Oslo—During the Second World War, Nazi Germany occupied Norway over five brutal years. By the time the Scandinavian nation was liberated by Allied forces and its indigenous resistance movement, more than 10,000 Norwegians had lost their lives and almost as many had spent time in German concentration camps throughout Europe. The experience indelibly shaped the generation of Norwegians who lived through it. In the post-war period, Norway became a transatlantic stalwart determined to help resist the totalitarian terror looming to the East. Today, Norwegian armed forces are actively supporting NATO missions in both Afghanistan and Libya.
I arrived in Oslo yesterday to cover the Oslo Freedom Forum, a vibrant annual gathering of human rights journalists and activists. With the official start to the Forum a day away, I hit the streets in search of some smørrebrød, a Nordic-style open faced sandwich and a cold beer, and ran into a large group of Norwegians marching loudly toward the ornate Parliament building, at the heart of downtown.
The rally bore all the familiar hallmarks of a European anti-war march. Hammer and sickle flags fluttered alongside hand-drawn placards showing crossed-out bombs. Smartly dressed young hipsters marched alongside veteran trade unionists; kaffiyehs and Converses were in abundance. Organizers with the “Red Youth”—an extraparliamentary far left grouping—sold party newspapers and pamphlets emblazoned with prominent red stars. When I asked a thirty-something woman hawking the same material if she was also with Red Youth, she was offended: “No—I’m a member of Rødt, the adult wing of the party!”
I spoke with two younger women who did not seem obviously party or union affiliated. One was carrying a rainbow flag with pace (Italian for peace) written across it. “The goal today is to bring the [Norwegian] troops out of Afghanistan,” one explained. “Today is Liberation Day. It’s about how, you know, Norway was liberated from Nazi Germany, and it’s related to Afghanistan being liberated from NATO. You know.”
Were these young Europeans seriously equating Nazi occupation of their homeland with NATO’s mission to root out al Qaeda in the Hindu Kush and break the Taliban’s cruel, medieval grip on Afghan society? “What about LGBT rights?” I asked the other. “You’re carrying a rainbow flag, so you must care about gay rights.” I was about to ask her about how the Taliban treats sexual minorities.
“Oh, this is just a rainbow, it means peace,” she replied. “It has nothing to do with gay rights.” She must have noticed the puzzled look on my face. “Look, I do support gay rights. But the two have nothing to do with each other.”
Such internal contradictions permeated the political attitudes behind the rally. Flustered by my questions, the two girls introduced me to Federico Aurora, a bearded doctoral student from Italy. Aurora was one of the rally’s main organizers. But he seemed just as incapable of grappling with the ideological tensions underlying his activism. When I asked Aurora what a Norwegian withdrawal from Afghanistan could mean for the country’s democrats and reformers, he was quick to point out that the two official slogans of the rally are “Norway out of Afghanistan!” and “Stand with Afghanistan’s democratic forces!” But how could he claim to support Afghan democrats, while advocating a policy that would deliver them to the Taliban? (I was reminded of Orwell’s observation about WWII-era pacifists: “Objectively, whoever is not on the side of the policeman is on the side of the criminal, and vice versa.”)
We reached Parliament, where a makeshift protest stage was already assembled just outside the building. In a message to Norwegian MPs, a huge banner depicted the legislative chamber with dozens of ominous military jets menacing the sky above it. “Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya … What’s Next?” it read. The unwritten rules of far-left theatrics command that every such rally begin with a musical performance, and this one was no different. A pretty young girl took the stage. With the slightest hint of a Scandinavian accent, she crooned in English,
I got a pocket full o’ tricks for you.
I poured the best wine too – ooh.
I chopped some wood for the fire.
Cause I know these are things you like to do – ooh.
Meanwhile, more and more members of the Socialist Left (SV) showed up with their party banners. Here’s the awkward thing: the SV is actually part of Norway’s governing coalition, which means it has supported—or, at the very least, acquiesced—to Norway’s involvement in the Afghan and Libyan campaigns.
So did this mean, I wondered, that the SV rank and file would take a more nuanced approach to Norway’s role in NATO than the two grizzly looking, bald fellows representing the last remnants of the Communist Party? The answer is no. “We don’t think military intervention helps,” Per Øswald, a trade unionist and member of the SV, told me. “There will never be peace in Afghanistan as long as NATO is bombing civil society. We don’t believe in war.” His goateed younger comrade was even more blunt, taking up the fashionable NATO-Nazi formulation. “The people in Afghanistan, they’re also opposing an occupying force, that was the Germans,” he said. “They have the right to fight for their freedom.”
This is obviously a difficult situation for the party leadership, who, by comparison, are far more sensible. One such leader is Marianne Borgen, who is running on the SV ticket for mayor of Oslo later this fall. (Aurora thinks she actually stands a good chance of leading the world’s most expensive city.) The chief focus of Borgen’s speech at the rally was a blander message about the suffering of Afghan women and children. Representing a party with actual ministers in government, Borgen had to walk a more careful line.
“This is, of course, very complicated for our party,” she told me later. “A fundamental part of our party is the peace organizations.” The pacifist far-left, in other words, represents the SV’s base. Hence the muddled message. “All participation in war should be difficult,” she said earnestly. “I speak with our party’s ministers and they assure me that they are very active in trying to be more critical. I know that they are trying.” It’s an impossible position. Concern for Afghan women and children is commendable, but it means nothing if the West doesn’t confront the extremists who daily threaten their welfare. The SV’s anti-NATO policy framework—Borgen would prefer a Nordic security umbrella—supports the alliance when it acts in the name of liberal values but avoids the heavy lifting and electoral costs.
It was here in Oslo that the European intelligentsia awarded President Obama the Nobel Peace Prize (“I was there!” Borgen proudly boasts). Alas, Obama did not turn out to be the American president the Euro-left was hoping for. “Barack Obama is better for the U.S. than the person who was previously in that office,” Borgen said. But “a lot of things that he promised have not come so far.”
That may be. But then again, in the aftermath of the horrors of WWII, Norway also made certain promises about shared strategic interests and, more importantly, shared values. Sixty-six years later, too many Norwegians are ready to break those bonds.
Sohrab Ahmari’s writing has previously appeared in the Boston Globe and Commentary, among other publications.