BLOOD ROADS – Nazi forced labour in northern Norway

Michael Stokke: The German prison camp system in occupied Norway and the role of the Norwegian people

Eystein Markusson: The second World War in Norway

Michael Stokke

The German prison camp system in occupied Norway and the role of the Norwegian people

Every experience is subjective and no suffering can be compared to another. And yet in the differentiated treatment of the groups of prisoners a type of hierarchy can be seen, which arises from the Nazi “master race thinking”.

The prisoners that were confined in German camps, and made to do forced labour under inhumane conditions for the Nazi dictatorship, were treated differently dependant on their nationality and so-called race. The “treatment” meant, on the one hand, the working and living conditions in the camps, and on the other, the type and degree of abuse as well as the death rate.

Nazi ideology classified people into “worthy of living” or “unworthy of living”, into “superior” and “inferior races”. The more convinced the prison guard was by this inhuman logic, the more brutal too was the treatment of the prisoners.

In Norway there were a total of 620 prison camps. They were divided into prisoner of war camps and prison camps, as well as police prison camps for Norwegian prisoners. There were also camps for civilian forced labourers and the conscripted. The prisoner of war camps were under the control of the Wehrmacht, the prison camps of the SS and the Wehrmacht prisoners were under the jurisdiction of the Nazi Reich Ministry of Justice.

This so-called hierarchy of prisoners, that derives from studies of the different detention conditions, leads to the following conclusion: from the total of 130.000 forced labourers imprisoned in Norway, the group of European civilian forced labourers were in the best situation. They came from countries like Belgium, France and Czechoslovakia. Those from allied countries such as Italy or Croatia were less harassed than those from non-allied countries. But the European and North European prisoners of the Germans were almost like “servants on the premises”.

The situation was different for the Polish civilian forced labourers. Due to their Slavic origin they were seen as an “inferior race”. Descending in the ranking after them were the Polish prisoners of war. They received wages for their work and were imprisoned in 30 camps in total.

Then followed the Soviet civilian forced labourers, the “Eastern workers”. Among them were also women. They were placed in 15 camps and were better off; but of course, as “Slavs and Bolsheviks”, they were to be maximally exploited by the “supermen”.

Then as of March 1943, the group of Yugoslavian prisoners of war can be mentioned. From this point they were treated as prisoners of war, which resulted in some improvement in their situation. Their death rate sank from as high as 73 % previously down to 12 %. Yet that still meant that one in eight did not survive the horror. Nevertheless, the new status did offer them somewhat more protection. The utter despotism would no longer be quite so soberly lived through. They could now, for example, receive Red Cross packages that markedly improved their food situation. Moreover, it was clear to some decision-makers after 1943 that the “final victory” was not at hand, and also that so-called endless “human material”, as they called it, was not available for the exorbitant construction plans of the OT (Organisation Todt). It was to “economise”. The food rations and treatment were to be kept at a level that would just ensure survival and not as before bring about death.

The Soviet prisoners of war followed the Yugoslavians in the order of ranking that made the difference between life and death. With a total of 95.000 prisoners they were by far the largest group. In Northern Norway there were 290 camps for Soviet prisoners of war. According to Nazi ideology they were two-fold “subhuman beings”, that as communists, bolshevists and Slavs had no worthy “right to exist”, and were part of the “Jewish-Bolshevik world conspiracy” that must be fought against. As prisoners of war they were under the control of the Wehrmacht, in which at least not all within it were unfailingly such enthusiastic National Socialists as in the SS Battalions and their Norwegian counterpart the hirdvakt. So they were not quite so badly off as the Yugoslav prisoners of war before March 1943.

Of course they too, with much too little food, insufficient clothing and suffering sadistic treatment, would be forced to do dangerous work by which many of them lost their lives. Of them 13 % died from abuse, execution, hunger, frostbite, untreated illnesses and exhaustion.

