Norway has traditionally been committed to neutrality when it comes to global conflicts and history shows that they have mostly been successful in keeping that pledge. At the beginning of World War II, however, Norwegian citizens and their government did not know the trials that the country would face living under German occupation for five years.
When World War 2 began, Norway was determined to be politically neutral for the duration of the conflict. Yet in April of 1940, despite Norwegian resistance, Germany invaded the Scandinavian country and held control until the end of the war in May of 1945.
The article below will provide an overview of Norway during World War II starting with events that led up to the invasion, followed by the German occupation itself, and then an overview of the post-war aftermath. Keep reading to learn more.
Do Norwegians get along with their Scandinavian neighbors? See Why Do Norwegians Hate Swedes and Danes? to learn more.
Norway Before German Occupation
Norway sought to remain neutral during World War 2 for multiple reasons. The primary reasons included:
- Economic stability
- Traditional national adherence to pacifism
- A conviction that there was no practical need to join the war
As the conflict developed, Norway held firm to its commitment to observe and not participate. However, as the war expanded, different forces, and relationships with other countries, tested their pledge of peace.
Norwegian authorities knew that there needed to be preparations in place to defend itself, and potentially, its freedom.
Norway even went so far as to accrue national debt in order to invest in strengthening its military. History shows, however, that they did not reinforce their military in time. (Also see Nordic, Norse, and Norwegian: What’s the Difference?)
Norwegian Citizens Desire to Help Finland: The winter before Norway was invaded, its citizens organized and formed volunteer movements to help Finland fight against the encroaching Soviets. Finland, Norway’s Scandinavian neighbor, was invaded on November 30, 1939, just three months after the outbreak of the war.
Out of fear of aggravating Germany and risking their commitment to neutrality, the Norwegian government did not allow any citizens to volunteer in the war. Nevertheless, several hundred Norwegians disobeyed the government and did so.
Doctors, nurses, and future Norwegian resistance movement leaders were among those who volunteered. Norwegian citizens also organized collections of food, supplies, and money for Finnish refugees and their devastated communities. Norway may not have entered the war, but seemingly some of its citizens couldn’t resist helping.
Norwegians and Swedes have similarities and differences. See Are Norwegians and Swedes the Same People? to learn more.
Norway caught in the crossfire of Great Britain and Germany
Though Norway desired to remain neutral, it also did not want to be at war with the United Kingdom. In April of 1939, Nazi Germany offered Norway, along with other Scandinavian countries, a non-aggression pact. Norway turned down the offer, as did Finland and Sweden.
The conflict that erupted in Norwegian waters became a major strain on Norway’s neutrality. Fighting so close to home challenged their inaction. (Also see Why Are Houses in Norway Painted Red?)
On February 16-17, 1940, the German tanker Altmark was passing through Norwegian waters. The Altmark was transporting what was estimated to be around 300 allied prisoners.
British naval forces cornered the Altmark and attacked it. In the end, all the prisoners were freed, eight German seamen were killed, and ten others were wounded.
The Altmark incident, and others like it, weakened Norway’s commitment to neutrality. Countries on both sides were now clouded with doubt about Norway’s non-combative stance.
Still, Norway managed to maintain trade treaties with the United Kingdom and Germany even after the Altmark incident.
Norway anticipated that their trade agreements would provide additional protection against invasion, but interest in claiming Norway’s coastline, among other assets, was growing on both German and British sides. (Also see Why Do Norwegians Have Lights In Their Windows?)
As time went on, the Norwegian government faced additional pressure from Britain to direct larger parts of its merchant fleet to transport British goods for low rates and to join the blockade against Germany.
Interest in Norway
Leading up to the German invasion of Norway, both Germany and the United Kingdom had plans to invade the country. After the outbreak of war, Norway, along with Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, announced their neutrality. The Scandinavian countries were adhering to a policy that had successfully kept them neutral in the past.
It seems that Hitler’s initial intent to respect Norway’s neutrality was genuine. The next month, October of 1939, he stated that the neutrality of the Nordic States was to be assumed going forward and that Germany’s trade with these countries was to continue through the duration of the war.
Norwegian trade specifically was a major asset to Germany. Norway shipped what is estimated to be around half of Germany’s supply of iron ore, an important commodity during wartime used to derive metallic iron.
Metallic iron is then used in the manufacturing of steel. Iron ore was mined in Sweden and was shipped out of the Norwegian ports of Narvik.
Germany was not prepared to lose this supplier of iron ore, which both German and British governments recognized. If Britain were to gain control of Norway, they could cut the supply of iron ore to Germany and control what was at the time, neutral waters.
