There’s been no shortage of great articles over the past year examining the many similarities between Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler. And a startling number of Trump’s fans have demonstrated sympathy towards neo-Nazism, anti-Semitism, or some equally deplorable ideology.
But few have attempted to use the actual experience of Nazism to draw constructive lessons for us in 2017.
In a new Yes! magazine article, George Lakey, the retired Lang Visiting Professor for Issues of Social Change at Swarthmore College, argues that we could learn a lot from Norway’s brush with fascism.
Like modern America, Norway in the 1930s was deeply divided along political lines. The economic hardships of the Great Depression had radicalized both ends of the political spectrum. And a Norwegian fascist party, founded by Vidkun Quisling in 1933 and modeled after the Nazis, was active in the prewar era.
Lakey’s account is skimpy on details and seems to confuse the wartime era with the prewar period. For instance, he writes:
“Quisling reportedly held discussions with military officers about a possible coup d’etat. The stage was set for a fascist ‘solution.’ Instead, Norway broke through to a social democracy.”
Such a summation implies that Norway evaded Nazi rule or rejected homegrown Nazism. In fact, Quisling did launch a failed coup, and the Nazis invaded Norway in 1940 and held it for the duration of the war.
Still, Lakey is on the right track – America would do well to learn from Norway’s example.
So what happened? Understanding how the Nazis took power in Germany helps explain what made Norway’s experience unique. Lakey picks up the story here, writing:
“The German left was … split terribly within itself: Communist vs. Social Democratic. … They were unwilling to compromise, and then, when the Social Democrats took power, armed rebellion and bloody repression followed. The result was the Third Reich.”
In Norway, too, communists and social democrats were at odds. Until 1935, the government changed hands regularly. Finally, the various leftist parties set aside their differences and rallied around the social-democratic Norwegian Workers’ Party (DnA). Elin Allern, a political scientist at the University of Oslo, writes that strong welfare policies and a broad base of popular support made the social-democratic victory possible.
“Although it was the party of organized blue-collar workers, DnA also appealed to day labourers on farms, tenant farms, smallholders, fishermen and forest workers, and especially those living in Northern Norway, the most economically underdeveloped region of the country.”
This, then, is the first lesson of Norwegian history: political progress depends on uniting middle and working-class stakeholders in a common cause.
In the U.S., some political figures and social movements are already working to do just that. During his upstart presidential campaign last year, for instance, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called for greater income equality and a stronger social safety net, attracting disaffected citizens on both the Right and Left. And the Black Lives Matter movement, Lakey points out, engaged in crucial coalition-building last year by gathering in solidarity at Standing Rock.
The second lesson Norway can teach us is that nonviolent direct action carried out by a unified coalition can be effective – even against an authoritarian state.
In Nazi Norway, as in Trump’s America, much of the population was happy to collaborate with an illegitimate government. By the war’s end, over 1,000 Norwegian Jews had been transported to concentration camps.
But broad-based popular resistance to the Nazi state coalesced quickly. While Norway’s armed resistance cells were active throughout the war, a much larger nonviolent resistance movement took hold across the country. This movement built upon the previous efforts of the Norwegian Workers’ Party to unify a broad spectrum of occupations and social classes. As historian Stephen Lee writes in European Dictatorships 1918-1945:
“Resistance intensified from 1942 with teachers’ protests against regulations on the education of youth according to Nazi principles. Their stand was supported by religious organizations as bishops and pastors read letters of protest from the pulpit. Gradually civilian resistance became more organized in the form of the Coordination Committee, which included representatives from trade unions, the professions, industry and agriculture.”
This nonviolent resistance took the form of strikes, boycotts, and demonstrations. Standing together, Norwegians weathered the worst of the Nazi occupation.
America has quickly and intuitively adopted similar tactics for itself. After Trump’s travel ban, protests erupted around the country. And the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., along with its sister marches across the nation, constituted the largest day of protest in U.S. history.
After the war, Norway’s social-democratic government was restored. The common hardship and deprivation wrought by the war further united competing political and social factions. Political parties continue to have disagreements, but all sought to improve the lot of their fellow citizens by maintaining and strengthening the social safety net.
Today, of course, Norway and its Nordic neighbors are shining examples of modern social democracies. If the American Left is smart, it will pull a page from Norway’s playbook and not only resist Trump, but adopt a progressive political agenda that works for all Americans.
Featured image via YouTube video.