The situation was the same for the German prisoners: deserters, communists, and other opponents of the regime, as well as so-called criminals. In 1942, 2.600 were deported from the Emsland camp to Northern Norway. As prisoners of the Wehrmacht they were made to do forced labour for the OT and were hated by the Nazis as “traitors to the Fatherland”, which would lead to punishment. Some received the stamp “return undesirable” in their documents. They were also treated that way. Perhaps things were even worse for them than for the Soviet prisoners of war, as an example was to be made of them. A third of them died. A third were sent to the front as “cannon fodder” in a Penal Battalion and in the end just under 300 were freed by the Allies. Their camp was under the control of the Nazi Reich Ministry of Justice. Their guards were all members of the SS, SA and NSDAP that the Wehrmacht had made available and outfitted in Nazi Reich Ministry of Justice uniforms and were sent as guards for the Northern Norway transports.

Things were the worst for the Yugoslav prisoners who up until March 1943 were imprisoned under the command of the SS in 25 camps. They were subjected to sadistic treatment, most certainly of the same degree as that which could be undergone in the concentration camps.

Their death rate stood at 73 %. As alleged partisans the Germans hated them, and the maximum exploitation of the labourers was only of secondary importance. They would often be beaten to death. The massacre in Beisfjord and the inhuman treatment also in the other camps – that became public through many accounts – verified that it was about the extermination of this group of people also. This affected mainly the Serbs among them. Because among the Yugoslav prisoners, though they were proportionately fewer, were also Macedonians, Bosnians and Croats, whose countries were allied with Germany. Due to this they were by no means uniformly in the same bad position in the camps as the Serbians, but rather were glad to be appointed as Kapos or translators, as the right hand of the overseers, in order to take out their hatred toward the communists. Although a tendency can clearly be seen, generalisations should not be made. There were defectors in all of the Yugoslav ethnic groups, also among the Serbs. The prisoners, often still very young, had to endure the unimaginable.

Not included in the hierarchy were the approximately 30.000 Norwegian conscripted workers. Their position was not comparable to that of the prisoners. They received wages, were conscripted for six to twelve months and not always used solely for interests “vital to the war effort”, but for example, worked also in farming. But since the German occupation lacked enough skilled workers, Norwegians were conscripted, for example, as office or construction workers. They were in a different situation than the prisoners, whose camp they then had in part to erect. From 1942, the top priority of the German occupation force, especially after Goebbels speech on “total war”, was to give absolute priority to “work vital to the war effort”.

That especially meant the Organisation Todt (OT), briefly mentioned above, the paramilitary construction organisation of the Nazi State. It was their responsibility in Norway and also in the other occupied countries to construct gigantic infrastructure important to the war. That way the iron ore transports via Narvik would be ensured, and roads and railways from Lübeck up to North Cape, together with bunkers and defence facilities would cement their control along the entire Norwegian coastline.

Since men of a working age were almost invariably at the front another labour force was needed, which according to the economic logic, was to be exploited to maximum effect for as cheaply as possible. The “master race thinking” provided a suitable legitimisation.

Many large Norwegian companies were not opposed to using forced labourers. On the contrary. They profited greatly from it. Norwegian as well as German firms operated for the OT in this way, hand in hand with the German occupying forces: firms such as Statens veivesen, the state road-building organisation, and also the NSB, the Norwegian state railway.

There was not only resistance against the German occupation in Norway, but definitely also support from a segment of the population, the so-called Quislings, the Norwegian fascists. The Nasjonal Samling was the Norwegian counterpart to the NSDAP; the only party that was not forbidden and were their willing informers. So positions as camp overseers, so-called hirdvakter, a kind of Norwegian SA, were advertised for their followers in the daily newspapers. They were promised good money and a child benefit supplement if they declared a willingness to do this job. SS Battalions were responsible for their training in Southern Norway. Then they were sent to the different camps in Northern Norway, such as Korgen, Osen, Botn, Beisfjord and Karasjok, all of them notorious for their particularly harsh treatment of the Yugoslavian prisoners, in order to perform their job there to this end. They did that then, brutally and ruthlessly. There were 400 hirder in total. Even youths as young as 15 registered, the oldest was 58 years old.

Naturally they were not all “men of conviction”, as many declared in their interrogations after 1945: they never used violence; they were quite simply attracted by the money. According to the statements of survivors and Norwegian civilians who lived close to the camps or themselves worked on construction sites, the Norwegian guards were just as brutal and had just the same racist thinking as their German instructors.

