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German POWs in Norway, 1917-1918


knittinganddeath

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WITH THANKS TO ALL THE CONTRIBUTORS IN THIS THREAD, ESPECIALLY CHARLIE2 AND JWK. Please see this post for the spreadsheet, compiled by JWK, containing the names of almost all the German POWs who came to Norway.

And without further ado...

When the Great War began in August 1914, Norway had been an independent country for less than a decade. The young nation’s government immediately issued a declaration of “absolute neutrality.” While there was no guarantee that the Great Powers would respect this decision — Germany, after all, had kickstarted the conflict by invading neutral Belgium — in the end Norway remained free and neutral throughout the war. 

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Apocalypse over Europe: Germany declares war on Russia, France mobilises, Italy quits the Triple Alliance and declares neutrality. Source: Utstillingsavisen, 2 August 1914

Although fighting remained distant, Norway still felt some effects of the war. German U-boots sank Norwegian merchant ships, and both German and British sailors who came ashore after shipwrecks in Norwegian waters were interned in the country. It is also believed that between 14 000 to 16 000 Norwegians, including people of Norwegian descent living abroad, took part in the war as soldiers of other nations. 

Overall, however, the Great War does not play a particularly important role in contemporary Norwegians’ understanding of their country’s development. Perhaps for this reason, Norway’s role as the host of convalescent Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian prisoners-of-war (POWs) from mid-1917 until mid-1918 has been mostly forgotten. This article is intended to shed some light on the Norwegian decision to take in these POWs on humanitarian grounds; the response of the public; and the experiences of the POWs themselves while in Norway. [1]

Denmark Leads the Way

In the summer of 1916, Norwegian newspapers began to report that Denmark — Norway’s Scandinavian sister and fellow neutral nation — would accept convalescent prisoners-of-war (POWs) who were no longer able to bear arms. Doing so would ease the burden on the belligerent states of caring for these severely wounded men; these men, in turn, could regain their health in materially improved conditions; and it would allow the neutral country to prove its worth in the conflict. 

A few months previously, the Norwegian Parliament had debated whether to accept POWs with tuberculosis, and decided against it “due to a lack of suitable lodgings, fear of infection, and so on.” The question of whether to accept other POWs was not addressed at that time. Nevertheless, by September, Norway had publicly committed to hosting wounded soldiers. As Tiden of Arendal put it with great succinctness: 

The government has now decided that wounded prisoners of war from the various belligerent nations can come to Norway. The necessary formalities are already in place. 

Not everyone agreed with this decision. “In POW camps, one can find all sorts of diseases, with which our doctors are unfamiliar…The harsh Norwegian winters will hardly be conducive to the health of people from more southerly climes,” wrote a reader to the Søndre Trondhjems Amtstidende. “And one more thing. Are there any guarantees that we are not receiving criminals into our own home?” 

Another common argument for rejecting POWs revolved around the poor material and economic circumstances in which Norwegians found themselves. In particular, a wartime food shortage raised hackles. Wilhelm Omsted wrote to Hedemarkens Amtstidende to express his disgruntlement: 

Whyever should we bring many hundreds of strangers into our country, a country where we find ourselves — if not on the brink of starvation —faced with such a shortage of food in the coming year? 

Omsted was not entirely off the mark. Due to the war, Norway struggled to import food and various measures were implemented in order to ensure sufficient provisions. In April 1917, for example, potatoes could no longer be used to feed livestock; the king’s speech of January 1918 mentioned that rationing of sugar, coffee, grain, and flour products would begin at the end of the month. 

Other writers echoed Omsted. They also argued that the belligerent powers had a duty of care to their own prisoners. 

As long as we ourselves suffer a shortage of housing, hospitals, and food; as long as thousands of sick lack necessary care; and as long as it is difficult to find enough food to feed the mouths in this country, there should be no encouragement to take on the duty of the belligerent nations to care for their own sick and wounded prisoners.

Now that the Great Powers…have unleashed this terrible war, their one simple duty is to bear its burden in full. If we reduce that burden, they will simply unleash the next war all the more quickly.

