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Stalin's Secret Wars in Norway

by Eric Lee

Copyright 1996 by Eric Lee
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Germany Invades / The NKP Collaborates / The NKP Paralyzed / Resistance Begins
A Two-Front War / Stalin Liberates Finnmark / History and the Memory Hole
Appendix: Norwegian Communist Electoral Performance / Bibliography

What most people remember about the Soviet role in the Second World War is the heroism of Stalingrad and the Red Army's victorious march on Berlin. And as for the Communists of Nazi-occupied Europe, they are usually remembered as resistance fighters of the first rank. But when we examine closely the war as it was fought in Norway, a different picture emerges -- a picture of Joseph Stalin's secret wars.

To understand Stalin's Norwegian policies, one must begin by remembering that the Soviet Union's strategic assets included not only its own armed forces, diplomats and intelligence services, but also the support of local agents around the world in the national sections of the Communist International (Comintern). The Norwegian section of the Comintern, the Norwegian Communist Party (NKP), was one of several tools at the disposal of the Kremlin during the wars of 1939-45.

Our story properly begins on August 23, 1939 when Hitler and Stalin stunned the world with the announcement of their non-aggression pact. On the left, and even among many Communists, this was seen as a betrayal of the struggle against Nazism; thousands abandoned the Communist parties.

But in Norway, the small and declining NKP hailed the pact as a masterpiece of Soviet diplomacy. Most Norwegians were appalled at the Berlin-Moscow axis, and the NKP's slavish adherence to the Comintern line did little to boost its fortunes.

The constant changes in the Party line had already reduced the NKP from a peak of 14,000 members to perhaps one-tenth that number. They had also permanently embittered the much larger social democratic Norwegian Labor Party (DNA), which was one day be denounced as "social fascists" and the next day embraced as "class brothers" by the Communists.

The immediate result of the signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact was the beginning of the Second World War in Europe, with Hitler's invasion of Poland -- and Stalin's attack on Finland. The Norwegians were sympathetic to the Finns, who were also a Nordic people. Though Finland came out of its bloody civil war in the early 1920s with a right-wing government in power, by 1939, the Finnish Social Democrats were already part of the ruling coalition. The DNA, in power since 1935, was therefore doubly sympathetic to the embattled Finns.

But the Norwegian Stalinists, following Comintern instructions, cheered on the Soviet invaders, thereby isolating themselves even further from public opinion. In the Party's main daily newspaper, Arbeideren [The Worker], they wrote that "while Mannerheim Finland collapses, the Norwegian people want to live in peace." The NKP not only campaigned against the British, who were blamed for the outbreak of the world war, but also against plans for a military alliance between the Scandinavian countries.

Meanwhile, on October 3, 1939, barely a month after the invasion of Poland, the German Naval War Staff (Seekriegsleitung) recommended the investigation of the possibility of joint German-Soviet pressure on Norway to obtain much-needed naval bases facing the North Atlantic. A week later, Admiral Raeder brought this proposal to Hitler's personal attention. Six months before the actual German invasion of Norway, it was already being visualized by some in Berlin as a joint venture which would certainly have Moscow's backing.


The German invasion of Norway and Denmark began on April 9, 1940. Though Denmark surrendered immediately, the Norwegians mounted a resistance of sorts, fighting and retreating north for several weeks. During this period, the Soviets played no overt role in the fighting but three days after the invasion, their Norwegian agents, the NKP, issued an appeal to the workers blaming Great Britain for the "imperialist war" and calling for the end to hostilities. One historian has categorized the NKP approach in the first days of the occupation as "benevolent neutrality, even collaboration." Meanwhile the departure of most DNA leaders from Oslo to unoccupied parts of the country (where they were the first to call for armed resistance to the invaders) created a vacuum which the Communists attempted to fill.