Thus the complete hirdvaktbataljon later joined the SS Wachtbataillon. In the end, 50 of them were sentenced and a further 50 were to have been sentenced by investigators in Oslo, which apparently never took place. Their sentences ranged from three years to lifetime imprisonment.

The majority of the Norwegian people, however, were neither actively involved with one side nor the other. Many had come to terms with the occupation, but many others helped the prisoners, trying always to put some of their food rations aside for them.

Some would hide prisoners who had escaped and in turn others helped those fleeing to reach Sweden. Some of them were organised and worked together. Some were communists, others Christians or patriots who fought actively against the occupation. By radio they made contact with London and/or Moscow.

In every town the people knew all about one another, most importantly, who was trustworthy and who was not. Help often came secretly. Gifts of thanks from the Russian and Yugoslav prisoners were found later in many cabinets. After they were freed, many prisoners told later of how important and how treasured the solidarity and help of the Norwegians was. They had risked their lives for them and would never be forgotten for that.

Eystein Markusson

The second World War in Norway – lecture at the German-Russian museum in Berlin


Thank you for inviting me. It is a great honour to be here in Berlin to speak about such a large and important topic. Unfortunately, my German is not as good as it could have been, alas, I was a lazy student in my younger years. Therefore, I will read my manuscript that has been kindly translated into German by …… That also means that I will only be able to take questions afterwards when they can by translated.

Even though the second world war (WWII) as a historic phenomenon can be clearly defined in time the content and amount of background material is enormous. Therefore, my talk will have to be limited to giving an overview of the events related to WWII. Also, coming from a northern institution, my vantage point will be a northern one.

Norway in the interwar period/strategic position and strategic importance for other powers

In the early hours of 9th April 1940, a group of 10 destroyers sailed into the harbour of Narvik, sinking the war-ships “Eidsvold” and “Norge”, killing 282 sailors. Norway was attacked by Nazi-Germany simultaneously by 6 military groups spread more than 1000 kilometres apart.

Why did this happen? I will briefly go through the main reasons and events leading up to the attack and then return to the war in Norway.

During the first world war Norway was neutral, although often termed “the neutral ally”. The position had worked, keeping Norway out of the war.

When Nazi-Germany started to emerge as threat during the 1930’s, the Norwegian government saw the necessity of having stronger armed forces. The late 20’s and early 30’s had been a period of disarmament and the armed forces had been largely neglected and its state was poor. But even though the funds available for new equipment was raised dramatically during the late 30’s there was little available equipment on the marked. Therefore, when the war started, the Norwegian armed forced was in a poor state, with hardly any air force, its Navy outdated, and the army had almost no armoured equipment like tanks, lacked hand grenades and light machine guns. The overall state of training was poor, with some exceptions that I will come back to.

The Norwegian position when WWII broke out in September 1939, like its neighbours Sweden, Finland and Denmark, was to remain neutral. After all, it had worked reasonably well in the last war.

The Finnish Winter War

On 30th November 1939 Soviet forces attacked Finland, starting what is known as the Finnish Winter War. Among the Western allies France was pressing their British allies to open a second front to relieve the western front. One of the initiatives that came up was an expeditionary force to relieve Finland, landing in Narvik and making its way to Finland using the railroad going to Sweden and eventually to Finland. As important to Winston Churchill, the chief propagandist of this plan, as relieving Finland, the iron ore of Northern Sweden could be brought under allied control. However, the combined effect of the denial of passage from Norway and Sweden and the fact that the allied were disastrously badly organized the plan was never set in motion. Before they could get underway, Finland and Soviet signed a peace treaty in March 1940.

Prior to the outbreak of the Winter War there are no clear indications that Hitler had any immediate plans to occupy Norway. However, in an military study recollecting the situation during the first world war when Germany was locked in without supplies by the British Navy a German military study argued, that in a future conflict with Great Britain, Germany would need to control the Norwegian coast to ensure safe passage to German harbours.

In late 1939 Admiral Raeder started planning of an attack on Norway, but it had low priority until the Altmark affair in early 1940. Also, due to the Winter War and intelligence information, Hitler, like Churchill, became concerned about the supply of iron ore from the harbour of Narvik. In late 1939 he ordered the start of planning an attack on Norway and Denmark – Operation Weserübung.

