The American story of a norsk princess

Documentary tells the story of Princess Märtha, who was popular in the United States


Photo: Capital City, yeah! / Wikimedia Commons
Princess Märtha’s statue welcomes visitors to the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Christine Foster Meloni

A statue of Crown Princess Märtha stands proudly in front of the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C. It is a remarkable symbol of the enduring friendship between Norway and the United States.

The Swedish princess played a significant role in strengthening the bonds between the two countries. An excellent documentary, Crown Princess Märtha: The American Story, was produced in 2005 by the Norwegian American Foundation [editor’s note: the NAF was formerly the owner of this paper] and highlights her special relationship with the United States.

When Norway gained its independence from Sweden in 1905, the Danish Prince Carl was elected Norway’s king, and he took the name Haakon VII. On the day of his inauguration, he gave his son Prince Alexander the Norwegian name Olav.

In 1929, Crown Prince Olav married Princess Märtha of Sweden in Oslo Cathedral, and she became the Crown Princess of Norway. They had three children, Ragnhild (b. 1930), Astrid (b. 1932), and Harald (b. 1937), the current king of Norway.

Märtha became very popular in Norway. She was said to be very kind, generous, and humble. She also had a wonderful sense of humor.

She became very popular in the United States as well. In 1939, shortly before the outbreak of World War II in Europe, she and her husband visited the U.S. During this visit, they became very close friends of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his family.

The royal couple toured the United States, visiting 29 states in 69 days. Crowds met them with great enthusiasm everywhere they went. The visit was exciting, in particular, for the Norwegian Americans. It was a new experience for them, because many immigrants had arrived in America before the monarchy had been established in Norway. The couple was very open and friendly and, therefore, made a very positive impression. Their visit served to strengthen the relations between the U.S. and Norway.

In April 1940, Nazi Germany invaded Norway. King Haakon and Märtha’s husband, the crown prince, found safety in London, where they worked with the Norwegian government in exile there. (The prince had asked to remain in Norway with the Norwegian people, but his request was declined.) The king represented the strong spirit of Norway throughout the war and kept the morale of his countrymen high.

Märtha first fled to Sweden with the three young children. She was initially refused entry into Sweden because she had no passport. She was then pressured to leave Sweden and return to Norway, because Sweden had declared its neutrality in the war and did not want its position compromised by her presence. She did not return to occupied Norway. Instead, she accepted the invitation offered by President Roosevelt to live in the United States for the duration of the war.

She and the children traveled to Finland, where they boarded a ship for the perilous journey across the Atlantic to New York. There were German U-boats and icebergs on their path. They fortunately made it safely to the United States on Aug. 28, 1940.

Princess Märtha worked hard to convince the Americans that Norway had not capitulated to the Germans. An American reporter Leland Stowe had been in Oslo on the day the Germans arrived, and he wrote that the Norwegians had not resisted. Americans were, therefore, not in favor of helping the Norwegian war effort.

The princess traveled tirelessly throughout the United States, refuting Stowe’s harsh words. And Norway became, for President Roosevelt, a symbol of the struggle against the Nazis. He told the American public that Norway’s cause was America’s cause. He gave a very strong speech in September 1942 in which he declared:

“If there is anyone who still wonders why this war is being fought, let him look to Norway. If there is anyone who has any delusions that this war could have been averted, let him look to Norway; and if there is anyone who doubts the democratic will to win, again I say, let him look to Norway.”

The Americans took his message to heart and looked to Norway favorably. Edge of Darkness, a 1943 film starring Errol Flynn that showed the heroism of the Norwegians against their Nazi invaders, became very popular and reinforced U.S. support for Norway.

The war finally ended, and Princess Märtha and her children were able to return to Norway. On June 7, 1945, 400,000 people were on hand in Oslo harbor to welcome them back.

The Norwegian people were very grateful to Roosevelt for his concern and hospitality for the members of the royal family throughout the war. In gratitude, a statue to him was erected at Akershus Fortress in Oslo in 1950.

Sadly, Märtha never fulfilled her destiny to become Norway’s Queen. She died of cancer in 1954 at the age of 57, three years before her husband ascended to the throne.

A statue honoring her, created by the sculptor Kirsten Kokkin, was erected in front of the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C. Her three children were present at the unveiling of the statue in 2005. Norwegian-American Vice President Walter Mondale was also in attendance.

Kokkin stated that, in creating the lovely bronze statue of Märtha, she wanted “to capture the brave, active, enthusiastic, and decisive crown princess.” The statue is a constant reminder to visitors to the embassy and to the residents of the nation’s capital of her powerful impact on U.S.-Norway relations.

In 2007, on the occasion of King Harald’s 80th birthday, a replica of the statue was erected on the grounds of the Royal Palace in Oslo, a gift from the Storting, Norway’s Parliament.

The documentary serves to keep the memory of this extraordinary woman alive. It shows very interesting historical footage, of particular interest the tour of the royal couple in the U.S. in 1939 and the stay of Princess Märtha and her children in the U.S. during World War II. It also contains insightful interviews with a variety of people.

Crown Princes Martha: The American Story is a little tricky to get your hands on, but it is available from a handful of university libraries, including Pacific Lutheran University, Concordia College, and Luther College.

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.

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This article originally appeared in the June 15, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.