The teachers’ resistance
Are you willing to die for what you believe?
If I were to ask a random group how important education is to them, the majority would be apt to respond, “Very!” But now let me ask you this: “Are you willing to die to preserve education?”
Well, that is exactly what the teachers of Norway did in 1942 under the Nazi occupation. Their resistance movement began with about 8,000 teachers refusing to sign a document binding them to spout the propaganda of National Socialism in their classrooms.
Under Nazi rule, their actions were strictly verboten. Nonetheless, they returned a signed protest letter to the Department of Education stating the following: “I will be faithful to my calling as a teacher and to my conscience.”
Things calmed down, if only for a moment. Shortly thereafter, Hitler designated Vidkun Quisling as prime minister, fueling his ambition to force the nation to adopt the tenets of the Nationalist Socialism League.
Quisling began with Norway’s youth, working through the Norwegian educational system. The educators held a secret meeting, resolving to reject joining. Another protest letter was composed and sent.
The punishment for bucking the Nazi regime was brutal. If defiant, you could be sent to one of their notorious work camps. In fact, that is exactly what transpired. Quisling ordered 1,000 male educators to be arrested. Of these brave souls, 499 were sent to the Kabelvåg Prison above the Arctic Circle in Kirkenes.
Are you scratching your head, because you’ve never heard about this compelling piece of Norwegian history? Well, you are not alone, but that is about to change. British professor Jon Seal has made a documentary, The Teacher’s Protest, about this remarkable passive resistance action.
Prisoner Herløv Åmland, an accomplished artist, documented daily life at Kabelvåg, creating evocative drawings, which became the film’s visual core. Director Seal mused, “I was really struck by how incredible they were…. It never ceases to amaze me that these drawings were done in the most terrible conditions…. It was his way of survival.”
For the primary color of his film, Seal chose sepia, a reddish-brown color associated particularly with monochrome photographs of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This brilliant use of color visually blends the aging drawings and mirrors the somber tone of the subject matter.
It also symbolically transports the viewer to the historical past.
“We were able to invent this process, which put the actors into a drawn animation…. The drawings then literally came to life,” said Seal.
Another eyewitness source is found in the precious words from Edvard Brakstad’s diary. Archival footage is also incorporated into the film, interspersed with interviews from the teachers’ children and grandchildren, as Seal could not find any surviving protestors.
Quietly paced, the film has breadth and gives the audience time to absorb the complexity and poignancy of the story. Its subtle touch encapsulates a Norwegian sensibility, while using the English language so that it can be shared with an international audience. Ironically, there is a version with Norwegian subtitles, because most Norwegians haven’t heard this story either.
Well organized, the teachers had a clear message and strategy, discussing and voting along the way to include all voices and achieve majority consensus. They were careful not to take too many unnecessary risks, using simple espionage methods, such as invisible ink messages, sometimes hidden in a matchbox.
Their approach was practical. The underground resistance movement provided the teachers’ families with financial support to lessen the prisoners’ burdens.
Two local women who lived near the Skorpa Prison Camp were not beyond using their feminine wiles. They invited German officers into a private home, plying them with wine, music and dancing. After they were softened up, they politely asked if the officers could assist in getting the prisoners needed necessities.
There was also support from the professional class. Doctors, lawyers, and clergy (663 resigned) came quickly to the teachers’ aid, recognizing their importance as “the people who oil the wheels of the machine.”
And 250,000 parents sent letters of support. That boost encouraged the teachers to continue to persist and resist, causing havoc for the Nazis, and specifically, Quisling.
Lacking proper food, clothing, and bedding, locals smuggled these provisions to the prisoners, a dangerous act that was punishable by death.
Death from the brutal prison conditions was inevitable for some prisoners. The incarcerated held a meeting to vote if the sick should sign the pledge, so they could return home to receive proper care, and the response was affirmative, empathizing with the ill. Others were advised not to judge them harshly for this act of compassion.
Those who remained kept up their spirits with sing-alongs. Kare Kristiansen remembers how he and his parents looked forward to those blended harmonies, of those five-dozen voices, rising from the camp. “They thought it was beautiful,” he said.
Artist Åmland’s creative process was definitely cathartic, especially his humorous drawing of Quisling as a marionette, his strings pulled by Hitler, an image both subversive and powerful.
The remaining Kabelvåg prisoners were moved. In their cardboard tent shelters, the damp had seeped into their very bones, as the walls absorbed the wet. Health issues spread through the camp, including dysentery, resulting in lifelong problems. It got so bad that one of them requested help from the occupiers, but there was no response.
But by that time, the teacher’s story had reached the outside world, when their letter was published in a Swedish magazine. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous “Look to Norway” speech had also been broadcast. Shortly thereafter, the teachers were released. The journey back home was freezing and lacking in nourishment.
Remarkably, the teachers won. They had to sign the dreaded oath, but it was only a formality. In the end, Quisling credited the teachers for hindering his efforts. As the film tells us, “As a leader, Quisling was in fact broken…. A Nazi curriculum was never taught in Norwegian schools.”
After the Nazis were defeated, they stormed through the north of Norway, burning everything in their wake. This horrific departure is known as the “Scorched Earth Campaign.” But the teachers did not forget how the people from the Arctic had risked their lives to save them. They wrote a book and sent the proceeds to the devastated area.
In July, Scandinavia House in New York sponsored an online showing of The Teachers’ Protest, with a discussion with Jon Seal and Erik Brakstad on July 23. The film will be available for purchase in the near future, but in the meantime, you can see the interview on Scandinavia House’s website. Brakstad’s diary and additional information about the teacher’s action can be found on the film’s website, www.theteachersprotest.com.
The story of the teachers’ resistance is one of many remarkable stories of Norwegian bravery during World War II. Director Seal commented: “This teacher’s story tells us that this is a different way of looking at World War II… [and] war. This was about collective action, not about individual heroes… coming together because they see that something is wrong and they find strength together. It’s also a story of non-violence. Why have stories like this one remained untold?”
In conclusion, I leave you with some food for thought from Kjell Arne Norum, the son of a teacher who was imprisoned: “We can never take the good values of democracy and freedom as granted. We must take care of it. Every generation again and again.”
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 4, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.