The Northern Norwegian Press and the Cold War 1947-70 

Stian Larsen, Research fellow at The Norwegian Aviation Museum/Bodø College


In my research, I present different kinds of thoughts and plans made by the authorities concerning Norway’s northernmost region during the years 1947-70, and how these were brought about. First and foremost I focus on how the Cold War effected the civilian society; on how the conflict contributed in transforming this society and helped modernising it – especially socially and culturally. The press played an important role in this process. In this lecture I shall give some examples on how we can analyse the press during the Cold War. I will focus on the Labour Party-press.[i]

 Historians and other scholars that have studied the role that the press has taken during the Cold War, has put most of their attention on what the different newspapers have written about different matters – on what meanings they have put forward concerning different important happenings. As a consequence, we know a lot about their reactions on the Winter-Crisis in 1948, the shaping of NATO, the invasion of Hungary in 1956, The Vietnam War, etc.

Secondly, a lot has been said about the press as a tool for specific political parties and other powerful interests. In Norway, the period between the 1920s and 1970s has in fact been described as the great era for the party-press.[ii] Calculations indicates that in 1921 around 85 % of the newspapers in Norway represented a specific political party; in 1972 this had decreased to around 54 %. The party-press has thus been better rooted in Norway than in almost any other country with a free press.[iii] During the Cold War, most newspapers in Northern Norway – acting as agents for the political parties – also co-operated with the Norwegian defence and the surveillance police. This co-operation had a political goal which aimed at securing the country by diminishing threats inside Norway. One wanted to reduce the influence from left-wing politicians, to spread relevant information about what threatened the society, to legitimise the Norwegian and allied policy, and to share concrete information about potentially dangerous persons, meetings, happenings, etc. Over the last 10 12 years it’s become clearer and clearer that the Labour-press (and indeed: not just them!) not only sought to take the sting out of the contacts eastwards by using normal editorial work and plain journalism. It has been uncovered that there were many open channels between the press and the surveillance police during the Cold War; this is examined in several books, but especially in Trond Bergh’s and Knut Einar Eriksen’s work on surveillance in Norway.[iv]

The third tendency that is evident in the literature, is the heavy critics that’s been raised concerning the bonds between the press and the authorities during the conflict. These bonds had a rather unfortunate consequence: it made the public sphere narrower. Powerful groups strongly influenced what was printed and discussed. The debate in the public sphere, and the transmission of the news, were edited – at least to a certain extent – by specific political interests. Many have celebrated that this kind of contact between the press and the authorities gradually – from the 1960s onwards – have been brought to close.[v] 

The Labour Party-Press

In the first post-war years, The Norwegian Labour Party were governing Norway on a basis which also included the Communist Party. After World War II, there was a greater sense of political unity in Norway than before, also among the socialists, who tried to merge the two parties of the Left. The Labour-press in Northern Norway supported these efforts. However, These negotiations did not leave any results.

            The newspapers wrote very much about the increasing tension among the great powers on the international scene – a tension that seemed to lead them further from each other, and make the Grand Alliance crumble away. Norway’s bridge-building policy in the years 1945-48 was very much supported by the Labour-press. When the British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin’s proposal for a Western Union was launched on the 22 January 1948, the official Norwegian reactions were reserved. Though the most central newspaper in the Labour-press, Arbeiderbladet in Oslo, supported Bevin’s idea, the Labour-press throughout Norway sought to keep Norway out of such involvement’s. The papers in Northern Norway also emphasised strongly that Norway would be best off if she didn’t support actions that could provoke the Soviet Union.[vi]

            The unease concerning Soviet plans grew strong during the Winter-Crises in 1948 and the situation in Germany. How was Norway going to act in this situation? The Labour-press in Northern Norway was very much in favour of a Scandinavian defence pact, but when the decision had been taken, and Norway was joining the North Atlantic Treaty, they supported this loyally.[vii]

            In a study of the newspaper Nordlys of Tromsø, the historian Hallvard Tjelmeland has concluded that it only very reluctantly identified itself with place Norway took within the block system.[viii] Concerning Northern Norway, I think this description covers the attitudes of the Labour-press as a whole. They put a lot of effort in defending the Scandinavian solution to the security problem, and they did so not only because of the relation to the Soviet Union, but also because of the significant political and ideological differences within the NATO-countries, especially with respect to the US. With a few exceptions, The US did not have its closest friends in these newspapers; instead they regarded Norway’s most important ally to be a somewhat distant democratic relative defending the free world. In the years that came, these newspapers were sceptical to the role the US played in Korea, and they found the US involvement in Vietnam beneath contempt. They criticised the military industry and the arms race heavily, they held very much against the economic system in the US, and they could not understand why the US treated the black people so bad.