While initial reports hinted that Norway would take in 2000 soldiers, in reality no more than 600 were ever in the country at any given time. By the end of the war, only 1100 had spent time here. To put that number in perspective, between 7–9 million men were held as POWs during the war. Although the individuals who came to Norway certainly benefited from their time here, they were so few in number that taking them in did not do much to “reduce that burden” on the belligerent nations. One can nevertheless appreciate that Omsted’s argument is rooted in principle.

Strong opinions cropped up on the opposite side of the debate as well. In a dichotomy that is still evident today in debates between the right and left, opponents emphasised the responsibility of the belligerent powers to face the consequences of their own actions while pro-POW writers focused on the plight of individuals and the moral necessity of helping those in need. “War invalids…have inspired Mr. Wilhelm Omsted to pen an article that should have been best left unwritten,” wrote a reader to the Indlandsposten. “These 500 unfortunate wounded men can hardly have such an effect on our food supplies that we should refuse them human empathy.” 

A reader identified only as “S.” countered by appealing to his or her opponents’ humanity and impugning their Christian sensibilities.

Have you ever starved? Have you ever suffered need or want? …When the cost of 600 invalids is to be distributed among 2.5 million of us — will this be too great a sacrifice for you and the rest of us in a country calls itself Christian? 

“S.” added that “war…is not the fault of any individual,” implying that denying help to wounded soldiers was to punish people who bore no personal responsibility for the war. (In the United States in the twenty-first century, the exhortation to “Support the troops” — while simultaneously opposing the war that they are waging — expresses much the same sentiment.) 

In the end, the humanitarians and bean counters had to compromise. Early press reports that Norway would accept “several thousand” POWs from both the Central Powers and Allies proved too high. By early 1917, the Ministry of Defense had whittled down that number to just 600: “150 Russians from Germany, 150 Russians from Austria-Hungary, 150 Germans from Russia, and 150 Austrians and Hungarians from Russia.” As the Dunderlandsdølen wrote, “This is indeed a small number in relation to the number that the other neutral states have taken in. But the difficult question of food means that we cannot accept more at the moment.”

The topic of POWs came up for debate again in Parliament in June 1917, well after the first men had arrived in the country. As we have seen, Parliament had earlier refused to allow POWs with tuberculosis into the country. However, the legislative body believed that it had not been appropriately consulted about the decision to accept other sick and wounded soldiers, and used sharp language to express its displeasure in the record of its negotiations from 1917: 

…it ‘was decided’ in the fall of 1916 — by whom is unmentioned — that Norway would take part in the humanitarian work that is being carried out in other neutral countries for the benefit of prisoners of war…

During the debate, a number of politicians expressed strong negative opinions, mostly echoing the ones made by civilians and press cited above. Olaf Amundsen also worried that foreign reporters would interpret Norway’s kindness towards German POWs to mean that the country did not care about German attacks on Norwegian merchant marine vessels and fishing boats. Lasse Trædal, meanwhile, thundered his general disapproval. In addition to his points about food rationing and infectious disease, he was preoccupied with the idea that some scheming women had hatched the plan to take in POWs. 

I must say that there is something strange about this case. No one knows where it originates. I’ve been told that some womenfolk thought it up, and ensnared some men to get it going…

…I want to express my amazement that the chief medical officer, whom I thought was a real man, could allow himself to be used in this way. …I think there is something feminine about the whole enterprise.

In the end, Parliament retroactively supported the government’s decision to host POWs. It also approved funding for the prisoners’ care and lodgings, as will be discussed in more detail below. Ironically, given Trædal’s stance, Norway today is considered a society in which feminine values such as consensus, quality of life, and caring for the weak and underprivileged are highly valued. 

Initial Preparations

Preparations for hosting these prisoners began with a visit by Colonel Hans Daae to Switzerland. His task was to investigate the Swiss POW setup and see what lessons might be applicable for similar camps in Norway. Among other things, he was meant to determine where to best lodge prisoners; it was eventually decided to do so in private accommodation. Thus, in the late summer of 1916, Harald Opsiøn undertook a tour of the country with the view of finding suitable lodgings.

