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Norway and 1905

Stuart Burch considers the significance to Norway – both in terms of the past and the present – of the anniversary of 1905, when the country at last won its independence from Sweden.

Exactly one hundred years ago the people of Norway were going through a momentous period in their history. The dramatic events pivoted around June 7th, 1905. On that day the parliament in Kristiana (Oslo) instigated what might be termed a revolution when they voted to dissolve the union with Sweden that had been forced upon Norway by the Treaty of Kiel (1814). A plebiscite later that summer confirmed massive public support for independence and, following successful negotiations in the Swedish town of Karlstad, military conflict was averted. When a rueful Oscar II abdicated the throne on October 26th, Norway was able to fully savour complete independence for the first time in four centuries of almost unbroken foreign influence, firstly from Denmark and then Sweden.

For a few months in 1814, as the Napoleonic wars neared their end, Norway had experienced autonomy and on May 17th a constitution was ratified. Although a swift and decisive military campaign by Sweden put paid to hopes of sovereignty, this constitution was subsequently used as the basis for Swedish rule. Norway enjoyed a large measure of self-governance, but at the international level it felt constrained. Calls for a separate consular service were the catalyst for the withdrawal from the union in 1905. And it is the passing of one hundred years since Norway gained ‘a voice of its own’ in the international community that is one of the principal themes of this year’s centenary.

Under the title, ‘A Voice of Our Own’, a wealth of events have been commissioned that aim to analyse Norway and the Norwegians of both the past and the present – and to debate their future. The organizers avoided the word ‘celebration’, preferring to say that they are ‘marking’ the anniversary. In this they are mindful of the sensibilities of their Swedish neighbours, for whom the events of 1905 have slightly different connotations.

Although war at that time was a real possibility, there is a sense of pride on the part of both nations that the union was dissolved peaceably. This flavours the present in the way that Norway seeks to promote itself as a world leader in conflict resolution. At a more local level the marking of 1905 has given rise to the slogan ‘Good Neighbours for a Century’. As if to embody this unity between Norway and Sweden the two countries have jointly funded a spectacular new bridge linking the two. Its ceremonious opening on June 10th, comes three days after the gathering of King Harald V and other Norwegian dignitaries in the Storting – Norway’s Parliament building and the theatre for the political drama that unfolded a century ago. A similar example of the past being re-enacted in the present will take place on September 23rd in Karlstad: on this day in 1905 negotiations between Sweden and Norway reached a successful conclusion. In the same town 100 years later the prime ministers of both nations will open a conference on the growth of democracy around the world.

Collaboration also extends to the cultural sphere, with two exhibitions exploring the cultural and political history of 1814-2005 transferring from the Maihaugen open-air museum at Lillehammer and the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History in Oslo to the Nordiska museet and the Royal Armoury in Stockholm. And it is not just in Norway and Sweden that the anniversary of 1905 is being observed. A range of events, conferences, exhibitions and projects is being organized by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Denmark, Russia, the United States, Germany, France, Japan, China, South Africa and India. This wide-reaching programme illustrates the ways in which history and heritage can be exploited to promote a particular image of a nation for economic as well as cultural purposes.

Britain, too, is a focus for activity. Throughout the year the V&A Museum in London will be displaying items from the wardrobe of Maud Charlotte Mary Victoria (1869-1938), granddaughter of Queen Victoria. When Princess Maud married Prince Carl of Denmark in 1896 she could have had no inkling that a decade later her husband would be crowned King of Norway, with her his queen. This turn of events occurred because Norway needed the support of the Great Powers to achieve lasting independence. Also, aware that their actions in severing the union might be interpreted as a radical act of revolution, the decision was taken to opt for a monarchy rather than a republic. By inviting Carl of Denmark to accede to the throne, the Norwegians succeeded in securing both objectives, safe in the knowledge that Britain would support a nation whose head of state was married to the daughter of Edward VII.

The V&A exhibition, spanning the late 1890s to the end of the 1930s, charts the changes not only in fashion, but also of the role of women in society during these years. The fact that many of the outfits came from the first major fashion houses of Paris and London reinforces a key theme of Norway’s centenary; namely that any ‘national’ history reveals a continuous series of outside influences. These are most apparent at times of international strife, such as the Nazi occupation of Norway during the Second World War, the subsequent rule of Vidkun Quisling and the exile of the Norwegian royal family – the return of which on June 7th, 1945, makes this year’s anniversary doubly significant.

The organizers of the 1905 anniversary have sought to use discussions about the past as a means of asking questions about the present. These include attitudes towards minority groups; the question of immigration; the environment, pollution and Norway’s vast natural resources; and to consider the future international role of Norway. That this is all very timely is confirmed by the final paragraph of Libæk and Stenersen’s book A History of Norway (2003). In it the authors wrote that, with the centenary of 1905 fast approaching, ‘Norway was facing an important crossroads’. Would it continue to present itself ‘as an open-handed peace mediator, like some resource-rich, specially-exempt Nordic Switzerland, outside the European process of integration’ or would it ‘finally say yes to membership of the European Union?’ Choosing the former ‘would mean that the long heritage of neutrality and missionary work would have prevailed’, opting for the latter ‘would show that the free trade and alliance tradition had got the upper hand and that dogged Norwegian isolationism had been dealt a fatal blow.’ Whatever Norway’s future, one thing is certain – its past will be used to assess it.

By Stuart Burch. The author wishes to acknowledge the support of The Research Council of Norway.

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