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Quisling, Gerhardsen, and historical "correctness"

By J.K. Baltzersen
web posted February 21, 2005

Around the beginning of this month here in Norway, while the smearing of Professor Thomas E. Woods, Jr. and his Politically Incorrect Guide to American History had been going on for a while on the other side of the big pond, a related controversy arose.

The said controversy is about a high school textbook on post-1850 Norwegian history, which has made its way into use at a number of schools. What is the cause of the controversy is a particular paragraph comparing the regime of Ministerpresident Vidkun Quisling and Reichskommissar Josef Antonius Heinrich Terboven of occupied Norway with the regime of post-war Prime Minister Gerhardsen. According to Aftenposten – and with my translation – the paragraph reads:

The two forms of government during the occupation and after the war did also [the differences have obviously been clearly pointed out] have certain similarities, which says something essential about people and politics in this highly modern period in Norwegian history. Both regimes had great ambitions and a strong belief in the State and control. Both wished to create a completely new society out of what they believed to be old chaos. Both wanted to create new people, each according to its ideals. Both strongly emphasized ideology and modern propaganda, and in both cases it meant different forms of unidirection. Hence, both forms of government are controversial.

I am quite pleased that such a paragraph has made it into a textbook; that no disciple of political correctness stopped it. In Norway – as in most of the rest of the world, comparing Nazism and fascism of the "right" to other socialism is very politically incorrect indeed. Not only are comparisons between Nazism and Communism justified, but so are comparisons between Western style socialism on one side and the harder types – Nazism included. That said, the sentence claiming that both regimes wanted to create new people could have said something about methods. Moreover, the use of the term "form of government" should not have occurred. What the author was doing was comparing the occupational regime with that of Mr. Einar Gerhardsen, and it would have been better to use the word "regime" than the term "form of government."

The textbook author and the publisher have conceded that the paragraph could lead to misunderstandings, and that it so has. The author has specifically proclaimed that she meant to point out that both periods are much discussed, and not the democracy is as controversial as dictatorship. However, a few imprecise statements do not justify the attack which the author and the publisher have been subject to. One suspects that the attacks that are made have the object of driving anyone who dares compare – in any aspect – the occupational regime with post-war socialism into the closet. How dare someone compare what Norwegians in free elections chose with a dictatorship imposed by foreign invaders?

In the media it all started with a letter to the editor in Aftenposten by history teachers Ms. Sissel Frogg, Mr. Inge Johnsen, and Ms. Johanne Volden of Asker High School on Sunday January 30. The three teachers called the book a scandal. They accused the author of erasing the distinctions between democracy and dictatorship. One could wonder whether these teachers tell their students that Adolf Hitler came to power supported by a democratically elected legislature.

The title of one of the formerly conservative Aftenposten's articles on the issues translates into "Mixes Nazism and Democracy." It certainly serves to point out that Vidkun Quisling had no democratic mandate, which Einar Gerhardsen did. However, as everything else I have come across in the media on this issue, the article avoids how Hitler rose to power. Aftenposten went out the following day with an editorial, which – putting it mildly – was an overreaction. The editorial called the textbook author a historically ignorant historian. The editorial moves that the textbook be withdrawn, not just that text be slightly modified as the publisher has promised to do. I do recall having read some post-war history referring to contemporary statements comparing the post-war regime to that of the occupation. It would not come as any surprise if Aftenposten has made such statements in the Gerhardsen period. However, these days, I guess we are all supposed to be deifying Gerhardsen. After all, he must have been a nice guy since he had a democratic mandate. Of course, Vidkun Quisling was a quisling, but that goes without saying.

Thorbjørn Berntsen, a long time Labor Party major figure, was interviewed by the radio station P4. The interview sounds much like one of those infamous hate mails. He told us that this is absurd. The author couldn't have been sober, he went on. He was asked about what this means for the memory of Einar Gerhardsen, and the answer was that no one takes this seriously. Moreover, he told us that what is severe is that such opinions have made their way into a textbook. He wonders what has been going on in the heads of those who have reviewed the book. Then he tells us that it's completely sick. Of course, Berntsen is very interested in avoiding any questioning about the period in Norway that goes by the term "the one party state." I guess he has no more intelligent way of doing so.

A few people have also defended the "infamous" textbook author. Norwegian historian and professor Hans Fredrik Dahl, the author of a work which translates into English as "A Just Settlement? The Judicial Settlement in Norway after 1945", rejects the claim that the book goes easy on Nazism. He tells us that the entire presentation reflects the dictatorship and Nazism with all its dark sides, but that this textbook deviates from the black and white picture. He concedes that some of the comparisons are daring.

There are dark sides of the occupational period, dark sides which we can be glad we did not experience when the war was over. That is not to say that there were no dark sides of the Gerhardsen regime. There were dark sides to it. It was plain post-war Western style socialism, and to a certain extent it certainly has similarities with Nazism. To my knowledge there is no one who actually has read the "infamous" textbook, who does claim that those dark sides of the occupational period that are exclusive to it are claimed in the book also to be a part of the Gerhardsen regime.

A letter to the editor in Aftenposten also defended the textbook. The letter told us that we are moving away from the old way of teaching history, which basically means learning what the textbook says and then repeating it. The new way is to involve several interpretations, so that students intelligently can discuss historical uncertainties and different ways of interpreting them. Moreover, the letter claims the controversial textbook to be the first textbook to apply established research results despite contrast with popular and mythical views about the occupational period. It seems the author of the letter almost feels sorry for the students at Asker High School, because they will be subject to the school of "correct interpretation."

In fact, a representative of the textbook's publisher has stated that the book has been written so as to meet the teaching plan's requirement that students are to discuss different historical periods and to stimulate critical thinking among students – quite contrary to the school of "correct interpretation."

The history teachers Ms. Frogg, Mr. Johnsen, and Ms. Volden at Asker High School have frightened their students into trusting their teachers and not the textbooks. They should instead learn to be skeptical of both claims made in books and by their teachers. Students at this high school had scored low on history tests "because of the textbook." They had interpreted the comparisons way beyond what the textbook author had intended, and according to said teachers this is completely the textbook author's and publisher's fault. E.g., that students have the impression that Gerhardsen was as crazy as Quisling and Terboven is the textbook's fault. They obviously refuse to take responsibility for their own classes. Moreover, they are calling for a central institution for approval of textbooks, an idea even rejected by a representative of the Socialist Left Party.

What we need is teachers who take responsibility for their students' learning, and who do not blame textbooks, which they should know beforehand what contain, or believe that students are to recite the official "correct interpretation" of history decreed by the Royal Department of Education and Research.

Lay those three teachers off!

J.K. Baltzersen is a senior consultant of information technology in Oslo, Norway.

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