“Everyone was filled with a real wish to help the unfortunate invalids,” wrote Oslo’s oldest newspaper. “Mr Opsiøen tells of stirring examples of goodwill.” Private householders even offered to put their properties at the prisoners’ disposal. In the end, a variety of hotels, sanatoria, and guesthouses were chosen: Hammerstad, Løken, Mesnalien, Konnerudkollen, Baneminde, Sasneos, Hunder gaard, Lifjeld, and Holmen gaard. Norwegian newspapers proudly announced that while Denmark’s barracks would cost 5.5 million crowns and take three months to build, “we have done things quite differently here in Norway” and prisoners “could come tomorrow if they so wished.” 

The combatant countries were meant to pay for the POWs’ upkeep and care. However, even in 1917, Norway was not a cheap country. It cost 6 crowns per officer per day and 4 crowns for each man from other ranks. Denmark, meanwhile, provided the same services for less — 5 crowns per officer and 3 crowns for other ranks. (For comparison, an annual subscription to the newspaper Vestmar cost 6 crowns in 1917.) The belligerent parties viewed Norwegian prices as unacceptably high. The government therefore decided to cover the difference in the interest of humanitarianism. However, this decision was not without controversy. Lasse Trædal, the parliamentarian who thought that the whole undertaking stank of female influence, also said that “it will cost us 220 000 crowns, and I can think of many ways in which that money could be better spent” (though he declined to elaborate on what those ways might be). 

The government also retroactively sought parliamentary approval for funding for “temporary barracks” to be used for quarantining prisoners who became sick with contagious diseases. These barracks cost an additional 100 000 crowns. One has the impression that Parliament only grudgingly approved these expenses, particularly because the barracks could have been obtained at a lower cost if the matter had been settled before prices began to shoot up. 

Only Russians, Germans, and Austro-Hungarians came to Norway. While offers were made to all belligerent nations, the Foreign Ministry explained that Britain, France, and Italy had turned them down. Thus, the only prisoners from Allied countries were Russian. It was not lost on some politicians that the lack of other Allied prisoners could be interpreted as Norway favouring the Central Powers. Perhaps for this reason, Karl Wilhelm Wefring made sure to point out that “this has been arranged in the most neutral of ways, such one takes the same number [of POWs] from the different sides.” When all was said and done, however, 600 Russians had spent time in Norway compared to 184 Germans and 309 Austro-Hungarians. 

When Aftenposten’s Paris correspondent inquired with the French authorities as to why no French soldiers would be sent to Norway, he received the reply that “the difficulties of sending wounded and sick soldiers to Norway are all too great. The journey over the North Sea is not only very expensive, but could also be life-threatening for the sick. The Norwegian climate is furthermore too harsh, and this change will hardly be good for sick soldiers. In addition, linguistic difficulties must be taken into account.” While some of the French arguments may seem more like excuses than actual reasons, they may actually have had a point. Upon speaking with prisoners at Hammerstad, Norwegian reporters discovered — much to their surprise — that these men found their new home to be very cold. 

“But we think it’s cold!” said one of the prisoners.

“Cold? You, who have come from camps in Russia, Siberia, even?”

“Yes, we think it’s cold, we’re freezing because many of us have so little blood in our veins thanks to our wounds, you know!”

While the French government preferred to send POWs to French-speaking Switzerland, German prisoners repeatedly mentioned how glad they were to be among fellow Germanic peoples in Scandinavia. A poem written by a POW and recorded by the Swedish nurse Elsa Brändström commemorates the moment of the man’s arrival in Sweden:

Blue eyes, blond hair,
Friendly faces and gestures,
and most wonderful of all: 
our first step onto Germanic soil.

A certain Professor Heim, who visited the POWs at Løken Hotel in September 1917, also remarked that the soldiers “feel that they live in the midst of a closely related Germanic people.” He implied that this situation aided them in their recovery, as they did not need to worry about being robbed, lied to, or otherwise deceived. He may well have been correct. Overall, however, his praise of Norwegian honesty and trustworthiness as “a profoundly moral and genuinely Germanic trait” makes for uncomfortable reading, particularly when juxtaposed with “the Roman people of Southern Europe,” whom he indirectly characterised as thieves and slobs.