The attack on Norway – overview

As previously mentioned operation Weserübung consisted of a simultaneous attack by 6 separate German military groups, from Oslo in the South East to Narvik in the North. The attack was a daring move with relatively small forces, but skilfully conducted, in combination with total surprise and luck, it was successful.

All the points of target were taken during the morning of the 9th without major losses, except for one. Outside Oslo the naval ship Blücher was sunk, killing more than 800 troops. Aboard was also vital material and personnel for taking over the Norwegian administration. This proved to be a vital factor allowing the Norwegian Government, Parliament and King to escape the capitol and further north into the country after turning down a German offer to collaborate.

The attack came as a surprise to the Norwegian government. Although warnings had been issued from Norwegians in Germany that an attack on Norway was under way, no actions were taken and the order for mobilisation of the Norwegian army was not given before 9th April, by postal service, if you can believe it. The lack of response still is a source of debate and harsh critique in Norway after WWII.

The fighting in the South

In southern Norway the commander in chief aimed to fight the German invaders until allied help could come. French and British troops were landed but were badly organized and equipped, and together with the Norwegians gave up Southern Norway 30th April.

The fighting in the North

The situation in the North was somewhat different. The 10 German destroyers that attacked Narvik (the only attack in the North) was not able to return as fast as planned after sinking the two Norwegian warships “Eidsvold” and “Norge”, killing 282 soldiers and capturing Narvik. During two battles of 10th and 13th April British warships attacked and destroyed all German destroyers and supply ships. At the time this was 47 % of the destroyers of the Kriegsmarine and it was a considerable blow to the planned invasion of Britain. The crew were largely saved and entered to fighting on land, wearing Norwegian uniforms from captured bases.

Because of the Finnish Winter War, Norway had put a neutrality guard on the Finnish-Norwegian border (today the Russian-Norwegian border; after its independence from Russia in 1920, Finland was granted access to the Arctic Ocean through the Petsamo-corridor).

At the time of the attack the Neutrality guards were about to be demobilized as the Winter War had just ended. Although not trained as a fighting force, they had been mobilized and were accustomed to military order. Additionally, they were mostly from the Northern regions and used to a livelihood as fishermen and hunters in harsh Arctic climate.

In addition to this a force of British, French and Polish army troops was landed and a counterattack was launched. In combination with full allied sea dominance and British air force challenging the Luftwaffe, the Germans were successfully driven towards the Swedish border. On 28th May Narvik was recaptured, although the allied had already decided to leave Narvik because of the desperate situation for the allied on the continent. The recapturing of Narvik was used heavily in propaganda by all parties and even today Narvik has a particular ring in Poland and France. It came as a terrible shock to the Norwegians that allied were leaving, and without support, surrender was the only possibility. On 7th June the King and Government left for London where an exile-government was established and functioned during the war. On the 10th June the Norwegian armed forces surrendered, and five years of occupation started.

During the fighting in Norway in spring 1940 it is estimated that more than 40.000 soldiers participated and 10.000 people died.

Occupational regime – very brief overview of system and consequences

During the German occupation the administration was under control of Reichskommisar Joseph Terboven, although with Norwegian Nazi’s such as Vidkun Quisling in his government. The Parliament was dissolved and there was no legal government. Furthermore, the presence of the Wehrmacht and the SS were both significant in Norway and both organisations had large influence on the daily life of Norwegians. Because of the racist ideology of Nazism, Norwegians were considered Aryans and the Nazi’s believed that the Norwegians could constitute a gene pool for das Reich.

The occupational regime controlled or influences all parts of daily life. It was brutal and racists, killing 772 jews of a total population of 2100, killing 16.500 foreign prisoners and arresting a total of 40.000 Norwegian, many of them sent to concentration camps. However, the occupational regime in Norway was less brutal than in most other occupied countries, most likely because of the racist element of Nazism.

Because of the size of Norway, it’s small population (ca. 3 million at the time) and the large military German presence, contact between civilian population and Germans was frequent, particularly in smaller towns and rural areas, where the ratio of Germans to Norwegians could be higher than 3:1. This led to many types of collaborations and relationship between the occupant and the occupied.