As the British government sought to be more aggressive in their conflict with Germany, the Germans, in turn, felt the pressure to defend its supply of iron ore and access to Norwegian waters.
Seizing Norway would mean controlling their ice-free harbors in the North Atlantic and protecting the supply of iron ore coming from Sweden and delivered through the town of Narvik.
As the possibility of opposing sides planning an invasion in Norway became apparent, both felt growing pressure to gain control first. In March of 1940, the United Kingdom prepared a plan to invade Norway.
“Operation Wilfred” was a British Naval Operation that planned to place mines in the Norwegian waters that Germany relied on for the transportation of iron ore. In anticipation of an aggravated German response following the mining, British troops were planned to land at four important Norwegian ports:
The timeline of Operation Wilfred would greatly impact Norway’s fate in the war. The original date of operation was April 5, but growing tensions and conflict with the Anglo-French led Operation Wilfred to be postponed until April 8.
In Germany, Hitler had ordered that the invasion of Norway take place on the ninth of April. On April 8, the Norwegian government protested the laying of mines for Operation Wilfred in fear German aggravation would be pointed at them as well.
Norway argued for the mines to be removed from waters, all while unaware Germany had already begun mobilizing their invasion efforts.
Norway’s environment is beautiful, but is it perfect? See Are There Mosquitoes in Norway? to learn more.
The German Occupation of Norway
On the night of April 8, into April 9 of 1940, German troops invaded Norway. General Nikolaus Falkenhorst was the man behind the invasion strategy, which included a combination of sea and air attacks at key locations along the Norwegian coastline. 
The Progression of German Troops
Norway was largely unprepared for the attack from Germany. As the Germans captured key ports and cities along the coast, Norwegian army commanders ordered their men to move further inland, where they hoped the country’s rugged terrain would be to their benefit.
Norway faced the significant loss of their best equipment within the first twenty-four hours of fighting the Germans, putting them in a worse position than when they started.
The unprepared government gave unclear orders for mobilization, and all parties were fogged with shock from the strong German surprise attack.
The Norwegian army managed to put up a considerable fight given their circumstances, and they managed to slow German troops, but the invasion was still progressing rapidly. Four days into the invasion, the German army had advanced over seventy miles from the capital.
After another week, eleven days into the invasion, the German army had advanced nearly two hundred miles from Norway’s capital. The German army was superior in size, training, and equipment.
Also see The Nordic Race: Meaning and Controversy to learn more.
The Battle of Oslo
The German operation was generally successful, with the greatest defensive action from Norway taking place in Oslo. The German heavy cruiser Blücher was headed for the Norwegian capital, Oslo.
Whether Norway would open fire upon the Germans was unclear, as the attack was planned as a surprise, and the Norwegians were still neutral in standing. The commander of the Oscarborg Fortress, Colonel Erikson, decided he could open fire given the German ships had passed warning shots from a far-away fortress.
Norwegian coast defenses were able to sink the German ship, Blücher, using artillery and torpedoes. In doing so, the German invasion of the capital was delayed by only a few hours. However, this temporary stall was significant to the royal family, as it allowed them to escape the country.
The Royal Family Escapes
Germany invaded Denmark and Norway around the same time and had the same goals in both countries, one of which was to capture the king. All German soldiers aboard the Blücher were sent to attack Oslo and were told that their main priority was capturing the royal family.
The royal family in Norway at this time consisted of King Haakon VII, Crown Prince Olav, Crown Princess Martha, and their three children Prince Harald, Princess Astrid, and Princess Ragnhild. Hitler believed capturing the king would give him leverage in forcing a quick capitulation.
In Denmark, this proved true, with the country capitulating merely hours after the king was captured. Thanks to the Norwegian defense against Blücher, Norway faced a much different fate.
On the night of April 8, the royal family was warned that the Germans were on their way to Norway. Later, at 4:30 am the Norwegians were offered terms of surrender, but the king and the government, corresponding over the telephone, agreed to refuse the offer.
The royal family had made the decision to evacuate, as Norway was now considered at war. The royal family met the government and boarded a train headed to Hamar. Norwegians cheered and waved flags as the train passed by to show the king’s support on the decision to resist surrender.
The Royal Family was headed for the estate of Sælid. Prime Minister Nygaardsvold arrived there to tell the king that parliament was split and had yet to make a decision.
The King and Crown Prince Olav traveled to Hamar city. There, in a meeting that lasted until the evening, the king asked that parliament come together. The king refused to let the government step down or to approve a surrender.
