Norwegian historians and newspaper officials have downplayed the role of the Norwegian press in spreading anti-Semitism both before, during and after World War II, claims the author of a new book provocatively entitled Det Norske Jødehatet (The Norwegian Hatred of Jews). The current editor of Norway’s biggest newspaper, Aftenposten, agrees, and has responded with a full-page editorial and a lengthy news story that admit how they let their readers down.
“We must answer for our own history,” editorialized Aftenposten in its Friday morning edition. The newspaper’s current editor-in-chief Espen Egil Hansen also stated that “Aftenposten left both the foundation of democratic ideals and journalistic openness in tatters during this entire period of the newspaper’s history.”
When the war ended, the newspaper owners and editors also seemed complicit in a cover-up of their operations from 1940 to 1945. Even though a public prosecutor’s committee concluded that Norwegian newspapers “served German interests ahead of Norway’s,” there was no day of reckoning. Aftenposten itself wrote Friday that in cooperation with other newspapers that had continued to publish and had no interest in turning the spotlight on themselves, they “succeeded in sweeping it all under the rug.”
Aftenposten editorialized Friday how it’s especially important to be conscious of what it called “the darkest chapter” in its history now, “at a time when a frightening form of nationalism in many countries is again in the process of becoming politically fashionable. Hatred of Jews is once again surfacing, also in Norway.” The newspaper described the new book, subtitled Propaganda and the press under occupation, as “important.”
Penned by an expert
Author Bjørn Westlie worked for three decades as a journalist at both newspapers Klassekampen and Dagens Næringsliv (DN) and has written extensively about issues tied to the Nazi German occupation of Norway from 1940 to 1945. He won Norway’s prestigious Brage Prize in 2008 for his book Fars krig, a personal history about his own father who fought for the Germans on the eastern front. In 1995, while working for DN, Westlie wrote a lengthy landmark article about how Norwegians looted Norwegian Jews’ property and businesses after most had either fled the country or were rounded up and deported to Nazi death camps. The few who survived and returned to Norway after the war were never compensated but Westlie’s revelations played a major role in the establishment of Norway’s Holocaust Center at Bygdøy in Oslo, and in official apologies.
Now Westlie has published new revelations of anti-Semitism through his examination of how Norwegian newspapers complied with Nazi occupiers during the war years to spread propaganda, and earned millions for it, without being held accountable later. Newspaper owners who cooperated with the Nazis mostly avoided having to publicly come to terms with their betrayal of the public’s trust, with Aftenposten quickly switching from publishing Nazi propaganda to covering the joyous return of King Haakon VII from exile in London when the war finally ended in the spring of 1945.
While some newspapers shut down during the war years, refusing to bow under to the Nazi occupiers, Westlie writes that 114 continue to publish. They included both national papers like Aftenposten and Nationen and large regional papers like Bergens Tidende and Adresseavisen in Trondheim. After Nazi German occupiers made it a crime to own radios and ordered households and businesses to turn theirs in, Westlie notes that “the newspapers were the Nazis’ most important propaganda channel during the war years.”
They were also used to spread Nazi hatred of the Jews, according to Westlie: “Their intention was for Norwegians to hate Jews and for Norway to become free of Jews.” In some cases, the Nazis could simply build on what can only be described as anti-Semitic reporting in Aftenposten during the 1930s as well. As the paper’s current editor noted on Friday, Aftenposten’s editors were so afraid of communism at the time that they went to great extents “to understand, defend and explain away what was happening in Hitler’s Germany.”
In addition to the full-page editorial on Friday, Aftenposten devoted three full pages of news coverage to Westlie’s book and its findings. Not only did Aftenposten publish warnings as early as 1933 about alleged “Jewish influence” on European culture, it also wrote about “the Jewish problem” both before and during the war as well. “The newspaper was not opposed to nurturing prejudice, conspiracy theories and, yes, hatred of the Jews,” Hansen stated.
Westlie writes that newspaper Nationen, tied to Bondepartiet (the farmers’ party that became today’s Center Party), went even farther than Aftenposten with its German-friendly articles and anti-Semitism. Westlie is particularly surprised that its editor Thorvald Aadahl, who was charged in court after the war, was acquitted. The court found that Aadahl “hadn’t acted any worse or more capitulatory than the average of the other editors.”
Neither Hansen nor Westlie buys the argument that the papers were forced to publish Nazi propaganda by Nazi occupiers, and that all complied. “That’s no comfort,” Hansen wrote, for how the newspapers owners and editors who stayed in their jobs took on the role of distributors of national socialist propaganda and earned well on carrying out the occupiers’ errand. Most of the newspapers also printed content provided by the Nazi-controlled Norsk Artikkeltjeneste (NAT), literally the Norwegian Article Service. Its content regularly referred to Jews as “parasites, bloodhounds and rodents” who were undermining Norwegian society.
Historians also criticized
Westlie earned a PhD last year based on his work that also has revealed how the Norwegian state railway (formerly NSB, now Vy) used German prisoners of war as slave labourers during the war, not least to build the German-ordered extension of the train line into Northern Norway (Nordlandsbanen). In addition to highlighting how Norwegian newspapers operated during the war, Westlie also criticizes how Norwegian historians have largely glossed over it. “It amazes me that this theme (of promoting anti-Semitism) hasn’t sparked more interest among Norwegian press historians,” Westlie told newspaper Klassekampen on Friday.
Westlie writes that most historians have believed that the Nazi propaganda didn’t have much effect on either newspaper readers or Norwegians in general. “That can’t be documented,” Westlie said. He further noted that research now shows how the media has an effect on readers, so “the probability is high that it also had an effect during the war.”
He also cited a Gallup poll from 1947 questioning Norwegians’ attitudes towards Jews two years after the war ended. When asked whether it was right or wrong for Norway to take in 600 Jewish refugees, 27 percent of those answering were negative. “These were Jewish refugees who survived the holocaust,” Westlie said. “That tells me that the propaganda had an effect.”