Fra Fenrik til Fører, Norsk krigshelt ved Østfronten shows a rare side of WWII
M. Michael Brady
Napoleon reportedly once remarked, “What is history, but a fable agreed upon?”* In the context of today, Napoleon’s remark may be read as an observation that many stories are subdued in the accepted histories of periods. The account of Norwegians who fought on the East Front during World War II is one such story.
The story has a precursor. In the 1930s, the Soviet Union was regarded to be a great threat in the High North. After the Soviet Union invaded Finland on November 30, 1939, more than 700 Norwegians went to fight alongside the Finns in the Winter War of 1939-40. Then Germany invaded Norway on April 9, 1940. Thereafter, the Waffen-SS, part of the armed wing of the Nazi Party, formed Den Norske Legion (The Norwegian Legion), principally to recruit Norwegians to fight on the East Front. The Norwegian Legion exploited familiarity with the Winter War in recruiting, as in posters depicting Norwegians, Finns, and Nazis united in warding off the evil of Bolshevism.
A new book published this year, Fra Fenrik til Fører, Norsk krigshelt ved Østfronten (From Lieutenant to Leader, Norwegian war heroes on the East Front) probes the mix of allegiances that’s part of the story of occupied Norway during the war. The story is told through the eyes and the pen of Paul Johan Jørgenvåg (1907-1987), as meticulously recorded by his grandson, Olav Jørgenvåg.
In April 1940, Paul Johan Jørgenvåg was among those who defended Norway by fighting the invading German paratroopers at Dombås, an effort that helped the Royal Family and the government to escape to England. Two years later he had switched sides and fought with the Germans on the East Front, rising to the rank of company commander in The Norwegian Legion. In January 1949, he was found guilty of treason and sentenced to three years and one month of imprisonment at hard labor but was released in 1950. Thereafter he never spoke about his involvement in the War.
Writer Olav Jørgenvåg objectively stated in the Preface to the book that it’s not an “effort to excuse, explain away, or justify my grandfather’s choices during the war… It’s a story about Paul Johan Jørgenvåg’s war, an effort to find an explanation for his ill-fated choices.” At that the author does well, in extensive extracts from his grandfather’s diaries, vintage photos, newspaper clippings, and maps, all well referenced. In telling a previously untold story, he has contributed to better understanding of a complex era.
*Napoleon’s remark as quoted here is frequently cited. The original of it most likely was “il n’y a point d’autares Histoires anciennes que les Fables” (There are no ancient histories other than these fables). There are other versions of the remark, which apparently was made several times, and there are other translations of it into English.
The book: Fra Fenrik til Fører by Olav Jørgenvåg, Oslo, 2017 (in Norwegian), is stocked by Norwegian online booksellers Akademika, Haugenbok, Norli, and Tanum.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 20, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.