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Book Reflections – A History of Norway by Ivar Libæk and Øivind Stenersen

I’m living in Trondheim, Norway on a 2 year expat assignment with my family. We moved here from Australia and I knew very little about Norway before we arrived in July 2015. I have learnt a lot through talking to Norwegians and emigrants, museums and reading but it was still very little so I decided to actually read some history, especially because I’m interested to learn about the history of the Sámi and Roma people in Norway.

I was drawn to the title of the history book A History of Norway from the Ice Age to the Age of Petroleum. It was written by two high school teachers (Ivar Libæk and Øivind Stenersen; translated by Jean Åse) and I was riveted by the book. I’m conscious that I read the history of Norway written through the lens of two people (in the mid 1990s) and translated by a third, but I found it to be balanced, comprehensive and written in such an engaging way that I wanted to read every word. The blurb on the back of the book puts it well

The perfect book for anyone who wants a clear, exciting and sound, one volume presentation of Norway.

As the title suggests the book does give the history of Norway starting in the ice age. All of the questions I had about who settled in Norway originally (the ancestors of the Sámi in the north and the ancestors of the Norwegian ethnic majority in the south), the Vikings, whaling, the Danish and Swedish unions, the rise of gender equality, WWII, and the establishment of the welfare state are all covered lightly in this comprehensive and slim book (185 pages). It doesn’t have all of the answers and it doesn’t cite the information sources but it doesn’t only present information that would make a nationalistic Norwegian proud either. I know a lot more now than I did before and I feel more comfortable living in Norway now that I have more insights into the history. I can recommend this book. Below are a few reflections on the material covered in the book.

The oldest written account of the Sámi dates from the first century CE by the Roman historian Tacitus who said they lived on wild plants, wore animal skins and both women and men participated in hunting. A Goth named Jordanes in 400 CE refers to Sámi skiing. From the Viking age onwards the Sámi had to pay taxes to the dominant ethnic Norwegians. From the 16th century some Sámi began keeping herds of tame reindeer and others ceased living a nomadic life and began farming and fishing. Traditionally Sámi people had an animistic religion but conversion to Christianity from the 18th century brought an end to that. I sing in a Church of Norway choir (for the love of singing even though I’m not religious) and sometimes the priests talk about the ongoing missionary work with the Sámi in the north of Norway. At the end of the 19th century, parliament decided that Sámi children must be taught in Norwegian and an Act passed in 1902 made it difficult for Sámi people to buy land. These policies were not changed until after WWII. In 1989 the Sámeting (popularly elected Sámi assembly) was created to protect the Sámi language and culture. The Sámi people speak nine different dialects that cannot be understood speakers of different dialects. In 1990 there were 30,000 to 40,000 Sámi living in Norway, 17,000 in Sweden, 6,000 in Finland and 2,000 in Russia. In the 1970s Sámi people came together to protest against a hydroelectric dam in Finnmark because it took away their control of land and water. Sámi people demonstrated outside parliament in 1981 and at the Alta river itself but the government sent in a large police force to remove the demonstrators. A review of Sámi right to ownership of land and water in 1994 denied Sámi demands. That’s all that the 185 page book has to say about the Sámi people. More pages were devoted to Norwegian diplomacy and aid work than to the indigenous ethnic minority Sámi people. Maybe it’s common to consider the Sámi as an afterthought and that’s why a Norwegian on Monday evening interrupted my conversation about the excellent film Sameblod to ask if I know that the majority of Sámi people live in Oslo. More about the Sámi to come in my future posts and you can read my first part about the Sámi here.

In 1939 Vidkun Quisling met Adolf Hitler and tried to arrange a Nazi coup in Norway. Under German occupation, Norwegian civilians did not experience the same level of brutality as in most other occupied countries. 55,000 Norwegians joined the political party that was started by Quisling (pro Nazi) and about 7,000 Norwegians served with the Germans on the eastern front. Many other Norwegians collaborated with the Germans and about 9,000 women had babies with German fathers. As Jo Nesbø reflected, most Norwegians proudly recall the brave Norwegian resistance but few want to talk about Norwegians who supported the Nazis, even though the numbers were about the same.

We’ve noticed the restrictions on imported foods in Norway and the book explains that it started after WWII. From the 1950s mechanization in agriculture increased and many farmhands lost their jobs and many farmers had to take paid work to supplement their farming income. Farmers persuaded a majority in Parliament (Storting) in the 1960s to pass laws protecting agriculture from foreign competition. Agricultural subsidies were introduced in an effort to reduce depopulation and prevent an over-dependence on imported food supplies. Despite these measures, between 1945 and 1975 nearly half of all Norwegian farms were abandoned but the area under cultivation remained at about 3% because the successful farmers took over abandoned land and cleared new land.

Have you wondered why Norway is not part of the EU? In 1970 the Norwegian government began negotiations with the EC but the EC refused to give Norwegian farmers and fishermen special protection. Concern that EC membership would lead to further depopulation of rural districts, increased exploitation of Norwegian resources and environmental degradation and domination by German industry, led to a majority voting against joining the EC. A second referendum was held in 1994 and was also rejected by a narrow majority.

Norwegians have hunted whales since the Stone Age and it became an important industry with the invention of the harpoon-gun in the 1860s. When stocks of whales became seriously depleted along the coast and in the north Atlantic, Norwegians ‘needed’ new hunting grounds and the Antarctic Ocean became the most important whaling area. Blue whales were processed on Antarctic islands. When new processes for the hardening of fats meant that whale oils could be used for margarine production, hunting intensified. Norwegians built huge factory-ships that in total employed 6,000 men. Reading this section of the book turned my stomach and reminded me of why I became a vegetarian and joined Green Peace. After stocks of whales in the Antarctic became seriously threatened Norwegians stopped whaling in the Antarctic in 1967. Whale flesh is sold at the fish markets in Trondheim and at a Norwegian birthday party I tried some, you can read about it here. Norway refuses to honour the international ban on whaling and continues to allow and encourage the hunting of Minke whales, ostensibly to provide food for its population but, according to the National Geographic, it exports whale flesh to Japan and uses the surplus to make food for animals farmed for their fur. If you were under the misconception that Norway is advanced in terms of ethics and treatment of others you may want to reconsider my last sentence. The Norwegian government subsidizes the killing of whales but its people don’t eat enough whale flesh so it flaunts the international ban to sell whale meat to Japanese customers. That’s not ethical. The rest is fed to animals being bred for their fur. Yes, Norway has a thriving fur industry. Last year, it exported 258 tons of fox skins and 1,000 tons of mink skins to the European Union! They have oil wealth! Why don’t they leave the whales alone and stop the fur trade?!


One comment on “Book Reflections – A History of Norway by Ivar Libæk and Øivind Stenersen

  1. Pingback: Book Reflections – On Horseback Through Asia Minor by Fred Burnaby  | strivetoengage

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