Protecting the Population

While attitudes towards humanitarian action may have differed, everyone agreed that the government needed to take measures to protect the citizenry against communicable diseases. As part of these efforts, medical officers Joakim Sveder Bang and J. Arbo went to Russia in order to personally examine candidates for convalescent leave. Two Russian officers assisted them: General Popov and Colonel Nefediev. 

A list of 15 medical conditions was drawn up. Only men with one of these conditions were eligible for selection. Anyone suffering from a communicable disease was immediately rejected. As we have seen, as early as April 1916 Parliament refused to consider the transfer of prisoners with tuberculosis to Norway. Similarly, Denmark took steps to avoid introducing disease into the population. Danish newspaper accounts, however, describe prisoners in the “advanced stages of tuberculosis” as well as two Russian infantrymen who died of that disease only a day after their arrival, so a path to Scandinavia still remained open to these patients. 

At the Swedish border station Haparanda, through which all prisoners from Russia transited on their way to camps in Norway and Denmark, further hygienic measures were in place. As Vestmar reassured its readers, “Swedish and Norwegian doctors check that there are no prisoners with infectious disease or lice, and that all of them have been vaccinated, bathed, and had their hair cut short. After arriving in Norway, they are subject to a fourteen-day quarantine in the daily care of Norwegian doctors.” 

These measures seem to have sufficed, insofar as there are no newspaper reports of disease outbreaks linked to the prisoners. 

The First Arrivals

The German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners who had been held in Russia came to Norway by train. Haparanda in Sweden was the only border station that remained open during the war, and it was here that POWs en route to both Denmark and Norway crossed into neutral Scandinavia. 

The Lagerbote, a camp newspaper written by convalescent German POWs, described Haparanda in similar terms to paradise. 

Haparanda: one hears this name again and again in camp. Eyes light up with joy whenever it is spoken. Haparanda—it was like a sunrise after a long, frightening night. It was there that we set foot on Swedish soil and experienced such kindness and friendliness… 

As the trains progressed through Sweden, the public came out to meet them wherever they stopped.  

At all the Swedish stations, the platforms were closed to the numerous bystanders. In Ørebro a regimental band was present and played Die Wacht am Rhein. Then the invalids came out onto the platform and sang along. 

Although there are no reports of musical entertainment at stations in Norway, the public still turned out with great enthusiasm. These POWs were, for most Norwegians, as close as they would ever get to the conflict and newspapers were abuzz with the date, place, and time of the their arrival in the country. 

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Austrian POWs in Kristiania (now Oslo) on their way to Telemark. Source: Grimstad Adresseavisen, 15 May 1917

Signe Larsen, secretary of the Norwegian Red Cross, spoke to the press and elaborated on the prisoners’ reception in Kongsberg.

In Kongsberg, where I got on the train, the public were gracious in every way. The compartments were decorated with flags and flowers, and everything was arranged as cheerfully as possible for the poor soldiers. And I must say that they appreciated it!

This contingent of prisoners also received “cigars and small Norwegian flags that they fastened to their hats.” Austrians, “lively people,” cheered every speech on the platform at Kristiania; Germans arriving in Løken station “spoke enthusiastically about the wonderful nature up here. They waved to the public with their bouquets and puffed on their cigars.” 

Even today, Norwegians are keen to give foreigners a good first impression of their country. They also like to see these foreigners enjoying and appreciating Norway, preferably in an obvious manner — the prisoners attaching the flags to their hats will have warmed Norwegian hearts. Such positive responses may have been even more important in 1917 because, as reactions to specifically Norwegian surroundings and situations, they reinforced the notion of the nation as separate from Sweden and therefore also the legitimacy of Norwegian independence.

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German POWs arriving at Løken Hotel. Source: Morgenbladet, 6 May 1917

While the turnout at the train stations may have been portrayed in the press solely as a warm welcome for these wounded men, there was another side to it: Norwegians wanted to satisfy their own curiosity about these unfortunate souls. Newspapers obliged this fascination. Initially, the men’s wounds — especially amputations — provided a source of gruesome interest.

