Norway has won, lost and re-won its sovereignty on the 7th of June in 1905, 1940 and 1945. Flags flew again on Sunday as the country celebrated the return of its first modern king, Haakon VII, after World War II, while in Oslo, King Haakon’s son Olav was especially remembered with the unveiling of a long-awaited statue.
Norwegians remain endlessly fascinated with their war history. Every fourth history book sold in Norway is about World War II, and there’s a steady stream of documentaries, films and TV series about the war- and post-war years. The ever-growing interest has surprised both publishing companies and booksellers. “Without World War II, the publishing branch would grind to a halt,” one industry player recently told newspaper Aftenposten.
The fascination with the war and its aftermath reached a new peak this spring, with the 75th anniversary of Norway’s occupation by Nazi Germany in 1940 and the 70th anniversary of its liberation five years later. The jubilation of the “merry days of May” in 1945 climaxed on June 7, when King Haakon VII, Crown Princess Martha and the three royal children returned to Norway after five years of exile in London and the US. Olav, Martha’s husband, had returned three weeks earlier, on May 13, but he was also hailed again and not least on Sunday, 70 years later. That’s when, under sunny skies after weeks of rain and wind, the City of Oslo unveiled its own memorial to the man Norwegians call folkekongen, a king “of and for the people,” as Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide said in her remarks. She referred to the “deep and genuine gratitude” Norwegians feel for both Haakon’s and Olav’s role in leading Norway’s resistance from London and keeping hopes up among Norwegians back home.
It was Oslo Mayor Fabian Stang who welcomed the entire royal family to the outdoor event adjacent to City Hall late Sunday afternoon. Stang spoke directly to the youngest generation of royals, the great-grandchildren of King Olav, when he explained why the city was erecting the statue: “We are just so incredibly grateful for everything your great-grandfather did.”
King Harald and his sister, Princess Astrid, were both there on Oslo’s City Hall Plaza (Rådhusplassen) on June 7, 1945, so they unveiled sculptor Olav Orud’s statue of their father themselves on Sunday. Harald was only eight years old when the family returned from exile but Astrid and her late sister Ragnhild were teenagers and overwhelmed, she told state broadcaster NRK earlier this year, by the hundreds of thousands of cheering Norwegians on the streets that day. They had led protected lives near Washington DC during the war years, as the guests of President Franklin D Roosevelt, and were “totally unprepared” for the adulation that met their own father and grandfather when the war was over.
The celebrations reflected those following June 7, 1905, when Norway’s controversial union with Sweden was dissolved and Norway finally emerged as a sovereign nation after more than 400 years of Danish and Swedish dominance. The situation was very different, though, just 35 years later, when both King Haakon and Crown Prince Olav went on board the British military cruiser HMS Devonshire and left Norway to run its government from London. Norway had been woefully unable to defend itself from the German invasion on April 9 and capitulated on June 10, but never surrendered.
June 7 also a sad day
Their departure from the northern city of Tromsø on June 7 1940 culminated nearly two months of dramatic flight from Oslo and it wasn’t until the last minute that King Haakon and his son decided to actually leave Norway. Newspaper Dagsavisen, in a detailed account of the royals’ last few weeks in Norway, reported over the weekend how powerful political forces in Oslo that sympathized with the Germans tried to stop the royals from leaving. A group including Bishop Eivind Berggrav, the head of a new administrative council, Ingolf Christensen, and the head of the Supreme Court, Paal Berg, claimed the king and crown prince could cooperate with Nazi German occupiers, that life in Oslo had “almost returned to normal” and that the possibility of a “quite free and independent Norway still existed.” An old sailing friend of then-Crown Prince Olav, businessman Johan Anker, was sent to Tromsø to talk with the royals, who had sought refuge at a timber cabin along the Balsfjord. At one point, Olav asked whether he should remain in Norway while his father left.
British envoy Sir Cecil Dormer ultimately succeeded in putting a stop to such “fantasy” that the Germans would cooperate or allow Norway autonomy. While some Norwegian officials felt the British and other allies had let them down when Germany invaded, the British were deeply trouble by Norway’s lack of defense and, faced with other invasions in Europe, had decided to give up the battle for Norway because they had to fight on other fronts as well. It was now most important, they felt, to get the governments of invaded nations to England and continue the fight from there.
Departure unpopular, later respected
That’s what happened, with Norway’s two tearful royals sailing from Norway on June 7, 1940 but returning triumphantly exactly five years later. General Otto Ruge, who kept up Norway’s fight as long as he could, also had urged the king and crown prince to leave, even though their departure was not popular among Norwegians at the time. Ruge, writing later in his memoirs, said he asked a crying King Haakon “to remember that there isn’t a person in the county who won’t be looking forward to the day the king would once again drive up Karl Johans Gate in Oslo.” He did exactly that, five years later.
A statue of King Haakon, who died in 1957, has stood outside the Foreign Ministry for years. Now a statue of his son, who died in 1991, stands just a few blocks away, outside Oslo’s City Hall, “so that people passing by, for years ahead, can think about what he did for Norway,” said the mayor. June 7th is not a public holiday in Norway, but it remains a special day, Stang and Søreide said, for reminding Norwegians that freedom is not something to be taken for granted.