Nordic Narratives of the Second World War: National Historiographies Revisited

Nordic Narratives of the Second World War: National Historiographies Revisited


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Written by leading Nordic historians, this analysis discusses postwar memory and war historiographies from the perspectives of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden vis-à-vis the Second World War. Focusing on the relationship between scholarly and public understandings of the war, this book presents the overarching themes that set apart the Nordic experience while remaining attentive to the distinctive characteristics of war time in each of the five different countries. A major contribution to the international debate on postwar memory, this fascinating account speaks to all those who have an interest in the modern European history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9789185509492
Publisher: Nordic Academic Press
Publication date: 07/01/2011
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 5.75(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Henrik Stenius is the research director of the Center for Nordic Studies at the University of Helsinki. He is a former professor in the department of history at Helsinki University and director of the Finnish Institute in London. He is also a member of the Finnish Center of Excellency of Political Thought and Conceptual Change and a member of the Nordic Center of Excellency of Nordic Welfare Research. Mirja Österberg is a PhD student in history at the Center for Nordic Studies at the University of Helsinki. Johan Östling is a postdoctoral research fellow in the department of history at Lund University. He is the recipient of the Clio Prize and the Nils Klim Prize.

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Nordic Narratives of the Second World War

National Historiographies Revisited

By Henrik Stenius, Mirja Österberg, Johan Östling

Nordic Academic Press

Copyright © 2011 Nordic Academic Press and the authors
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-91-85509-49-2


Nordic Narratives of the Second World War

An Introduction

More than seventy years since the outbreak of the Second World War, the great catastrophe still rumbles on. Indeed, the battle over the meaning of the conflict rages, not least in Europe. In recent decades, the legacy of the war has sparked inflamed debates on how to interpret the past across the Continent. In France and Belgium, heated discussions about collaborators and resistance fighters broke out in the 1980s, and in Austria and Italy a tardy examination of the history of the war years slowly began. The end of the Cold War, moreover, brought forgotten memories and suppressed experiences back to life. In neutral countries, appeasement, foreign policy and financial relationships with Nazi Germany have been a recurrent theme of debate since the early 1990s. Also in many parts of Eastern and Central Europe – from Kragujevac in Yugoslavia to Jedwabne in Poland – the Second World War has entered the public discourse. What was common to all the debates was a pungent smell of hypocrisy, as if Europeans had been living with a misguided history of the war.

Today, at some distance from the most hot-tempered contentions of the war, a general pattern has emerged: the debates were all confrontations between old and new narratives of the Second World War. Although they had much in common, the controversies were at the same time shaped by national traditions and experiences. To grasp fully the character and dynamics of the transformation of these interpretations, it is necessary to focus on a limited number of national contexts.

In this book, these national contexts are comprised of the five Nordic states. While the political cultures in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden have their own important specificities, these countries developed a similar social and economic system in the course of the twentieth century. In terms of security policies and their trajectories of the Second World War, however, the Nordic states differ rather dramatically. Denmark and Norway were occupied by Germany, and Iceland by Britain and the United States. Many Finns suffered badly in 1939–1945 in repeated military operations first with the Soviet Union and then with German troops, whereas the Swedes, by contrast, were spared atrocities, desolation and loss of life. Not surprisingly, the Nordic countries have had differing canonised narratives of the Second World War, and the revisions of these patriotic narratives have differed accordingly.

Working on Nordic narratives of the Second World War, putting together the network's goals and outlines for this anthology, writing and disseminating the individual chapters, and last but not least, composing the introductory chapter, has been an interesting challenge with many twists and turns. New questions have arisen while we have attempted to put the war experiences in new perspectives. It has become clear that during the whole process there have been four distinctive tensions that the network has grappled with. The five national analyses of how the narratives of involvement in the Second World War have been fashioned and revised over time show that they all bring to the fore the following tensions:

Security policy doctrines. There is a tension between security policy doctrines and interpretations of the Nordic countries' involvement in the war. It is obvious that history writing as a political activity has depended on the security arrangements the writer is living with.

Democratisation of foreign policy. Who has the right to take part in foreign policy debates and deliberations? To what extent have security policy issues been regarded as an exclusive policy area for the political elite, and to what extent are security arrangements an issue for the general public?

Moral turn. In what sense did the end of the Cold War cause changes – leading to a 'moral turn' – in the way the Nordic countries' involvement in the Second World War has been evaluated? Can one identify new moral dimensions in the interpretations compared with those prevailing during the Cold War? What has the role of the Holocaust been in the five Nordic countries?

Lack of Nordic similarities. One can question whether there are any signal similarities in the narratives of the Second World War in the five Nordic countries. Nordic citizens look upon the world in many important respects in a similar way, which could be called 'Nordic'. But in the field of security arrangements views have been too divergent to amount to decisive common patterns. In the end, one could argue that if one wants to look for similarities, one had best focus on only three of the Nordic countries, that is, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, and conclude that these three countries have one fundamental experience in common: the trauma of not providing a forceful defence or indeed not contributing to the defeat of Nazism. Finland and Iceland have not been much haunted by such considerations.