A foot had been shot off, an arm torn away, a head hit by shrapnel was now shrouded in bandages.

Many of them had lost an arm or leg and hobbled around on crutches; however, they seemed to be in good humour.

They looked terrible, emaciated and grey with bandages everywhere.

Such descriptions of the prisoners not only fed the public’s curiosity but also served to downplay the fear that dangerous elements had just been given free rein in the country. Men missing an arm or leg, “hobbling around” on crutches, hardly fit the stereotype of spies or criminals. Even if they were members of the criminal classes, they would be hard-pressed to rampage through society at large: running away from a mountain resort is difficult with only one leg (although not impossible, as evidenced by double amputee Douglas Bader’s numerous attempts to escape captivity in World War II). 

These portrayals additionally functioned to depoliticise the government’s decision to accept convalescent soldiers. This emphasis on human suffering rather than political decision-making encouraged the public to support humanitarian causes. At the same time, it can be understood as a means of reaffirming Norway’s neutrality. The POWs gave a human face to the costs of war and underscored the wisdom of staying out of the conflict. 

Daily Life

The most readily available sources about everyday life for POWs in Norway come from Løken Hotel in Vestre Slidre. Soldiers here sent regular updates to the Lagerbote and Sigrid Arneberg, who ran the hotel together with her husband, was happy to chat to the press about these exemplary guests. Personal postcards written by prisoners provide another avenue of information. 

Unfortunately, these sources muffle the voices of the men themselves. The press focused on positive and funny stories, while contributors to the Lagerbote were supremely conscious of their audience. Personal correspondence was censored. No negative opinions about Norway in general or the conditions of the camps in particular ever come to light here. The following excerpt from Aftenposten in May 1917 is typical: 

All agreed that they had now come to a paradise. “We didn’t dare to believe it,” said one, “when we heard that we would be allowed to come to Norway. We had heard so many times that there would soon be an improvement in our circumstances, and we were disappointed every time. When the train finally departed, we sat with a compass in hand to convince ourselves that it was really heading north.” 

Of course, it is possible that their prior experiences led them to conclude that Norway was indeed paradise on earth. A German POW wrote of his accommodations in Russia that “the windows were broken, the planks of the floor had split, and an icy cold pervaded the room.” Pillows, mattresses, and blankets were not provided; a further shortage of heat, lamplight, and personal space characterised the conditions for anyone who did not have the privilege of calling themselves officer. Lice plagued everyone regardless of rank.

In Norway, by contrast, the standard of material comfort meant that prisoners could think about things that were not related to day-to-day survival. At Løken, they set up courses to teach each other subjects like shorthand, as well as French, English, Norwegian, and even Polish. Hiking, boating, reading, and music-making were other common pastimes. Many men also played sports. At the behest of Lieutenant Dierssen (who was not a prisoner and represented the War Ministry in Norway), a sports day took place on 28 April 1918. Among other things, it featured a sack race, 100-meter dash, and “grenade” throwing. Given the “war-like character” of the latter, few men practiced it before the competition. Nevertheless, the winners managed to toss their grenade equivalent a distance of 45 meters and hit 5 out of 6 targets.

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Wooden leg left behind at Løken by a German soldier. Source: https://digitaltmuseum.no/0210110488029/trefot-antakeleg-fra-1-verdenskrig

As the wooden leg in the photograph above shows, not all men could take part in sporting activities. Prisoners also engaged in woodworking, gardening, shoemaking, food preparation, and sewing/tailoring. The press initially claimed that they were meant to do as much work as possible to make the camps self-sufficient, but whether they actually did so is unclear.

At least two men were fit enough to work at a local farm. Often, however, the public was not keen on POWs working outside the camp. Sailors of the SS Berlin, interned near Trondheim since the autumn of 1914, were accused of undercutting locals by accepting lower wages. The men at Løken also encountered local skepticism, hinted at in the Lagerbote.

From initial mistrust, we won friendship when we helped the farmers with the field work and set up a lasting memorial by clearing desolate and fallow land, which was now transformed into fertile soil. Many a prejudice was lifted with the rock and rubble, paving the way to cordial understanding.

