Norwegian military officer and politician Vidkun Quisling was executed at Akershus Fortress, a medieval castle in the capital Oslo, on October 24th, 1945 for his role during the German occupation of his homeland from June 10th, 1940 to May 9th, 1945.
The word “quisling”, coined by the British newspaper The Times in its lead of April 15th, 1940 became a byword for “collaborator” or “traitor” in several languages. For a while during and after World War II, the verb to quisle was also used.
Quisling was born on July 18th, 1887 in the southern municipality of Fyresdal, when Norway still formed a personal union with the kingdom with Sweden, to pastor Jon Lauritz Quisling (1844–1930) and his wife Anna Caroline Bang (1860–1941), who had four children in total.
A successful student, Quisling showed special talent for history and mathematics, but after leaving school his life had no clear direction. In 1905, when Norway peacefully separated from its neighbor, he enrolled at the Norwegian Military Academy.
At the nation’s oldest institution for higher education which up to this day serves as the King’s Royal Guard, he achieved the highest entrance examination score of all 250 applicants.
Transferred to the Norwegian Military College in 1906, he graduated with the highest grades since the college’s inception in 1817. After being rewarded by an audience with King Haakon VII (1872–1957), he joined the Army General Staff in 1911.
In 1918, he served nine months as an attaché at the Norwegian Legation in Petrograd (before 1917 and since 1991 again called Saint Petersburg), as he had spent five years studying the country and learned the language.
Although dismayed by the living conditions he experienced, Quisling nonetheless concluded that the Bolsheviks had an extraordinarily strong hold on Russian society and was impressed by the Red Army led by Leon Trotsky (1879 -1940).
By contrast, he believed that in granting too many rights to the people, the Russian Provisional Government established after the abdication of Czar Nicholas II (1868-1918) in 1917 under the revolutionary lawyer Alexander Kerensky (1881-1970) had brought about its own downfall.
Considered an expert on Russian affairs, at the request of polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) Quisling returned to organize help during the famine of 1921–22, which killed an estimated five million people in the Volga and Ural regions and made peasants resort to cannibalism.
Quisling asked for a temporary discharge from the army, which due to cutbacks became permanent. Unemployed, dispirited and deeply resentful of the General Staff, back in Norway Quisling found himself briefly drawn into the Communist labor movement.
In the process of slowly becoming politically more radical, advocating a fusion of Socialism and Nationalism, he even unsuccessfully advocated for a people’s militia against reactionary attacks.
After short stays in France and Bulgaria, as well as the Armenian Soviet Republic, he found employment in Moscow: first in a Norwegian firm, then again at the Norwegian Embassy, which at the time was handling Great Britain’s diplomatic affairs.
For his service he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1919, though this honor was revoked by King George VI (1895-1952) in 1940.
Despite growing up in a very conservative environment, for a while he definitely had sympathies for the Soviets. Though disappointed by the rejection of further humanitarian efforts on his part, Quisling began to distance himself from Communism and went home for good in December 1929.
In autumn of 1930, his book Russia and Ourselves (Russland og vi), advocating war against Bolshevism, catapulted Quisling into the political limelight. After a brief stint as leader of the nationalist, anti-Communist movement Nordisk folkereisning i Norge (Nordic popular rising in Norway) he had helped to found, he was named Minister of Defense in two cabinets led by the Agrarian Party.
Quisling had to deal with bitter labor disputes. Some of its spearheads were charged with subversion and violence against the police. In the summer of 1932 his popularity peaked, but he had a difficult relationship with Prime Minister Jens Hundseid (1883-1965).
Nevertheless, what had become a political party, Nasjonal Samling (National Rally, NS) failed to win any seats at the 1933 elections. At the same time, NS began to carve out its own ideology, a synthesis of National Socialism and Fascism. However, a lack of parliamentary representation and open threats made by Quisling against his opponents contributed to its decline.
By the time of the 1936 polls, Quisling had in part become the anti-Semite that his adversaries had long accused him of being:he associated Judaism with Marxism and liberalism. Despite filing more candidates, NS gained even less votes than three years earlier.
Dwindling party membership created severe financial problems and Quisling was forced to sell many paintings he had acquired while in the Soviet Union.
Despite condemning the Kristallnacht, the anti-Jewish pogrom in Germany in November 1938, Quisling sent Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) greetings on his 50th birthday on April 20th, 1939, thanking him for “saving Europe from Bolshevism and Jewish domination”.
When World War II broke out on September 1st, 1939, Quisling remained confident that, despite its small size and peripheral influence, his party would soon become the center of political attention.
According to his views, should an Anglo-Russian alliance make neutrality impossible, Norway would have to support Germany. Still, in October 1939 he worked on an ultimately unsuccessful plan for peace between Britain, France and Germany and their eventual participation in a new economic union.
On 9 December 9th, 1939, Quisling traveled to Berlin, impressing his hosts and winning an audience with Hitler himself on December 14th. He received firm advice from his contacts to ask for Hitler’s help with a pro-German coup in Norway that would let the Germans use naval bases there.
It’s not clear how much Quisling realized the strategic implications of such a move, deemed unduly optimistic by the German leader.
The two men met again on the 18th, and although afterwards Quisling wrote a memorandum that explicitly stated that he did not consider himself a National Socialist, he would still receive funds to bolster NS.
Back home, Quisling was incapacitated by a severe kidney disease, for which he refused hospitalization. He returned to work on March 13th, 1940, but remained ill for several weeks.
