When Norway was invaded by Nazi Germany in April 1940, the German press described it as a homecoming. As Despina Stratigakos writes in Hitler’s Northern Utopia: Building the new order in occupied Norway, the Norwegians, with their enviable Viking heritage and “untainted” Aryan blood, “were to be treated differently from other conquered nations”. Hitler’s crazed, sprawling empire was to reach beyond even the Arctic Circle, and Norway would be the jewel in Germania’s crown.

Before long, the Norwegian parliament was adorned with swastikas, and the National Theatre in Oslo was playing Hitler’s favourite operetta. Through carefully translated excerpts of national socialist propaganda, Stratigakos shows how the German press seesawed between idolatry and condescension in its descriptions of occupied Norway. Racially, the Norwegians were superior even to the Germans, it argued, but years of wartime neutrality and fraternization with the English (“a megalomaniacal mixed race”), had pacified them and poisoned their precious blood. While Norwegian civilians starved and the country’s Jews were rounded up and deported, the Nazi press presented the violent invaders as altruistic nation builders.

But the New Nordic Order did not build itself. Eastern European prisoners died in their thousands while working on the monumental infrastructure that would connect Norway’s biggest cities to Berlin. Elaborate plans were also made for infrastructure “at a cellular level”. According to Nazi ideology, Norwegian women were the keepers of what Stratigakos dubs “the racial Holy Grail”. Under German occupation, family planning clinics were shut down to protect the Norwegian people from “Jewish-Bolshevik sex reform”, and lavish Lebensborn homes – combined prenatal clinics and orphanages – opened in their place.

Just as the “Great Road of the North” between Trondheim and Berlin was meant to unite Germans and Norwegians across borders, the Lebensborn programme was meant to unify their genes. Norwegian women were actively encouraged to sleep with German soldiers as a way of improving the German gene pool. After the war, however, Norwegian civilians turned on the “German tarts” and their children. The women suffered abhorrent mistreatment for their “horizontal collaboration” with the Germans – many had their heads shaved and were dragged through the streets – while the children were bullied and abused into adulthood. (By comparison, those whose collaboration had been of a financial rather than sexual nature got off lightly.)

Not much has been written in English on the German occupation of Norway. A fascinating archival study, Hitler’s Northern Utopia is the result of meticulous sleuthing through newspapers and old documents written in three different languages. If at times she strikes too academic a tone, Stratigakos, a professor of architecture, nevertheless does well to point out the human cost of Hitler’s ambitious plans for Norway, where both body and country were colonized under the swastika.

This review was first published in the Times Literary Supplement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s