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Some pivotal actors are quietest

by Margaret E. Davis
| December 3, 2023 12:00 AM

As we gathered for a quintessential American holiday last week, I found myself also feeling grateful for Norwegians.

It started when I attended Tim Christenson’s recent talk at the Northwest Montana History Museum. A member of the Sons of Norway and a Whitefish resident, he presented on “Nazis in Norway.” 

Hitler invaded Norway in April 1940 to grab the country’s ports and resources.

Christenson, wearing a dark thickly-knit Nordic sweater, laid out the years of duress, which also yielded some unexpected benefits. For example, “Norwegians’ cardiovascular health improved when the Nazis took all their meat away,” Christenson said, pointing to a chart showing a precipitous decline in heart disease during the occupation. Meat products from fish to fowl, lamb to steaks, were taken for Germans and Germany.

The newly vegetarian Norwegians fought back. A professor of Christenson’s at St. Olaf College had worked in a Norwegian shipyard during the war and on a new vessel commissioned by the Nazis. Somehow a series of faulty rivets resulted in the vessel quickly sinking to the bottom of the fjord at its launching.

Other Norwegians resisted in quieter ways. The paperclip being a Norwegian invention — I swell with pride at this beautiful utilitarian thing in my DNA — folks would slip one on to a lapel or tie to show whose side they were on.

Another aftereffect of the occupation came via a German initiative to have Norwegian women impregnated by SS officers. The Nazis felt they had stumbled upon a pure Aryan presence in Norway. They aimed to plumb the gene pool, setting up a Fount of Life (“Lebensborn”) program and sending hundreds of babies back to Germany for adoption into the Reich.

Anni-Frid Lyngstad of ABBA fame is one of these kids.

The Norwegian merchant marine ships, those workhorses of the sea that carry goods, including oil to fuel the Allied armies and air forces, probably suffered the heaviest losses. “The crews of these ships were not affiliated with the military. They did not have to participate,” Christenson said. “But they did.” Of the thousand merchant vessels Norway provided to the war effort, more than 700 were lost to Nazi U-boats, along with 4,500 crew. 

Christenson quoted the assessment of British Nobel Laureate Philip Noel-Baker: “‘If we had not had the Norwegian fleet of tankers on our side, we should not have had the aviation fuel to put our Hawker Hurricanes and our Spitfires into the sky. Without the Norwegian merchant fleet, Britain and its allies would have lost the war in 1941 before the U.S. entered the contest.”

At the end of the presentation and before we flocked to a table of Norwegian sweets, Christenson took a moment to remember local Sons of Norway members who had passed on and asked if anyone wanted to share more about them. 

Attendee Sue Sandy spoke up about one person with a few details about how they helped with club events, but others were not immediately recalled. A soft smile lit up Sandy’s face, “Well, maybe being Norwegian …” — they didn’t call attention to themselves and quietly went about their way.

Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at mdavis@dailyinterlake.com.

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