Need for infrastructure

The Norwegian pre-war infrastructure was underdeveloped. As mentioned the country was sparsely populated and along the coast most transportation was done using fishing boats and smaller transport vessels. There were railroads between Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim, but the rest of the country mostly lacked railroad and permanent heavy-duty roads. It should also be kept in mind that this is before air-travel was anything close to common. The coastline was exposed to allied air raids during the entire war.

Therefore, the occupational regime started large-scale construction of infrastructure such as railroads, highways, airports, quays and harbours. The main reasons for this was the need to transport goods and people more safely. Secondly, a lot of goods such as fish and minerals needed to be transported out of Norway to fuel the war economy. Thirdly, as the planning of attack on Soviet commenced during summer 1940, there was a need to transport large amounts of troops and munitions to the Norwegian border towards Finland/Russia. Fourth, the building of fortifications (The Atlantic Wall) along the long coast line of Norway also needed infrastructure. The building of the Atlantic Wall was intensified after the Lofoten raids.

The Lofoten raids

The Lofoten raids were two raids conducted by British and Norwegian commands in the Lofoten Islands in March and December 1941. One additional raid was conducted further south. The raids were military successful, destroying infrastructure and capturing Germans and Norwegian Nazis. The revenge against the civilian populations was brutal. However, the most significant long-term effect of the raids was that it cemented Hitlers belief that the second front in Europe would come in Norway. Thus, the building of the Atlantic Wall in Norway was greatly intensified during 1942 in combination of the building of military bases to monitor and attack the convoys bring the lend-lease from Britain and the US to Murmansk through the Arctic Ocean.


The German attack on the Soviet Union started 22nd June 1941. The largest part of the front went through Central Europe, but in the North, the Karelian front stretched from the Finnish bay to the Arctic Ocean. The northernmost part of the attack was launched over the border from Norway to Finland and onwards to Soviet and the goal was to take Murmansk and the railroad connecting the city to Leningrad (named Operation Silberfuchs). At the beginning the German forces made good progress, but due to lack of roads and increasingly bad weather the front literally froze in autumn 1941 near the river Litza in the Kola peninsula. It stayed virtually unchanged until the Red Army launched a massive counterattack in the fall of 1944, which I will get back to shortly.

It was Hitlers idea that the Grossraum that he wanted to create for the “folk” would stretch all the way the Arctic Ocean (das Eismeer) and therefore a railroad was needed. In the “Wiking-befehl” to Organisastion Todt, Hitler ordered the beforementioned intensification of the Atlantic Wall, the building of a new road from Oslo to Nordkapp and a new railroad (Polareisenbahn) from Nordland to Kirkenes on the Russian border. The railroad was supposed to be finished in two years, more than 1000 km in extreme mountain terrain with fiords cutting through the landscape and a lot of the year with the ground frozen and covered with snow. As many things the Nazi’s planned it was total madness.

Need for labour

To conduct these enormous tasks a large labour force was needed. Norway, as pointed out, was sparsely populated and most of the population were occupied in agriculture, fisheries etc, which also was essential to the occupant.

After the attack on Soviet in ’41, making fast progress in the beginning, many millions of Soviet soldiers were taken Prisoners of War (POW).

Forced labour

It is estimated that a total of 130.000 people was brought to Norway as prisoners and forced labourers. The majority of these were Soviets, but many different groups and nationalities were involved including Yugoslavs, Poles and even German Straffangen.

The forced labour system is the main topic for the project we are involved in here today.

Most of them were brought to Norway to work on fortifications, railroads, roads and other infrastructure. There was an increase in the number of prisoners after the Wiking-befehl was given to Organisation Todt . It was an insane plan and there still is no railroad. There are speculations that Fritz Todt was assassinated after protesting to Hitler against the plan of building the Polareisenbahn. In any case his plane crashed after the meeting with Hitler, thus opening the way for Albert Speer as the head of Organisation Todt.

Hitler asked Speer to take over all Todts titles – minister of armaments, leader of OT, GB Bau etc. Speer was on his way out of the room when der Fürer addressed him once again: “One more thing, herr Speer, I want you to build the railroad in Norway for me as Terboven has suggested.”

