The Norwegian Exception? Norway’s Liberal Democracy Since 1814

Book reivewNorwegian Exception

Kittery Point, Maine

Those of us who subscribe to The Norwegian American have, by definition, an interest in Norway, largely driven by rootedness. Those of us who didn’t grow up there may also have a curiosity about how it works as a nation. For me, the realization of how little even the children of immigrants know came at a young age.

My paternal grandparents died before I was born, but as a lad, I pestered my dad with questions about Norway. His responses? Other than our family origins (“near Trondhjem”) and the meaning of our surname (“the farm’s name”), not much more was forthcoming from this man, the 14th of 16 children born to parents who “came across” in 1880 and 1883.

In the years since, through genealogy work and reading the books of Johan Bojer and Knut Hamsun, I’ve acquired a fair understanding of farming, fishing, and ecclesiastical life in 19th-century Norway, especially in Trøndelag, and a somewhat vaguer awareness of the milestones of recent Norwegian history. But I sought more, and this new book, The Norwegian Exception? Norway’s Liberal Democracy since 1814 by historians Mathilde Fasting and Øystein Sørensen, has filled many gaps in my understanding.

the norwegian exception

Those looking to Norway (from the refrain used by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a famous 1942 speech that the authors quote) for inspiration from its strong economy and apparent cohesiveness will gain valuable insights from this book. Norway is an attractive and active partner in foreign investment, both private and governmental (60% of its sovereign wealth fund is invested in foreign equities). Fasting and Sørensen set out to explain how this small nation—just smaller than Minnesota and the city-state of Singapore in population and once the poorest of the three major Scandinavian countries—achieved the enviable status it has today.

Interestingly, the book’s title ends with a question mark. Perhaps the authors were just observing the Norwegian national imperative of modesty encapsulated in the principle of janteloven—“The Law of Jante”— coined by novelist Aksel Sandemose. But it seems more likely to be the inclination of historians to remind us that history has its cycles, from which Norway is not exempt.

The book’s scope is the about 200 years of modern history from 1814, with the end of Danish rule. In January 1814, after an attack by Sweden on Danish territory the previous autumn, Denmark signed a treaty transferring Norway to Sweden, among other concessions. This triggered an interesting and complex political process in the months following the treaty. An elected assembly was convened at Eidsvoll by Christian Frederik, then the regent of Norway, out of which emerged a constitution on the 17th of May, now celebrated as Americans do the 4th of July. He was elected king, but Sweden refused to accept Norwegian independence and by August of this eventful year he had surrendered the throne (but later became king of Denmark). After a very brief war, the Swedes accepted the Eidsvoll constitution, and Charles XIII of Sweden became simultaneously King Carl II of Norway (Carl being Norwegian for Charles).

In the six decades after 1815, Norway’s population doubled to 1.8 million. The authors credit better vaccination, health measures, and information for this exceptional rate of increase. However, Norway had little arable land and the population explosion by mid-century certainly fueled emigration to North America. In 1870, 40,000 Norwegians were in the United States, but by 1925, some 800,000 Norwegians had emigrated to America, encouraged by the pull of the U.S. Homestead Act and substantial advertising in northern Europe by American railroads and steamship companies. The authors provide a particularly good overview of the crucial impact of the growth that took place during this time on the evolving political system.

Seventy-five years after the January 1814 treaty putting Norway under the Swedish crown, my Norwegian grandfather was granted U.S. citizenship. As part of the process in 1889, he had to “renounce his loyalty to the King of Sweden.” That king, Oscar II, is the familiar face on Norwegian sardine packaging to this day. When Norway achieved full independence in 1905, Oscar II was dethroned by the Norwegian Storting (parliament) that June and he renounced the Norwegian throne in October and was replaced by Haakon VII.

The first 90 years after 1814 saw challenges to building a democratic monarchy with no real democratic history to build upon. Particularly since 1905, the kings have served more as legitimizers than governors.

Like most nations, Norway’s modernization has had ups and downs—or perhaps cast in business terms: opportunities and challenges.

Coincident with full independence in 1905, Norway began to exploit its huge hydroelectric capabilities. The same mountainous terrain that provided Norway little arable land also gave it great hydroelectric, enabling economic growth and human conveniences. Then, there was the discovery of oil and gas in 1969, resources that have underwritten not only the cost of current public services but also, through its sovereign wealth fund, a “rainy day account,” that provides for future financial security.

The challenges have involved making the new parliamentary democracy more representative, sometimes having to deal with small political parties on the extremes. No doubt the greatest challenge occurred during the five years under German occupation from 1940 to 1945, with a collaborative puppet regime led by the domestic fascist, Vidkun Quisling. The movement toward a more unified Europe presented Norway with the challenge of how to respond.

A minor “nit to pick” with the book is that in a handful of cases, I found myself having to stop and think about what the authors were trying to say because an incorrect, but similar, word was used. For example, on page 157 of the hardbound version, talking about the 1940s shortage economy, the text reads, “solved by rationalization,” rather than “solved by rationing.”  It was always fairly easy to figure out, so more of a speed bump than misdirection.

So, is there a “Norwegian exception?”  The authors task us to answer that question with their informed and thoughtful review of the last 200 years of Norwegian history. My conclusion is consistent with the old saying that, “people make their own luck.”  Nations do that also. 

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 4, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.