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Norwegian teachers prevent Nazi takeover of education, 1942
Norway was invaded by the Nazis on April 9, 1940. Within two months, the Nazis had crushed Norwegian military resistance and installed a puppet government. Norwegians responded to the occupation of their country both nonviolently and violently. Because of the unprovoked aggression that the Nazis unleashed upon them, many Norwegians felt that all forms of resistance were fully legitimate. However, most saw nonviolent resistance as the only practical option, given the massive military advantage of the occupying military forces.
This resistance was centered on the question of how Norway could maintain its cultural and national identity during an occupation of indefinite length. Therefore, it largely began with people wearing lapel pins and other symbols of Norwegian solidarity. A particularly popular symbol was the paper clip, which meant "stay together." On the king's birthday, Norwegians wore flowers to show support for their exiled king. As their wearers grew more and more self-confident in their protests, the people would add to their lapel pins so that the symbols "grew." While this was largely a nonviolent protest, some people responded to having their pins ripped off by soldiers by placing sharp blades behind the pin to harm anyone who tried to rip it off. The protests were fueled by the presence of the Nazis and many actions of the occupation government, led by the fascist "Minister-President" Vidkun Quisling, a Norwegian collaborator, only increased the size of the resistance. For example, the creation of a compulsory fascist Youth Front led the Bishops of the State Church to resign.
The Teachers’ Defense of Education should be understood as a part of this continual resistance against fascism, which continued up through the liberation of Norway. While it is arguably the highpoint of Norwegian nonviolent resistance during World War II, it did not occur in a vacuum. Quisling and his Nazi backers wished to create a Corporative State, meaning a state where the entire society is geared towards fascist goals. When Quisling attempted to transform the education system for this purpose, the teachers responded with a very successful defense.
Quisling created a new Norwegian Teacher’s Union, which was to be led by the Norwegian storm troopers (occupation forces), and required all teachers to join on February 5, 1942. Almost immediately, an underground group in Oslo sent out a short statement for teachers to copy and mail to the authorities stating their refusal to participate, with their name and address affixed. This tactic worked best in urban areas, where teachers were able to learn of the plan in time to participate and between 8,000 and 10,000 of Norway’s 12,000 teachers participated.
The teachers’ action created panic in the Quisling government, and he ordered schools to be closed for a month. This decision sent the school children back home to some very irritated parents, 200,000 of who wrote letters of protest to the government. In addition, teachers continued to hold their classes in private, defying government orders.
Again, Quisling was outmaneuvered by the Norwegian resistance, and so the occupation government ordered roughly 1,000 male teachers to be arrested and jailed. Underground organizations continued to pay the salaries of the incarcerated teachers, removing financial pressure on the prisoners and striking teachers. However, the Gestapo used inhumane tactics in an almost entirely unsuccessful attempt to break the teachers. Rumors about the fate of the prisoners also increased pressure upon the campaign, but the teachers endured.
In April the government sent 499 teachers to a concentration camp near Kirkenes, in the arctic. When news of this action was leaked crowds of students and farmers gathered along the tracks to sing and offer food as the train passed. The teachers also formed their own choirs and gave lectures in order to maintain their sanity and pass the time. Around a month after their arrival in Kirkenes, word came in mid-May that the occupation government’s Church and Education Department had given up on creating a fascist teachers’ organization, and the teachers asked to return to their schools but they did not receive a response. During their time at Kirkenes, a teacher died and several were injured from the forced labor, but a German soldier secretly showed the teachers how to create beds out of hay to ease their conditions.
Eventually it became clear to Quisling that while the approaching winter might force the teachers to capitulate, he would lose whatever legitimacy he had left in the eyes of the population. By November 4, 1942, the teachers had all returned from the concentration camp. Thanks perhaps in equal measure to Norwegian pride and fascist oppression, the people of Norway had solidified into a resistance movement that successfully defended the schools from incorporation into the fascist state. The people would continue to give Quisling so much difficulty that he was ultimately forced to give up on his idea of the Corporative State altogether. Norwegian culture was successfully defended during the occupation.