Jane Jacobs: The Secession of Norway from Sweden

Please see the Contents and chapter one.

Chapter 3, The Secession of Norway from Sweden .

From The Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle over Sovereignty (Jane Jacobs, Random House, New York, 1980)

For discussion purposes as allowed under the fair dealing exception of the Copyright Act.

We know little from actual experience about peaceable secessions. To be sure, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Iceland all became independent peacefully, as did a few of the still newer nations that formerly were colonies. But those were overseas possessions of empire. With only one exception -the secession of Norway from Sweden- new nations that were former provinces or regions of another country have come to birth in violence. They have either won independence after armed insurrection, highly disruptive terrorism or civil war, or else, like the Balkans or East and West Germany, emerged as a sequel to military defeat, prostration and dismemberment by conquerors. It is difficult, if not impossible, to sort out the repercussions of such disasters from the practical consequences of the separations themselves. This is only one of many reasons that the singular case of Norway's peaceful separation is interesting.

Although the separation occurred in this country, in 1905, it seems to be little remembered, perhaps precisely because the tale lacks blood and thunder. But it does not lack conflict and struggle. The kinds of emotions that apply in the case of Quebec, or for that matter in the cases of many violent separatist movements, were present in all their force.

Offhand, it might be supposed that the independence of Norway was easily attained, that is was a special case to begin with, because once upon a time, long ago, it had been an independent kingdom. But think of Scotland, Ulster, Wales, Burgundy, Aquitania, Catalonia, Galicia, Bavaria, Saxony, Sicily, Tuscany, Venice, the Ukraine, Latvia, Hawaii, Texas... on could go on and on. Nothing has been more common than the reduction of kingdoms, powerful dukedoms or independent republics to provincial status.

Norway lost its independence early in the fourteenth century to Hanseatic merchants who first nibbled away at it piece-meal by establishing rule over its ports, and then, in about 1380, allowed Denmark to take it under protection. That status became official in 1537 when the Danish king, in response to demands by his council, declared that Norway had ceased to exist as a separate realm and was henceforth part of Denmark.

So things stood until 1814, when Norway became one of the chips lost and won in the Napoleonic Wars. Great Britain and Russia promised Norway to Sweden in return for Sweden's contributions of an army corps to the fight against Napoleon and as compensation for Russia's seizure of Finland from Sweden a few years previously. Austria and Prussia agreed to ratify Norway's transfer. Denmark was out of luck because it had sided with Napoleon against Britain.

Between 1811 and 1814, at the time when the great powers were dickering over Norway, a British naval blockade severed trade and most communication between Norway and Denmark, so Norway experienced a kind of state-of-siege period of independence, lasting some three years. Up to this time, as far as history records, the Norwegians had not organized any separatist movements, but separatist schemes germinated during this three-year interval and thereafter the heady notion of independence was never lost. One is reminded of the independence movements that Britain and France found in their South Asian colonies when they returned to reclaim them after trade and most communications with them had been cut by World War II.

In Norway in 1814 there occurred by mischance a few month's hiatus between the signing by the great powers of the Treaty of Kiel, in January, which formalized the territory's transfer, and the actual assumptions of Swedish rule. During this interval a self-constituted group of separatists, consisting largely of Norwegian civil servants who had held office under the Danes, rejected the Kiel treaty, proclaimed independence, chose as king a Danish prince named Christian Frederik, and arranged for an assembly representing a geographical and occupational cross section of the population to meet forthwith at a little town named Eidvold, a few miles north of Oslo. That assembly's work was to prove vital in Norway's subsequent struggles, but apart from this success of its deliberations, everything else failed. The Swedes, when they arrived to take over their new possession, were met by a confused military resistance under the wavering leadership of the prince. Within two weeks the prince advised his quondam subjects to surrender and submit, and left the country. Norway was now part of Sweden.

In the meantime, however, most settlements had sent delegates to the Eidsvold Assembly. They did their work with incredible speed, all the more remarkable because they were there not to ratify a prepared plan of government, but to create one from scratch. In only ten days and nights they managed to debate, write and adopt a constitution. They also authorized themselves to create a national bank and national currency. The constitution provided for a monarchy and a national legislature, or parliament, to be called the Storting, meaning Great Assembly. At the time, the constitution was the most democratic in Europe. It was also so well constructed and so workable that it still serves as the Norwegian constitution today.

