A Century of Norwegian Independence

By Leiren, Terje | Scandinavian Review, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

A Century of Norwegian Independence


Leiren, Terje, Scandinavian Review


During the 20th century, following its independence from Sweden, Norway changed from a poor, agricultural county to a model democracy possessing a vibrant economy with an engaged if somewhat reluctant international presence.

AS THE 20TH CENTURY DAWNED FOR NORWAY, the population barely topped two million inhabitants. Life expectancy was at an all-time high at 48.7 years for men and 51.2 years for women. The lone university, the Royal Fredrik University in Kristiania (Oslo), had a faculty of 81, educating 1,400 students. Agriculture dominated the economy, yielding three times the amount of income brought in by shipping, fishing and timber. More than 800,000 Norwegians earned their living, directly or indirectly, from the country's agriculture, twice the number engaged in Norway's nascent industries. Roads were narrow and often primitive. Horses dominated transportation, which was tied together by 950 posting stations. On average, Norwegians in 1900 had more in common with their Viking ancestors than they would with their great-grandchildren 100 years later.

The Union with Sweden was arguably the issue that had most dominated Norwegian political life in the final decades of the 19th century. In 1905, it was the only issue. Following 10 years of sparring, negotiations with Sweden over a separate Norwegian consular service had collapsed in late 1904, When King Oscar II vetoed the Storting's (Norway's parliament) subsequent bill establishing a separate Norwegian consular service on May 27, 1905, the government of Christian Michelsen resigned. King Oscar refused to accept it's resignations, stating that he could "not now form a new government." The Storting, having assumed the authority of the king, requested that the Michelsen government remain in a caretaker capacity. In response to the royal veto, however, Michelsen formulated an ingenious response.

By claiming that King Oscar was unable to form a government, Michelsen insisted the king had failed in his constitutional obligation to provide Norway with a government. As a result, Michelsen claimed that King Oscar had, in fact, abdicated as king. Consequently, if there is no king, there is no Union. On June 7, 1905, the Union dissolved on a legal technicality. To demonstrate, however, that there were no hard feelings toward the Bernadotte royal family, and that Norway's action was not revolutionary, Michelsen formulated an offer to invite a younger member of the Bernadotte family to assume the vacant throne. Sweden, in turn, protested that Norway's unilateral act was illegal and a violation of the Act of Union, an agreement between the two countries signed in 1815 that outlined the procedure for disputes between them.

Although tensions were initially high and armed conflict a possibility, voices against war were prominently raised in both countries. King Oscar spoke forcefully against an armed conflict with Norway and several leading Swedish intellectuals and politicians publicly supported a peaceful resolution. Before they were willing to negotiate with Norway, however, the Swedish government insisted on some evidence that would show how the Norwegian public felt about the abrupt dissolution of the Union. If Swedes believed that Norwegians preferred to remain in the Union, they were sorely disappointed when the plebiscite of August 13 resulted in an overwhelming majority in favor of the dissolution-368,208 vs. 184.

Negotiations on the formal terms of dissolution took place in September, and when accepted by the legislatures of both countries in October, Norway was officially independent. The future form of government, which had been a hot topic of debate since the June 7 dissolution announcement, remained the principal issue yet to be resolved as the Norwegian winter approached. Prime Minister Michelsen, insisting that the monarchical constitution remain in effect and concerned that the Bernadotte offer would be rejected, sent Fridtjof Nansen to Copenhagen for secret negotiations with the Danish prince Carl in hopes that he would agree to accept the Norwegian throne. …

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