The Comintern line at this time was clear, and all Stalinist parties everywhere adhered to it: the war between Germany and the western allies was, like the first world war, a war over colonial booty and one in which working people had no interest. The war was caused by the British, not by the Axis powers. The social democrats were lackeys of the imperialists and must be excised from the working class organizations. Peace with Germany served the interests of the working people.

All this would change the moment the Germans invaded Russia, but that would not happen for the first two years of the fighting. Communists who did not feel comfortable with this position had little say in the matter; many left the parties.

Meanwhile, the Norwegian armed resistance had begun. A day after the NKP called for a cessation of hostilities, the first great act of sabotage (though it lacked any military significance) took place: the bombing of Lysaker Bridge linking Oslo to its airport in Fornebu. The Communist daily Arbeideren responded by warning against "all forms of sabotage and acts of destruction."

The Norwegian King Haakon VII and his Labor government, fleeing before advancing German troops, refused to cave in to Nazi demands. In Oslo, only the Communists and the followers of Vidkun Quisling (the former Defense Minister and leader of the local Nazi party, the NS), called for a capitulation to the invaders.

In the confusion of the early days of the fighting, there were some cases of Communists getting their signals crossed. A week after the invasion, in the still-unoccupied town of Troms, the local NKP published an article entitled "Communists are Norwegians!" calling for support to the government and army. But this would soon be corrected. As the Germans established control over the country, the NKP, which remained legal and active, took up a clear anti-war position, spearheaded by Arbeideren, whose editor was Henry W. Kristiansen, the NKP general secretary.

On May 15, the NKP leadership once again called for peace -- and added an appeal for increased trade with Germany. Recognizing that a New Order was emerging in Europe, with Germany at its center, the Norwegian Stalinists were making the case that it was in the best interests of the workers to stay at their jobs, to cease fighting, and to link Norway's economic fortunes to those of greater Germany.

While Arbeideren was preaching this line, the Nazis were issuing orders to Norway's small Jewish community to turn over its membership lists. Jews were also ordered to surrender their radio sets to the authorities. But this had no effect on the Communists; they were not very interested in the anti-Semitic persecutions which began only days after the German invasion.

After two months of sporadic fighting, and following the allied decision to pull troops out of the country, Norway's King and its Labor government fled by ship to England, where they continued the war effort. Following the withdrawal of allied troops to fight on the more important French front, Norway capitulated on June 10. The reaction of the Stalinists was, amazingly, to denounce the King and his government-in-exile for having "left Norway in the lurch." By June 20, the NKP was demanding the formation of a new government which would make peace with Germany.


Meanwhile, resistance groups were forming. In the summer of 1940 the first underground newspapers began to appear. The Communists did not have to publish underground papers; their organs were legal and continued to appear daily. In 1940, under German occupation, the NKP continued to publish newspapers in Oslo, Bergen, Odda, Nordland and Finnmark.

The Stalinists allied themselves with those, spearheaded by Quisling, who were demanding that the King abdicate. By the end of June, under intense German pressure, the Praesidium of the Norwegian Parliament (the Storting) issued just such a call -- which the King instantly rejected.

In August 1940, the first detentions of Norwegian Jews took place. And in England, the Norwegian Independent Company No. 1 (the famous "Linge Company") was formed. Repression and resistance were growing at the same time.

That month, a conference of the Left parties was held in Oslo, in which the NKP representatives participated. They rejected the proposal to end party agitation in the interests of national unity until the end of the war. Instead, the Communists called for a conciliatory approach toward the German authorities.

But their friendliness toward the Nazi invaders was not reciprocated. In August 16, 1940 the NKP was the first of the Norwegian political parties to be outlawed by the authorities. Their newspaper Arbeideren was finally suppressed. Leaders of the Party were arrested -- though they were promptly released. The Germans soon banned all political parties except for Quisling's NS. There is some reason to believe that the Communists suffered because, though completely loyal to the German-Soviet alliance, they had run articles attacking the local Norwegian Nazis.

