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Norwegian war hero to speak at UND

In spring 1945, as Nazi Germany was collapsing and Norwegians regained control of their country after five years of German occupation, Gunnar Sonsteby was assigned to watch over a prisoner, a notorious collaborator.

In spring 1945, as Nazi Germany was collapsing and Norwegians regained control of their country after five years of German occupation, Gunnar Sonsteby was assigned to watch over a prisoner, a notorious collaborator.

Sonsteby, the most decorated Norwegian hero of World War II, will speak at UND on Sunday night.

He was a leader in the Norwegian underground and was known by many cover names during the long years of resistance. At times, he was known simply as No. 24. And at times, he was Kjakan, Norwegian for "The Chin."

On this day in May 1945, The Chin stood guard over The Traitor, the man whose name has come to be synonymous with treason in many languages: Vidkun Quisling, who had served the Nazi occupiers by leading a puppet Norwegian government.

Quisling said little as Sonsteby drove him to where he would be held pending trial. Sonsteby said he was struck by how alone the onetime Norwegian "fuhrer" seemed, and when they reached the holding area he allowed him a visitor -- though it was hardly an act of sympathy.


"I told my friend, Halvor Rivrud, to get into the car with Quisling and tell him what he had experienced" thanks to Quisling's collaboration, Sonsteby recalled in a recent online discussion with readers of the Oslo newspaper Aftenposten.

Rivrud had been captured and sent to a concentration camp in Germany. "Halvor had barely survived it," Sonsteby said.

He didn't say how the Norwegian fascist leader responded, but he clearly felt no pity for him.

"Quisling was a traitor, and he of course received a death sentence, and he was shot at the end of '45."

Voice of history

With so much of historical significance happening now -- a presidential election, a global financial crisis -- it may seem an odd time to hear again about the agonies and heroics of World War II, which ended 63 years ago.

But the time to hear directly from the people who experienced the war is fast passing. Just as America's World War II veterans are rapidly passing from the scene, so are the heroes of Norway's famed resistance.

Sonsteby, 90, was a 22-year-old student when Hitler's Germany invaded Norway in April 1940. As a member of the resistance, he developed a talent for disguise and employed nearly 40 fake identities during the course of the war, serving as a courier between Oslo and Stockholm, the capital of neutral Sweden, and coordinating underground activities with British special operations forces. He made his own identity cards, permits and other official papers.


In 1944, Sonsteby made his way through Sweden to London to confer with leaders of the Norwegian government in exile. There he met King Haakon, who smiled at the young man and asked, "And what is your name today?"

He took part in sabotage actions, masterminded the smuggling of dies for the printing of Norwegian currency to London and worked for the resistance newspaper, Vi Vil Oss Et Land (We Want a Country of Our Own). The Nazis never caught him.

Since the war, he has spoken to school children throughout Norway, reminding them of the heroic and vital wartime role played by Norwegian merchant seamen who escaped the occupation, and he has made more than a half dozen speaking tours of North America

"I believe it is important that those of us who lived through and have experiences of the war continue to tell our story," he told the Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang during an earlier tour in the United States.

"It is our duty to do so," he said. "Moreover, I believe it is important we do everything in our power to keep up the strong ties between Norway and America."

On May 13, 2007, a statue of a young Sonsteby, dressed in student garb and standing by his bicycle, was unveiled in Oslo by King Harald.

Iraq comparison?

In the online chat with Aftenposten's readers, Sonsteby was asked by one young Norwegian if he saw any difference between Norway's resistance movement during World War II and Iraqi resistance to American troops in Iraq.


There may be some similarities, he said, but there are important differences.

"I could never accept suicide bombers, who kill hundreds of innocent people, and even less could I accept hostage-taking," he responded. "We must never give in to the demands of such people. That absolutely cannot be compared with the resistance struggle in Norway during the war, in the struggle against Nazism and dictatorship."

Sonsteby had some experience with hostage-takers.

In January 1943, the Germans learned his true identity. Though they couldn't catch him, they arrested his father. "They figured that I would just disappear," he said in an interview years ago. "But I had asked my father beforehand what should happen in such a situation. He said, 'I will do my job. You do yours.' "

His father sat in prison for 2½ years.

Sonsteby, accompanied by officials from the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and Norges Hjemmefrontmuseum (the Norwegian Resistance Museum) in Oslo, will speak at 7 p.m. Sunday in the Memorial Union Lecture Bowl.

He was invited to UND by the university's Nordic Initiative and law professor Gregory Gordon, head of the new UND Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies. One of the center's first projects is to work with Chester Fritz Library staff to digitize and make more readily available records of the post-war Nuremberg Trials relating to Norway.

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com .

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