Who is the most important Norwegian?

When VG set out to choose the most important Norwegians in modern history, the readers’ list revealed the many different ways to define importance

Photo: Wikimedia Commons Despite the man’s unparalleled facial hair, most Norwegians disagree that Henrik Ibsen was the most important Norwegian of the last two centuries.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Despite the man’s unparalleled facial hair, most Norwegians disagree that Henrik Ibsen was the most important Norwegian of the last two centuries.

Molly Andrus
Norwegian American Weekly

In celebration of the bicentennial of Norway’s constitution, Norwegian newspaper VG has chosen the 100 most important Norwegians of the last 200 years.

Originally published on February 16, the list encouraged reader participation. The 100 Norwegians were presented with their name, years, portrait, and a brief description of their role in Norway’s history, and then listed according to VG’s ranking. Readers could then click on the images to learn more about each individual and vote for the person they believed deserved the title of “Most Important Norwegian.”

Readers could also sort the finalists according to year of birth or filter the results by category – the area of society they influenced. The 17 categories were academia, architecture, culture, defense, feminism, gay rights, health, industry, law and order, media, organizations, politics, religion, resistance, royal, school, and sports. Among the top 100, the majority are known for their impact on Norwegian culture or politics.

VG created a jury of six individuals to choose these 100 individuals and attempt to rank their importance. The jury was led by Hanne Skartveit, VG political editor. The other five jurors include author and historian Karsten Alnæs, former prime minister and Conservative Party politician Kåre Willoch, political scientist and NUPI-researcher Halvard Leira, former professor of history at University of Oslo Jorunn Bjørgum, and parliament representative for the Labor Party and former minister of culture Hadia Tajik.

After much discussion and a few arguments, the jury presented their ranking. Here is VG’s Top Five:
1. Henrik Ibsen, the founder of the modern realistic drama
2. Christian Magnus Falsen, “the father of the Constitution”
3. Herman Wedel Jarlsberg, founding father and architect of modern Norway
4. King Haakon VII, Norway’s first fully constitutional king
5. Carl Joachim Hambro, parliamentary president and Conservative Party politician

But even though VG did choose to rank these 100 influential people, jury leader Hanne Skartveit admits that the list should not be interpreted as fact, but rather as a sum of various perspectives. She notes that the jury was chosen based on the members differing points of view.

Inevitably, this led to some intense disagreements. For example, Jorunn Bjørgum and Kåre Willoch’s opinions differed on the ranking of Martin Tranmæl and C. J. Hambro. Bjørgum felt that Tranmæl, agitator and leader of the Leader party, deserved to be ranked about Hambro. In the end, Hambro was awarded fifth place with help from Skartveit’s double vote as the jury leader.

In a note to readers, Skartveit also addressed the unbalanced gender distribution—only 28 percent are female. She stated that the list must have a majority of males as it covers 200 years of Norway’s history, and only recently have women had the opportunities for greater societal influence.

Readers may notice that one of jury members appears on the list: Kåre Willoch. This may seem biased, but Skartveit assures the readers that Willoch had nothing to do with his own placement on the list. In fact, he even asked to be removed from the list. Nevertheless, the other jury members refused his request and ranked him number 28.

VG’s jury did not expect readers to tacitly agree with their decisions. On the contrary, one of their goals in creating this list of the 100 most important Norwegians was to spark debate about the development and history of Norwegian society.

And VG certainly succeeded in creating an arena for debate! Over 22,000 readers visited the site and voted for the Norwegian they felt should be ranked number one. The link spread across Facebook with 10,000 shares.

According to the readers’ input, VG missed the mark on the Most Important Norwegian. With 12 percent of the readers’ vote, that title goes to the unknown war sailors of World War Two.

But that’s not the only difference. Compare VG’s top choices above to the readers’ Top Five:
1. the unknown war sailors, Norway’s biggest war heroes
2. King Haakon VII, Norway’s first fully constitutional king
3. Einar Gerhardsen, Prime Minister who led Norway to become a welfare society
4. Ivar Aasen, creator of the Nynorsk written language
5. Hans Nielsen Hauge, lay minister who influenced Norwegian church life

With the exception of King Haakon VII, the lists look nothing alike. VG’s number one, Henrik Ibsen, appears close to the top as number eight on the readers’ ranking. But the sailors do not show up until spot 45 in the VG list.

Skartviet appreciated the vast audience input and was pleased that the readers voted the sailors to the top. She admitted that they have received too little recognition for their brave actions.

VG informed one of these WWII sailors, Søren Brandsnes, of the readers’ vote. Brandsnes told VG that it feels good to get recognition after so many years.

Originally intended to celebrate 200 years of Norway’s history, the VG list of the 100 most important Norwegians did much more—it spurred a cultural phenomenon of discussion and reflection.

The full list can be found at www.vg.no/spesial/2014/topp100_1814.

This article originally appeared in the April 25, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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