Although it seems that all’s well that ends well, it should be pointed out that Otto Dickhaus, who wrote the above description, was prone to romanticizing everything about Norway and usually used his missives to the Lagerbote to indulge in very purple prose. Other contributors were more nuanced, such as the visitor who, when hiking the area with soldiers in the autumn of 1917, observed “shepherds…overtaken by panic at the sight of a German uniform.”

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Two German POWs, identifiable by their Attila tunics traditionally worn by Hussars. These men worked at Ringestad farm in Vestre Slidre during the summer of either 1917 or 1918. The Ringestad family were famous folk musicians, and Knut Ringestad, the boy in the photograph, became a renowned player of the Hardanger fiddle. Source: https://digitaltmuseum.no/021018239316/ringestad-vestre-slidre

Visitors seem to have been a regular feature at Løken. Among them were family members, who stayed for two weeks in the early summer of 1917: “The greatest joy was, when in the first days of June, both officers and some men of other ranks could, after a long separation, at last embrace a dear relative.” Colonel Daae, Lieutenant Dierssen, Gisela, Princess of Wied (whose husband Viktor of Wied was a German diplomat posted to Oslo), as well as a Reverend Schairer and Professor Heim, all came to Løken as well. While German prisoners in Denmark were graced by a visit from the Danish king and princes, however, Norwegian royalty never came to Løken. They may have kept their distance in order to maintain the appearance of neutrality. Maud was a daughter of Edward VII, and may have thus been more predisposed to sympathise with the British internees of HMS India who were held near Lillehammer, but there is no evidence that she ever paid them a visit either.

The Lagerbote itself also provided a source of entertainment. In addition to updates from the camps in Denmark and Norway, it contained short stories, poems, and art prints from Nordic authors and folk traditions. H.C. Andersen, Björnstjerne Björnson, Old Norse sagas, and the Skagen painters all featured regularly. These selections exude an almost pedagogical air and were complemented by visitors’ presentations about Norwegian culture.

Mental Health

There is little mention of the prisoners’ mental state in either the Norwegian press or the Lagerbote. The following account from Dagbladet, written upon the POWs arrival in Norway, is therefore noteworthy.

One had the impression that these people had suffered as much as a person could ever suffer, and were now in the grips of a dull apathy. Certainly, there were some who joked and laughed and puffed merrily on their cigarettes, but they only strengthened the somber impression. In some of them, one saw something in their eyes — a secret fear, a horror, that nothing could dispel. …There were no lively conversations between these grey shadows who filled the compartments or hopped around on the platform and basked in the morning sun. …Most of them remained silent.

Aftenposten spoke with an unidentified “German staff surgeon with the rank of captain” who is almost certainly Dr. Albert Henneberg based on his rank, hometown, and the date of his capture as given in the interview and German casualty lists. It is very rare that prisoners’ words are reported in the Norwegian press, and even rarer that these words can be linked to a particular person. Of interest is Henneberg’s assertion that he did not feel himself to have suffered materially; rather, it was the mental strain of captivity that most affected him.

“It’s beginning to be a long time since I said farewell to my wife at the train station in Hamburg. That was 1 August 1914. We haven’t seen each other since then. I was sent to the Eastern Front, where we came under fire fairly quickly. In the late autumn, the unit that I belonged to was cut off and isolated by the artillery and I arrived in Russia as a prisoner, where I have been in captivity ever since. I have not been injured and, materially speaking, haven’t been so badly off. I cannot complain. But it has been terrible all the same. I only had the opportunity to practice my profession for a short time. That isn’t good enough for a healthy man accustomed to work. The captivity itself was really the worst. It hovers like an oppressive cloud over a person… I spent two summers in a large dusty prison camp surrounded by a fence of insurmountable planks. A single blade of grass could not be found therein.”