But grand as all this sounds, it was pitiful too. Sweden had made its own very different plans for Norway. In Swedish eyes, Norway was in effect a province. The formal arrangement was that Sweden and Norway were two kingdoms under on crown, like Scotland and England in the United Kingdom; indeed, the form had been proposed to Sweden by the British before transfer. But the actual rule was set up this way in Stockholm, the king appointed a cabinet of Ministers for Norway composed of Norwegian career civil servants. They and their staffs lived and worked in Stockholm and served at the king's pleasure.

On matters affecting both Sweden and Norway, the Norwegian ministers joined with the Swedish ministers in one cabinet. On matters affecting only Norway, the Ministers for Norway and their staffs served as the Norwegian government. So in effect these ministerial civil servants constituted both the provincial government of Norway and a portion of the Swedish government as well. In Oslo a governor general was ensconced to represent the king and to see that the will of the king's government was executed.

In view of all this, the Storting and the Norwegian constitution would seem to have been rather in the realm of folk fantasy. Perhaps that is how the Swedish government thought of it as first: Let them have their fantasies if it amuses and occupies them. At any rate, to its great credit, Sweden neither then nor afterward banned the Storting or tried to suppress its elections, never attempted to censor its debates or interfere in its communications with the Norwegian people, and did not poison Norwegian political life with spies and secret police or corrupt it with bribed and informers.

The swift collapse of initial military resistance to Swedish rule, and the subsequent smoothness with which that rule was instituted, may account in part for Sweden's early tolerance of the Storting. But the respect which Sweden soon extended toward it and the extraordinary forbearance Sweden displayed during a later period of provocation on the part of the Storting can only be understood, I think, as an aspect of the more general non imperialistic behavior of Sweden after the Napoleonic Wars. In striking contrast to so many nations of nineteenth-century Europe, Sweden did not embark upon seizures of empire abroad; quite as strikingly, its government did not behave imperialistically at home. The behavior was all of a piece, both at home and abroad, as nation's behavior so frequently is.

When Sweden took over Norway's rule, Norway was economically very backward. Today we would say it had a Third World economy. Most people lived by means of subsistence farming in isolated villages, or on a scanty export trade in fish and timber. By the time of Norway's separation form Sweden, ninety-one years later, it had somewhat developed. It had a few railroad lines, some decent roads, telegraphs and telephone communication, and the start of a textile industry, and it was already an important ocean freight carrier and builder of ships. But it was still very poor in 1905, with little manufacturing other than that connected with the shipwyards.

Thus we must visualize the entire struggle for Norwegian independence as taking place in two small and poor provincial cities, Bergen and Oslo, a few moribund ancient towns, and the scattered villages and farmsteads where most people eked out a hard existence. The pervasive poverty forced heavy emigration during much of the nineteenth century, chiefly to the United States.

Norwegians today marvel as the succession of their great men, generation after generation -farmers, foresters, craftsmen, schoolmasters, pastors and of course lawyers- who emerged from the narrow, drudging, tradition-bound life, and built independence on almost no resources except persistence and ingenuity.

During the first two years of Swedish rule the Storting managed, by persuasion, to pry loose two little fragments of Norwegian autonomy. Sweden had made what seemed to be a generous offer and probably was: the opening of military and civil appointments in both realms to people of both on equal terms. The Storting rejected the offer, and the rejections was respected by Sweden. This closed off to Norwegians the prestigious and relatively ample opportunities for public service to be found in Sweden, but of course it also meant that Swedes could not occupy government posts within Norway, and the members of the Storting evidently though that worth the sacrifice.

The other point won was that Sweden agreed to separate its own debts from the debts incurred on behalf of Norway. In this way the Norwegians limited their own financial responsibility for Sweden, but at the same time they insisted on taking their own full share of national debt without also having the power to help determine the size of the debt, the way money was raised, what the money was to be used for, or how the taxes to support interest on the debt were to be levied.

The Norwegians were also determined to use their owns central bank and their own currency which that hasty meeting of the constitutional assembly had authorized, and amazingly enough they did so, although with the greatest difficulty. They issued bank notes on silver standard, but since they could not raise the needed amount of silver, the currency was extremely unstable until 1842. (Between then and 1875 it worked very well. Then Sweden tied it to the Swedish krona and established a mutual gold standard. After independence, Norway again adopted an independent currency, which it still has.)