            Concerning the Soviet Union, they did not all together judge her in a negative way. Of course, they banned the arms race on both sides. As a matter of fact, the development of nuclear weapons as a main part of the military strategy, never found any friends in these newspapers. Right from the start of the Cold War, it was regularly reported of their dangerous potentials. The expansionism forged by Moscow, and the way the Soviet Union intervened in the Eastern European countries and disciplined them, was also condemned from the beginning. The deprivation of freedom and the defective legal protection was conceived as a large betrayal towards humanity from Stalin and his Communist Party. Many reports of repression and purge underlined this. A comment in Nordlys in connection with the election in 1957, is symptomatic. The editor wrote, after having received feedback from many readers who would like some reports on the Communist Party:

We do not hesitate to address the communist slaughter on the Hungarian workers, the recently uncovered murders on millions in the Soviet Union, Mr Osvald Harjo’s and other communists experiences in the Soviet Camps, etc.[ix] 

The Labour-press was much more positive towards the Soviet Union with regards to the economic sphere, where, just like in Norway, a lot of effort was put on planning and public control. It was recognised that it had taken place giant technological leaps and great societal changes in the Eastern European countries – in particular the Soviet Union. Thus, it became an important issue for the Labour Party-press in Northern Norway to prove that the growth and the modernisation of the homeland had come even further. This hint of dubiousness with regards to the Soviet Union was expressed very clearly in the newspaper Finnmarken in 1953-54, during the trials where a number of Norwegian’s were accused for working in favour of the neighbouring Communist State. During this period, Otto Larsen, a former communist who had been held captured in Soviet Camps, also told the readers horrifying reports from them. But at the same time, there was a big debate between Finnmarken and the communist papers Friheten and Nordland Arbeiderblad concerning the amount of house building in Norway versus the Soviet Union. Which country was the most modern on this area? Finnmarken concluded, in content, that over the last years a lot more square meters had been built in Norway than in Soviet – per person, that was – especially in the Northern parts of Norway! 

The Containment Policy, the Labour Party-Press and the Communists

The newspapers reluctantly found their place within the block thinking. However, they were much less doubtful when it came to the communists: They had to be diminished as much as possible.[x] They had no legitimate place in the Norwegian political system – one needed only to observe what methods they used inside their own organisations to be convinced; it reminded of Stalin’s methods in Eastern Europe, they reported.

            After World War II, Labour regarded the communists to be a serious opponent to the voters. The political differences, which had been significant, also increased – mostly because of the development in the international community, but also because of the tough struggles that were fought within the Trade Unions.

            Primer Minister Einar Gerhardsen sealed the relation to the communists with his speech to Kråkerøy Labour Party 29 February 1948. The previous days, in a very tense political situation internationally, the Prime Minister had received warnings of possible future sabotage actions: Some communists were planning to hit targets in Narvik.[xi] Einar Gerhardsen, being very worried about the situation, said that:

The problem for Norway is, as far as I can see, first and foremost a domestic one. What poses the greatest threat to freedom and democracy for the Norwegian people, is the danger that the Norwegian Communist Party represents. If we are to maintain Norway’s independence, our legal protection and our democracy, we have to diminish the influence from the Communist Party and the communists as much as possible […].[xii] 

The Prime Minister aimed at reducing the communists to an insignificant sect, and by doing so, also avoiding “Czechoslovakian conditions” in Norway. And the press followed up. The motives of communist politicians were often doubted, and there were many comments indicating that their real aim was to destabilise the country and prepare a communist coup. In the late 1950s, when the communists had lost much of their support, this language was toned down.