Upon returning to the Sælid estate, the chief of police from Hamar city called and informed the royal family that the German forces were on their way. Immediately, the royal family left the estate heading towards the town of Elverum.
As Prince Harald was the heir to the throne, the family decided it best that they split up during their travels. Crown Princess Martha traveled further than Elverum and took her three children to her native country of Sweden.
The Battles of Narvik
Seizing control of Narvik was a key step in Germany’s invasion, but was met with strong opposition from the British Royal Navy. German ships arrived in Narvik on the foggy morning of April 9.
Upon spotting them, Norwegian ships opened fire. This had been the first naval battle of Narvik. German ships had planned to return to Germany by the end of the day, but when a refueling tanker failed to reach them, it allowed time for the British Royal Navy to arrive.
The British arrived, surprising the Germans and marking the beginning of the second naval battle of Narvik. Five British destroyer ships sunk two German ships and damaged three others.
The damage to German ships was a success, but there was nothing the British Navy could do about the German troops who had already landed in Narvik.
As British ships left, the German relief force attacked, sinking two ships and causing the rest to flee. Three days later, the Royal Navy returned one last time, with its largest fleet yet and one aircraft carrier.
The German fleet suffered massive losses in this attack, but the few surviving German soldiers managed to join the troops in Narvik.
The final battle for Narvik was on land and spanned two months. The Norwegians received help from British, French, and Polish troops, with allied men eventually outnumbering the Norwegians in the battle. The German forces were highly outnumbered as well, five to one.
As the second month of battling continued, it seemed as though Norway would be victorious.
Simultaneously, German attacks against Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France, eventually led the British to retreat from Narvik on June 3. While Norway was optimistic that they could win alone, they eventually surrendered a few days later.
By the end of May 1940, the British government and military withdrew from Norway completely. On June 10, 1940, Norway surrendered. Germany had gained control of Norway after the country withheld invasion for approximately two months, the longest time any western European country withheld German invasion.
Over one thousand Norwegians had been killed or injured in the fight for their country. British forces faced nearly two thousand of their men killed or injured, and French and Polish troops suffered the death or injury of approximately five hundred men.
The Germans had faced approximately five thousand men lost, the majority of which died on the way to Norway or during the first days of the invasion.
Norway Under German Rule
The citizens of Norway faced harsh societal conditions under Germany’s control. Soldiers were under orders to behave properly towards the civilian population of Norway, given that Hitler considered Norwegians a part of the ‘Arian’ race. (Also see Is Scandinavia a Race?)
German soldiers requisitioned homes, businesses, schools, and other property, and were able to control and arrest anyone they found to be suspicious. Frequently changing laws and regulations made it easy to fall victim to the danger of arrest.
Norway’s economic standing suffered after the German occupation. Significantly, Norway lost all its major trading partners, and Germany became the country’s main trading partner. Germany alone would not measure up to the import and export business Norway had lost.
The production capacity had not been affected significantly, but Germany confiscated output. Scarcity quickly became a general problem in Norway, especially in urban areas.
Rationing many commodities became necessary, including clothing, furniture, and food. Each family was given one ration book per member. The ration books would allow them to buy a certain allotment of specific items.
Sugar, coffee, and flour were among the first foods to be rationed, with imported food following. Eventually, meat, eggs, bread, butter, and dairy products also became rationed as well. In the summer of 1942, even products such as vegetables and potatoes were rationed.
Growing crops and keeping livestock became a popular practice for citizens around this time. City parks even divided space for local inhabitants to grow hardy vegetables like potatoes, turnips, and carrots. Fishing and hunting were other growing resources people took advantage of to feed themselves and their families.
Among the most terrorizing adjustments for many Norwegians was the bomb threats that came from both the German and Allied militaries. Bombing shelters and blackout curtains became a necessity, as did a plan for immediate action in case of bombing.
In one instance, when the king of Norway refused to appoint Quisling as the Prime Minister, the German forces reacted by bombing the city in which he was thought to reside. While they had the correct location, the king had managed to escape when the sound of bombers was heard.
Many towns and cities were obliterated by bombing tactics. Many civilians were killed or traumatized and displaced. Displacement and fleeing caused additional stress to the already unsatisfactory rationing and housing system.
Norway’s Jewish Population
At the beginning of the German occupation, the Jewish population in Germany is estimated to have been approximately 2,000, including German and Austrian Jewish refugees who had fled to Norway as a neutral country. 