Curiously, the Danish Communists did not suffer the same fate. They were left at peace by the Nazi occupiers until after the actual invasion of the Soviet Union, finally being banned only in August 1941.


The Norwegian Communists were compelled to go underground, a possibility they had long considered but were hardly prepared for. They engaged in frantic activity in their efforts to create an illegal party; meanwhile the social democratic DNA, harrassed by the Germans from the very first day of the invasion, had already established a functioning illegal apparatus.

From August 1940 until June 1941, now illegal but unable for political reasons to engage in resistance to the Nazis, the Communists were largely inactive and confused. Six months after the German invasion, a curious picture began to emerge of developments within the NKP.

On the one hand, the Party, though formally illegal, continued to cooperate with the occupation regime, especially in its bid to take over the powerful Norwegian trade union federation (LO). The Communists teamed up with Quisling in what has been called "an aggressive, loud-voiced faction" known as the Trade Union Opposition. According to one report, "individuals belonging to this faction had close links with the Gestapo and the Reichskommissariat, which could use them to keep track of the trade union leaders." One Communist became the personal secretary to the new head of the LO trade union federation, who overnight joined the NKP himself. He chose a Communist to serve as his press secretary. A biographer of Quisling attributed trade union restraint in the first year of Nazi rule "to the power of the Communist Party in the unions."

On the other hand, veteran Communist leader Peder Furubotn, who had returned to Bergen after a long stay in the USSR, wrote a letter in the fall of 1941 to Arbeideren editor Kristiansen in Oslo, criticizing the party line. He called for an end to collaboration with the Germans, rejected the Oslo leadership and its decisions, and criticized both German and British imperialism. In July 1940, Bergen's Communists had participated in a conference of western Norwegians which did call for resistance to the Nazis.

Some historians have interpreted this to mean that Furubotn and the Bergen Communists were already involved in the resistance, and were therefore acting independently of Stalin and the Comintern, but others claim that this was never the case. Furubotn was a most loyal Stalinist, having lived for years in the USSR. The whole issue of Furubotn's conduct came up again years later, after the war, when in the anti-Tito campaign of Stalin's twilight years, leading Communists throughout Europe were purged for "nationalist deviations". In other words, Furubotn would eventually be accused by Stalin of having been excessively anti-Nazi.

If there were Communists anywhere in Norway who were active in the resistance before June 1941, they could be found in the northernmost provinces of the country. We have already mentioned the reaction of the Party members in Troms ("Communists are Norwegians!"). The fact is that these provinces, thanks to Soviet success in the winter war with Finland, now shared a border with the USSR. They were also traditional strongholds of the NKP, as was Furubotn's Bergen. As a result, the Soviets maintained an underground network of Communists and non-Communists which allowed Moscow to pursue what one historian has called "a flexible policy" in this part of Norway.

It must be emphasized that the Norwegian Stalinists were not acting independently, but under direct Comintern orders. The Executive Committee of the Communist International, meeting in Moscow on June 28, 1940, gave the NKP explicit instructions on how to behave under the German occupation. And just prior to the German invasion, Comintern representatives visited Oslo and gave out orders to the Party leadership. During the war years, contacts were kept up through the Norwegian emigres and the Soviet embassy in neutral Stockholm. Couriers kept up the link between the NKP headquarters in Slidre, in the mountains of south-central Norway, and the Comintern representatives in Sweden. And of course the Communists in Finnmark and other northern provinces got their orders from across the border, which was constantly being crossed by Soviet and Communist agents.

Meanwhile, German repression intensified. The first to suffer were Norway's Jews. In April 1941, Norwegian communities were compelled to produce surveys of the number of "pure Jews" in the country. On April 21, German troops forced their way into the synagogue in Trondheim, one of only two in the country, desecrating it and converting it into a dwelling for German troops in transit.