«En ting til, herr Speer, jeg vil at De skal bygge jernbanen til meg i Norge som Terboven har foreslått.»

Death tolls in the camps ranged from unbelievable 84 % in one camp for Yugoslavian prisoners to lower figures in different parts of the country. In total the number of dead for prisoners and slave labourers in Norway were 16.500, the bulk of them Soviets but in percentage affecting the Yugoslavs most. Many factors came into play, for example climate – some of the camps were located in the mountains or on the tundra,or the inclination to violence from the camp commander. Also, organisation Todt realized that prisoners had to be fed in order to be able to get some work done, so conditions improved somewhat as the war progressed.

Currently, we are conducting a project with partners for Russia and Norway to research, document and inform about the camps along a stretch of railroad in the county of Nordland, just along this stretch of 180 kilometres there are 56 known camps and memorials. My colleague Michael Stokke who has done extensive research on the subject will be happy to give you further details afterwards.

The Soviet liberation of Eastern Finnmark

The Germans started the withdrawal from the Murmansk front in September 1944 after Finland had capitulated against the Soviet Union and the large number of German soldiers fighting on the Karelian front in Finland had to withdraw.

The Soviet offensive started on 7th October and on 28th October they reached the Norwegian border. By 8th November they had reached the river Tana in Norway, where the offensive stopped. A particular feature of the Soviet offensive is that there were no ambitions to continue to establish a larger foothold in Northern Norway than what was military necessary to secure Soviet territory and borders. It can be added that there had been a long-lasting fear and scarecrow among people wanting to alienate Russians during the 19th and early 20th Century.

Another interesting feature about the Soviet liberation of North-Eastern part of Norway is that the Soviet soldiers was well behaved and there are few complaints from the civilian population. This is of course in stark contrast to the situation in Central and Eastern Europe.


All over the country there were resistance movements, most prominently the Norwegian Milorg, but also operated by intelligence organisations from the US and UK. There was also an extensive network of communist resistance organizations all over the country. A little-known fact is that there was a Soviet organized partisan movement operation in Finnmark in Northeastern Norway. Most of the were Norwegian communists living close to the border that had fled to the Soviet Union during the first part of the occupation, but also Soviet citizens participated in the activities mainly focused on surveillance of German convoys along the coast. One interesting fact about the Norwegian partisans is that most of them came from the small village of Kiberg.

The burning of Finnmark and Northern Troms

When the German commander on the Murmansk front, Lothar Rendulic, order the retreat of the German forces in October 1944 it was decided that the county of Finnmark and Northern part of Troms should be evacuated and that the scorched earth policy should be applied. A total of 75.000 civilians were ordered to evacuate, but approximately 23.000 escaped and continued to live in the region. That was a tough decision since there were no building left to stay in as they were burned to the ground by the retreating Wehrmacht and winter was coming.

The burning was the most dramatic and traumatic episode of the war that still effects families and communities. The area burned constituted more than 50.000 km2 and these are some Some of what was lost in the autumn of 1944:

11,000 houses and farms

106 schools

230 industrial buildings

420 shops

140 community centres

53 hotels and inns

21 hospitals and clinics

27 churches

22 000 telegraph poles

350 bridges

180 lighthouses

118 power stations

350 motor boats

200 fisheries

Over 300 Norwegians perished during the evacuation.

Spring 1945

The retreat from the Murmansk front brought a massive influx of internally displaced persons from the North that had to be given shelter and food. The retreating Wehrmacht and its sonstige, civilian staff, SS-troops, Kriegsgefange and horses made a huge impact on the country. At the time the number of German staff was approximately 382.300 and 77.500 Kriegsgefangen. Not only did this impact the civilian population, particularly in rural areas the Wehrmacht moved into the ground floors of ordinary farm houses, forcing the owners to live on the first floor.

There were fears during the spring of 1945 that the german troops in Norway would continue the fight after the war had ended, but this did not happen. The German troops in Norway laid down their weapons 8th May and cooperated with the Norwegian authorities.

Also, the Norwegian exile government feared that the Soviet troops in the North east would maintain their foothold in Norway, but the last Soviet troops retreated peacefully to the current Norwegian-Russian border on the evening of 25th September 1945.

