Review of Arne Hassing, Church Resistance to Nazism in Norway, 1940-1945

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 20, Number 2 (June 2014)

Review of Arne Hassing, Church Resistance to Nazism in Norway, 1940-1945 (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2014), Xx + 384 Pp. ISBN 978-0-295-99308-9.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

Arne Hassing’s achievement is to write the first comprehensive account in English of the Church Struggle in Norway, concentrating on the period following the invasion and occupation of the country by German troops in April 1940. Although news about conditions in Norway, and particularly about its churches, was printed in England during the war as a means of war-time propaganda, Hassing’s more complete study based on the official archives and several decades of secondary sources will undoubtedly become the authoritative account. As such, it is a valuable addition to scholarly learning. As he correctly remarks, church historians of this period have neglected the struggles of smaller nations such as Norway or Holland, and have concentrated on Germany where the complications and complexities of the churches’ relationships to the Nazi state have been intensively studied. But Hassing’s illuminative account of the conditions in Norway has much to offer, particularly in terms of the solidarity of church members against the imposition of an alien ideology and their resistance to any unwanted divergence from the national traditions. Although the main outlines of this resistance, and particularly the special role of the chief bishop, Eivind Berggrav of Oslo, have been known earlier, this book’s detailed analysis will undoubtedly be a major resource for future treatments of European church-state relations during the early twentieth century.

hassing-churchHe begins with an account of the Norwegian reception of the German Church Struggle in the pre-1940 period, since he rightly notes that both nations had Lutheranism as their official Protestant state religion and as their traditional focus of loyalty. The challenge of Nazi ideology and its attempt to corrupt Luther’s teachings was therefore immediately recognized. Hassing pays tribute to the skilful manner in which Bishop Berggrav differentiated the Norwegian understanding of Luther from that held by many theologians in Germany. He also notes the skill with which the Norwegian church leaders were able to forge an alliance amongst themselves and resolve long-held theological antagonisms, in order to oppose the invaders and their supporters in Norway.

At the same time, he does accept the fact that this Church Struggle in Norway never reached the kind of intensity as for example in Poland. This was due not so much to the firm adherence by Norwegians to Christian doctrine but more to the reluctance of the German governor, Josef Terboven, to engage in an open and costly Church Struggle. Still, Christian resistance of a more passive kind could be seen in the refusal to join the ranks of the pro-Nazi clergy, who followed the line adopted by the chief pro-Nazi Norwegian, Vidkun Quisling. The overwhelming proportion of the Norwegian church members, clergy as well as laity, refused to participate in services which the few pro-Nazi clergy tried to organize. Hassing makes good use of the available statistics to show the bankruptcy of this attempt to create a Nazified Norwegian church.

On the other hand, he also evaluates the somewhat unheroic stand of the Church of Norway in the matter of the persecuted Jews, and points to the lack of any timely mobilization of protest on humanitarian grounds. Even though the number of victims was small, the belated recognition of this issue by Norwegian church leaders has to be acknowledged.

Hassing’s book concludes with a valuable epilogue, pointing out that the defeat of Nazi Germany and the restoration of the pre-war church polity in Norway did not lead to any revival or intensification of church life. In the end, the church struggle reinforced the conservative and pietistic character of the Church of Norway but was insufficient to deflect the social developments led by the socialist and largely secular governments of the post-war period.

My only criticism of this work would be that more should be said about the role of the laity. Hassing’s concentration on the small number of anti-Nazi bishops and clergy, who constituted the essence of church resistance, does not tell us enough about how this lead was followed by the people in the pew, whose attitudes are surely recorded in parish records or personal memoirs. The title of the work would suggest a much broader participation by Christians, but we are not given the evidence, even in retrospect.

Hassing’s excellent command of the large number of secondary sources and his systematic exploitation of the archival records, especially those dealing with the German side of the Norwegians’ church affairs, is commendable in every respect. His esteem for his original homeland shines through, but at the same time, his study gives us a balanced and not uncritical account of the turbulent events of seventy years ago in a country too little recognized as one in which the popular barriers to Nazi ideas were effectively raised and maintained.