Scumbag studies: Major Vidkun Quisling

I’m proud to announce a new category for one of my favorite topics: Scumbag Studies.

Vidkun Quisling so betrayed Norway during World War II, from the Norwegian perspective, that a number of things happened:

  • His Nasjonal Samling (NS, meaning ‘National Union’) party had cooties even when it was the only permitted party in the country. Few joined it willingly, and many shunned it no matter the consequences. Put another way, it couldn’t even put the puck into an empty net.
  • Part of that was because it was so clearly identified with the Nazi invaders, though it predated them. In spite of Adolf’s notions of Nordic brotherhood, Norwegians preferred not to be invaded by anybody, much less ordered around by outsiders.
  • Part was just that Quisling was about as popular in Norway as arthritis, even before the war. As you may imagine, his behavior during the war lowered his approval rating to one notch under ‘some guy named Sverre from Lokisvik who doesn’t get out a lot.’
  • His very name became nouned and verbed into a synonym for sordid collaboration and treason with a hated enemy invader. It remains so to this day.
  • Not even the Nazis trusted him with any real power, listened much to him, or did anything but string him along and brush him aside when stuff got real.
  • His countrypeople, not known for brutal judicial punishments, stood him against a wall after the war and shot him.

At which point, given all of the above, his last thoughts may well have been: Ja, ja…det gikk jo til helvete. (Loosely translated: “Well, that definitely sucked.” Thanks to Gjermund Higraff for supplying the suitable Norwegian rendering.)

To understand Quisling, I believe one must understand Norway. It is one of the most rugged countries on Earth, very narrow in many places between the Swedish or Finnish border and the North or Norwegian Seas. Its lowest point has a latitude about as far north as Juneau, Alaska, Churchill, Manitoba, or the very northern tip of Scotland. Its mainland’s northernmost point is farther north than about a third of Greenland, well north of Iqaluit (Baffin Island, Nunavut), and nearly as far north as Barrow, Alaska. From a topography and form standpoint, it bears some resemblance to Chile. At one spot, a Norwegian Sea fjord extends inland to within two miles of the Swedish border.

These days they have oil, but in the 1940s, the Norwegians mainly had fishing, some timber. A great percentage of Norwegian travel was by coastal watercraft, still quite common today. Norway is just not that easy to get around. It wasn’t very populous (still isn’t), with a minimal standing army (like now). Building and maintaining roads is challenging enough in good weather, and for part of the year, Norway does not have gentle weather.

Norway became independent of Sweden in 1905, having been owned by Sweden or Denmark for centuries. Consider that: when Adolf invaded it in 1940, Norwegian independent nationalism was a relatively recent phenomenon. War left Norway alone in WWI, but for WWII it was going to be another story. Germany’s main year-round ice-free source of quality iron ore was the mines in northern Sweden near Gällivare. The easiest mode of transport was for the Swedes to ship the ore overland to the Norwegian port of Narvik, then south by sea. Without that iron ore, the German war effort was screwed. Once war broke out, the Allies would be certain to run great risks to interdict this supply, and the Germans would go to great lengths to protect it. Whether Norwegians like it or not–and they did not–Norway was going to find itself caught up in WWII.

This was Quisling’s country, and he was at heart an ardent if deluded Norwegian patriot. He was a tall, dour, anti-social man not given to small talk; he was great at math, and may perhaps have had Asperger’s. He would have been first one voted off the island in Survivor. His military career might have gone better but for the length of time he spent on missions to the Soviet Union, mostly on humanitarian work. The early Soviet Union found creative ways to starve many of its people despite some of the best farmland in Europe, and this didn’t endear the socialist model to Quisling. One can see why.

He returned to Norway in 1929 under somewhat of a cloud, bringing a big art collection he’d bought on the cheap. He envisioned a more militarized Norway, hewing toward fundamentalist Lutheran values, very hostile to organized labor and anything that might make Norway lean toward or imitate the USSR. By the standards of his day, he was a rock-ribbed nationalist and socio-political conservative. He authored a rather odd philosophy called Universism, which as near as I can tell, asserted nothing profound. (In more recent times, a group of freethinkers seems to have gotten this title on sale at a thrift store, and is now using it to describe a philosophy they can’t seem to summarize with any brevity.)

Not long after he got home, Quisling left the Norwegian Army to enter politics. It only took him about four years to rise to Minister of Defense, then alienate most of Norway. The population at large rejected not only Quisling, but many of his more extreme ideas. He formed a fringe party, which became the aforementioned NS, with himself as Fører. To mainstream Norway, especially with Hitler’s rise to absolute power in Germany right around that time, the NS looked and sounded a lot like a Norwegian variant of Nazism. It couldn’t get a single candidate elected to the Storting (Parliament), and Quisling remained a fringe character. When he started cozying up to the Nazis, and growing increasingly anti-Jewish in his rhetoric, Norwegians figured they’d read Quisling correctly. By the outbreak of war in 1939, he’d have had trouble getting elected dogcatcher. He was political poison.

