Vidkun Quisling: a study in bad career moves

Let’s face it: you’ve got to be a pretty crappy person to have your name become synonymous with the word “traitor” throughout much of the world.

But that’s what Vidkun Quisling managed to accomplish in a rather short space of time.

Quisling headed the Nazi puppet state in Norway during a good part of World War II and in the process became the poster boy for collaboration.

Not surprisingly given his relationship with the occupying Germans and the fact he played a key role in sending a significant percentage of Norway’s Jewish population to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps, Quisling was executed shortly after the end of war in October 1945.

But were one to begin by examining the first 40-plus years of Quisling’s life, it would have been impossible to predict how things turned out.

The Jumping Polar Bear Blog took time recently to recount the good and bad concerning Quisling, and there was a great deal more good than one might suspect for someone who gained ultimate infamy as a Nazi sympathizer.

Born in 1887, Quisling was the son of chaplain. He did well in school, excelling in math, science and history.

In 1905, he enrolled at the Norwegian Military Academy, having received the highest entrance examination score of the 250 applicants that year, according to Hans Fredrik Dahl’s 1999 book Quisling: A Study in Treachery.

He transferred to the Norwegian Military College the following year and graduated with the highest score since the college’s inception in 1817, according to Dahl. As a reward, he received an audience with King Haakon VII. In late 1911 Quisling joined the General Staff of the Norwegian army.

Norway spent the World War I on the sidelines as a neutral, but Quisling focused his attention on Russia.

In March 1918, he was sent to the tottering empire as an attaché to the Norwegian legation in Petrograd. He then spent two years with the Norwegian delegation in Helsinki, Finland.

Having specialized in Russia during his studies would pay off for Quisling would he would later be appointed as the Norwegian military’s expert on Russian affairs, according to The Jumping Polar Bear.

In 1922, Norwegian explorer and humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen asked Quisling to help with relief efforts in Ukraine, which was suffering from massive starvation as a result of the Famine of 1921.

Quisling traveled to Ukraine, where thousands were dying daily, and was able to attract aid to the area. Nansen is said to have described Quisling’s work as “absolutely indispensable.”

Quisling continued traveling around Europe for a good part of the first half of the 1920s, assisting Nansen with relief efforts. He later held a variety of other positions, including that of a diplomat representing Great Britain in the Soviet Union.

For his humanitarian and diplomatic work, he was award the Romanian Crown Order, the Yugoslav Order of St. Sava, and Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Then, things began to go south, metaphorically speaking, for Quisling.

He returned to Norway for good in 1929 and started his political career, according to The Jumping Polar Bear:

He joined the movement ‘Rise of the Nordic people in Norway’ and served as Defense Minister from 1931-1933. Vidkun had earlier had some respect for the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, but as he saw the effects of Stalinism he became gradually more anti-Marxist, anti-liberal and anti-Semitic. In his partly racist book ‘Russia and Ourselves,’ which made him into a controversial public figure, Vidkun put greater emphasis on race and heredity and the need for a strong and just government. He founded the party ‘Nasjonal Samling’ (NS) in 1933 on fascist principles, and inspired by the Nazi victory in Germany, appointed himself as the party ‘Fuhrer.’ Quisling became man of the year, was involved in several political scandals, and was known as a guy who would harshly criticize the parties that ruled the country. In the next years, Nasjonal Samling never got more than 2% of the vote though, which led Quisling to feel bitterness and frustration towards the Norwegian society.

As the 1930s continued, Quisling saw his views continue to trend toward fascism. However, his political party never gained the popularity needed to become a significant factor.

He likely would have been relegated to a minor role in his country’s political sphere had World War II not broken out in 1939.

Harboring anti-Semitic and anti-Bolshevik views, Quisling gravitated toward Hitler and Nazism. He flew to Berlin in late 1939 and met with Hitler, expressing interest in assisting the Axis Powers in Norway should the Allies try to take the Nordic nation.

In early April, British forces undertook an operation to mine the area between Norway and her offshore islands in a bid to stop the movement of Swedish iron ore through neutral Norwegian waters to Nazi factories.

The Germans invaded Norway the following day, and Quisling, seeing a void as King Haakon and the country’s prime minister sought to escape capture, tried to set up a government. By the end of that month, the Times of London was already using Quisling’s name as a synonym for traitor.

It took nearly two years of machinations before Quisling was finally fully recognized as Norway’s “Minister-President.” In retrospect, it was not a good career move.

With Norway under German rule and Quisling’s government willing co-conspirators in the increasingly harsh reality of Nazi rule, including the deportation of Jews to concentration camps, the Norwegian figurehead became a focal point for Norwegian anger.

Quisling surrendered at war’s end and was put on trial in September 1945. Among charges leveled was that Quisling bore responsibility for the Final Solution being carried out in Norway.

Quisling was found guilty and executed by firing squad at Akershus Fortress on Oct. 24, 1945.

His last words before being shot were: “I’m convicted unfairly, and I die innocent.”

History, however, has yet to vindicate Vidkun Quisling, nor does it appear likely it will.

One can’t help but reflect on the sad final act of what was once a very promising life.

How a man can go from aiding famine victims and serving as a diplomat while in his 30s and 40s to being a significant cog in the Final Solution less than a generation later is one of those incomprehensible questions of history.

(Above: Vidkun Quisling, left, with SS leader Heinrich Himmler.)

3 thoughts on “Vidkun Quisling: a study in bad career moves

  1. That is the question! It is a frightening one for any time. Teachers often identify the troubled kids who struggle in school as early as kindergarten, who will be trouble makers as they get older. Students like them have few options and opportunities. Yet, the bitter pill of disappointment is so much more difficult when the student is smart, and is doing everything right. What was the tie between anti-Semitic and anti-Bolshevik, or was it only in his mind?

    I know you are not really an awards kind of person, but I’m nominating you anyway as a Blog of the Year 2012 award recipient. You can just take it as a thank you for your great historical work, or run with it. I truly love your blog. Best wishes for the holiday season.

    • Thank you so much for the nomination. That is very kind and I’m flattered, especially coming from someone with your background in history.

      As to your thought about what makes, to be direct, a Quisling turn out to be a quisling, I think it ultimately comes down to intelligence, a desire for power and a lack of a moral compass. There are plenty of thugs who will never have the opportunity to be dictators because they don’t possess the smarts or the opportunity; but for all of the faults of a Quisling or a Stalin or a Hitler, none of them were stupid, and none of them lacked the ruthless ambition to get what they wanted. Each found a way to get to the top.

      As to why that moral compass is lacking in some and evident in others, I could not tell you. Many bad people had good parents who did their best to raise good children, and many good people had simply awful parents, but turned out okay despite that.

      Thanks again, and have a nice holiday season, as well.

      • Isn’t that the truth. I have know many good, good parents who just scratched their heads wondering what in the world they could have done differently. Thanks again for your great site.

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