I have reached the Norwegian capital, Oslo, which signifies the end of my research trip gathering interviews about the destruction and devastation caused by the scorched earth withdrawal of the German Army from northern Norway in 1944. From October 1944 to February 1945, tens of thousands of homes were burned, anything of any use was blown up, fifty thousand people were forcibly evacuated from their homes and many lives were changed forever.
I have talked to people from across Finnmark about their experiences or their family’s experiences in that period and afterwards. My plan now is to listen back to the interviews and piece the stories together to build up what some people call ‘a social memory’. The result, a book which I’m calling ‘Scorched Earth Stories’, will be a collection of Norwegians telling their personal or family stories from that time, in English. There’s some very dramatic stuff in it already, I can tell you. New readers of the blog might like to look back a few entries to find out exactly what the people of northern Norway have been telling me about what they went through in the war.
While I was talking to people in Kirkenes they kept complaining that people in Oslo had no idea what the war was like for them, 2,000 kms south. History was written in Oslo, they said. Having made the journey to Oslo to talk to some people about the book and to say thankyou to a few people who made this trip possible, Finnmark does seem a very long way away. It’s like another country, a different geography and geology, a separate climate, a different mindset.
It took me the best part of a day to get here, hopping from Bodo to Trondheim and then down to Oslo Torp (that’s NOT Oslo at all.. it took me two hours on a coach to get back to Oslo city). While I’ve been here I’ve had a look at a few museums, walked over the roof of the brilliant Opera House and sat in the Palace gardens reading Knut Hamsun’s ‘Hunger’ so enthusiastically recommended by Knut Erik Jensen during our meeting in Honningsvag. It’s a strange but marvellous book, that’s for sure, written many years before his Nazi sympathies became known.
I’ve also been transcribing some of the interviews I did so I can begin the process of assembling my collection of stories from Kirkenes. This afternoon I was listening back to a chat I had with the businessman Kaare Tanvik who shot to fame as a child star with his role in the 1968 film ‘Scorched Earth’. He’s from Kirkenes and runs the Snow Hotel there, as well as the Andersgrotta shelter in the centre, for which he made an explanatory film about the war and the scorched earth burning. Here’s an extract of what he said:
“I was born here in 1953. My mother and father met in a bomb shelter by the High School and married. They’d been at a party when the air raid alarm went. They ran into the Nazi bomb shelter and my mother was very scared. After that they stuck together for the rest of their life. I’m like a memory of the war.
“1944 is Year Zero here. Everything was burned. I don’t have anything of my grandparents. No memories, nothing. Everything was destroyed. My whole childhood was spent hating Germans. I couldn’t learn German in school. My father said: “It’s a war language – we don’t like it.” He was a postmaster. The official language of the postal service is French so I learned French.
“I work with Germans a lot now, a younger generation who had grandfathers and fathers here, and they have never heard about the 35,000 buildings being burned here. But they sit in the Andersgrotta crying: for what they have done, for the evil of the war.
“I’m angry about the burning and I’m angry that the structure of this area was changed after the war. Lots of people moved out and went to the south. We lost our identities in Finnmark.
“A person is the result of what is around him. House, chairs, history, everything. And when everything is burned down and you rebuild it, you try and rebuild it either the same, or maybe brand new. And then you think: maybe something is missing or it doesn’t fit right. Maybe it’s not as good as before?
“Maybe mentally something happened here. Everything was destroyed here, the houses, the boats. I think [it’s sad] when people say ‘people in the north are so easy to move, you don’t have any tradition’. We don’t have any history.”
After I finished the transcription I went for a walk around Oslo before packing my bags for my flight back to the UK the next morning. I headed down to the Old Town where ‘Hunger’ is set and was walking past solid stone buildings, historic banks and old doorways when Kaare’s words came back to me: ‘We don’t have any history.’
The big solid buildings, the tram lines, the old hotels.. that traces a line back in Oslo’s human existence back to 1899, 1877, 1866.. even in some places 1686 and earlier. In Finnmark most buildings don’t date back further than 1956. Oslo seems to be rooted, to have a sense of permanence, and of course that’s because you can see those buildings have seen the passage of time and have some authority. They have witnessed history, and that can be seen in the old photographs and the records in the archives and the stories that shopkeepers tell about their great-grandfather establishing the business and so on.
Whereas in Finnmark, everything was swept away, human history erased and consumed by flames. Photographs of grandmother and grandfather doused in petrol and devoured by the hungry fire. Letters home reduced to ash in an instant. Personal possessions, baptismal gowns, combs, trunks … simply fuel to an unstoppable bonfire that bought fleeing Germans time to escape but wiped out three generations of toil and effort.
Much of Finnmark looks the same today. Because it is. Many of the homes people live in are the Swedish houses that were put up after the burning and the only difference between one house and another is the colour it’s painted. No one has grandfather’s books or great-grandmother’s letters, because they all turned to dust in the flames.
And in those fires I think Kaare’s right. Finnmark lost something of itself that it can never get back. Something of the identity of the people who weathered the stormy seas and the snow and the sub-zero temperatures to build a proud, thriving community based on iron ore production in the years before the war has been destroyed for ever.
Hitler’s scorched earth order of October 26, 1944 didn’t just destroy anything of use to the Red Army hot on the heels of the Germans: it wiped out the features of Finnmark’s forefathers. Nothing can bring that back.
PS: A word of thanks: I’d like to thank several companies who were generous enough to support my trip to Norway, in particular Wideroe Airlines, whose flights to Hammerfest, Mehamn, Tromso and Bodo were personal adventures while the staff were utterly professional. I found standards at Rica Hotels in Kirkenes, Hammerfest and Oslo to be extremely high and the breakfasts very satisfying, while the Radisson Blu hotels in Tromso and Bodo were extremely comfortable and welcoming. The car I hired through Avis in Tromso – a Toyota Urban Cruiser – performed very well and I would have one of those again, no problem. Now ‘Scorched Earth Stories’ will retire for a short while and consider what it has come home with.
Med vennlig hilsen og tusen takk for alt
Oslo, September 2013