June 22, 1941, marks the German invasion of the Soviet Union. In this, the first mass incarceration of Jewish Norwegian citizens took place in the Northern part of Norway. Before this date, any incarcerations had occurred sporadically.
The organized arrest of the Jewish population intensified in the fall of 1942. Trondheim, a northern Norwegian port city, experienced the arrest of all male Jewish citizens in the earlier part of October. Towards the end of the month, over two hundred male Jewish citizens were arrested in Norway’s capital city of Oslo.
Later in November, the remaining Jewish population of women, children, and the ill or disabled were arrested as well. After this, the incarceration and deportation of Norwegian Jews continued sporadically.
Fortunately, more than half of Norway’s Jewish population was able to receive word of impending incarcerations, and an estimated 900 Jews escaped to Sweden.
Others were able to escape to the United Kingdom or enter hiding. Many of those who managed to flee or hide did so with help from the underground, i.e. people who secretly helped vulnerable people to hide and escape.
Between 1940 and 1945, the number of Jewish Norwegian citizens who faced deportation was over 750, and tragically, only an estimated 25 returned to the country after the war.
Norwegians entered global wartime neutral, but with many citizens willing to rally despite government for their Scandinavian neighbor of Finland.
The same grit and pride were seen in Norway when the country came under German rule, and a resistance movement formed rapidly. Thousands of citizens took part in resistance efforts. It is thought that some operations occurred so strictly that family members did not know of each other’s involvement until after the war.
The Norwegian resistance had many advantages to work with, including significant amounts of uninhabited country, a long coastline, and shares borders with the neutral country Sweden. Resistance efforts took many forms, including underground newspapers and smuggling people and goods to neutral Sweden or to the United Kingdom.
While most citizens that were involved preferred passive means of protests, more drastic actions included the destruction of ships, train tracks, and factories to disrupt German plans and access to supplies.
After more than five years of German occupation, on May 8 of 1945, German forces withdrew from Norway, and World War 2 had officially come to an end. The day is now celebrated annually in Norway as Liberation day (Frigjøringsdagen) and serves as the county’s Veteran’s Day.
Treason Trials: The end of the war was swiftly followed by a series of trials that sentenced collaborators to fines, prison sentences, and even the death sentence. In the end, 25 Norwegians were sentenced to death, and roughly 19,000 received time in prison. Those who were found guilty were mostly convicted of treason, but some were found guilty of war crimes. 
The trials, and specifically the use of the death penalty, were controversial at the time they were going on but came to face harsher criticism after a few years had passed. Today, the retroactive application of the law would be unconstitutional. The sentences are critiqued for being too harsh on some individuals, and for becoming more lenient as time went on.
The Return of the Royal Family
Throughout the five years at war, the Norwegian citizens maintained feelings of connection to the royal family. The H7 monogram, the royal cipher of the Norwegian head of state, became a symbol of resistance. Citizens would use coins bearing the symbol to make jewelry or clothing they could rebelliously wear.
King Haakon and Crown Prince Olav had changed locations numerous times throughout the war to ensure safety, but ultimately were staying at Foliejon Park, a country house in Berkshire, England.
From there, King Haakon would regularly attend weekly cabinet meetings and broadcast to Norway by radio. Broadcasts were made possible through the BBC World Service and Saint Olav’s Norwegian Church, the church that the Royal Family regularly attended in Norway. These broadcasts made Haakon a clear, national symbol for the Norwegian resistance.
Crown Prince Olav returned first on May 14, 1945. He arrived on a British cruiser with a delegation of Norwegian government officials that had fled as well.
The remainder of the Norwegian Royal Family returned to their country of Norway on the First Cruiser Squadron on June 7, 1945. They were met by cheering crowds in Oslo.
Reconstruction in Norway
The adversity that was collectively faced during the war resulted in a strengthened Norwegian identity. Along with the return of the Royal Family and government officials, many Norwegians felt a sense of pride in their country, though it was far from the country they knew before World War 2.
As Norway was able to open trade back up and gradually repair its economy, the quality of life improved for citizens. Destruction from the German aggression, including their bombing campaigns, was drastic, but the significant effort was put into reconstructing the country.
Norway’s traditional neutrality policy was abandoned, and Norway even became a founding member of NATO in 1949, and the country adopted a new commitment to maintaining armed forces.
The second half was of the 20th century was good for Norway. It was relatively free of conflict and became economically stable. Peace in the Scandinavian region, and with their European neighbors to the south, brought about prosperity at the end of the 20th century.
Norway had much to overcome in World War 2, but today is one of the wealthiest countries globally and recognized for its social equality and high standard of living.