To this day, Norwegians pride themselves on the beauty of their fjords and mountains; to deprive someone of grass, or nature more broadly, would have been unthinkable. Indeed, the POWs had been sent to mountain retreats in part because it was believed that nature would help to ease their ills. As the camp commander at Lifjeld told a journalist, “Some of them are very anxious, but it seems as if Norwegian nature has an improving effect on them.” While one may be tempted to dismiss this statement as confirmation bias, recent studies have demonstrated that humans derive multiple benefits from spending time in nature:

…time in nature — as long as people feel safe — is an antidote for stress: It can lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, reduce nervous system arousal, enhance immune system function, increase self-esteem, reduce anxiety, and improve mood. Attention Deficit Disorder and aggression lessen in natural environments, which also help speed the rate of healing.

The men were subject to limits on their mobility. The politician Karl Wilhelm Wefring argued that “it is naturally desirable to give them as much freedom as possible; but I also agree with the reasoning that they, being prisoners, must be interned, and that their freedom must not be so great so as to have serious consequences for us [i.e. the Norwegian nation and people].” At Løken, they were not allowed to venture further than 5 km from the hotel. Yet there were no “insurmountable planks” to wall them in; Dr. Henneberg’s “oppressive cloud” that characterised their Russian captivity seems to have lifted in Norway. The men often referred to themselves as “free” and made a clear distinction between their time in Russia and in Norway. While they described themselves as “prisoners” in Russia, they called themselves “internees” in Norway.

Public Reaction

The public often treated these men as if they were animals in a zoo. The first arrivals in particular provided a source of entertainment for locals, among them the reporter who took a weekend trip to the guesthouse at Hammerstad near Eidsvoll, where a group of Austro-Hungarians were lodged.

On Sunday afternoon we took a trip up to Hammerstad. It was very busy on the way up. …there were surely as many observers as prisoners, both children and adults, young and old. …We got to see most of them; they were outside. Some stood in groups, others sat on benches…some were on the large verandas and others on either side of the main building. Some were walking around and looked very well. Many of them spoke Czech among themselves, but the ones with whom we spoke used the German language.

Some fraternisation certainly took place between the prisoners and local residents. Its extent and character cannot easily be determined from the sources at hand, though, as the Lagerbote indicates, some locals met the prisoners with suspicion. Yet the German soldiers in their Hussar uniforms were also a subject of fascination and it would not have been particularly difficult from a linguistic perspective for either locals or prisoners to engage with each other; German as a second language was more widespread in Norway then than it is today, and a motivated German speaker can quickly learn enough Norwegian to hold a basic conversation.

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German POWs and Norwegian locals, photographed ca. 1917. Source: https://digitaltmuseum.no/0210111662338/tyske-krigsfangar

Professor Heim, who visited Løken, observed that the prisoners were able to make the acquaintance of families around the fjord despite the language barrier. He also noted, much to his pleasure, that the local people “did not allow their good opinion to be influenced by what was written about German soldiers in some newspapers,” ostensibly referring to reports of war crimes that proliferated in the Allied press. Rather, Heim was gratified to hear “the country folk say, ‘How friendly the German soldiers are!’”

Mrs Arneberg of Løken Hotel expressed only enthusiasm about her German guests. They acted “like gentlemen,” she said, and “their behaviour was marked by discipline and chivalry.” Her affection for the German prisoners contrasts with her impression of aristocratic Russian refugees who had fled the revolution and were housed by the Norwegian government at her hotel. In 1920, she described them, with typical Norwegian understatement, as “not exactly the easiest guests.”

The discipline and chivalry so praised by Mrs Arneberg, however, seem to be absent from the behaviour of at least one prisoner. In the spring of 1919, Odvar Rebne was baptised in Eina. His mother was Ragna Rebne, who may have worked at Løken hotel; his father, according to his baptismal record, was “the German sergeant Walter Rominski” of Berlin. In the late summer/early fall of 1918, Rominski had returned to Berlin as part of a prisoner exchange and it is unclear whether he knew that he had fathered a child. Ragna Rebne married another man several years later. In a sad but fitting twist, Odvar Rebne joined the Norwegian resistance during World War II and fought against the German occupation.

Leaving

Upon leaving Norway, officers often sent thank-you notes to local newspapers on behalf of themselves and their men. The following, written by a Russian officer in the fall of 1917, is typical:

Our hearts are touched when we look back on these 5 months and think of everything that Norway has done for Russian prisoners of war. No language on earth can express the joy that we experienced here in this country after many long months in captivity.

