SEE THE VIDEO: “They fought, they fell, they gave us everything.” It doesn’t rhyme in English, but an early morning ceremony on Norway’s national day on Sunday, the 17th of May, hailed the fallen heroes who helped win back the country’s freedom 70 years ago this spring.
The ceremony at the Akershus Fortress and Castle in Oslo was held at the same spot where resistance fighters and other war heroes were often executed during the Nazi German occupation of their country from 1940 to 1945. Norwegians weren’t allowed to celebrate their national day, formally known as Constitution Day, on the 17th of May during the war years. By the time it ended, many Norwegian children had never seen their country’s flag, or remembered what it looked like.
On Sunday, many Norwegians turned out for the early morning wreath-laying ceremony where Norwegian patriots were shot during the war. Military officials, led by the head of the country’s reserve officers’ foundation, took the opportunity to remind the audience of the importance of defense forces. Prime Minister Erna Solberg had been on national radio even earlier in the day, stressing how the 17th of May is a day when politics are set aside, but the message from Akershus was clear: “Freedom is owned only by those brave enough to defend it,” and politicians need to allocate adequate defense funding.
That appeal was immediately followed up by another tribute at the nearby statue of Gen Lt Otto Ruge. He ended up leading Norway’s woefully inadequate defense during the German invasion that began on April 9, 1940, he encouraged the government and the monarchy to continue the fight in exile, and he kept Norwegian and allied troops fighting until June, when he became a prisoner of war until liberation in May 1945. He was hailed again on Sunday for showing “great leadership” and inspiring others to hold out during the occupation.
The ceremonies at Akershus on Sunday morning were held along with hundreds of others all over the country at the graves and statues of prominent Norwegians, not just heroes from the war. This year’s celebrations were special, because of the 70th anniversary of liberation, but they otherwise remained distinctly non-military in nature. The parades featured school children and brass bands as usual, instead of military hardware or shows of force, but most were reminded in countless speeches nationwide that freedom was hard-won and not something to be taken for granted.
“Celebrating our constitution and our sovereignty is undoubtably important,” wrote Victoria Marie Evensen, leader of the committee organizing 17th of May festivities in Oslo this year, in a column in newspaper Dagsavisen late last week. Amidst all the parades, ice cream, sausages and balloons, she felt it was also important to issue a plea for Norwegians to vote in the upcoming municipal elections this fall. It was perhaps another deviation from the non-political nature of the 17th of May but Evensen urged Norwegians “to think a bit about the responsibility that lies behind the celebrations.”
As the tribute to Ruge wrapped up with more drum rolls and salutes from the royal guards, thousands of children were pouring into the adjacent grounds behind the historic fortress on Oslo’s waterfront, dressed up and ready to parade through the city, wave at the president of the Parliament and at King Harald, 75 years after the latter had to flee Norway as a young boy with the rest of the royal family. There were thousands of flags to wave, and the party began.