Thus two persistent themes were set by the Norwegians from the very beginning of their struggle for independence, which thereafter ran through the entire effort. One theme was their fearlessness, poor though they were, in taking financial responsibility for their own affairs, indeed their positive eagerness to do so. The other was their strategy of seeking and grasping whatever bit, piece or symbol of independence they could find, no matter how irrational it might be, given their subordinate status.

They did not win another of those fragments until 1821, when they got themselves a flag. It was not the national flag which they would have liked; a national flag was denied them on grounds that Sweden's flag was their flag too. Nevertheless, they got permission to use this flag of theirs on merchant ships as Norway's commercial emblem in norther waters. Year later they won the right to use the trade flag on all the oceans. So it went in the Storting, symbol or substance, push, push, push over the years, always for a little bit more. In 1837 they won another bit of financial responsibility: the right of local taxpayers to govern local expenditures for purely local matters.

Not all the ideas came from Storting. A young poet named Henrik Wergeland conceived the idea, in 1824, of an annual celebration of May 17, the date of the adoption of the constitution. The idea caught on and the day became, as it still remains, a great Norwegian national holiday. Wergeland's father, a clergyman, had not only been a delegate to the Eidsvold Assembly but was also the pastor of Eidsvold, where the poet was born and brought up; he had been a child of six at the time of the assembly, and what had been done there remained his pride and his passion. Wergeland was one of those improbably romantic, willful, bohemian geniuses who have so often helped give soul and fire to freedom movements. Young always in people's memory because he was short-lived, he was besides being a poet, a standard-bearer for every democratic cause he learned of, whether in Norway or anywhere else, and a tireless expositor of politics and economics, "as though Shelley had also been Cobbett," according to and English historian. On the strength of his shorter lyrical works, Norwegians consider him the greatest poet their country has produced. But perhaps his most extraordinary outpouring was a 720-page poem written when he was twenty-two, called nothing less than Creation, Man and Messiah. It is not read much today, but it evidently had an electrifying effect at the time. A later Norwegian poet said of him, "He willed a union of workman and king, law-breaker and law-maker, the wise man and the fool. And Norway's woods and mines and factories, her ploughlands, fisheries and shopping -right down to the beasts and the birds, he included them all."

A national holiday, an almost-flag, a few rather disjointed bits of financial autonomy -this was about the sum of independence Norway had won during the first half of the period when it was ruled by Sweden. After forty-five years, the career civil servants still governed aloofly in Stockholm, their orders transmitted through the governor general. The conflict, though earnest enough, had remained exceedingly tame. But beginning in 1859, all this changed when the Storting turned balky and set in motion the train of events that was to culminated, finally, in secession.

That year the Storting rejected two measures which had been adopted in Stockholm. One of the changes would have made decisions by law courts in either Sweden or Norway binding in both; the other would have established a joint customs union. At the time -although not later- the issue of a customs union had little practical meaning because the Norwegian ministers in Stockholm decided such questions as tariffs anyhow and did what Sweden wanted. Sweden acceded to the Storting's wishes on both these matters.

But at the same time that the Storting rejected the two measures for closer union and made the rejections stick, it also put forward a proposal of its own which was to have far-reaching consequences -a proposal that Sweden abolish the post of governor general. That proposal, and Sweden's refusal to accept it, signaled the end of tame and gentle conflict and inaugurated forty-six years of recurrent and ever more serious political crises and acrimony.

The question arises, of course, why the change in temper occurred at all, and, moreover, occurred abruptly and unexpectedly. No particular event of any sort precipitated the new Norwegian intransigence. It seems probable that and aggregation of economic and cultural changes, along with the development in Norway of a counterindependence movement, all of which had gradually been gathering force, ignited the Storting of combined to stiffen both its resistance and its aggressiveness.