One wonders: with so few Jews in Norway, how the hell did Quisling find a reason to become an anti-Semite? Where did he manage to find some Semites to be anti-? Well, turns out that he got ripped off trying to sell some of his art in the US through his brother, and he believed that the people who ripped him off were Jewish (I haven’t verified whether they were). So it became something of a personal thing, but the issue originated outside Norway–he had to hunt up some Semites elsewhere. Of course, once he got the racist bee in his bonnet, his mind could come up with Jewish/leftist/atheist dangers anywhere it wanted to see them. In my view, the warped aspect of this thinking is that he could somehow conclude that the Nazi outcome had any chance of being better than, say, the rise of a strong left/labor movement.

In 1940, before the British and French could get saddled up to invade Norway, the Germans struck first. The Anglo-Franco-Polish force originally designated to help Finland (but which dawdled all winter until the Finns had to sue for peace), but then was intended for use invading Norway, now showed up to help the Norwegians. The Allied troops fought bravely, but did not change the ultimate outcome very much. Most of Norway’s real help came from its own army, which hadn’t even been mobilized and was taken by surprise in that state, but nonetheless resisted for sixty-two days–something France would not manage, despite more and better tanks than Germany. The Germans paid a price, though, losing the heavy cruiser Blucher to land-based torpedoes in the Oslofjord. That pissed the Germans off, as Germany didn’t have many capital ships.

Early in the invasion, Quisling had an Alexander Haig moment (“I’m in control here…”), got onto the airwaves, and started telling the Norwegian armed forces to go home. He had no authority to do that. He assumed that he would now, as Fører, recondition Norway into the model Nazi ally and regain its domestic independence. He spent the whole war trying to do that, with the Germans promising him more independence and reneging most of the time on the grounds that Quisling couldn’t deliver the goods. He could not inspire Norwegians to accept the end of their multiparty constitutional monarchy and learn to love being good worker bees within the Greater Nazi Area, moving iron ore and catching fish. Several hundred thousand German troops occupied Norway throughout the war, which is extraordinary considering the Norwegian wartime population of about three million. Imagine one German to guard every six Norwegian men, women and children.

While the Germans grudgingly installed Quisling as a puppet leader (setting aside the gradual details leading up to that stage) almost two years after they took charge, the real power remained with Nazi German Reichskommissar Josef Terboven, who preferred to work with more reliable, less scrupulous domestic traitors (notably Jonas Lie). For all his associations and unpopularity, Quisling showed minimal will to brutalize Norwegians, or to extend foreign power over them. His entire concept was to influence Norway to regain its domestic if not foreign policy independence. Treasonous? Uh, hello. You’re saying we should work our way into the status of Axis minor power, and forsake our legitimate government and monarchy for that imposed by our invaders? Your treasoning is flawed.

The Swedish press drove both Quisling and Terboven nuts, because the Swedes were reporting the truth about the occupation/collaboration police state in Norway, and nothing offended Nazis and their sympathizers like accurate portrayal of their deeds. (Today they would be on Twitter wailing about “Fake news!”) A great many Norwegian refugees fled to Sweden during the war, with stories to tell. Nazis never did like a press they could not control. But there were worse collaborators than Quisling in World War II, notably Pétain, Chautemps, Laval, and Darlan of France, Degrelle of Belgium, and Kaminski and Vlasov of the Soviet Union. All those had far bloodier hands than Vidkun Quisling, and in most cases far more sordid motivations.

When the war ended, Norway was one of the last large areas to be liberated. The government returned from exile, and high on the to-do list was the arrest of collaborators. Quisling never seems to have considered flight abroad, which he might have managed with some effort. This is where it starts to get ugly in a different way. Quisling’s confinement was debilitating, and he wasn’t allowed to peruse all the evidence that would be used against him in court. By the time trial came along, he was in questionable condition to defend himself, deprived of the necessary means. Judicial conduct was not to a high standard. All that may or may not have been legal under the Norwegian system–I don’t recall having ever been admitted to the Norwegian bar–but it does brush against the reasonable definition of ‘show trial.’ Not as bad in some ways as the Rosenberg case in my own country, but worse in others. Emotions were high, and when that is the case, jurisprudence bends and breaks.

It’s dumb, though, because the entire nation had seen Quisling commit treason. Might as well make the whole trial squeaky-clean-fair, since it’s not as if he had much chance of acquittal. His name already the accepted term for ‘traitor’ or ‘collaborationist,’ a Norwegian firing squad shot Quisling to death on 24 October 1945. The Fører claimed to the end that he was innocent, and in his mind, he probably was.

Had Vidkun Quisling reported for duty with the Norwegian Army and become a resistance leader, he might today be a revered Norwegian hero in the mold of Gunnar Sønsteby, Knut Haukelid, Otto Ruge, or King Haakon VII himself.

Then again, in his mind, he’d only wanted the best all along for a country he loved. He just forgot about the part that says: ‘Your country already has a legitimate government, and the electorate has rejected you, and the patriotic act is to accept that.’

He also forgot about the key proviso that says: ‘If a brutal dictatorship invades us, and you side with it, when we catch up with you, good intentions are not going to cut it.’


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