When It Comes to Mass Denial, Modern America = 1940 Norway


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Norway is, geologically and scenically,  a magnificent country. Its people have a proud and largely a maritime past that certainly did not end with the Vikings. As someone who teaches college-level oceanography and physical geography, I especially honor the great Norse explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen. And in modern Norway there is so much to admire. We Americans could productively study how this Scandinavian nation prioritizes its health and human-services needs much more sanely than we do. But if one casts a backward glance to the beginning of World War II, one sees the Norwegian people at a time that was not their best. They committed amazing blunders analagous to those the United States is making now.

One of the best books I’ve read recently is historian Geirr Haarr’s superbly researched The German Invasion of Norway: April 1940 (Naval Institute Press, 2009). This work meticulously delineates how the author’s countrymen — then officially neutral though certainly aware of the horrific geopolitical forces unleashed all around them them as Nazi Germany squared off against Great Britain and France — failed to respond effectively when Hitler’s warships, swarming with invasion troops, brazenly sailed straight into their major harbors, and when paratroopers descended from the skies over their towns and strategic airfields. It should be noted that the Nowegian people did mount some resistance in some places immediately — and a lot more after the German occupation had been achieved. But in the early days of the invasion their willingness to defend their country was spotty at best and sometimes unbelievably absent.

The odd thing is that Norway’s political leadership in 1940 had been given quite a bit of warning that something very bad was brewing and heading their way. Alas, warnings only work when one has the active will to listen. As Haarr reveals, his nation was then run by inward-looking, risk-aderse politicians and shockingly ineffectual army and navy commanders who, unlike their Finnish and Swedish counterparts, had  done little to upgrade their very modest national defense capability as war clouds loomed.

Ironically, when the Germans did invade they did not do so with their stereotypical ruthless efficiency. They fumbled here and bumbled there, were deterred by bad weather conditions, and clearly hadn’t thought out all their long-term logistical needs. But no matter. The Norwegian civilian and military leaders made so many glaringly wrong decisions and in many cases were so undercorncerned that in retrospect they appear to have had a collective national death wish. Examples of this ineptitude abound in Haarr’s account, which is at once riveting and deeply depressing.

For example, Norway’s coastal fortresses were often poorly manned and had insufficient ammunition; the big guns often stood silent during the Nazi incursion because they were inoperable or there was no one to man them. Many Norwegian warships did not even have radio equipment; to find out what was happening to their country, their skippers had to go ashore and hunt for a public telephone.

At the height of the crisis, the Norwegian defense minister pointedly avoided meeting with his military commanders and ordered only a “partial mobilization,” in which troops would be called up in the course of days instead of hours. It was recommended that he use a radio broadcast for the sake of speed;  instead he decided to spread the alarm by postal letter and telegram.  And when the requisite telegram was drafted and ready to be sent, it was discovered that the local telegraph office had already closed for the day and would not open till 8:00 the next morning. All this while Norwegian cities were swiftly falling to the bluff-and-bluster tactics of their new foe.

After a while, the reader wonders if he has wandered into a comedy screenplay. The entire capital of Oslo surrended meekly (well, there was some booing, apparently) to a small contingent of lightly armed German infantrymen. When urged  to attack the Nazi ships coming up his fjord, one Norse submarine commander demurred; he feared his crew would become sleep-deprived by nightime operations.  Elsewhere a fortress commander permitted his city to shut off its power plant even though it meant his gunners could not use their own electrical ammunition hoists to load their artillery batteries in time to effectively stop the German cruiser Köln and her support ships, which were then gliding by.

Some Norwegian torpedo-boat captains did contemplate attacking oncoming German ships, but in the end considered it too dangerous and so told their crews to disband and go home after scuttling their vessels. And what happened to one Norwegian warship captain in particular seems to sum up the whoie mess. After stopping and correctly identifying a German vessel carrying vital supplies for the Wehrmacht forces, he directed his gunners to open fire on it. But, as he later ruefully reported, “this was something my crew was not fully up to. I had to give the order three times before they would shoot.”

Whatever apathy-inducing substance was in Norway’s drinking water that fateful year has in recent decades somehow made its way across the North Atlantic and straight into the American psyche. True, we do not currently face an invasion, whatever that fact-deprived confidence trickster in the White House tells us about “terrorist” refugees and border-crossing Mexicans. No, we have an enemy much, much deadlier: a highly sensitive planetary system of atmosphere and ocean that can rapidly change in ways directly hostile to our civilization. As horrendously destructive as Nazi aggression was in World War II, its impact may well be dwarfed by human-induced global warming in the decades to come.

Some among us, prompted by piffleheaded conspiracy theorists and high-paid shills of the fossil-fuel industry, still believe this issue is just a hobby horse ridden only by Rousseauist environmentalists disaffected by modern techno-culture. But to cling to this patent falsehood we must ignore the peer-reviewed research of thousands of competent Earth scientists and biologists worldwide. And they’re not the only experts one can cite. The current and future dangers of climate change have also provoked the grave attention of our military and intelligence communities, which — whatever else you may think of them — have had the courage and good sense to listen to what the scientists have told them, and plan accordingly.

Still, I suppose there is cause for hope of a sort. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 68% of the American public now accept that climate change is real and that 82% agree that we should limit greenhouse-gas emissions. But this report also notes that less than half of those surveyed think global warming will actually affect them personally. In other words, there’s a twenty- to forty-percent gulf between the vague, head-nodding recognition of the threat and the understanding it isn’t just a third-order abstraction someone else should worry about.

To me, this is an example of a virulent new national strain of pollyannaism — the state of being overly optimistic for no verifiable reason. This attitude, which certainly benefits our corporate overlords, can be summarized as “Sure, the future looks bleak, but some day something will pop up and fix the problem without my help.” Try using that mindset the next time your car brakes give out or your child  is running a temperature of 104 Fahrenheit. 

Note that this is a mindset quite apart from the traditional gung-ho, up-and-at-them, can-do attitude than many foreigners still admire about Americans. As a matter of fact, it’s just the opposite. It’s a chirpy form of fatalism that marks us for what we have become — a community of apathy and obedience.

Perhaps the Norwegians of 1940 also believed that cheerful meekness in the face of the whirlwind was the best survival stategy.  Regardless, they ultimately departed from their delusions, at the cost of untold suffering.

Now, with a new arch-denialist American president and the same old joke of a Congress preventing any substantive response to the greatest environmental threat in human history, it’s not difficult to predict an outcome similar to Norway’s.  But this time it will not be one nation that suffers. It will be all. And much of the blame will be laid on the passivity of the American public and the criminal behavior of its leaders.