In the early 1980s, I was active in the peace movement and took part in the leadership of the peace bike race Bike for Peace, from Moscow to Washington (DC). I often heard clicking noises on the phone, and I was sure I was being monitored. I thought it was uncomfortable. How did it feel then for those who were really monitored in this country, the Communists, from the 1930s until well into the 1960s? A new book provides shocking insight into a systematic survey of Norwegians.
We feel that we are living in a crucial time. But how must it not have felt in the 1930s? After the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Treaty of Versailles of 1919 which marked the final settlement after the First World War, there was general political unrest in Europe. Would we not have been gripped by communism's beautiful overarching idea of equality, freedom and international brotherhood had we lived then? The Norwegian Labor Party, radical as few, eventually distanced itself from communism and withdrew from the Communist International (Comintern) in 1923. This led to a split in the party and gave birth to the Norwegian Communist Party (NKP).
In the book Pursued by the state Alexander Wisting takes us into the social, cultural and political struggles that are being waged in Norway and Europe towards a new outbreak of war in 1939, and then the war itself and the post-war period. We are presented with a divided Norway, with a far larger echo chamber than what we live with today.
Which is worse: Bolshevism or fascism?
The burning question for many was how best to stop the rise of fascism. Under the Spanish civil war (1936–1939) several radical Norwegians went down to fight against Franco fascism. The Norwegian state conducted a systematic survey of the Communists who led this work. Why wouldn't the Bolsheviks really coup Norway if they got the chance?
«The most important task in the fight for Norway's independence, for democracy and
the rule of law is to reduce the Communist Party and the influence of the Communists as much as possible. " Einar Gerhardsen
After the attack on Norway on April 9, 1940, the government fled. Communist sabotage groups, such as the Osvald group (also known as Saborg) and the Pelle group, were willing to go the furthest of all in sabotage missions against the enemy – some of this was also carried out in consultation with Moscow. It was not until 1944 that the home front and Milorg became more operational. The government's dilemma was whether sabotage was expedient – did it not just lead to more retaliation from the occupiers?
Through 440 densely packed pages, we follow a number of named saboteurs and political leaders, in and out of arrests, actions and private affairs, both during and after the war, and not least the leader of the Osvald group, Asbjørn Sunde.
The web is tightening
After the war, the web tightened around the most activist communists. The Labor Party won big during the first post-war election in the autumn of 1945, with 41 per cent of the votes, but the NKP also made a strong choice, with 11 per cent. Aps' new leader was Einar Gerhardsen. Gerhardsen's brother, Rolf, party secretary Haakon Lie, LO's Konrad Nordahl, opposition and justice minister Jens Christian Hauge and editor of Arbeiderbladet, Martin Tranmæl, became the strong men of the new Norway.
It all culminated in Gerhardsen's famous Kråkerøy speech in February 1948, where he said, among other things: "The most important task in the fight for Norway's independence, for democracy and the rule of law is to reduce the Communist Party and the Communists' influence as much as possible."
This was the party that during the war had been responsible for some of the most spectacular sabotage actions against the Germans, and which the Labor Party considered merging with right after the war. What had happened? Yes, the Soviet Union secured its iron grip on, among other things, Czechoslovakia and sent disturbing signals to Finland. Was Norway the next country on the list?
A driving well told story
A systematic monitoring of Norwegian communists began, based on lists compiled from the interwar period, and which had also been used by the German occupiers. Not least, it was hard on members of the Norwegian Seamen's Association – Norwegian communist sailors had made an invaluable effort during the war. In foreign policy, Norway joined the United States.
We are presented with a divided Norway, with a much larger echo chamber than what we live with today.
It is impossible to reproduce the drive in this book. It just needs to be read. Wisting balances on a knife edge. He himself comes from a "communist family" and begins the book with a holiday memory from childhood, when the family goes to communist East Germany. The boy hears it from the teachers at the school. He is called a "child of Stalin". Wisting writes the history of the stigmatized, in a Norway that has cultivated the victory story and the Norwegian Labor Party's sweeping flags.
I can understand Gerhardsen and the party's fears that the country had a fifth column in its middle that could sell out the land to Stalin. Especially when we later know what Soviet communism stood for. This is where Wisting masters the balancing act so well. He does not underestimate the dilemmas. We get to know NKP's different factions. We understand why this was such a difficult time for the country. We follow the leader of the Osvald group, Asbjørn Sunde, into the cell when in 1954 he was sentenced to eight years unconditional imprisonment for treason and espionage in favor of the Soviet Union. He is also excluded from the NKP.
The zealous Håkon Lie
We should be happy that the party press does not exist in the same way today as before and after the war. Arbeiderbladet, how could you be so one-track? Aftenposten as well. Dagbladet is one of the few newspapers that comes from this era with the credit intact, according to Wisting. And with personalities such as anti-communist number 1 in this country, Haakon Lie, closely followed by Martin Tranmæl, it must have been cruel to end up in the files. These were ruthless men. Some of their methods can hardly stand the light of day.
In 1993, former Labor Party secretary and parliamentary representative Ronald Bye together with Alf R. Jacobsen and Finn Sjue publish the book They knew everything… Reports from the ninth floor (Time). Then comes the Lund Commission in 1996. The conspiracy is established. In other words, this is familiar stuff, but Wisting fills the story with living women, men and children living in the middle of this sizzling cauldron of loyalty, ideology, pressure, concealment and the search for truth.
I myself may have imagined being monitored once upon a time. But I have never fully understood what many communists and their families in this country have had to suffer. Extra bitter must be that Soviet communism was hardly worth their all-consuming loyalty.