At least one such farewell letter papered over months, if not years, of simmering conflicts. The British sailors of the HMS India, interned since the fall of 1915 when a U-boot sunk their ship off the Norwegian coast, tried the patience of the local population at Jørstadmoen near Lillehammer for the duration of the war. Among other things, escape attempts, brawls, and public drunkenness contributed to a poor relationship with locals. (To be fair, the German internees of SS Berlin did not endear themselves to Norwegians with their escape attempts, either.) Yet Commander W.G.A. Kennedy’s letter mentioned only the crew’s “most heartfelt thanks for the…kindness that they experienced in beautiful Norway with its warm-hearted and hospitable people.”

In October 1917, an article in the Wiener Fremdenblatt gave a very rosy view of the experience of Austrian POWs newly returned from Norway. Probably for this reason, it was translated into Norwegian and reprinted in Norwegian newspapers.

Slowly hearts rejoiced, wounds healed, and illness was banished. Although neither missing limbs could not be replaced nor permanent injuries cured, the invalids’ present appearance shows that all that is possible to be done for a man has been done in Norway. …the joyful returnees will always reserve a special place in their grateful hearts for Colonel Daae and his fatherland, and warmly remember the bonds of affection forged in a time of iron, blood, and fire.

German POWs at Løken seem to have had mixed feelings about their return. While they obviously looked forward to reuniting with their families, their sojourn in Norway constituted “a bright time of happiness” and they, like the Austrians above, felt that they owed their improved health to Norway. Indeed, Mrs Arneberg thought that “they were not so terribly excited to have to leave.”

Nevertheless, by the end of August 1918 they had all returned to Germany as part of prisoner exchanges. While at least two internees of the SS Berlin married Norwegian women and remained in Norway after the war, I have not been able to find any examples of German POWs doing the same. [2]

Conclusion

It should not come as a surprise that the POWs who came to Norway during World War I have been so thoroughly forgotten. In the minds of many Norwegians today, there was only one war in the twentieth century, and it wasn’t 1914-18. Furthermore, only about 1200 invalid soldiers spent time here; by contrast, Switzerland hosted 38 000.

Yet their legacy remains. Although the country no longer maintains a policy of strict neutrality—it is a member of both NATO and the European Economic Area—Norway prides itself today on its reputation as a humanitarian nation. World War I was the first major conflict that Norway faced as an independent country, and its compassionate response to suffering soldiers of all nations has shaped policies and politics ever since.

 

 

 

[1] In this article, I distinguish between prisoners-of-war (POWs) and internees. “POW” is used here to refer to soldiers captured in battle who were sent to Norway from a third country to convalesce. “Internee,” meanwhile, refers to military personnel from belligerent nations who for whatever reason entered Norwegian territory during the war and were detained for the rest of the conflict.

Norway hosted both POWs and internees. The most “famous” group of the latter consists of the crew of HMS India, who were interned near Lillehammer. German sailors of SS Berlin were interned near Trondheim, as were the crew of the airship LZ 59.

Norwegian newspapers from that time use the terms “internee” and “POW” interchangeably.

[2] Paul Kristensen Weien married Elsa Aas and Hajo Hoffmann married Olga Helene Harham. They were both mechanics/engineers and founded a car repair workshop together in Trondheim after the war. After World War II, Hoffmann was expelled from Norway; he and 19 others were described as having “made themselves unflatteringly noticed when the master race arrived,” i.e. they took the side of the German occupiers. His wife Olga died in Hamburg in 1959.

At least 3 Norwegian women became engaged to Russian POWs. Whether the marriages actually took place is not specified.

Edited by knittinganddeath

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FROGSMILE

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A very interesting story of a little known, but meaningful and humanitarian gesture by Norway during WW1.  Thank you for researching and recounting it. 

Edited by FROGSMILE
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knittinganddeath

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@FROGSMILE Thank you for your kind comment! It was such fun to research (and I felt it could easily have become a dissertation).

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