            In general, the communists held a relatively strong position in Northern Norway during the first years after World War II. Since the press was regarded to be a very important tool in struggle to wipe them out of the political map, Labour put a lot of resources and energy in rebuilding their newspapers quickly after the war. One example is found in the history of Rana Blad, the local newspaper in Mo i Rana, a stronghold in Northern Norwegian industry. Øyvind Hirsti, former editor of Rana Blad, has stated that when the Labour Party directed their efforts towards building up this newspaper in such a degree as they did, the reasons for this were solely political.[xiii] The significance of getting a good editor to Mo i Rana, was also held very high. In a note from 1946 it says that:

First and foremost we have to get an editor who doesn’t only know how to run a newspaper, but who also has the necessary political preconditions to lead the political discussion in a district where the communists are very strong.[xiv] 

The editorial question was a very sensitive and important one, and the editors were thus chosen after serious discussions. In the case of Rana Blad, the choice turned out to be satisfactory. At least Nils Hillestad, the secretary of the Trade Union in Nordland county – who often shared information with the surveillance police – thought so. 

Much of what is to be said about the role of the press in Northern Norway during the Cold War is not unique for this region, but nevertheless: some aspects of the historical development made the Cold War an extraordinary challenge for this region to face. In fact, the idea of one Northern Norway, a name that covered the whole region, was probably not conceived until the late 1800s, among Northern Norwegians living ”in exile” – in Kristiania and America.[xv] One late evening in 1884, two persons, Ole Olsen and Sivert Nilsen, apparently were in a creative mood. Ole Olsen simply burst out: ”What if we call it ’Nord-Norge’[that is: Northern Norway]”? Olsen, who doesn’t seem to have been particularly modest on his own behalf, later confessed in a letter that they just passed the term on, and soon it was widely accepted.[xvi]

            It has been argued that this invention of an identity must have been rooted in a deeper sense than just a spontaneous fellowship felt by a bunch of homesick people.

When the industrialisation and urbanisation accelerated in Norway in the 19th century, the greatest changes took place in the Southern parts of the country. At the end of the 19th century, and the beginning of the 20th, the gap between the North and the South was significant, and it seemed to be increasing.[xvii] After World War II some politicians and others who were interested in the welfare of the region, started to argue that very significant public efforts were required if Northern Norway was to become a modern part of the nation – a region comparable to the others. These opinions were mostly held within the Labour Party. For Labour, being in government, it was not just a question of rebuilding the region after the war. Firstly, Labour aimed at making Northern Norway more productive, and thus making the region contributing more in the national context; secondly Labour wanted to level the differences that existed within Norway’s regions with regards to living conditions; thirdly they believed that the most efficient way of putting an end to the communist influence in the region went through an efficient modernisation of the region. This view was at large shared by military leaders, by the surveillance police and not least: by the Labour-press. The Labour-press was an extremely important manager of this message. They stressed, over and over again, that the alternative roads to a modern society, for instance the communist road, was in fact a dead end.

            I agree with Øyvind Thomassen, from whom we will hear more from later today, that containment and confidence are to keywords that characterises the Norwegian policy towards Northern Norway in this period – and they are also characteristic for the Labour-press in the region. They wanted to get control over the communist influence (and other “unfortunate” influence) in Northern Norway, and at the same time reassure that the government faced to meet demands of higher living conditions and a good national defence. Tønne Huitfeldt put it like this in 1974:

Norway has […] pursued an Arctic policy with the aim of strengthening the economic base and the settlement of the northern territories. The building up of the most northerly university in Tromsø is a typical product of this policy. Even if this Norwegian policy has a clear economic and regional objective, it also involves important considerations of security policy.[xviii] 

Imagining the Cold War

The threats that were conceived to be of great importance to this region during the Cold War, were based on both old and more recent experiences and perceptions. But if we look at the Cold War in itself as a cultural experience, we are – I believe – mostly struck by its modern character. I will try to make clearer what this means, by giving some historical examples.

            In an interesting study of the changing representations of storms and the many accidents among fishermen along the coast of Norway in the second half of the 19th century, the historian Narve Fulsås has shown how the combination of the telegraph and the daily newspapers strongly influenced on the perception of such accidents.[xix] In traditional societies, time and space are woven together in such a way that what happens now, also has to happen here. Occurrences that are taking place somewhere else, for instance wars, conflicts or accidents on the sea, do also take place in another time; you will not hear of it in a long time; it is impossible, because the means are not available. In other words: my contemporaries are not that significant to me.

