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Harepus in Nazi land

Sonja Henie still creates a divide in the audience. And it's not easy to establish her reputation: Was she a heroine or a determined egoist?


To make a long story short, we can say that the women's ideal in the early 1900 century was not healthy: Corsets inhibited freedom of movement and hindered blood circulation, exposing the ladies to a host of health problems that at the time went by the term chlorosis, or puffiness. However, this ideal was the ideal of the old upper class from which the new, new bourgeoisie bore distance. Thus, the scene was cleared for the "flapper": a young woman who behaved uncannily. She could smoke, drive a car, dance to Negro music and practice sports – at all everything a lady in spe should not do. Sonja Henie, daughter of former competition cyclist and later fur trader Wilhelm Henie, was such a flapper. She spoke as vulgar as the sports guys at Frogner Stadium, she did tennis, swimming and horse riding – and she skated.

Sonja in Berlin Sportpalast 1930:


Her father and brother quickly discovered her talent. It was not necessarily the case that it had to be a skating race for Sonja, but it is possibly an explanation that skating was the only exercise women were allowed to practice in the Olympics in the 1920s. At the age of eleven, she received the final seat of eight participants in the 1924 Chamonix Olympics. It is unclear to what extent she was unjustly convicted of being a child. Already the same year she gave shows in Vienna and Berlin, and there was only one thing that stood in the head of Sonja and the father after the Olympics: She should be the best. And she was. She won superbly in figure skating in the three consecutive Winter Olympics, in St. Moritz, Lake Placid and Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

Henie revolutionized figure skating as a branch.

The reason for Sonja's success was that she revolutionized figure skating as a branch. It had been a stiff affair with technical duties – Sonja chose music herself and choreographed her performances to make them dance on ice. She wore thigh-short, tight-fitting suits that gave a completely different freedom of movement than before. These costumes may also have enthralled the audience. In Germany, she quickly became a success. The Germans regarded dance as the union of body and soul, and had never seen anything like blonde Sonja Henie's performances. They gave her the nickname "Häseken" (harepus).


Like Kirsten Heiberg, who had a career as an actor and songwriter in Germany from 1938 on, Sonja Henie was neither a Nazi nor an anti-Nazi. She seized the opportunities that were offered, and it is important to remember that Norway had looked culturally to Germany right up to the Second World War – there we all sent with talent, so that it could be something out of them. Hitler and Goebbels were as enthusiastic as their people. The Nazis were keen on sports, not top sports, but they could not resist this Aryan princess who swam around on the ice like no one before her. Sonja smiled and refused, and was invited to lunch in the Eagle's Nest shortly before the 1936 Olympics. "Look here," says Dad Wilhelm. Sonja got this from Hitler. That was after the show in Munich a few weeks ago. Hitler was present and was very excited. After returning to the hotel, we were told that the driver wanted to welcome us. I must say he was gracious and interested. This made Sonja a reminder, says the proud father, showing a photograph of Der Führer with a beautiful dedication and a simple but stylish frame ”(Morgenbladet, January 31, 1936).

Tribute and protest

Sonja did the Hitler greeting and shouted "Heil!" before his appearance at the 1936 Olympics. In his revenge Queen of Ice, Queen of Shadows: The Unsuspected Life of Sonja Henie from 1985, big brother Leif says that this triggered protests in the Norwegian press. However, it was only a matter of a couple of letters. Not even Dagbladet, which in 1936 had long since marked itself as critical of Nazism, mentioned this. "It was clear outside Sonja Henie that today she did not intend to take the slightest risk," wrote anti-Nazi Arne Skouen.

Henie had a burning desire to be the best. And she was.

In retrospect, one should be a very sympathetic reader to find some criticism in that formulation. And for comparison we must remember that Leni Riefenstahls Olympia premiered in Oslo in October 1938. She was present herself, and the city's journalists swarmed around her like horny youngsters. Even the aforementioned Skouen admitted that he had trouble maintaining critical distance to the beautiful and superb Riefenstahl. King Haakon was at the premiere and afterwards there was a big banquet at the Grand Hotel. And on February 19, 1939, the academic winter games were opened by Crown Prince Olav at Sportsplassen in Lillehammer. Norwegian students proudly greeted German colleagues with "Sieg Heil!". Norwegians have always loved to accept other countries' greetings. When we come from France, there is triple masking on the cheek, and when we come from India, it is "namasté".

Sonja in Switzerland 1947:

American citizen

This was not where Sonja Henie lost the Norwegians. After winning three Olympics in a row, there was no more to strive for ambitious Sonja. She was offered to do shows in the United States, and they were a great success, and with her father's help, she got a contract with Twentieth Century Pictures in Hollywood. There were eventually eleven feature films between 1936 and 1948. All with jam-thin action to be able to show Sonja on the ice. For five of those years, she was the highest-ranked woman in Hollywood.

Sonja Henie
1936: Figure skater Sonja Henie became a professional after winning 10 World Cups and three Olympic championships – the last in 1936. After this she became an actress and also toured with her ice show. Here, Henie poses in glamorous style on a white car.
From the Scanpix archive.

In 1941 she became a US citizen. That same year, she said no to supporting the Norwegian resistance struggle through contributions to the Norwegian pilot school in Canada. "What has happened to Norway and the other countries that the Nazis conquered is sad. But I have my home in America now, and there I have my interests. " She never denied this hair-raising statement.

This came as a garnish on a move by Sonja Henie that the Norwegians could neither before nor now accept: as a superb winter sportsman, she never marketed herself as Norwegian. You do not do this unpunished. Sonja Henie had an unselfish confidence. She had a burning desire to be the best – and became. She was selfish, cynical, vulgar and insensitive. At the same time, she gave the world art races from another dimension, and later Norway a magnificent art museum very many have enjoyed.

So. What will be the verdict?

The picture above is from Henie's debut film in Hollywood One in a Million ("Queen of Ice"), 1936

Also read: A star that's hard to like

Kjetil Korslund
Kjetil Korslund
Historian of ideas and critic.

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