“What did the resistance know?” This simple question has been the focus of fierce debate in Norway in recent weeks. The answer to this question, which is emblazoned on the cover of a new book by journalist Marte Michelet, threatens to shatter Norway's greatest myth: the heroism of the resistance that fought the Nazis and saved half the country’s Jews during World War II.
At the center of the debate is a terrible event Norwegians would prefer to erase from the history books. On November 26, 1942, a cargo ship sailed from Oslo carrying about 530 Norwegian Jews who had been arrested with the help of the local police. The ship headed for Poland; the Jews were then sent to Auschwitz. The vast majority did not survive the Holocaust.
According to Norway’s received version of events, the Norwegian resistance did not find out about the deportation in time. The story goes that the deportation was a complete surprise, though the resistance did help hundreds of Jews escape to Sweden.
But documents Michelet found over years of research reflect a more complex picture. It turns out that the resistance did know about the Germans’ intention to deport Norway’s Jews, months before the arrest order was issued. Still, the resistance did not try to save Jews but rather concentrated on the fight against the Germans.
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In her Norwegian-language book, Michelet says Helmuth James von Moltke, the German military intelligence officer who opposed the Nazis and was executed by the Gestapo in 1945, gave information about the deportation plans to the resistance and to the Norwegian government in exile in London. He did this after the January 1942 Wannsee Conference, where the Nazis discussed their plans to annihilate Europe’s Jews.
Michelet also found a shelved interview that historian and Norwegian resistance fighter Ragnar Ulstein conducted with underground hero Gunnar Sonsteby, the most decorated Norwegian. In the interview, Sonsteby said he and his comrades knew about the deportation plan three months before it was carried out. “We knew with 100 percent certainty that the Jews would be deported from Norway,” he said.
In the Norwegian media, it has been argued that the very fact the interview was mothballed at the Resistance Museum in Oslo could indicate that resistance historians and heroes worked together to blur a mixed past.
Ulstein, who is now 98, has criticized Michelet’s conclusions. “Every decade someone crops up and thinks he knows more than what we knew,” he told the newspaper Dagsavisen. “And with hindsight they ask why the resistance didn’t do this or that. I’m tired of this. It’s a pointless discussion.”
He said “Michelet doesn’t understand the nature of the war,” adding that the resistance didn’t have concrete intelligence about the deportation, while the atmosphere was one of rumor under “the fog of occupation.”
A business in every respect
Still, Michelet discovered documents and testimonies about anti-Semitism that was common in the resistance. She also learned that despite the resistance’s decision not to help the Jews, some activists realized the economic potential in rescuing them.
Thus, groups in the resistance that needed money to finance their operations against the Germans helped smuggle Jews to Sweden simply for large sums of money. The rescue operation emerges in her book as a business in every respect, one that left the surviving Jews impoverished. Wealthy people who could pay were saved, and those without means were sent to Auschwitz.
Norwegian historians are confirming the findings and are revealing equally damning details about groups within the resistance that competed to save Jews for money. Archival documents show that in a number of cases people in the resistance informed on their colleagues to the Germans, jealous of their profits. The price was paid of course also by any Jews who were being hid by the group that was informed on.
In recent weeks these revelations have caused a stir in Norwegian newspaper editorials and elsewhere. Michelet faces criticism from establishment historians, especially those of the Jewish Museum in Oslo and the Resistance Museum in Oslo, who have cast doubt on her findings and attacked her professional integrity. But a former president of the Jewish community in the Norwegian capital, Ervin Kohn, has defended her, noting that most of her revelations were known to the Jewish community, adding that the Norwegian “heroism narrative” began to crack years ago.
A tree at Yad Vashem
At the center of this narrative was the notion that the Norwegian nation was a victim of the Nazis. Collaborators with the Germans were depicted as a treacherous minority and punished. Most people were depicted as having resisted the Germans, with resistance members depicted as national heroes.
After the Nazi invasion in April 1940, the king and the government fled to London while in Norway a puppet government was established that operated at the behest of Nazi Germany. Half of Norway’s Jews, about 800 people, were sent to the death camps, with the help of the Norwegian authorities. Most of them were deported on a ship that left Oslo in the fall of 1942.
But the resistance smuggled hundreds of Jews – half the community – across the border to safety in Sweden. A tree has been planted in the underground’s honor at Yad Vashem.
Most of the resistance’s glory stems from the daring operation to blow up the heavy water production plant the Nazis used as part of their nuclear weapons program. The commander of that operation, Joachim Ronneberg, who died in October at 99, was a national hero.
But over the years it turned out that the number of Norwegians who volunteered for the German army was far greater than the number who fought in the resistance.
In 1996, discussion began on the Jewish property that was stolen and nationalized by the authorities during the war. Amid public pressure, a government commission was set up to examine the issue; a majority in the commission ruled that the government was not responsible for the Nazis’ crimes, therefore the compensation could be symbolic. But the government adopted the minority opinion and paid reparations to the Jewish community.
Later it emerged that it was the Norwegian police who carried out the mass arrests of the Jews, not German soldiers, and many Norwegians helped the police or turned a blind eye. In 2012, Norway’s prime minister officially apologized for the role Norwegians played in the arrest and deportation of Jews. A few months later the Norwegian police also apologized, followed by the national rail company in 2015.
In 2014, Michelet published her debut book, whose title translates as “The Ultimate Crime: Victims and Perpetrators in the Norwegian Holocaust.” It immediately sparked a controversy. Michelet said she began to research the topic when she moved into an apartment in Oslo once owned by Jews who were deported form Norway and murdered at Auschwitz.
Yet the national narrative continued to glorify the resistance’s role in saving Jews. Michelet’s new book, “What Did the Resistance Know?” is threatening to take even that credit away. The Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet has called it “the most important book of the year.”