New book adds new drama to Norwegian emigration

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For years it’s been estimated that around 800,000 Norwegians have emigrated to North America, in search of a better life. Now a new book claims that actual emigration numbers were much higher, with as many as a million Norwegians believed to have left their homeland between 1825 and 1975.

Author Sverre Mørkhagen’s new book Farvel Norge (“Farewell, Norway,” published by Gyldendal Norsk Forlag) is 600 pages long and was released Tuesday in Norway, along with a new exhibit on emigration at the National Library in Oslo.

The book reveals a new dimension to what can only be described as a massive emigration from what was one of Europe’s poorest countries.

The vast majority of emigrants left Norway because they faced a bleak future at home. Until oil was discovered in the North Sea in 1969, generations of Norwegians had to leave the family farms for lack of food or inheritance rights. Many faced religious persecution, others poverty. At least half-a-million Norwegians left Norway just in the 35 years between 1880 and 1915. That amounted to around a quarter of the population, notes Mørkhagen, since the country’s total population was around 2 million in 1890.

His book is the first major new study of emigration in 30 years, and he told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) it was even more widespread than earlier thought. He puts the rate of emigration at three-and-a-half times that of the average for all of Europe and thinks his estimate of a million emigrants is conservative, because many people “got lost” along the way. As many as 70,000 seafarers, for example, left their ships in US harbor cities and all but disappeared. Many of the emigrants who left Norway during the Depression and World War II also are difficult to count, he notes, nor are there many reliable figures for emigration after World War II.

Relatively few Norwegians who left their homeland ever moved back. In 1920, it’s estimated that 50,000 persons living in Norway had returned from North America, less than 10 percent who had moved there.

Norwegians were loyal about sending money back home to Norway, just like today’s immigrants in Norway send money back to where they came from, for example Pakistan. Mørkhagen writes that in the years before and just after World War I, the money sent home to Norway by its emigrants amounted to a quarter of Norway’s national budget at the time.

Mørkhagen set 1975 as the “natural” end of the emigration period. By then, Norway had emerged as a more affluent nation. There no longer was widespread poverty or lack of opportunity at home and, he notes, the dream of America had faded.