On WWII in the North
Fire and Ice: Vincent Hunt’s history of WWII in northern Norway illuminates, if narrowly
I have always been fascinated and impressed with Norway’s role in World War II and the war’s effect on the country, ever since my first trip in 1969-70 at age 11. My father was stationed at Gardemoen, then a military airport, in 1946 with the U.S. Army, rebuilding the communications systems and air command communication needs.
I have met people who were in the Resistance; heard or read stories of Jews who were rescued; visited the Resistance Museum (which opened in 1970) in Oslo several times, learned about some amazing examples of resistance; translated an account by Claus Helberg, one of the saboteurs against the hydro plant in Rjukan; marveled that even in the remotest parts of the country there are remnants of German fortifications. I learned how personal the war was for the Norwegians who lived through it.
The most important lesson—which was true when learning about similar situations in other countries visited in Europe—was that entire countries were occupied, civilians had their human rights taken away, and many risked their lives fighting in the Resistance. Being Jewish, the war is sometimes encapsulated in the Holocaust.
It was natural I was intrigued to read British journalist and documentarian Vincent Hunt’s Fire and Ice: The Nazis’ Scorched Earth Campaign in Norway. I’ve been as far north as Stamsund in the Lofoten Islands and saw remnants of old Nazi fortifications looking outside my host’s home. Reading Fire and Ice made me want to ask my father—after all these years—exactly what he did in Norway and about the atmosphere at the time.
Hunt did a large amount of research and conducted interviews as he takes us from the far north of Kirkenes to the south, Oslo, and from 1944 to current time. He presents heretofore unknown or little known information about the war in the north and its aftermath. I was aware of the importance of iron in the north to the war effort against the Nazis, but not about what the Northerners endured, the Nazis’ scorched earth campaign, their treatment of Russian prisoners, and Norwegian actions after the war. Yet enough was known to the world that the scorched earth transgressions were part of the war crimes trials at Nuremberg.
Hunt interviewed people 70 years later, meaning that they were young children or teenagers at the time of the war, or children of survivors. He interviewed civilians, journalists, a filmmaker, artists, and people who were attempting to keep the memories alive through museums or memorials.
In October 1944—seven months before the end of the war—Hitler decided northern Norway was lost after the Soviets had pushed the Germans back into Norway. He ordered that nothing should be left standing in the aftermath of the Nazis’ retreat. Kirkenes, today advertised as the penultimate stop on beautiful Hurtigruten, and the last town between Norway and Russia, had been bombed heavily by the Soviets. The Nazis burned it to the ground—scorched earth. Everything was leveled: homes, businesses, hospitals, churches, harbors, and bridges. Farm animals were purposely set afire and tossed into the fjord. Nothing was left. Hammerfest and other villages and towns in Finnmark county met the same fate.
The Nazis announced a mandatory civilian evacuation, which at first might seem a considerate gesture. Some Norwegian residents tried to escape to the mountains or caves or by hiding in barns or under boats in Norwegian cold. If found, they were shot. When someone suggested a white flag be flown on a boat so they wouldn’t be attacked, he was pulled off the boat for a quick trial and shot on the spot. In their propaganda flyers, the Nazis said they were saving the residents from Bolshevism. The evacuees were crowded on boats. The Nazis kept leading them further south by boat and feet. I wondered where the Nazis were taking them and what the end goal was. Refugees endured oppression, starvation, and deaths of family members up until the last days of the war. Fifty thousand people were evacuated.
Hunt indicated that Winston Churchill made an agreement with Josef Stalin that Stalin would not enter Norway, and Stalin abided by it. Actually, it was part of the second front strategy, which involved the Allied invasion of France from Britain, while the Soviets were moving from the East toward Germany. This was agreed upon by Churchill, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Stalin, and Charles de Gaulle of France.
At Nuremberg, Lothar Redulic, who led the scorched earth campaign, was found guilty of three charges, but acquitted on scorched-earth destruction because it was deemed a “military necessity,” i.e., stopping the Soviets.
The cost of damage as a result of the scorched earth campaign has been hard to figure, but the estimated cost for the entire country was 3 billion NOK at 1940 prices.
The problem I had with parts of Fire and Ice was the lack of historic and geopolitical context to what was happening in the war at the same time and what was happening in northern Norway and the country as a whole. The common theme is the disconnect between the north and south—translated as Oslo—and the animosity from the people in the north that the “war happened here,” and Oslo didn’t understand that. For one, people in Kirkenes viewed the Soviets as their liberators and resented when the Norwegian Army entered acting like they were the heroes. My father says most of the damage in Oslo was around specific military targets, whereas in the north there was the scorched earth campaign and bombing. The terrain was much different as well.
This made me think about how large Norway is. Norway was probably the largest country in area occupied, not easily navigable with mines and explosives in the fjords and bunkers lining the coast. It was strategically located between Western Europe and the Soviet Union. The overall ratio of Nazi troops (350,000) to the population (3,000,000) was high. In Kirkenes, it was one:one, 10,000 of each. Some villages had populations as small as 200-300 people, but the number of soldiers was ten times that.
