Saturday, June 18, 2005

War and Omitted History

June 12, Bergen to Geiranger
June 5, Erik Cleven at Maihaugen

Narrow Escape
Enroute from Bergen to Geiranger on June 12 we encountered Årensdalnes and Molde, both destroyed by Germany bombing in WWII.

What strategic importance could these two small coastal towns have? During the Nazi occupation, King Haakon and Crown Prince Olav, along with some of the nation’s gold, were in flight. The Germans just missed the royal party, destroying Årensdalnes and Molde on the escape route. The strategic importance was psychological. The royal family was a rallying factor for Norwegians, and the Nazis wanted to deal a blow to Norwegian resistance and morale by capturing or killing them.

War Memorials
In towns of all sizes one finds war memorials: at the entrance to the church in Molde, a lonely obelisk on a hill in Geiranger, an even more remote carved memorial at an island rest stop on the route to Kristiansund. The dead of WWII and the Napoleonic wars are remembered in quietly poignant ways.

Where is WWI? While Norway was officially neutral, many were killed, especially sailors in a blockade and those transporting goods to support England and others’ efforts against the Germans. They’re simply not mentioned.

What's Missing?
During his challenging lecture at Maihaugen on June 5, Erik Cleven asked what was missing from the history exhibit we’d just seen, "Langsomt ble landet vårt eget." (The literal translation is "Slowly the land became our own." The exhibit folks' translation is: "We won the land.")

Study Travelers identified two absences: the Sami people (Norway’s native people) and the new immigrants. Erik added WWI and used the three absences to point out the importance of history exhibits, books and shows.

The way cultures tell their stories – including some things and omitting others – helps determine how people think about who they are and how they approach the futre. The downside of leaving important things out is potentially not being able to deal effectively with the consequences. Essentially, what you don’t know (or don’t acknowledge) can hurt you.

How will Norway deal with refugees and immigrants in the future? They are colorfully diversifying a once largely homogenous society. How with the Sami? How is Norway changing with the increasing consumerism and declining interest among a wealthy populace in filling volunteer and civic roles? Who will do the hard work of democracy?

Erik teaches at the Namsen School for Humanistic Studies. His role is leading six-week, intense training for conflicted parties of the most serious sort (e.g. the Balkans) on how to talk, work and live together. In his experience, people from differing backgrounds have a natural tendency to get along, to integrate, if left to their own devices. Erik contends that it’s politicians and power seekers who get in the way of this tendency by sowing seeds of suspicion, even hatred.

In Eric’s experience, you can’t resolve conflict or build peace unless all parties know each other’s stories. Therein lies the risk of leaving out significant parts of Norway’s story from a major history exhibit.

I’ve been meeting vibrant, intelligent, cultured Norwegians – professors, writers, musicians, bus drivers. There is every possibility they will figure out their problems. Erik Cleven, a St. Olaf alum, is among those beacons of possibility.

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