This introduction will address these tensions by underlining that one can look at these issues from different perspectives, not by casting about for one single truth.

The Patriotic Narrative

The divergences between older and newer interpretations of the Second World War have developed into a specific and vital field of research. Of course, such studies differ in their empiric and theoretical approaches, but they share an interest in the Second World War as constituting the national self-understanding and historical consciousness in European countries throughout the post-war era. All seek to explore the tension between the experience of the second half of the twentieth century and the memory of the first. 'This sharp contrast often seems mind boggling – it runs through individual life experiences as much as through the collective history of the age,' as the historians Konrad H. Jarausch and Michael Geyer have put it.

Moreover, the nature and change of academic historiography is closely connected with the transformation of the greater history culture. Throughout Europe, heated public controversies broke out in the 1980s and 1990s around issues related to the Second World War, from the Historikerstreit in West Germany to the debates on the Vichy regime in France, la Resistenza in Italy and Kurt Waldheim in Austria. Suddenly the legacy of the war years turned out to be a rich source for political and moral discussions, a challenging question for politicians, intellectuals and historians.

In the course of the 1990s, many historians took part in the national controversies, not least by analysing the formation of a patriotic memory following the end of the war. In his study of Belgium, France and the Netherlands, for instance, Pieter Lagrou stressed the importance of the glorification of the resistance movement, which resulted in the experiences of those who did not fit into the national narrative – Jews, Communists, collaborators – being suppressed and neglected. The memory of the war was nationalised. Only after several decades, when the reconstruction and integration of post-war society was accomplished, could the monolithic memory slowly dissolve and give way to new interpretations of the Second World War. In a similar way, Claus Bryld and Anette Warring examine how a hegemonic narrative of the German occupation of Denmark in 1940–1945 emerged in the immediate post-war years. In its character, this 'basic narrative of the occupation' (grundfortælling om besættelsestiden) was markedly nationalistic. A leading principle was that the Danes had fully supported the resistance. Of course, a distinction could be made between active and passive opposition, but with the exception of a few traitors, the entire Danish populace had joined in the struggle against the foreign invaders. Under the influence of the approaching Cold War, the narrative gradually took a more mythical shape: good versus evil, democracy versus dictatorship, universalism versus racism. This national interpretation dominated textbooks, television programmes and historical jubilees during the entire post-war period, underpinning Danish national identity. As Uffe Østergård underlines in his chapter in this volume, however, professional historical research renders the picture both more nuanced and complex.

The various national narratives that Lagrou, Bryld, Warring and others reveal have many features in common: France, Belgium and the Netherlands shared to a large extent Denmark's destiny during and after the Second World War. But many other European countries had utterly different experiences. For some, the war brought a human and material obliteration without precedent; for others, the destruction was almost non-existent. In some countries public morale was strengthened by the war, as the citizens felt they had a part in defeating Nazi rule. A few neutral countries did not take part in the war itself, but were still profoundly affected.

Despite such diversity, almost all national narratives of the Second World War fit into a larger European pattern. The Franco-German historian Etienne François has identified the common elements in this historical landscape. Fundamental, both in the liberal democracies in Western Europe and the Communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe, was the victory over Nazi Germany. The descriptions of the end of the war and of the Liberation often highlighted national unity. The newly won liberty opened a door to the future and marked the beginning of a bright new chapter in history. A common characteristic in most national narratives was also the glorification of the resistance movement, while in countries that had been liberated by foreign troops, domestic efforts tended to be highly esteemed. In addition, the heroisation of the war was another common denominator in the narratives: the heroes included not only charismatic victors such as Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill and Josip Broz Tito, but also brave partisans and members of the resistance.

Etienne François has characterised the national narratives of the Second World War in the first decades after 1945 as patriotic. This is perhaps a somewhat misleading notion, since the narratives were not permeated with chauvinistic rhetoric or even love of country. 'Patriotic', however, refers to the mere fact that the narratives in this period aimed to adjust the interpretations to the existence of a common national interest. In the patriotic interpretation, victory over Nazism could essentially be ascribed to national achievements, whether the resistance movement, superiority in forces or a more advanced social system. The view was nationally dictated, and the arguments drew their force from a self-righteous ethos. The war years had meant hardship and suffering, but thanks to ideals and virtues, the country gained strength and managed to subdue the aggressive invading power. In countries which had had strong Nazi or Fascist organisations, such as Germany, Austria and Italy, these currents in political culture were often regarded as foreign elements, as alien powers that had taken control of their own people.

Without neglecting the important differences between Eastern and Western Europe, the great majority of the national narratives of the Second World War were united in a patriotism which justified the present pattern of society and vindicated the dominant ideological viewpoint. In many countries, the war had demolished the social community and diluted human trust. The Manichaean heroism of the patriotic narratives offered a remedy, not least in reestablishing the credentials of the nation-state, which had proved disastrously incompetent in protecting the lives of its citizens during the war. The historian Tony Judt has argued that Europeans had a complicated balancing act in having to revitalise the Continent economically and politically by holding the near past back, whereas cultural and moral invigoration at the same time required that they learned from this very past.

