Posts tagged SOE

Norway’s Constitution Day: In Praise of Heroes

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Happy Constitution Day, Norway!

I’ve written about this day, known as Syttende Mai, before, focusing on Norway’s experiences in World War II (here and here).  I’ve also written in the past about some of the heroes of World War II (here) and some of its tragic victims (here).  Today I would like to focus on a small, and sometimes overlooked, segment of the resistance movement in Norway during World War II.

When people join an armed resistance movement, or any organized military group, as many Norwegians did during the war, joining Milorg in country, or escaping to England to fight with British forces or the SOE (Special Operations Executive), they accepted the possibility of a premature, violent, death.  But each such person usually held, deep inside themselves, the somewhat contradictory belief that, while death might come to some of their comrades, it would somehow spare them.  And in truth, no situation, no matter how dismal, no matter how hopeless, guarantees certain death.  Stories are legion of soldiers charging into the face of death and yet somehow miraculously surviving unhurt.  It’s that belief—that miracles can and do occur—that allows many such heroic feats to occur at all.

But there is a smaller group of people touched by war—those who choose to die by suicide.

Not long ago I finished reading a recently published book, Secret Alliances: Special Operations and Intelligence in Norway 1944-1945, by Tony Insall.  I wish I could recommend the book, but that’s not possible.  It is overly dry, repetitive, stuffed with acronyms, and rather disorganized.  Nevertheless, what jumped out at me from the book were the number of stories that ended with a resistance fighter taking their own life.  “[Karl Rasmussen] was taken to Gestapo headquarters in Tromsø, and committed suicide by jumping out of a third floor window.”  “In an exchange of shots when the Gestapo tried to arrest them, [Gregers] Gram was killed and [Edvard] Tallaksen injured.  He committed suicide in prison.”  “[Bjorn] Eriksen, [a student leader in XU, a clandestine intelligence organization] was arrested. . . and committed suicide by jumping out of a fourth floor window.”  Åsmund Færoy parachuted into Norway in early April 1945 to help protect Norway’s harbors against possible destruction by the retreating Germans.  He was apprehended April 9, 1945 and “unsuccessfully tried to hang himself.”

Even Odd Nansen was aware of the number of such deaths.  On August 21, 1943, he relates the story of a fellow cellmate, Knut Eliassen, a navy lieutenant, who had slit his wrists.  “Knut’s attempt at suicide was—as was so many others’—not successful.”*

Why did these men choose to end their own life by suicide?  Certainly, and quite reasonably, they feared torture.  Torture of course could be avoided by telling all they knew.  And yet it was precisely this fear—of talking—and thus harming others, that led each of them to end their own lives, in the knowledge that death was the only sure-fire method of keeping their secrets safe.

And the fear of torture was well placed.  One witness, housed with a resistance fighter, reported on the experience:

“He [the resistance fighter] found great difficulty in talking. . . .  I had to feed and wash him.  The policemen had broken four of his fingers and had pulled out the nails from two of them.  Afterward they had hit him with sticks wrapped in cloth until he collapsed.  Then they turned him on his back and jumped on his stomach.  He stated that he had asked his tormentors to shoot him.  I myself saw that he was bleeding through the mouth and the rectum and that four fingers had been broken and were bent backwards.”

As Odd Nansen observed of the frightful activities at Grini Prison, and at Victoria Terrace, the Gestapo headquarters in Oslo: “People have been beaten up and tortured and tormented beyond all bounds.  Some held, others cracked.  No one dare sit in judgement.  One man cracked and had the death of others on his conscience.” (March 12, 1942).

This conscience, this realization of their own possible weakness, this concern for the lives of others above their own, was what motivated Rasmussen, Tallaksen, Eriksen, Færoy, and many others, known and still unknown, to try and take their own life instead.

It takes a high degree of courage to go into battle, knowing full well there’s a chance of imminent death.  It takes an even higher degree of courage to face the certainty of death for the sake of one’s cause.

So on this day of celebration on behalf of Norway’s constitution—the second oldest in the world—let us honor those who selflessly and willingly made the ultimate sacrifice to protect that constitution.

Jeg hilser deg,** Messrs. Rasmussen, Tallaksen, Eriksen, Færoy, and the many who preceded you, and those that followed in your wake.

[* = This passage is found only in the newly edited 2016 version of Odd Nansen’s diary.]

[** = “I salute you”]

Syttende Mai: 17 May

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Today Norwegians everywhere celebrate Syttende Mai (literally 17th May), the anniversary of the signing of Norway’s constitution on May 17, 1814, in Eidsvoll, Norway.

Typically, Norwegians mark Syttende Mai with celebrations and festivities—parades, feasts, etc.  I suspect this year’s activities will be much more subdued, if held at all.  More likely the celebration will be virtual in most areas. I had had a full slate of appearances scheduled for May 14—19 at Sons of Norway lodges and other venues in such places such as Grand Forks and Fargo ND, Thief River Falls, Red Wing, St Cloud, Minneapolis and Austin, MN.

All cancelled (or rather, postponed until 2021).

It’s probably no coincidence that the great Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl started one of his famous expeditions—the RA II voyage, on May 17, 1970, departing Morocco in a papyrus sailing craft.  Fifty-seven days and 4,000 miles later he arrived safely in the Barbados.  A true adventurer and a man in the mold of  Fridtjof Nansen, Heyerdahl made his reputation sailing the Kon Tiki raft from Peru to Polynesia in 1947.

One of Heyerdahl’s crew members on the Kon Tiki was Knut Haugland, who participated in the famous raid on the heavy water plant in Vemork, Norway. Even the general in charge of Germany’s military occupation of Norway, General von Falkenhorst, later described the raid as “the finest coup I have seen in this war.”  Many books have been written about the daring attack, most recently The Winter Fortress, by Neal Bascomb, which I reviewed in the pages of The Norwegian American (here).

Speaking of World War II, whose end in Europe we recently celebrated, I’ll close this essay with an observation made by M.R.D. Foot, a British intelligence officer during the war, and the official historian of the Special Operations Executive, or SOE.  Winston Churchill conceived the SOE to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance throughout occupied Europe.  During the war it employed almost 13,000 people from every occupied country and every conceivable background, men and women.  [I’ve previously written about some Norwegian members of the SOE here and here.]

This is what Foot had to say in his definitive history of the SOE:

“One thing, besides their courage, distinguished the agents sent into Norway for SOE: their toughness.  Several times over, they stood up to conditions of hardship that would make most city men not merely wilt, but die: Jan Baalstrud, who lay wounded in his sleeping-bag, without food or drink, in the snow for six nights and days, and survived, may stand as an example for several more.”

So, to my rightfully proud Norwegian friends on this 17th of May, I raise a (virtual) glass and toast your famous day: Skål!

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • June 22, 2021: Congregation Sha’arei Israel, Raleigh, NC
  • August 4, 2021: The Village at Augsburg, Baltimore, MD
  • May 19, 2022: Bat Shalom Hadassah, Jackson, NJ
  • October 18, 2022: Shalom Club, Great Notch, NJ

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“Thank you so much for making the visit to Guilford [College] and presenting the honorable life of Odd Nansen. . . . Without your effort, we would never have been able to know Odd Nansen. With it, we have a history to rely upon as a moral compass for acting with integrity in the face of human rights violations. May we live up to it!”

– Jane K. Fernandes
President, Guilford College
Greensboro, NC

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