NEWS ANALYSIS: It’s almost eerie how Norway has had to mark significant anniversaries of three major crises just in the past two weeks, and right in the middle of the current Corona virus crisis. Valuable lessons can be learned from them all.
The sun was shining brilliantly over Oslo’s historic Akerhus Fortress on Thursday, the 9th of April. That day of infamy, when Norway was invaded by Nazi Germany 80 years ago and dragged into World War II, remains otherwise clouded forever. It showed how utterly unprepared Norway was to fend off military might, but it also set off an impressive resistance and cemented alliances with other countries that live on to this day through NATO.
The 80th anniversary of the invasion on April 9th, 1940 came just after the anniversaries for two other major crises in the country’s recent history. On Monday, April 7th, survivors and families of the 136 Norwegians killed in the fire on board the cruise ferry Scandinavian Star gathered to remember lost loved ones 30 years ago. On Friday March 27th, many others paid tribute to the 123 people killed when the offshore oil rig Alexander Kielland capsized in the North Sea 40 years ago.
Offshore improvements after Kielland
This year’s commemorations of the Scandinavian Star tragedy in 1990 and the Alexander Kielland catastrophe in 1980 were somewhat overlooked amidst all the Corona crisis coverage, and there’s rarely any official attention paid to the 9th of April. As commentator Lars West Johnsen wrote in newspaper Dagsavisen, however, “good things can come out of accidents and tragedies, wars and crises, if we learn the right lessons.”
Norway and the entire offshore oil industry learned a lot from the Kielland tragedy, which led to vast improvements in safety and living conditions on offshore installations. The sheer sight of the capsized platform was proof of just how dangerous Norway’s pioneering oil industry was at the time, and how changes had to be made in both working conditions and safety measures.
“The accident was a national crisis, also perhaps an identity crisis,” Johnsen wrote. “What were we subjecting people to out there?” The Kielland accident marked “a paradigm change regarding safety in the North Sea,” he added, but came at the cost of far too many lives. The bodies of 30 workers on the rig were never recovered. Johnsen argued that there’s a moral to the tragedy “for us all, as we struggle with Corona. We must glean the right knowledge, and that’s what we’ll need to do after Corona.”
Last summer the Norwegian Parliament asked Norway’s state auditor general (Riksrevisjonen) to investigate the capsizing yet again because the exact reason for it has never been fully determined. No one has been held responsible for it. The state auditors are due to deliver their conclusion to Parliament in the spring of next year, hopefully when the worst of the current Corona crisis is over.
The Scandinavian Star tragedy on April 7, 1990 marked another crisis for Norway, and it has not been resolved either. The memorial to the 159 people killed on the ship, placed just under the Akershus Fortress, clearly states under a heading “Facts about the tragedy” that the vessel “was set on fire during the night of April 7th, 1990.”
Multiple investigations have all confirmed arson, but no arsonist has ever been legally identified and ultimately held responsible. The vessel was on its way from Oslo to Fredrikshavn in northern Denmark with 382 passengers on board, 136 of them Norwegian, when the fire broke out in the middle of the night. Many were killed by the toxic smoke in their cabins, and when the vessel was towed into port at Lysekil in Sweden, a new fire broke out. A total of 159 people were killed.
Norwegian Broadcasting, Danmarks Radio and Sweden’s TV4 recently produced a new documentary on the tragedy that just finished airing. Some survivors have expressed gratitude for its portrayal of the tragedy and how it may prompt more investigations into the fire and finally offer some solace to those who lost loved ones.
“Renewed attention can lead to demands that the case is taken up again,” survivor Vidar Skillingsås told Dagsavisen this week. “As long as no one is held responsible, none of us can put behind us what happened 30 years ago.”
Symbol of resilience
The Akershus Fortress itself, meanwhile, has long been viewed as a symbol of resilience and hope in national crises, none of which can compare to the war years from 1940 to 1945. They proved to be the ultimate test for a nation that had only won its sovereignty 35 years before the invasion on April 9th. Today, the sturdy fortress from the 1300s contains many memorials to war victims and statues of war heroes, and ceremonies are held there every year on both Liberation Day (May 8) and Norway’s Constitution Day on the 17th of May.
This year the Corona virus crisis has already disrupted both. The 75th anniversation of the liberation will be scaled back dramatically with no members of the public present to limit the spread of any virus infection. Traditional 17th of May ceremonies are also likely to be reduced if not cancelled as Norway fights off an invisible enemy that’s threatening not only public health but the national economy as well.
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“Never again the 9th of April,” goes the refrain since the war years. “It also applies today, when the battle is against a virus,” wrote the leaders of Norway’s national employers’ organization NHO, the country’s largest trade union confederation LO and the organization Folk og Forsvar (People and Defense), in a commentary published by NRK on Thursday.
“Whether the threat is a military invasion or a pandemic, cooperation and mutual confidence between the state and its citizens is the greatest weapon we have,” they wrote. They drew parallels between how civilians and the military quickly joined forces to fight invaders during the war and occupation. The government and the Royal Family also managed to flee and retain formal control over the country from exile in London, and Norway’s wealth in gold was preserved.
Now the country is battling a virus that already has mostly shut down the country, cut greatly into its wealth and disrupted the national economy. Cooperation and mutual confidence are playing important roles again, as adversaries join forces to work with government leaders, and the government and parliament cooperate as well. “Employees and employers stand shoulder to shoulder, together with the authorities,” the NHO, LO and military/civilian leaders wrote.
“Now it’s a virus that’s creating more unrest and upheaval than we’ve seen since the war days,” they added. “But also now, the people and the authorities stand together to defeat the enemy. Maintaining confidence in one another is essential.” It’s not easy against a virus that demands social distancing, and when people are urged to simply “stay home.” Cooperation and agreements can no longer be sealed with a handshake.
It’s perhaps only fitting that the Office of the Prime Minister is now located within the grounds of Akershus, after it had to be moved following the bombing of government headquarters in 2011. That was another crisis that pulled the nation together.
Most agree, however, that Norway was not prepared for the invasion in 1940, or for the terrorist attack in 2011. Its otherwise strong public health service wasn’t well-enough prepared to handle a pandemic like Corona either. “When this crisis is over, we’ll have to again evaluate preparedness in the country,” the business, labour and defense leaders wrote. “Maybe it’s time to think in a new way, both about stocks of essential medicines, food and hospital capacity. In the meantime, it’s important that we all go along with the advice and regulations coming from the authorities.”
They added that “together we must also lay plans to avoid another 9th of April, also the 2020-version.”