The Nazis’ failed attempt to own Edvard Grieg

Nazis in occupied Oslo

Photo: public domain
German military musicians performed in Oslo during the World War II occupation of Norway.


In 1905, Edvard and Nina Grieg were staying at a boarding house located on the corner of Karl Johan and Universitetsgaten in Kristiania (Oslo). From there they could clearly observe the politically tense situation in the Norwegian capital. Since 1814, Norway had been an unwilling partner in a union with Sweden, but now it was struggling to become independent. Serious negotiations were underway and everyone was concerned about how Sweden would react. This concern is evident in the answer Grieg sent to the Finnish impresario Edvard Frazer, who had invited him to give some concerts in Helsinki.

On July 8, 1905, Grieg wrote:

The fact is that the political relations have become uncertain and compel me to be cautious. In order to get to Finland I would have to travel through Sweden, since the trip from Berlin to Petersburg is too long for me. But in the event of a Swedish attack on Norway—a possibility that one must now consider—this route is obviously excluded. Nor would I be in a mood to take a concert tour then.

There was no war between Norway and Sweden. The dissolution of the union was declared by the Norwegian parliament on June 7, 1905, and in November of that year, the Danish Prince Carl became King Haakon VII of Norway. On New Year’s Eve 1905, Grieg reflected on that year, one of the most remarkable, not only in the history of Norway but also in his own life. He had begun to write his third diary on the day that he met “free Norway’s first King and Queen.” Norway had finally become a free and independent nation. Grieg felt that the dreams of his youth had finally been realized, and he wondered if it was not precisely that youthful longing that had released his creative powers.

As early as the late 1880s, a French music critic had written, “Mr. Grieg is the living, pulsating incarnation of Norway.” Like Ole Bull, Grieg, together with the writers Henrik Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, had put Norway on the international map. Painters and poets and Grieg’s music, supported the impression that Norway was a nation that, thanks to its independence, had managed to create a national art that attracted the world’s attention.

Grieg was the first composer who succeeded in capturing Norwegian nature, Norwegian folk life, Norwegian history and Norwegian folk poetry in music in a way that got the world not only to listen but also to understand that Norway was something other than Sweden. “Music, too, is a field of battle,” Grieg averred in the newspaper Morgenbladet after the dissolution of the union with Sweden, and for almost 35 years thereafter, Norwegian performers and composers tried in various ways to further the national musical heritage bequeathed to them by Grieg. At the same time, they struggled to free themselves from the dominating role he had played by importing new impulses from the international musical scene.

Nazi Germany’s invasion of Norway on April 9, 1940, suddenly made Grieg’s distinctively Norwegian music relevant to the current situation. The Norwegian Nazi party, Nasjonal Samling, regarded itself as the heir of Norwegian culture. Thus throughout the occupation, which lasted until May 8, 1945, there was a continuous struggle over who really owned the national history and the national culture. The Norwegian Nazis sang the Norwegian national anthem, “Ja vi elsker dette landet,” at all public gatherings. So also did the “good” Norwegians—the “jøssings,” as the patriots were often called.

Vidkun Quisling’s government received the support of the German occupiers. Georg Wilhelm Müller, who was leader of the department for public information and propaganda in the Reichskommissariat, thought that the so-called “reorganization of cultural life in Norway would lead to a flowering of the Norwegian national cultural life within that, which was uniquely Norwegian.” He wanted Gerd Fricke, who had been given the task of building up a German-Nordic film industry, to create a film about Edvard Grieg as his first project. Müller recommended this as early as 1941, so it is evident that his idea was that a jubilee in 1943 celebrating the centennial of Grieg’s birth could be used for propaganda purposes in both Norway and Germany.

On the date of the centennial—June 15, 1943—the Norwegian postal service issued two new stamps bearing Grieg’s image, and around the same time, a booklet about Grieg was issued for use in the schools. Since the first planned Grieg film never became a reality, Norwegian film producer Walter Fürst was assigned the responsibility of creating the film. He was given far too little time and money to complete the project, however, and the result was by no means successful.

The Norwegian symphony orchestras had been promised that their jubilee concerts would be national and nonpolitical, but that is not how it turned out. The Norwegian Department of Culture and the German Reichskommissariat saw to it that prominent guests from Germany and Scandinavia were invited to celebratory events and to a solemn ceremony at Edvard and Nina’s gravesite at Troldhaugen.

As part of the German propaganda to win the favor of the Norwegians, big Grieg concerts were also given in Berlin and Vienna. During the opening speech at the Grieg concert given by the Berlin Philharmonic, the president of Nordische Verbindungsstelle asserted that “the Germanic” constituted the core of Grieg’s works. He was followed by the (Quisling) Norwegian Minister of Culture, who averred that “Grieg is one of those Norwegians who throughout his life was able to bring the Germanic ideas to reality, and who made it possible for Norway to manifest itself openly in the Germanic cultural world.”

To state that Grieg brought the Germanic ideas to reality must have caused many Norwegians to shake their heads—and Grieg to turn over in his grave. If there was anything that Grieg fought against, it was precisely the German influence. When plans were made to reissue David Monrad Johansen’s 1932 biography of Grieg, the German editors—in a manuscript that fortunately was never published—had downplayed Grieg’s role as a national composer, identified him as part of the German musical tradition, and omitted the chapter dealing with his defense of the Jewish-French officer Alfred Dreyfus.

The Nazis were only moderately successful in using Grieg for their propaganda purposes, for all Norwegians celebrated Grieg, but for very different reasons. In Trondheim some 10,000 people heard Grieg’s music in nine afternoon and evening concerts performed by singers and instrumentalists who everyone knew were on the “good” side of the political landscape. That was a high number in relation to the total population of the city at that time, and the same could be said of concerts at many other venues throughout Norway. In Stavanger, a pianist sponsored by the Quisling government performed to an almost empty concert hall, while at the same time between 1,000 and 2,000 people gathered at the city’s amusement park to hear a “good” Norwegian play national music by Edvard Grieg.

With encouragement from the resistance movement, most choirs, bands, singers and instrumentalists had boycotted public musical events to deny the Nazis the opportunity to use them in their propaganda. As an alternative, a large number of private—illegal—house concerts were given for friends and acquaintances. The Grieg jubilee, however, provided a good opportunity to celebrate Norway’s great composer openly. The citizenry understood this, and in cities and towns all over Norway they turned out by the thousands to demonstrate their political opposition. The jubilee celebrating the centennial of Grieg’s birth became a struggle over who really owned the Norwegian cultural heritage. Thus it was that good Norwegians claimed for themselves some words written by Grieg himself in 1905: “Freedom is: the struggle for freedom!”

This article originally appeared in the April 9, 2021, 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.