From the President: And the teachers answered "No"
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 123 No 6, 31 August 2018, page no. 7
One thing about travel is that you often learn things that you didn’t know you didn’t know. Things that may deeply resonate both personally and professionally.
On 9 April 1940, Adolf Hitler ordered the invasion of Norway. In a building high in the Akershus Fortress at the head of the Oslo Fjord, the Norwegians have created a poignant, moving exhibition to commemorate the resistance on the home front – a four year “battle for freedom”. While most of Norway was quickly occupied, battle raged across the country for all the years of World War II. The north of Norway never really succumbed, and throughout the war the Norwegian Underground was responsible for huge damage to German military infrastructure. This included a major role in thwarting the efforts of the Nazis to procure heavy water for their nuclear weapons development program.
While the whole exhibition was a powerful demonstration of human spirit and endurance in the face of great suffering, one part of the story will live with me forever: the role of teachers and students in the Norwegian resistance to Nazi occupation, a story that was unknown to me. From a very early stage, teachers and the clergy became symbols of what free Norwegians would do to resist the Nazis. Teachers stood strong on the need to protect children. The collaborator government presented a long list of demands, including compulsory recruitment of children into the young Nazis and the teaching of propaganda lessons. The teachers answered “No”.
In retaliation, schools were closed by the Nazis for weeks at a time to prevent teachers from working. Teachers were denied pay. In one infamous incident, one teacher in every 10 was arrested and imprisoned after refusing to teach what the Nazis demanded. In another, 500 teachers were arrested, loaded onto a ship and sent to labour camps in Kirkenes in far northern Norway where the journey and harsh conditions took their toll. Of the 14,000 or so teachers in Norway at the start of the war, between 1,000 and 2,000 were imprisoned in concentration camps by mid-1942. But still, the teachers answered “No”.
The stoic resistance of the Norwegian teachers even made the news in Australia (see inset), with a report in the Sydney Daily Telegraph detailing the trials and deprivations they suffered. The United States government, on behalf of the Norwegian government-in-exile, printed a comprehensive pamphlet describing the struggles of the teachers.
In the foreword to “Norway’s Teachers Stand Firm”, the United States Commissioner for Education, J.W. Studebaker, wrote: “Their stubborn defense of freedom to learn against those who would despoil the minds of youth will inspire in the teachers of the United States admiration for their Norwegian colleagues and a firm resolve and self-dedication to the achievement of victory over the pagan tyrants who seek to throttle civilization itself.”
A prominent feature of the pamphlet is a letter written collectively by the teachers and designed to be read to every class. An extract from the letter reads:
“We have been charged with the task of giving you children the knowledge and training for the thorough work which is necessary if every single one of you is to receive complete development as a human being, so that you can fulfill your place in society to the benefit of others and yourself.
I will not call upon you to do anything which I regard as wrong. Nor will I teach you anything which I regard as not conforming with the truth. I will, as I have done heretofore, let my conscience be my guide and I am confident that I shall then be in step with the great majority of the people who have entrusted to me the duties of an educator.” Norwegian Teachers’ Pledge to their Pupils, April 9, 1942
Then, as now, extreme political ideologies can grow out of massive economic and political inequality. We may learn much from trying to better understand why the teachers answered “No”.