Resistance began to grow rapidly, spearheaded by the resignation of Norway's Supreme Court judges in December 1940 and the famous pastoral letter issued by the Norwegian churches in February 1941. In London, the King broadcast messages of resistance. British SOE commandos, including Norwegian troops, made raids on coastal towns. The armed Norwegian resistance known as "Milorg" was launched.

But the Hitler-Stalin pact was still in force, and would remain so until Hitler broke it. In May 1941, a month before the German invasion of the USSR, Stalin had himself proclaimed Prime Minister of the Soviet Union, taking over the reigns of both government and Party. His first act as head of the Soviet state was to ask the Norwegian envoy to close his embassy in Moscow and to leave Russia. Stalin told him that his government had ceased to exist.

This must have been a difficult period for the Norwegian Stalinists. The Communists were not involved in and could not be involved in resistance activity before June 22, 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. But from that moment on, the Comintern ordered a one hundred and eighty degree turn in the party line. The "imperialist war" had suddenly become a "great patriotic war".


In most countries this came as a boon to the beleagured Communists, who had been compelled to support the highly unpopular position of the Hitler-Stalin pact years. There were exceptions; the Indian Communists did rather well with the anti-British, pro-German line of 1939-41, and lost support when they were obliged to back the Allies in the war. But the Norwegian Stalinists were, like most Communist Parties, no doubt overjoyed at being released from the embarrassing position of collaboration with the German occupation authorities.

For more than fourteen months, the Norwegian Communists had found themselves allied to the increasingly unpopular and repressive occupying regime headed up by Reichskommissar Terboven and his Quisling stooges. Now they were free to fight the Nazis as allies of the Red Army.

They took up the resistance cause with a vengeance -- perhaps to compensate for their earlier support of capitulation to the Germans and their many months of overt and covert collaboration. At a secret session of the NKP Central Committee held on the last day of 1941, Furubotn was appointed chairman of the Party. In a Party resolution adopted that day, it was stressed that "history itself has put the task of national liberation before the NKP on June 22, 1941" -- in other words, it was not Hitler's invasion of Norway on April 9, 1940, but his attack on the Soviet Union, which brought the Norwegian Communists into the resistance. This revealing statement was later used by non-Communists, especially the DNA, in propaganda battles after the liberation.

The Communist role in the resistance, which continued for nearly four years, is a subject of some dispute. Party historians have naturally painted a picture of a militant vanguard, fighting both the Germans and the excessively-cautious home front leadership. There is no doubt that Communists staged spectacular acts of sabotage, including blowing up one of the offices of the Nazi national labor effort in February 1943, scattering registration cards to the winds. In October of that year, Communist partisans derailed a German troop transport train, leading the Germans to pass death sentences on five hostages. In November 1944, a Communist-led group sank or heavily damaged about 50,000 tons of shipping in Oslo harbor. They also put out of action the only loading crane in the country capable of handling heavy tanks and artillery pieces.


At the same time, they ruthlessly attacked the existing leadership of the resistance, who feared that too much sabotage would bring massive repression to bear on the Norwegian people. It must be recalled that the Nazis considered the Norwegians to be an Aryan people; repressions in Norway, while often severe, could not compare to the treatment of Poles or Russians, who were viewed as sub-humans.

The resistance leadership encouraged sustained mass actions of protest and disobedience rather than sporadic acts of sabotage and terror. This was only natural considering the highly-organized nature of Norwegian society, with its trade unions, sports clubs, cultural associations, and the like. Perhaps the most famous case was the massive resistance campaign of the teachers, which was met by German brutality.

The Communists played no role in this side of the resistance, concentrating instead only on its military side. Their undisciplined militance led to confrontations with the resistance leadership, and prompted a letter sent on November 15, 1943, from the resistance to the government in London drawing their attention to irresponsible Communist activity.

