Nansen & Norway

Photo: University of Oslo

Photo: University of Oslo

Carl Emil Vogt is Norway’s prominent Nansen researcher

Marit Fosse

Geneva, Switzerland

Carl Emil Vogt is a dynamic man who has gained a reputation for being of one of Norway’s most prominent experts on Fridtjof Nansen, the explorer, humanitarian, diplomat and statesman. Nansen is possibly the most famous Norwegian, and if you have had the opportunity to read Carl Emil’s books you would be aware of the genius of his compatriot who more than anybody else marked his time in so many ways. What is amazing is that Mr. Vogt tells us that much of Nansen’s research is still valid today, not only in the fields of oceanography, but also within other fields such as medicine. Furthermore, Nansen’s actions had a huge impact on the refugee situation after the First World War. He was the first High Commissioner for Refugees of the League of Nations, an office that later became the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Q: You have written two books about Nansen. How did it all start?

It was a natural extension of my Ph.D. thesis. For the Nansen jubilee in 2011, I was contacted by one of Norway’s most well-known publishing houses, Cappelen Damm, who asked me if I would be interested in writing a commemorative biography for the jubilee. I thought it could be fun and something that I could not refuse.

Q: Why did you become interested in Nansen’s humanitarian work?

It all started a long time ago. I was really interested in Russian history and studied Russian language at the University of Oslo, but I wanted to combine the two. When I was about to write my master’s thesis, somebody told me that there were a few items in the Russian archives that no one had ever looked into before, and this concerned particularly the humanitarian work that Nansen had carried out in Russia. I thought it would be a good opportunity to combine this with my interest in Russian language, civilization and history. This was the beginning and later I continued my research and it became my Ph.D. thesis.

Q: In 2007 you published a book on Nansen’s humanitarian work in Russia.  

Yes, the book concerned Nansen’s work in Russia. I delivered my master’s thesis in 2001 and then for some years I worked on this project on and off. Finally, in 2007, the book came out.

Q: How does it feel to be one of the leading Norwegian specialists on Nansen?  

It is good to be able to help and to give out information to people who would like to know more about Nansen and his work. Everybody knows who he is and his name is familiar to most Norwegians, but they often mix him up with Roald Amundsen. Few people know about his humanitarian and international work, but people often associate him with polar explorations.

Q: How would you characterize Nansen as a person?

Well, I would perhaps say that he was a very stubborn and opinionated person and quite a difficult person. For his wife and children, he seems to have been absolutely impossible to live with. However, he was a very knowledgeable and talented person. He conducted ground-breaking research in neurological research for instance and in many other fields. What he did was very original by the standards of those times. The polar expedition aboard the Fram, for example, was very different from all previous polar expeditions. He was a kind of genius, with an incredible capacity to put forward original ideas. He also had strong faith in himself and his own ideas.

For instance, his proposal to settle refugees in Armenia is something he never really gave up. Most people give up when they realize that it is not going to happen, but he never gave up and did not quit when it would have made sense to do so. In many cases his stubbornness paid off as he won enough victories simply because he continued to fight for a cause when most other people had given up.

Q: Is Nansen a well-known figure in Russia and Armenia?

During the Soviet era, he was probably best known as an explorer. However, they do not mention much about his humanitarian actions, simply because I do not think that they want to remember it. Among the intellectuals though his name is well-known. In Armenia it is a completely different case. There he is still a hero and his name is frequently used as a boy’s name. When official visitors come to Norway from Armenia they always visit Nansen’s grave on Polhøgda. The cult of Nansen that you find in Armenia cannot be found anywhere else.

Q: After Nansen, what are you working on?

I liked writing biography, so now I’m working on a biography of Herman Wedel Jarlsberg, a Norwegian politician at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. It’s a different period of history, but he is actually a relative of Nansen’s. Nansen’s grandfather was the brother of Herman Wedel Jarlsberg. So there is a connection there that I have not really explored.

Q: When do you expect to finish this book?

It should be out in 2014.

So if you would like to know more about Nansen, his work and life we encourage you to read Vogt’s books. We hope you will learn as much about Nansen as we have.

To learn more about Carl Emil Vogt and his work, visit the University of Oslo’s website at http://www.hf.uio.no/

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 23, 2013 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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