            The introduction of the telegraph and the daily newspaper made the references to the calendar very crucial; in fact, the reconstruction of different happenings at specific times became one of the most important references in peoples daily life. This was, according to Benedict Anderson, a necessary condition for the modern national community to arise.[xx] The distant contemporaries was brought in a much closer connection to oneself; anyone could read about what was happening to their fellow countrymen at this specific time. To return to the unlucky fishermen: From the late 1800s onwards, the accidents that occurred on the sea were immediately reported as accidents that had happened to “my fellow countrymen”; “they drowned while I slept”!

            The Cold War was first and foremost experienced through media, just like these accidents on the sea. Through decades before the Cold War, the newspapers in Norway had reported international news, making comments on the international situation. But with its global range, the Cold War separates from earlier production of news. The Cold War news were passed on in an international frame, making the world a web of unrest and uneasiness. The many smaller conflicts was carrying a potential to “reach home to you” – in the worst case as a war. This was very much reflected in the newspapers; they covered all kinds of conflicts throughout the world with great intensity. Dag Solstad, a Norwegian novelist, has given a striking portrait of the editor of the Labour-paper Dagningen:

He missed few opportunities to give the subscribers in Lillehammer and Gudbrandsdalen insights in what state the world was at, and what forces that stood opposite to one another. He regarded it his duty to remind the workers in Lillehammer and the peasants in Gudbrandsdalen that they belonged to The Free World. He also tried to appeal to their sense for Horrifying Stories by rendering some of them, but now with the scene laid behind the Iron Curtain. He told about the Russian communists, so called “comrades”, who closed their congresses by arresting the minority and execute them, just like the revolution had eaten its own children. […] They have got blood on their hands, the editor said.[xxi] 

But what appeared to be threatening was not only that big parts of the world was woven into the conflict, but also that mankind had developed weapons of such kind that they, in themselves, could represent a serious threat. Such threat perceptions has been discussed quite a lot among sociologist in recent years, for instance by Anthony Giddens, Ulrich Beck and Niklas Luhman. According to Giddens, the modernisation of our societies has made it possible for people to live richer and more secure lives; but at the same time there is a tendency that a sense of risk and uncertainty seems to have colonised the thoughts of many people. Thus, our modern societies seems to be double-edged. This view seems to fit neatly with what we can observe in the newspapers throughout this period. The fishermen that I spoke about earlier, did of course know that there was some kind of danger connected to their profession, but the “amount of risk” they undertook was not known – indeed: the “risk society” was not known. In the period of the Cold War, this had changed totally; the public were “bombed” with information about risks they were being expelled to – almost all the time. This is not just the case with man’s impact on the environment, different diseases, the world economy, etc; the crown example is the arms race and the nuclear weapons.

            The newspapers in this region focused quite a lot on the potentials of the new technology, including the nuclear technology. Although it is possible to trace a certain optimism in connection with this fresh gain the first years, it seems like the threats they posed overwhelmed all other evaluations, especially from the late 50s onwards. There were many reports saying that a war that included such weapons had to lead to catastrophe, also in Northern Norway. An unpleasant reminder of this view happened when the U-2 plane was shot down over Soviet territory in 1960. Khrushchev said that the Soviet Union had all kinds of military force that could to punish Norwegian bases in any ways, if this activity was to prevail (the U-2-plane was planned to land in Bodø). The editor of the local paper in Bodø, Nordlands Framtid, warned after this incident strongly against all military and economic speculators; “they only see armed forces as a plausible solution, and let this development run freely”.[xxii] 

Concluding remarks

It’s an open question, and will continue to be so, how much this perception of risk and all the other information took in people’s lives as a consequence of the arms race. Likewise, we don’t know how much attention that was drawn to “the insights about what state the world was at”, that the newspapers spread. The customary evaluations of this period, both by historians and others, let us believe that faith in science, technology and industrialisation – and the welfare that such tools would create – was widespread and dominating. And for that sake: Maybe the German activist Dieter Kunzelmann also pointed at an important insight when he stated in the 1960s – maybe in a little vulgar manner: “Mich interessiert nicht der Vietnam-krieg sondern meine Orgasmusschwierigkeiten”.[xxiii] The every day life, and the joys and problems we face there, are most important, after all.     



