Historians puzzled after statue razed

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Norwegian officials were surprised and saddened by news that the statue of a Norwegian-American anti-slavery activist is among the latest to be toppled and dumped in a river by demonstrators in the US state of Wisconsin. Hans Christian Heg opposed slavery and fought for the Union Army during the Civil War.

This statue of Norwegian immigrant Hans Christian Heg was pulled off its pedestal in front of the Wisconsin State Capitol during the night. PHOTO: Wikipedia

“I must say I was very surprised by this,” historian and author Karl Jakob Skarstein told newspaper VG on Wednesday after hearing that Heg’s statue had been pulled off its pedestal in front of the Wisconsin State Capitol during the night. “He was on the North’s side during the Civil War, the side that fought to abolish slavery.”

Demonstrations continue to rage against racism and discrimination in the US, also in Wisconsin’s capital city of Madison Tuesday night. Skarstein, who’s written about Norwegian immigrants’ participation in the fight for the Union, doesn’t think those who tore down Heg’s statue knew their history. “This appears to be quite absurd, and unmotivated,” Skarstein said.

Heg’s family emigrated from Lier, southwest of Oslo, in 1840 and settled in the Muskego area of Wisconsin. Skarstein told VG that Heg, who went into politics, became “the foremost symbol” of Norwegians’ involvement in the Civil War. He was an active member of the Free Soil Party, which sought to halt the expansion of slavery into US’ new western territories. It later merged with the new Republican Party at the time and Heg was known as an “outspoken anti-slavery activist,” according to Wikipedia, and leader of Wisconsin’s “Wide Awakes,” a militia fighting those trying to capture escaped slaves.

Colonel Hans Christian Heg became a symbol of Norwegians’ anti-slavery activism. He was shot and killed during the Civil War while leading a Union regiment against the South’s Confederates, so Norwegians can’t understand why his statue became a target of anti-racism demonstrators. PHOTO: Wikipedia

Heg ultimately was appointed to head a volunteer regiment made up of Scandinavians whom he called upon to defend “the government of our adopted country.” Heg was killed during the Battle of Chickamauga in Georgia and later buried at a Norwegian church cemetery in Wisconsin. VG reported that around 6,000 Norwegians took part in the US Civil War, 900 of them in Heg’s regiment.

A copy of the statue later raised in his honor in the Wisconsin capital of Madison was also erected in the Heg family’s native Lier, where Mayor Gunn Cecilie Ringdal was also surprised that Heg had a become a target of demonstrators protesting racism.

“This is sad,” Ringdal told VG. “I agree with historian Skarstein that it makes no sense to tear down a statue of Colonel Heg. In Lier, we’re proud that he was an opponent of slavery and proud of the job he did as a colonel in the American Civil War during the 1800s.” She noted that local pride was behind the statue being mounted in Lier, with the support of Norwegian Americans.

Norway has also been the site of several demonstrations against racism and some statues have come under threat in connection with their subjects’ ties to shipping during the slave trade and Danish colonization. Even war hero Winston Churchill’s statue at Solli Plass in Oslo has been a subject of complaints, over racist remarks, but none has been torn down.

Asked whether she feared for Heg’s statue in Lier, Mayor Ringdal said “no, I can’t see any reason that anyone would want to tear it down. We should instead take good care of it. I encourage residents of Wisconsin to rescue the Heg statue as a symbolic act against racism.”

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund