Nansen and Politics
When Nansen met Jackson in Franz Josef Land, Jackson recorded that Nansen first asked about Eva, his wife, the second question was about Norwegian politics and the third question was to ask if “Norway and Sweden at war?”
On his return from the Fram expedition, and having discovered that Norway and Sweden were not yet at war, he used his standing in the world for political ends. He wrote several letters to The Times of London and in 1897 helped to organise the composition of a book celebrating Norwegian achievements.
Nansen took this attitude to its logical conclusion when he wrote a book of his own explaining to foreigners, principally the English, the Norwegian view of past events and his view of the immediate future. The book, published in 1905, was called Norway and the Union with Sweden.
Norway, towards the close of the 19th century, was only one of several small states which were clamouring for independence from the hugely powerful empires which had reached their zenith during the 18th and 19th centuries. Finland was agitating for independence from the Russian Empire, Ireland from the British Empire, while the Austro-Hungarian and particularly the Turkish Empires were in danger of almost complete dissociation. Sweden had once been a great power but was, by the end of the 19th century, of little threat to the peace of Europe. The separation of Norway from Sweden would not markedly change the overall balance of power within Europe, but it could be viewed as an invitation to several other countries to pursue their claims for independence.
Norway was to become, after Belgium, only the second European country to gain independence from the power-blocks formed at the end of the Napoleonic wars.
The population was divided into an affluent group [e.g. officials in the small towns, civil servants etc., rich peasants or farmers], and a large oppressed group which was nearly landless and obliged to work unpaid for the more affluent peasant farmers. These landless peasants were known as ‘cottagers’. Entire families worked in exchange for grazing rights, timber and the use of a house which they lost if they were no longer able to work. The national census of 1855 showed that about half the population was living in this form of poverty or worse.
Norway’s population had grown from 883,000 in 1801 to 2,240,000 in 1900. Even so, Norway had the highest rate of emigration relative to the total population of any European country except Ireland. Between 1801 and 1900 750,000 people emigrated, mainly to the American Mid-West. [New Encyclopædia Britannica (R), 15th Edition, Macropædia vol. 24, 1992, page 1093. Copyright Encyclopædia Britannica Inc.]
The country needed to change from a backwater relying on traditional patterns of fishing, whaling and peasant agriculture into a modern industrialised state. The drive for independence from Sweden was equally a blow against the old forces maintaining the status quo within Norwegian society and their replacement by the new breed of hard-headed businessmen represented by the internationally successful Norwegian ship owners. It was to result in the emancipation of the cottagers and an end of the repression of women [as notably portrayed by Ibsen].
The Great Powers, particularly the British, had the ability to scuttle the emerging Norwegian economy if they so wished. The Norwegian merchant navy was of disproportionate importance to the wealth of the country, and Britain still ruled the waves. At the end of the nineteenth century Norway possessed, after the U.K. and U.S.A., the largest merchant navy in the world. The Swedish merchant fleet was much smaller. Norway wanted worldwide free-trade, while Sweden became protectionist. Hence the Norwegian insistence on separate Consular representation abroad. In his letters and book Nansen was therefore attempting to gain sympathy for Norway and persuade Britain and the other Great Powers at least not to intervene in the complex situation. This at a time when England and Germany were engaging in the ‘Great Naval Race’ to build modern battleships as a prelude to the First World War.
On 7 June 1905, the Norwegian Parliament unilaterally voted to take the King’s powers for itself. On 19th June Nansen wrote to the British government to explain that there was no intention of turning Norway into a republic.
The Swedish reaction was restrained. Sweden requested new elections to legitimise the Norwegian position, to be followed by negotiation with Sweden for a formal dissolution of the Union between the two countries. A referendum was held in Norway and with an 85% turnout only 182 votes were cast against.
Talks on separation ended on 26 October 1905, when King Oscar II renounced the Norwegian throne. After much discussion a Danish Prince, Charles, accepted the invitation to the Norwegian throne and a month later was crowned as Haakon VII.