The Nazis employed an interesting strategy. In the far north, the soldiers were young, 18-19 years old. In Gamvik further south, the soldiers were family men. These were the “nice Nazis,” making it easier to “coexist.” When the scorched earth campaign was announced, these soldiers were replaced by “bad Nazis,” who directed the evacuation and had no qualms about shooting someone and setting towns afire. Most of the Nazi soldiers in the north were Austrians.
There was more to the Nazis sending young soldiers to the north that was not touched upon. Skiing played a major role in the Norwegian resistance, especially with the blowing up of the hydro plant and the escape after. It also played a role in the north. My father notes that the young Nazis were also sent to the north because they were strong skiers, would follow orders, and could mix with the young Norwegian women.
Hunt says there were 500 camps in Norway. Conditions for Soviet prisoners in forced labor and death camps (named after Austrian towns) were severe. With little clothing to protect themselves, they worked in the Norwegian cold building roads and a defense line along the coast. If a prisoner weakened, he was shot. They were crammed into facilities that were built for fewer people. What little food they were given was shared. Citizens who tried to feed them could suffer reprisals. There were 100,000 Soviet prisoners in Norway; approximately 13,700 died. There were also large numbers of lower-class Yugoslavian and Polish civilians who were brought to Norway to work in forced labor camps.
I found some comments from people in the far north disconcerting because they lacked a perspective, and I was surprised that Hunt took these at face value. I tread carefully, not wanting to discount what Norwegians there endured. How much did the north really know about the south? Remember that many of the people interviewed were children during the war and would recall what happened around them or what they were told. A man in one town said “they coexisted with the Nazis, it didn’t feel like an occupation, and he didn’t hear anyone say they hated the Germans.” How does that sound elsewhere in Norway and occupied Europe? There was no follow-up question from Hunt.
Another man is among historians creating war landmarks and developing the history of the war in Finnmark. He wrote a book about the sepals, secret agents, who operated in the mountains in Northern Norway from bases in Sweden. His grandfather was a member. He says the south has ignored the sepals’ contribution. However, he said: “There were only sabotage acts in Oslo. Really, the Resistance did more harm than good… If you are a community of 300 and you put in 3,000 soldiers, you have to work with them, work for them, live alongside them. You have to deal with them to get food. Then, these southerners come to the north not knowing what life was like here, and their rage against the Germans made some of them unbalanced…”
Coexisting doesn’t mean collaboration, and different communities dealt with the occupation differently. Resistance took different shapes. He says the south ignored the sepals, but then he discounts acts of resistance in the south? Teachers refusing to teach Nazism and being sent to a forced labor camp in Kirkenes; professors and students forcing the closure of the University of Oslo; the plethora of underground newspapers and radio; the Church speaking out against Nazism and deportation of Jews; people rounded up and arrested; the sabotage against the hydro plant, preventing the Nazis from getting the atomic bomb; people moving to another side of the train car if a German soldier was present: these are just a few actions of resistance. Do they mean nothing? How should people who were in Milorg feel about his statement?
The sense I got from the book was that there wasn’t much “resistance” in the far north, which wasn’t the case. Interestingly, there were four movies about Norway and the war made before the war ended, two about resistance in fishing villages and one about Murmansk.
The stories Hunt presents from the villages of Gamvik, Djupvik, and Storfjell, which were not too far away, were different. The people in those villages suffered greatly. The villages were the locations of some of the worst POW camps. All 300 people in Gamvik managed to escape to the mountains and avoid the forced evacuation. Forty people lived in a “house” made of rags after their homes were burned.
In Oslo, a resident wouldn’t sit in the same train car with a Nazi soldier. So how is one to react to finding 11,000 German-Norwegian babies (Lebensborn) in Finnmark-Hammerfest-Kirkenes? This seems like an extremely large number, considering the population of the area; it would equate to 2,750 births a year during the occupation. This was part of a plan by Heinrich Himmler to procreate the Aryan race. It took place in other countries, but Norway was viewed as primary because of the similar qualities of blond hair and blue eyes. There are rumors of how this was carried out, how much was orchestrated, and how much was falling in love. For many women, it may have been seen as a means of survival.
However, the Norwegian army under Colonel Arne Dahl cut the hair of women who had babies with Germans. It doesn’t justify the act, but not mentioned was that this was not exclusive to Norway. The women suffered other indignities, but many of the children—in their 70s and 80s now—were branded and suffered physical and sexual abuse and discrimination from Norwegians, even to current times.
After the war there were complaints that the rebuilding involved uniform prefabricated housing. Hunt says that post-war Norway’s economy was in shambles. There was a lack of petrol—the reservoir under the North Sea would not be found for 24 years—which was needed to energize the shipping and fishing industries. I’m not saying what the right answer is, but how do you rebuild a country and the devastated towns of the north quickly with a bad economy and transportation problems? In addition, one of the conditions to receive aid from the Marshall Plan was that Norway would not permit left-wing influence in the government.
I still say Fire and Ice is well worth reading. Unfortunately, Hunt did not interview anyone at the Oslo Resistance Museum, which would have presented a more complete picture of Oslo resistance and worked toward healing the divisions.
This article originally appeared in the April 8, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.