There is always friction in processes like this, but in Norway the second world war came to an end with relatively little violence involved. As mentioned before there were active resistance movements, but I will not touch upon them in this lecture.

Trial and retribution

After the war 92.805 Norwegians were investigated for treason and 46.085 were convicted between 1945 – 52.

30 received death sentences, among them the Norwegian nazi leader Vidkun Quisling.

72 got sentenced to life in prison.

17.146 got prison sentences.

3450 lost civil rights.

25.180 were fined.

Most were convicted for having been members of the Norwegian Nazi party Nasjonal Samling, contributing to the war effort as soldiers or otherwise collaboratingwith the occupant. For example, about 8000 Norwegians volunteered for service on the Eastern front in the SS division Wiking, most of them in Karelia.

Among the nastier was the treatment of women who had fraternized with Germans, many of them dragged into the streets, having their hair cut off by the mob and some of them losing their citizenship.


As in any country occupied by force by a foreign state, the remembrance of the war during the post-war years was characterized by portraying the Germans and Norwegians Nazis as the villains of the story, whereas the resistance in the central parts around Oslo, perhaps with the inclusion of the Norwegian army at Narvik, were the heros of the story, and the rest of the country were victims. As it very often is in the immediate aftermath of such a dramatic event, there is a natural need to tell the history like that. And the story told is not untrue, but it lacked nuances like collaboration from Norwegian construction companies, for instance. What is interesting about Norway is that the shift to a more nuanced view on the war came as late as after year 2000, much sooner than for example Denmark.

Over the last decade or so there have been many claims that the war history outside the immediate vicinity of the capitol have been neglected and these claims keeps coming. The claims have been most strongly voiced from the North and there is some truth to it. Although the battle of Narvik in 1940 and the burning of Finnmark in 1944 got a lot of coverage in the first post-war years they faded slowly during the period from 1970 to 2000. Particularly the forced evacuation has evolved to become somewhat of a regional trauma for the victims and their descendants, surfacing in the media frequently.

As we are here in this museum I will end with the case of the remembrance of the Soviet war effort in Norway as it is an intriguing case. Just to recapitulate it can be categorized in three:

  • The 100.000 Soviet Kriegsgefange held in camps in Norway.
  • The Partisan movement in the North.
  • The Soviet liberation of North-eastern Norway

Additionally, the general Soviet war effort resulted in popularity in the general population immediately after the war. The Norwegian communist party made its best election to the parliament in 1945 with 11 seats and 11.9 % of the votes.

The Soviet krigsgefangen were repatriated during the summer of 1945, and during the period of 1945-48 there were ceremonies by central government but also by local communities remembering and honouring the Soviet kriegsgefangen and their fate.

But during the same period the international situation worsened, and the cold war came to reality. In 1948 the Labour party, the governing social-democratic party of the post-war era took a definitive stand against the Soviet Union and entered NATO in 1949.

The politic climate during the post-war affected the national remembrance of the Soviet liberation of Eastern Finnmark and the efforts and sacrifices of the partisans of the North. Outside the region these events have received little attention and are virtually unknown to the general population. An additional effect that also comes into play is a more general centrum – periphery effect; there is a long way from the Norwegian-Russian border to the capitol in Oslo.

The camps were the Nazis held the slave-labourers was located all over the country and they mostly built infrastructure vital to military purposes. Because of the high numbers of dead there were graves everywhere there had been camps. With the increasing international tension, it is not surprising that the Soviets used the graves as an excuse for espionage against Norwegian military installations.

This brought about what was later named “Operation Asphalt”. Operation Asphalt was set in motion by Norwegian authorities to move all bodies of dead Soviet krigsgefangen in Northern Norway to one graveyard were there was nothing interesting to spy on. The operation was a macabre affair and I will not go into detail, but locally there were protests in some communities. After the operation some Memorials were destroyed as well, others moved, and in the words of one historian contributed further to fading of the memory of the Soviet kriegsgefangen until the story was rediscovered during the 1990’s.

I will end my talk here, I hope you have gotten a little more knowledge about the war in the North. You are of course most welcome to visit our museum in Narvik!

Scroll Up