
While I am grateful for the detailed comments of Bernt Hagtvet and Bjørn Westlie, for whose work in addressing their country’s World War II history I have the utmost respect, unanswered questions regarding the Holocaust in Norway remain, as evidenced by the number of recent studies on that period. But can there be too much contrition from those who were complicit with the Nazis, and is there such a thing as too much atonement? Westlie has tried to make personal amends for his own family’s involvement with the Nazis in his 2008 book Fars Krig (Father’s War), which documents his father’s activities as an SS volunteer during the German occupation and was awarded Norway’s prestigious Brage Prize. Furthermore, Westlie’s admirable 1995 newspaper exposé (written with Bjarte Bruland) on the looting of Norway’s Jews during the war led directly to the Norwegian government’s public apology and compensation payments to elderly Holocaust survivors.
Yet however significant these official actions might be, the sheer volume of recent publications about the culpability of Norwegians in the decimation of their country’s Jewish citizenry during World War II suggests that more investigation into that dark period is indeed merited. I regret that it was only after my piece appeared that yet another recent account of the Holocaust in Norway was brought to my attention: Anne-Marie Foltz’s Survival Skills: Norway, Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust: A Family Story (Ipbooks, 2020), and I certainly would have included it in my review had I known about it earlier. Thus the definition of what might constitute “a national reckoning” seems to me open to interpretation.
I regret one major mistake in my published text that resulted from a transcription error and has since been corrected in the online edition of The New York Review: the Oslo newspaper that supported the Nazis during the 1930s and 1940s was the right-wing Aftenposten, not, as I incorrectly stated, the left-leaning Dagbladet, which opposed those forces largely through the journalism of Ragnar Vold, whose courageous political reportage for the Dagbladet between 1930 and 1945 was collected in the 2006 book Resistance.