COMMENTARY: In the evening of Tuesday, 17 April, some sixty academics and students assembled on the fourth floor of the venerable Armémuseum (“Army Museum”) in Stockholm, an enormous building the size of the Royal Palace in Oslo.
They had come to hear author Henrik Arnstad launch his latest book, a survey of nationalist trends in 20 European countries.
As fascism is the extreme form of nationalism, author Arnstad had focused on it in charting the courses of the trends toward it and entitled his book accordingly, Älskade fascism (‘Beloved fascism’). In compiling the book, he had found Norway to be an interesting case.
Henrik Arnstad wasn’t just another run-of-the-mill journalist playing on intra-Scandinavian rivalry to popularise his work. A meticulous researcher, he had probed the depth and extent of fascism across Europe, and as he admits, had become a nerd on fascism. He had infiltrated right extremist groups for a Swedish newspaper in the 1990s. In 2006, he had published the definitive biography of Christian Günther (1886-1966), the Nazi-friendly Minister of Foreign Affairs in neutral Sweden during the Second World War. His credentials were impeccable.
So Norwegian culture weekly Morgenbladet had sent journalist Alfred Fidjestøl to cover the book launch and interview Arnstad the day after. They sought to see if something was going on, as there had been several precursors, and Swedish criticism of Norwegian cultural norms had piqued for months.
The 9 January edition of Aftenposten had featured Swedish theatre director Sofia Jupither’s critical review of the National Theatre staging of ‘When the Robbers Came to Cardamom Town’ by Thorbjørn Egner (1912-1993), known for his children’s books, plays and musicals that are an indelible part of growing up in Norway. She claimed that the play was ‘frighteningly like right extremist rhetoric’ and called for Norwegians to abandon Egner. Swedish culture journalist Martin Aagård had attacked Nynorsk, from author Ivar Aasen to Norwegian Black Metal music. There had been others.
‘Was it the Swedes or we ourselves who have flipped?’ the editors wondered. The answers which were published in the 26 April edition of that newspaper triggered resurgent debate.
Disbelief underlies much of the debate, as Arnstad points out. In the comfortable Scandinavia of today, we tend to believe that fascism happens in other countries, such as Hungary and Greece. Yet far-right extremism is ascendant in Scandinavia as well as elsewhere in Europe. The mass murders of Friday, 22 July 2011 in Norway are horrific evidence of that trend. So the general aspects of Arnstad’s findings for the 20 countries studied apply here too.
Arnstad initially had not thought of the Nordic countries as being particularly nationalistic. But his interest in that aspect of them was reawakened by reading an article in Foreign Policy magazine that showed a correlation between the GDP per capita of a country and its degree of nationalism. By that criterion, the wealthy Nordic countries score high in nationalism.
The question then, is if the Nordic countries are particularly susceptible to the ills that political scientists often attribute to nationalism. If so, Norway might be the most nationalistic, as its nation building took place most recently in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.
Moreover, pride in the country and its people is a prevalent Norwegian sentiment. Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland had said that ‘It’s typically Norwegian to be good’ in her 1992 New Year’s speech. Later at a Government reception in connection with the 1994 Winter Olympic Games held in Lillehammer, she had famously extended the remark to “It’s typically Norwegian to be best".
Beliefs of being good or best often undergird flag-waving displays of nationalism. So the Norwegian penchant for flag-waving, as at cross-country ski racing meets and in Constitution Day parades on the 17th of May, might well be the weathervanes of nationalism.
Nonetheless, the connection is questionable. Professor emeritus of ethnography at Stockholm University Åke Daun believes that nationalism in Norway is of a different sort. It’s a persuasion on the left not on the right, as it is in Sweden and many other countries. So there is a Norwegian exceptionalism.
Søren Birkvad, a Dane on the faculty of film and television studies at Lillehammer University College in Norway agrees. He maintains that nationalism in Norway is not an ideology that locates on a scale of political ideologies. It’s about identity, about Norwegianness. As such, it’s on a par with Englishness and other descriptors of traits peculiar to countries.
In a video on The Foreigner, University of Oslo social anthropologist Thorgeir Kolshus spells out the traits that underlie the celebrations on the 17th of May. He sees the exuberance of the day as a reflection of the secular nationalism of a nation worshiping itself in one way or another. It’s a display of Norway as seen by Norwegians, quite the opposite of the exhibitions of destructive potential seen in some national day celebrations elsewhere.
So, though malevolent nationalism exists, and as elsewhere has become a top political and security concern, most Norwegian nationalism is benign.