There were many ways to resist the Nazi regime. Deborah Swift tells Historia about a quiet, but very effective, form of resistance which she came across while researching her new book, The Lifeline, set in Norway and Shetland during the Second World War.
I’ve always been interested in the French Resistance, but when I was researching for my new WWII novel, I came across a very different kind of resistance in Norway, one that was non-violent and showed that when people band together great things can be achieved.
In my latest book, The Lifeline, the Norwegian teachers’ resistance to the Nazi indoctrination of their pupils provided one of the plotlines in my growing story.
After the Germans invaded Norway, the Nazis planned that all Norwegian schools should follow a fascist curriculum. With this aim, Minister President Quisling, a Nazi sympathiser, disbanded the existing teachers’ union and ordered all teachers to register with the new Nazi Norwegian Teachers’ Union.
Horrified by the fascist teaching materials they were now expected to use, and the banning of existing learning materials, the teachers banded together, and in 1942 three-quarters of Norway’s 12,000 teachers signed a letter refusing to join the new union.
In response, the government promptly closed the schools, sending the children home to their parents, and more than 200,000 annoyed parents wrote letters to protest. In propaganda, the government blamed the teachers for the disruption of their lives, trying to sow dissent amongst the Norwegian population, and pressurise the teachers to sign up.
Classes were then held in secret, and teachers did their best to provide non-partisan education through any means possible. The sudden re-organisation of classes and curricula, all done in secret and under the threat of deportation, must have been immensely challenging, and watching teachers struggling to adapt to the changing face of restrictions during the Covid epidemic gave me many parallels to use in my growing novel.
In Norway, when it became apparent the teachers weren’t caving in to their demands, the Nazi regime had to find another ways to bully them into submission. They did this by ordering the arrest of a thousand teachers, five hundred of whom were sent to a prison camp near Kirkenes in the Arctic, where they were to be used in hard labour in sub-freezing conditions. Still, the teachers didn’t give in.
As their friends and colleagues were shipped north, a journey from Oslo of 1,800 kilometres, outraged students and families from communities all over Norway gathered along the railway tracks, showing their support by singing Norwegian songs and offering food and warm clothing to the teachers as the train passed. The men spent nearly two days crammed into cattle wagons before they arrived at Trondheim where they were put on the ship the Skjerstad to Kirkenes.
During their time incarcerated at Kirkenes, one teacher died and several were injured in the course of the back-breaking work they had to do, which was mostly building roads.
One teacher, Edvard Brakstad, who was interned at Kirkenes, wrote: “We have to remember the great task we are accomplishing by being here, doing something for the cause that we think is right and is the reason why we are here. So we just have to take what comes and hope that this isn’t going to last too long.
“Many prisoners have suffered more than we do, and soldiers on the fronts, in many ways, are worse off than we. Our lives are not more valuable than theirs. There are so many who have made greater sacrifices in this horrible war.”
However, in times of war there are always compassionate people. Locals helped by smuggling food to the barracks, and this kindness extended on both sides, with one brave German soldier defying his superiors and secretly helping the teachers create beds out of hay to improve their spartan conditions.
Intimidation continued, but the strike continued in unbroken solidarity, with teachers still refusing to join the Nazi union. Just like today, the mass shut down of the schools meant that, unless they were lucky enough to find an illegal classroom, many women could no longer work in the factories as they were now engaged in ongoing child-care. Production in the munition factories that were making German armaments slowed.
The government had to concede that factories could no longer maintain production with a school system that no longer functioned. In the UK, we are realising the same thing; that the school system is something enormous that we usually take for granted, and how much it contributes to keeping our society going.
On November 4, 1942, the Quisling government released all the teachers and abandoned their earlier plans. The cost to their war effort of having the teachers out of the classroom exceeded that of not having more Nazi Party members. Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling lost face with Hitler because of this, and is quoted as saying: “You teachers have destroyed everything for me!”
The story of the Norwegian teachers’ strike is used in schools in Europe now as an example of an occasion where non-violent resistance proved effective. Thanks to the courage and determination of the Norwegian teachers, their young people were protected from Nazi indoctrination, and Norway was prevented from becoming a fascist state.
I hope that by including the story in The Lifeline more people will become aware of this quieter wartime resistance.
Deborah Swift is the author of 12 historical novels. She has written two other books set in the Second World War: Past Encounters, which won a BookViral Millennium Award, and The Occupation.
Get her free wartime winter short story, Last Train Home.
Deborah has written a number of features for Historia about the background to her series of novels based on the lives of the women in Samuel Pepys’s diaries. Here are some: In search of the animals in the Great Fire of London; Health and Hellfire: Personalising the Plague in 17th Century London; Animating Pepys’ Women and Luck or lottery? Choosing your valentine in the 17th century.
The people of Gandal in Høyland turn up to protest and say goodbye to their teacher, who has been arrested and is about to be transported. He stand in front of his house holding a sleeping bag. Photo taken by the stationmaster: via Digitalarkivet
Norwegian children being educated at home during the Nazi occupation, 1943: via Digitalarkivet
Norwegian teachers in Kirkenes prison camp: via Digitalarkivet
Vidkun Quisling, Minister President of Norway: via Digitalarkivet
(Images from Digitalarkivet all CC by NC)