[i] The newspapers that are included in my study are, from south to north: Rana Blad (Mo i Rana, L), Nordlandsposten (Bodø, Con), Nordlands Framtid (Bodø, L), Lofotposten (Svolvær, I), Fremover (Narvik, L), Nordlands Arbeiderblad (Narvik, Com), Nordlys (Tromsø, L), Finnmarken (Vadsø, L). L=Labour; Con=Conservative; I=Independent; Com=Communist.

[ii] Martin Eide, Den redigerende makt, Oslo 2000, p. 196.

[iii] Jens O. Simensen, Meningsbærer eller meningsløs? Om avisenes samfunnsrolle, Fredrikstad 1999, p. 31.

[iv] Trond Bergh and Knut Einar Eriksen, Den hemmelige krigen. Overvåking i Norge 1914-1997, 2 volumes, Oslo 1998. Do also consult Sverre Nilssen, Redaktør i grenseland. Et Finnmarks-bilde med politikk, kultur og hemmelige tjenester, Oslo 1990; Bjørn Nilsen and Finn Sjue, Skjult dagsorden. Mediene og de hemmelige tjenestene, Oslo 1998; Hallvard Tjelmeland, Nordlys 1902-2002, unpublished manuscript.

[v] Ibid, p. 9.

[vi] Knut Einar Eriksen, DNA og NATO. En redegjørelse for debatten og vedtakene i Det norske Arbeiderparti 1948-49, Oslo 1972, p. 58.

[vii] Do also consult Hallvard Tjelmeland, Nordlys 1902-2002, 2 chapter. Unpublished manuscript.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Nordlys, 2 October 1957. Translated by me.

[x] Hallvard Tjelmeland, op.cit.

[xi] Trond Bergh and Knut Einar Eriksen, Den hemmelige krigen. Overvåking i Norge 1914-1997, volume 1., Overvåkingssystemet bygges opp 1914-1955, pp. 144-150.

[xii] Einar Gerhardsen, quoted after Hans Fredrik Dahl and Henrik G. Bastiansen, Hvor fritt et land? Sensur og meningstvang i Norge i det 20. århundre, Oslo 2000, p. 155. Translated by me.

[xiii] Øyvind Hirsti, Folkets røst i 90 år, Rana 1992, p. 84.

[xiv] Ibid. Translated by me.

[xv] Einar Niemi, Regionalism in the North: The Creation of ’North Norway’, in Acta Borealia nr. 2 1993.

[xvi] The translations here are made by me from Marit Martinsen, Nordlandslaget i Amerika og Kanada 1908-45, unpublished thesis in history, UiTø. This story of the origin of a term did, according to Ole Olsen himself, take place in 1884, not in 1894 as it was believed earlier [for instance in Niemi, op.cit.]. I thank Marit Martinsen, student at Institutt for historie, UiTø for this information.

[xvii] Narve Fulsås, Nord-Norge – Ein ny historisk konstruksjon, in Lofotposten 100 år 1896-1996, p. 96.

[xviii] Tønne Huitfeldt, A Strategic Perspective on the Arctic, in Finn Sollie (et al.), The Challenge of New Territories, Oslo – Bergen – Tromsø 1974, p. 97; Narve Fulsås, Universitetet i Tromsø 25 år, Tromsø 1993, pp. 32, 317.

[xix] Narve Fulsås, Kva er gale med det historiske kjeldeomgrepet. Ein kritikk av kjeldekritikken, in Historisk tidsskrift nr 2 2001, especially pp. 240-242.

[xx] Benedict Anderson, Imagined communities. Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, London 1991 (1983).

[xxi] Dag Solstad, Roman 1987, Oslo 1987, p. 62. Translated by me.

[xxii] Nordlands Framtid, 10 May 1960.

[xxiii] The example is taken from Tor Egil Førland, “Vietnamkrigen interesserer meg ikke; jeg vil ha orgasme!”, in Tidsskrift for samfunnsforskning nr 2 1998.

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