Norway had recently discovered that in at least one economic field it not only could outdo Sweden but could compete successfully with the whole world. Ten years earlier, in 1849, the British had repealed their Navigation Acts, throwing open the trade of the whole British Empire to free competition among freight carriers. Many other countries, starting with Holland, soon imitated Britain. Traditionally, Norway's exports had been timber and fish, and traditionally, these exports had been carried in Norwegian ships. For some time, gradually and slowly as opportunities arose, Norwegian shipowners had added to this work the activity of carrying cargo for non-Norwegian shippers. Thus, at the time of the Navigation Acts repeal they were in a position to seize the new and much multiplied opportunities to be opened. They anxiously tracked the British measure as it made its way through Parliament, and a Norwegian ship was the first to inaugurate the new era; it was unloading Canadian timber at the London docks within a week after free competition was introduced. By 1859, cargo-carrying was well on its way to becoming the Norwegians' major export work and the largest source of employment for Norwegian men apart from subsistence farming.

The confidence and pride created by this first important economic success were being reinforced by cultural excitements and successes. The Norwegians had lacked, or thought they had lacked, a language of their own. The language of the pulpit, the pres, the schools, the government, the capital city, all educated people wherever they lived in Norway, and many who were uneducated too, was Danish, owing to the centuries-long Danish occupation and rule. The Norwegians pronounced the Danish in a way of their own (nowadays it is called Dano-Norwegian).

Actually there was another language, or rather, a great many different dialects of another language. Collectively the vernacular might be though of an "Norwegian," but practically speaking, there was no definitive or nationally useful Norwegian language because the dialects, although linguistically closely related, were in some cases mutually incomprehensible. Northern and southern Norwegians in particular were at a loss to understand one another's mother tongues. All the dialects were also linguistically related, although more distantly, to Danish. The situation was rather as if Norman French had persisted as the language of London and of all official and educated communication in the realm of England, while in the English countryside people spoke mutually incomprehensible dialects of "English."

Wergeland, ardent nationalist thought he was, had written his poetry, essays and polemics in Danish. There was nothing else for him to write in. The necessity had galled him, and he had wistfully thrown out the idea that Danish ought somehow to be "Norwegianized."

Not only did the Norwegians have no language of their own, they had produced hardly any literature of their own since the dim and remote times of the Old Norse sagas. So they assumed that they had no culture of their own as that word is usually understood. However, in the 1830s two young Norwegian students, Jorgen Moe and Peter Christen Asbjornesen, traveled among remote farmsteads and villages, and listened. In the 1840s they began publishing what they had heard -stories of loutish and bombastic giants, brutal and disgusting trolls, shrewd and industrious dwarfs, and wise, wily maidens. Today one cans find the favourites, usually credited to Moe and Asbjornsen, in many English anthologies of fairy and folk tales.

Publications created a sensation in Oslo. The stories themselves were a revelation. Their originality, fantasy and beauty -and their view of life- revealed a side of the national character Norwegians themselves had hardly appreciated. But the real bombshell was the language. The authors Incorporated into the Danish as much native Norwegian vocabulary and idiom as they could while at the same time keeping the work understandable to city readers. Asbjornsen, besides being co-editor, did the publishing (to earn his living he was a professional forester), and each time he brought out a new edition he and Moe enriched the language brew, rendering the indigenous elements still more numerous and prominent. By the time the difinitive edition was published, in 1851, not only had a new literary style been created, based upon proference for delecting words of Norwegian origin, but also a new and practical method for deliberately developing a language. Others took up the method, and even today the intentional and conscious evolution of the language continues. Norwegian friends tell me new words and turns of speach are still being rediscovered and incoroperated, and that people still find the process fun and exciting. The language that was developing in this fashion was to be recognized in the 1890s, under the name nynorsk (neo-Norwegian), as a second official language, making Norway bilingual, which is still is.

Moe, who was a poet as well as co-editor of the folk tales, was appointed Reader in Folklore at Oslo University in 1849, probably the first such appointment in the world. A few years later the first realistic Norwegian novel was published. The author, Camilla Collett, was sister of the poet Wergeland. This book, too, which was written in proper Danish, created a sensation. Called The County Governor's Daughters, it attacked the traditional upbringing of girls and paved the way for the women's emancipation movement which was to get under way in Norway in the 1870s.

Along with folklore and fiction came history. Starting in 1852, Norway's leading historian, P. A. Munch, Began publishing the six volumes of his History of the Norwegian People, and at the same time led the preservationists in a battle over whether the ruins of the ancient cathedral in Trondheim should be torn down as an "improvement" or be saved. Munch used this struggle as an opportunity to educate his countrymen in the achievements and civilization of medieval Noway. The preservationists not only won but went on to start a movement for restoration of the ruins, a vast and ambitious task that even now is still in process.

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