Many countries struggle with difficult questions surrounding historical symbols, as we have seen with the recent Confederate Flag debate raging in the United States. Norway is no stranger to such debates. In his paper, “Buried, Forgotten, Disinterred?: The 1944 National Socialist St. Olav Monument at Stiklestad”, Øystein Ekroll gave the audience a glimpse into a similar struggle going on in Norway as it tries to deal with its Nazi past. Ekroll spoke about a contentious issue in Norway’s political landscape that traces back to the Middle Ages. He spoke earlier this month at the International Medieval Congress, at the University of Leeds, during the session “The Use and Abuse of the Middle Ages in the Modern World, IV: Nationalism and Identity.”
Who owns the monument? Who owns the history?: Viking Symbols and Nazi Era Politics
In the 1930s and 40s, the Nasjonal Samling Party – “National Gathering”, Norway’s version of the Nazi Party, appropriated the medieval symbol of St. Olav as the party’s emblem. The NS party tried to create medieval links to Norwegian heritage, leaning heavily on Viking art and symbolism to support its cause.
St. Olav’s shield inspired the NS’s emblem and was used by the party between 1933-1945. King Olav II Haraldsson (1015-1028), was killed at the Battle of Stiklestad on July 29, 1030. He was canonised a saint one year later. Olav is regarded as one of the instrumental figures in the Norway’s conversion to Christianity.
Due to this appropriation, Ekroll said that there are things that Norwegians can no longer do, like the former, ‘Greeting of Kings’. This greeting is no longer something that Norwegians can use polite company because it is the Norwegian equivalent of the Nazi’s ‘Seig Heil’. Ekroll lamented that many things, from speech to license plates, have been ruined by the NS party.
The main focus of Ekroll’s paper was the unearthing of a Nazi era monument in Stiklestad, Norway. The Stiklestad Cultural Centre wanted to uncover the nine-metre monument, featuring the NS party symbol, to reflect on the country’s difficult WWII history. The monument was built by Wilhelm Rasmussen (1879-1965), a well known NS party sympathizer, who also built the Olav Tryggvason sundial column, dedicated to Norways King Olav I (960-1000), and the 34-metre high Sagasøylen (Saga Column), located outside Oslo’s parliament. The Stiklestad church, near the monument, was used as a rallying point for the NS party in the 1930s and 40s. According to Ekroll, Rasmussen made extensive use of ‘the Viking Age ideal’ that was popular at the time and used frequently throughout the NS party’s propaganda. The debate around Stiklestad has been heated and the controversy seems rear its ugly head every year when the discussion about the monument is re-opened.
A New Monument for Stiklestad
In a book published in 1944, the plans for a new monument were presented. Wilhelm Rasmussen joined the NS and was given the task of creating the new monument. The unveiling took place on July 29, 1944, which is St. Olav’s feast day. The old monument to St. Olav was removed and replaced by Rasmussen’s. The nine-metre obelisk has the NS symbol on it, and depicts the Battle of Stiklestad. It included a poem by famed Norwegian poet, Per Sivle (1857-1904). Ekroll felt that Sivle, ‘was robbed by the Nazi’s and defiled’, when they incorporated his poem into the monument.
When the war ended, and the monument was swiftly removed, and Rasmussen became a ‘persona non grata’. Rasmussen died 20 years later, his name never cleared and his family in exile. An attempt was made to ‘de-nazify’ the monument. Per Sivle’s poem remained, but the Nazi symbol was scratched out. Eventually, the monolith was toppled and buried. The debate around the monument erupted in Norway when it was partially unearthed in 2007, as to whether or not to fully excavate it. There was a trial excavation in 2009 but Ekroll pointed out that this, ‘opened up a festering wound because there are still people who are alive and on both sides’. Norway is still trying to grapple with this unpleasant mix of history, heritage and hate as it decides what to do with this dark part of its past.