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Belligerents and Participants
Even though representatives from Norway met with those from Denmark and Sweden at Malmo in December 1914 to make a joint declaration of absolute neutrality, they did not all hold the same position towards the Great War. Where Sweden held reservations about the Allies due to the inclusion of their traditional enemy Russia, Norway had only been free from Sweden since 1905 and still saw her as its greatest threat. Despite Norway’s neutral stance, King Haakon was married to Princess Maud of Great Britain, which also made him a cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm II; and this came to affect the political situation. Norway ended up helping both sides to some degree, earning it the nickname The Neutral Ally. By allowing war materials to be smuggled into Russian Finland through Finnmark, and by allowing Britain to have use of their large merchant fleet, Norway was thus insured of receiving desperately needed British coal. Germany in turn was supplied with large quantities of fish and perhaps some of this British coal as well despite the embargo. Its shores also served as a transit point for essential raw materials destined for Germany’s war industry. There was always an implicit threat that if the supplies stopped flowing to German shores, revenge would be taken through U-boat attacks.
The formation of the German Empire was in part spurred on by a cultural narrative that grew into their national myth. This rallying point was not far in spirit from the mythology of Scandinavia, which created a strong cultural bonding. Germans developed an affinity for Norse Sagas as they began to be translated into their own language in the 19th century during this period of unification. One such Saga was that of King Fridtjof the Bold, written about 1300. It became a favorite of Kaiser Wilhelm II who commissioned the sculpture Max Unger to erect a giant statue of Fridtjof in Vasngesnes, Norway in 1913. Like many Germans, the Kaiser was enchanted with Norway and spent every summer there. He would be yachting in Norwegian waters when the July crisis that led up to World War One erupted in 1914.
By the fall of 1916, German U-boats began operating in the Arctic Ocean off of Norway’s coast in an attempt to stop the flow of supplies to Russia. Britain responded by tightening its blockade and coercing more and more concessions from Norway. Norwegian shipping suffered for this as a consequence with nearly half her merchant ships sunk by War’s end. Fearful that Britain might pressure Norway to join the Allies, the German Naval Staff made contingent plans (Kriegsfall Norwegen) in early 1917 for launching naval and Zeppelin attacks. Since the German army was already overextended, there was never a real possibility of being invaded. German agents and sympathizers did however operate in Norway, spying on shipping and destroying military supplies headed for Russia. While no action was ever taken, food and fuel shortages were severely disrupting life in Norway, which inspired great demonstrations. Opposition to the government became more pronounced driving the Labour Party to consider revolution. Strong divisions were created in these years that would outlast the War.
German marine artists and photographers have long portrayed German naval vessels anchored in the fjords of Norway. These images have been placed on postcards since the 1890’s but their preponderance may represent nothing more than the proximity of Norway to Germany, and the desire among publishers to capture dramatic scenery that might make their postcards sell faster. While such depictions on postcards are difficult to date without postmarks, it can generally be assumed that most of these images predate World War One. There is however cards postmarked during the War years that seem to indicate a German presence in Norwegian waters. Neutrality laws of that era state that a warship could enter neutral waters for the purpose of picking up essential supplies or making repairs provided its stay was brief. Strict adherence to these laws on this irregular porous coast would have been difficult to monitor let alone enforce. It seems likely that German warships came here to take on coal; and there even seems to have been controversy in Britain that some of the coal they were supplying to Norway was going to the Germans.