From March 31st to April 6th, he reluctantly met in Copenhagen with German intelligence officers who asked him for information on the Norwegian defense strategy.
On April 8th, the British started mining the English Channel between Norway and their offshore islands. By landing an expeditionary force in the north of the country, they brought Norway into the war.
Although it had merely relocated some 150 kilometers away, Quisling accused the legitimate government of having “fled” and proclaimed the formation of a new one with himself as Prime Minister, recognized by Hitler within 24 hours.
Once King Haakon VII had declared that he would sooner abdicate than appoint Quisling and urged the Norwegians to continue their resistance, Quisling ceased to be of use to the invaders and Hitler retracted his words. The Führer merely thanked him, guaranteeing him some sort of position.
In consequence, Hitler on April 24th appointed German Reichskomissar Josef Terboven (1898-1945), which would report directly to him. Quisling’s domestic and international reputation both hit new lows, casting him as both a turncoat and a failure.
Terboven, unconvinced about Quisling, forced him to take a temporary leave of absence in Germany. Quisling returned “in triumph” after a meeting with Hitler on August 16th as future leader, though still subordinated to the Reichskomissar. Also, the Nasjonal Samling would be the only political party allowed.
During a speech in Frankfurt am Main on March 26th, 1941 he defended compulsory exile for Jews, but warned against extermination. Later they were banned from entering Norway. He went on to denounce the government-in-exile as “traitors”, which led to further alienation.
While on February 1st, 1942 the cabinet elected Quisling as Minister President, committing him to even closer ties with Germany, on March 12th Norway officially became a one-party state.
As on May 1st, the German High Command noted that organized resistance had started, Norway’s peace talks with Germany stalled as a result and on August 11th, Hitler postponed any further negotiations.
Quisling felt betrayed over a postponement of Norwegian freedom, an attitude that waned only when Hitler in September 1943 eventually committed to a free post-war Norway.
Jews were registered in January 1942. Between October of that year and February 1943, 758 of them ended up in a local concentration camp, manned by the paramilitary wing of NS and were later deported along with their families to Poland. Their property was confiscated by the state.
Although Quisling himself had been left unaware by the Germans, he incomprehensibly led the Norwegian public to believe that this measure had been his idea.
On the other hand, there is evidence to suggest that Quisling honestly believed the official line throughout 1943 and 1944: the Jews were actually being send to Madagascar.
On January 20th, 1945 during his final trip to visit Hitler for a peace deal, not surprisingly he totally failed to have Norway’s affairs removed from German intervention.
In an act of defiance he refused to sign the execution order of thousands of Norwegian “saboteurs”. Quisling spent the last months of the war trying to prevent more civil deaths and working for the safe repatriation of Norwegians held in Germany.
When the occupation was about to end, Quisling as a realist met with the Norwegian resistance to discuss how he would be treated: not as a common criminal, but without enjoying preferential treatment compared to other NS officials.
He pointed out that instead of keeping his forces fighting, he had tried to ensure a peaceful transition in the best interest of Norway.
Quisling turned himself in to police on 9 May 9th, 1945 and was transferred to the main police station in Oslo. Initially, Quisling’s charges related to the coup, including his revocation of the mobilization order, to his time as NS leader and to his actions as Minister President, such as assisting the enemy and illegally attempting to alter the Constitution.
Whilst not contesting the key facts, he denied all charges on the grounds that he had always worked for a free, prosperous Norway and submitted a sixty-page response.
On July 11th, a further indictment included murders, theft, embezzlement and, most worrying of all for Quisling, conspiring with Hitler over the invasion and occupation of Norway.
The trial opened on August 20th. Quisling had to tread a “fine line between truth and falsehood” and emerged from it “an elusive and often pitiful figure.”
He misrepresented facts on several occasions and the truthful majority of his statements won him few advocates in the country at large, where he remained almost universally despised.
When the verdict was announced on September 10th, 1945, Quisling was convicted on all but a handful of minor charges and sentenced to death. Six weeks later he would be shot, as an October appeal to the same king he had been able to meet in person some 35 years earlier was rejected.
The sentence’s lawfulness has been questioned, as Norway did not have the death penalty in peace-time, which was carried out 40 times. The Constitution at the time stipulated that capital punishment for war crimes had to be carried out during actual wartime.
Apart from an affinity to Scandinavian mythology, Quisling blended philosophy and science into a new religion he called Universalism, which was a unified explanation of everything.
Quisling was believed to care deeply about his people and maintained high moral standards and a good working attitude. He was well-educated and intelligent, but also paranoid and megalomaniac, like a clown on the wrong stage.
The fraction of the Norwegian population that supported Germany and the concept of a Germanic Union was greater than generally appreciated today, including some 2000 volunteers that fought in the Waffen-SS on the Eastern Front and the thousands of local women who had children with German soldiers.
Besides Quisling, Anglophobic Nobel-prize winning novelist Knut Hamsun (1859-1952), who in an obituary of Hitler described him as “a warrior for mankind” and “a preacher of the gospel of justice for all nations”, is the other well-known example. Hamsun was quickly detained, committed to a mental hospital and fined a large sum of money.
Though only Quisling had sealed his reputation as a traitor at an early stage and his name will always be associated with someone who collaborates with an alien occupying force. There are actually far worse historic examples, who just happened to be on the winning side…