Within the resistance there was discussion of involving the Communists, but suspicion lingered from the period of collaboration with the Nazis. And irresponsible Communist sabotage activity afterwards did not help to restore trust in the "new" Party. The social democratic DNA -- and not the capitalist parties -- spearheaded the opposition to the Communists.

As the war continued, Communist hostility to the DNA and LO intensified. The Communists accused the social democrats and labor leaders of cowardice and collaboration, and simultaneously tried to recruit new supporters from the ranks of these much larger organizations. A separate Communist trade union center in opposition to the underground LO was established.

An example of the Communists' two front war against Nazi Germany and against the existing leadership of the Norwegian labor movement may be found in a scathing article which appeared in one of the NKP's underground newspapers, castigating Willy Brandt, the future West German prime minister, as a German and a splitter. Brandt was, in fact, a Norwegian citizen, working for the DNA and LO Stockholm office, and his "crime" had been to mention that several underground structures in Norway were Communist-dominated.

Looking back, we can see that Communist sabotage activity did little to hurt the German war effort. In fact, Norway's main contribution to the war was that it tied down hundreds of thousands of German troops who were basically doing nothing, waiting for an Anglo-American invasion which never came. It was not the Norwegian resistance which tied them down, but rather the fear that the Allied "second front" would open up in Norway.

Communist militance did win the Party some prestige and new members. Even such an avowed opponent of the NKP as DNA leader Haakon Lie pointed to the extensive Communist underground press as one source of its strength during and after the war. (Among NKP newspapers were Friheten, Radio-NYTT, Bonden and Hjemmefronten.) On the other hand, the collaborationist NKP press of 1940-41 had a circulation of less than 2,000; few were alive in 1945 who remembered (or cared) what had been written in its pages back then. And the merciless Nazi persecution of Norwegian Communists which began in June 1941 also won the Party some sympathy. Finally, widespread Norwegian admiration for the Soviets, who appeared to be carrying the brunt of the fighting, also helped restore the credibility of the local Communists.


Stalin delivered the NKP a real prize when he ordered the October 1944 invasion of Norway's northernmost province, Finnmark. By this stage in the war, with Germany's defeat now inevitable, Finland switched sides and the German forces based there (some 200,000 men) retreated into northern Norway. The Red Army followed them in hot pursuit, eventually taking over part of Finnmark (the Varanger peninsula) and its major town, Kirkenes, on October 24. The Germans continued to retreat south to Lyngen, but the Soviets remained where they were, never going past the river Tana, in the eastern part of Finnmark. A vast no man's land hundreds of miles long opened up between the two armies.

The Russians agreed to the presence of a hastily-organized contingent of Norwegian troops in Finnmark, thus reassuring the suspicious Norwegians that Stalin had no territorial ambitions in their country. (Though the NKP generously offered the Soviets access to ice-free harbors in Finnmark.) When the war ended, Stalin promptly ordered the withdrawal of all Red Army forces from Norway.

In Norway, as in most occupied countries, heated public debate followed the liberation about what to do with the collaborators. The Communists pushed hard for severe punishment for those who had aided the Germans. Few Norwegians remembered, or cared to remember, that a mere four years earlier, the Communists too had worked closely with the German invaders. And those Communists whose collaboration was too blatant to ignore, for example, Arbeideren editor Kristiansen, had been killed during the war. (Kristiansen died in the spring of 1942 in a German concentration camp; the NKP underground press attempted to portray him as a national fighter in an effort not so much to clear his name but the Party's.)

The war ended with the Norwegian Communists at the peak of their popularity. Since late 1941, under Furubotn's leadership, they had fought vigorously in the resistance, and they bragged about their efforts incessantly. The prestige of the Red Army had its effect. And Stalin's raid on Finnmark, making it the first Norwegian territory liberated from Nazi rule, played its part. The result was a briefly reinvigorated NKP, which did surprisingly well in post-war elections -- and best of all in Finnmark province, where it obtained about 20% of the vote.

