Norwegian War Profiteers: New book assesses industry during WWII


M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

In his farewell address of January 17, 1961, President Eisenhower warned the country of the dangers of the “military-industrial complex.” Though coined to describe an evolving trend in the U.S., the term quickly entered the language to designate private sector supply of arms to government-run military forces that had begun in the mid 19th century. Early examples include industries founded by Samuel Colt in the U.S., Joseph Whitworth in the UK, and Alfred Krupp in Germany.

In Norway, private-sector arms supply began in 1814, with the founding of Kongsberg Våpenfabrikk, which was government owned and hence equivalent to the national arsenals elsewhere in Europe. During World War II, a different sort of cooperation between private industry and the military took place. The private industry, Norsk Hydro, was Norwegian, while the military was not the national one, but that of the German forces of occupation. That distinction complicated the issue so much that the story of it long remained one of those matters not discussed.

But now Anette H. Storeide, an associate professor of European cultural history at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), has tackled the story in a tour de force of historical objectivity, carefully weaving together the many plots of it in Norske krigsprofitører, Nazi-Tysklands velvillige medløpere (book details below).

The first threads of the story emerged in 1927, when Norsk Hydro, a hydroelectric power company, entered a partnership with the German chemical conglomerate IG Farben to gain access to the Haber-Bosch process, which was far more efficient than the electric arc process it had been using in its production of fertilizer. In return, IG Farben gained a minority interest in Norsk Hydro. At the same time, Norsk Hydro began looking for other applications that might benefit from its increasing capability in exploiting Norway’s hydroelectric power potential.

One of the first new applications came about in 1934, when Norsk Hydro built the first commercial facility to make heavy water in its hydroelectric power plant at Vemork in Telemark County. Heavy water is a form of water that has a greater than normal concentration of an isotope of hydrogen, known as deuterium. It has many scientific uses, including being a moderator in nuclear reactors, of which the first then were being built. At the same time, technological improvements in electric power generation and transmission made the energy-intensive refining of aluminum a more profitable business for Norsk Hydro.

Photo: Anders Beer Wilse / public domain The infamous Vemork Hydroelectric Plant in Rjukan, Norway, in 1935. Heavy water was produced in the front building.

Photo: Anders Beer Wilse / public domain
The infamous Vemork Hydroelectric Plant in Rjukan, Norway, in 1935. Heavy water was produced in the front building.

So by the time Germany invaded Norway on April 9, 1940, Norsk Hydro was involved in the production of both heavy water and light metal. A little more than a year thereafter, Nordisk Lettmetall AS, a German-Norwegian partnership was founded, owned equally by Norsk Hydro, IG Farben of Germany, and Nordag, a German producer of light metals. Its purpose was to expand Norwegian aluminum refining to meet the increasing needs of the German military aircraft industry. In order to serve the larger market with its bigger German partners, Norsk Hydro expanded by acquiring new capital through an additional shares issue amounting to NOK 7.9 million, equivalent to NOK 180 million ($23 million) today. The issue was quickly fully subscribed by a group of companies and wealthy individuals that became known as the “Oslo Consortium.”

The infusion of capital enabled Norsk Hydro to plan and start building a new aluminum and magnesium refinery on the Herøya Peninsula near the city of Porsgrunn. It was to have a production capacity of 24,000 tons of light metal a year and was built by hundreds of prisoners of war. Yet it never produced metal. While still unfinished, on July 24, 1943, an armada of U.S. Eighth Air Force B-17s based in England bombed it to a standstill.

For Norsk Hydro it was a setback that came on top of an earlier one. The previous February, a small team of Norwegian skiing commando saboteurs had slipped into the Vemork hydroelectric plant and blown up the heavy water facility there. After it was rebuilt, its production of heavy water was lost in February 1944 when a saboteur attached a plastic explosive that sank the SF Hydro railway ferry carrying it across Lake Tinnsjø. After the War, the daring saboteurs of the heavy water facility were hailed as heroes, and the story of their raid was told and retold for years thereafter, in eight books, four films, and three TV documentaries.

The more complex story of Norsk Hydro’s wartime production partnership with German companies was another matter. It had started after the country was occupied, so Norsk Hydro was suspected of collaboration. A prolonged war settlement inquest followed. Norsk Hydro Director and subsequently Board Chairman, Axel Aubert (1873-1943), was considered to have been responsible for the flawed undertaking. Others involved were not found guilty of misconduct.

Historian author Storeide points out that in the context of the time, the Norsk Hydro management had been pragmatic and had not assessed the moral aspects of cooperation with the occupying Germans. In short, the overall story might well have been a business case. If so, it had been a profitable one. Today Norsk Hydro is a major actor in the Norwegian aluminum industry, ranked (by Wikipedia) as being the world’s ninth largest.

Book details
Norske krigsprofitører, Nazi-Tysklands velvillige medløpere (“Norwegian war profiteers, Nazi Germany’s obliging collaborators”) by Anette H. Storeide, Oslo, Gyldendal Norsk Forlag 2014, 479 pages hardcover, ISBN 978-82-05-4540-7, with 51 pages of end notes, eight pages of sources cited, and a five-page index.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 4, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

Norwegian American Logo

The Norwegian American

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