In conclusion, the post-war national narratives of the Second World War were modelled on similar prototypes. Firstly, the patriotic interpretation helped to legitimise certain values. In Western European democracies, where anti-totalitarianism became an ideological prop during the Cold War, political opponents were successfully stigmatised. In Eastern Europe, by contrast, anti-Fascism was at the core of the patriotic staging. Secondly, the capacity to defend and mobilise the nation was the very hub of all narratives. The resistance could draw its strength from personal, national or ideological convictions, but in the end the mutual struggle had benefited the public good, whether the general aspiration was Communism, democracy or peace. Finally, as official patriotic narratives, they were all narrated within a national framework, not necessarily expressing a nationalistic understanding, but certainly operating with the help of a 'methodological nationalism'. They could of course be part of a wider international context, but the nation-state was the origin and the goal of patriotism. As a consequence, the Holocaust was not regarded as a central element in the narratives of the Second World War, particularly since a large number of the victims, Jews as well as Roma, lacked a nation-state of their own.

At the centre of many of the academic studies in the 1990s was the deconstruction or contextualising of the patriotic narratives of the Second World War. A common conclusion was that every country in Europe seemed to have developed its own 'Vichy syndrome', to use the expression that Henry Rousso coined in his pioneering work on the French failure to come to terms with what had happened during the war and the desire to recast the memory to fit into a post-war national narrative. By challenging official history writing and the interpretation of the resistance movement, a new national understanding of the war began to emerge, at least in many parts of Western Europe.

The Holocaust and European Universalism

Step by step, the patriotic narratives lost their influence in Europe, as the understanding of the war increasingly became part of a shared European experience. What was new was the theme of the Holocaust and European universalism that were brought to the centre of the interpretations of the Second World War. This change was clearly linked to the end of the Cold War. The patriotic narratives, which had partly been constructed in order to unite the nation and also to legitimate the post-war politics of the nation-state during the Cold War, were no longer needed for the purpose they had been constructed for. This change enabled both a new moral turn in interpretations of the Second World War and a democratisation of foreign policy.

Former monolithic narratives were challenged; new or previously suppressed interpretations gained ground. In the Federal Republic of Germany, which was in many ways an exception as the successor of Nazi Germany, a new attitude about the past was perceived in the early 1960s, but the German lessons remained exclusively German and strengthened rather than softened the self-righteous tone in other parts of Europe. German Vergangenheitsbewältigung (the process of coming to terms with the past) probably had the effect that the Nazis continued to be seen as primarily a German problem, while other European countries could remain onlookers. More profound national confrontations were hence delayed. However, in the Nordic case, the European framing was of a particular, enduringly parochial kind. The exceptions were notable but few. Nordic scholars have not contributed original, robust interpretations of the events of the Second World War internationally. What was new was only a contextualisation of national experience in a European perspective. The Nordic analysts remained reticent on, for instance, Roosevelt's collaboration with the Vichy regime, the liberation/occupation of the Baltic states by the Red Army at the end of the war, or on the necessity of the bombing of Dresden. It is in this particular sense that the Nordic analysts and commentators were not 'European' and still remain so.

However, as a general rule the leitmotifs of the national narratives of the Second World War have undergone a fundamental change in the last decades, shifting from patriotism to universalism, or at least shifting from outright methodological nationalism. If heroic deeds and brave resistance were in the forefront of the interpretations until the 1980s or even later, the new universalistic narratives depart from grievous, traumatic experiences. Without parallel, the Holocaust became the starting-point in this universalistic staging of the European narratives. The extermination of the European Jews was known about even during the war, but it was not until the very end of the twentieth century that the Holocaust emerged as the predominant moral lesson of the Second World War. In a world that had experienced Stalinism, Fascism and imperialism, the Holocaust marked a dark century's deepest abyss.


Excerpted from Nordic Narratives of the Second World War by Henrik Stenius, Mirja Österberg, Johan Östling. Copyright © 2011 Nordic Academic Press and the authors. Excerpted by permission of Nordic Academic Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface 7

1 Nordic Narratives of the Second World War An Introduction Henrik Stenius Mirja Österberg Johan Östling 9

2 Swords, Shields or Collaborators? Danish Historians and the Debate over the German Occupation of Denmark Uffe Østergård 31

3 A Separate Story? Interpretations of Finland in the Second World War Henrik Meinander 55

4 'The Beloved War' The Second World War and the Icelandic National Narrative Gu mundur Hálfdanarson 79

5 The Solidity of a National Narrative The German Occupation in Norwegian History Culture Synne Corell 101

6 The Rise and Fall of Small-Srate Realism Sweden and the Second World War Johan Östling 127

7 Nordic Foundation Myths after 1945 A European Context Bo Stråth 149

Contributors 171

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