Overall the Communist vote rose from a meagre 4,376 in 1936 to 177,000 -- nearly 12% -- in the first postwar election in 1945. Two Communists were included in the new national government.


Furubotn's moment of glory did not, however, last long. Though elected to the post of Party general secretary in 1946, some of his closest collaborators were even then expelled from the NKP. Following the Party's first electoral defeat in 1949, the Party's great underground leader was expelled with his adherents, accused of Trotskyism, nationalism, and Titoism. Furubotn was even accused of having been an agent of the Gestapo.

Party leader Emil Lovlien began once again to rewrite history, claiming that the NKP had been following the correct line before Furubotn took over in 1941 -- from the very first days of the occupation. Loyal Party members searched libraries throughout the country for their collections of NKP newspapers from 1940-41 and tore out offensive pages and articles, in an attempt to relegate that embarrassing history to what George Orwell would call the "memory hole."

Under the impact of the cold war, during which Norway abandoned its traditional posture of neutrality and joined NATO, the NKP resumed its historic decline, eventually disappearing completely.

But the issue of the role played by the Norwegian Communists during the Second World War did not disappear. In 1974, following attacks on the DNA by far leftists (including the NKP), in which the social democrats were accused of being untrustworthy, Haakon Lie published a small book entitled Who Can We Trust? on the NKP's role during the Hitler-Stalin pact years. In it, he reproduced front pages and articles from Arbeideren during the dark days of NKP-Nazi collaboration.

Lie summarized the role of the NKP during the war by repeating what had been said of the Finnish Communists during the "winter war" with the Soviet Union; they were called "Russians who spoke Finnish." It may be said of the NKP that they were "Russians who spoke Norwegian."

What appears to outsiders as a confusing series of sharp turns in the Communist line was entirely consistent for a Party whose main purpose was to uphold Russian interests. Whether the NKP collaborated or resisted, it was always loyal to Stalin and the Soviet Union.

Appendix: Norwegian Communist Electoral Performance


Norges Hjemmefrontmuseum: Norway's Resistance Museum (Oslo, 1982).

Andenaes, Johannes, O. Riske, M. Skodvin, Norway and the Second World War (Oslo: Johan Grundt Tanum Forlag, 1966.)

Gilberg, Trond, The Soviet Communist Party and Scandinavian Communism -- The Norwegian Case (Oslo/Bergen/Tromso: Universitetsforlaget, 1973).

Gjelsvik, Tore, Norwegian Resistance 1940-1945, translated by Thomas Kingston Derry (London: C. Hurst & Co., 1979).

Hansen, Marianne Bagge et. al., Foreign Language Literature on the Nordic Labour Movements (Kobenhavn: Arejderbevaegelsens Bibliotek og Arkiv, 1992).

Hayes, Paul M., Quisling: The Career and Political Ideas of Vidkun Quisling 1887-1945 (Newton Abbott: David & Charles, 1971).

Lorenz, Dr. Einhart, "The Norwegian Labour Movement and the Comintern up to 1943," in Jurgen Rojahn (ed., The Communist International and its National Sections, 1919-1943 (Bern/Berlin/Frankfurt/New York/Paris/Wien: Lang, 1994).

Mendelsohn, Oskar, The Persecution of the Norwegian Jews in WWII (Oslo: Norges Hjemmefrontmuseum, 1991).

Petrick, Fritz and Michael F. Scholz, "Norwegian Labour History," International Review of Social History, April 1994, Volume 39, Part 1.

Petrow, Richard, The Bitter Years: The Invasion and Occupation of Denmark and Norway, April 1940-May 1945 (New York: Morrow, 1974).

Riste, Olav and Berit Nokleby, Norway 1940-45: The Resistance Movement (Oslo: Aschehoug, 1994 - Third Edition, 4th printing).

Rohde, Peter P., "The Communist Party of Norway," in A.F. Upton, The Communist Parties of Scandinavia and Finland (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973).

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