We want you as our king…but can you please change your name? (1/24)

Our last day in Norway was spent at the Nansenskolen (Nansen Folk School) where we learned about the immigration debates taking place in Norway, philosophy of Folk Schools, a little bit about Norwegian history and the life of Fridtjog Nansen.  The Nansen School works to promote peace and dialogue, which is an essential part of working for a sustainable world community.

Maria Amalie’s Story

Maria Amalie is a 25 year-old Russian woman who has been living in Norway for eight years.  Her parents took her out of Russia when she was 12.  They lived in Finland for a while before moving to Norway.  She speaks Norwegian flawlessly and recently received a Masters degree from the University of Oslo.  Last year she published a book (in Norwegian) about what it’s like to be a “paperless refugee” in Norway. 

A few weeks ago she was arrested outside of the Nansen school after giving a lecture on immigration issues.  The Norwegian government has been wrestling with how to handle issues of immigration and Maria Amalie was the victim of an attempt to get a message across to immigrants that “paperless refugees” will not be tolerated.  Her arrest sparked lots of conversations and it seems as though many Norwegians believe that Norway’s immigration policies are too strict.  The Saturday after her arrest thousands of people turned out for demonstrations in Oslo, Lillehammer and all over Norway.  Today she will be deported to Moscow and isn’t allowed to return unless she goes through the proper immigration channels.

Professor Mosher shared with our presenter that a similar debate is happening in the United States right now.  Recently we tried to pass “the dream act,” which would create a path to citizenship for those who grew up in the United States.  Currently many children aren’t able to go to college because they don’t have the proper papers and access to government loans.  This act was voted down by congress and the debate continues.

The fact that Maria was arrested right outside of the Nansen Academy is controversial because the Nansen school is named after Fridtjof Nansen, a man who worked tirelessly on immigration issues until he died.  Students of the school have felt a special connection to Maria Amalie’s case because many of them were with her when she got arrested and they feel that in the year that Nansen is being celebrated at the school, the things that he fought for need to be upheld.

The History of the Nansen School

The Nansenskolen was founded by two Norwegians- one a theologian, the other a literary.  They came together in a small flat in Paris and developed their dream for the school.  The theologian had been to a rally with Hitler and was scared for the future of the world.  He felt that dark clouds were coming over Europe and that something needed to be done to counter the hatred that so many were displaying.  These two friends decided that the best way to combat totalitarianism was to promote democracy and human rights through education. 

The Nansen School opened in 1939 in Lillehammer, Norway.  The first year was dramatic because these two men split ways in the Christmas of 1940 due to ideological differences. 

The theologian was greatly influenced by Ghandi and actually went to visit him in 1921, only to find out that he had been imprisoned for six years and was unable to receive visitors.  The photo that he took of the jail was one of his most treasured possessions because it reminded him of how close he had been to such a great man.  He went on to introduce Ghandi’s principles to Norway and was the first bishop to ordain a female priest in 1961.  He was also very active in anti-nuclear campaigns.

The literary was a pacifist until the 1930’s when he thought that perhaps Norway should prepare itself for what was to come.  When the split took place, he went around Norway speaking up for the rearmament of the country, using tactics of fear to rally people. 

When the Germans invaded Norway, the Nansen Academy was taken over by German soldiers.  For five years the Academy was occupied.  Our presenter pointed out how ironic it is that the institution that works against totalitarian ideologies ended up being occupied by those very ideologies.

Folk Schools

The idea of folk schools was actually developed in Denmark.  Folk schools provide a yearlong program and were historically the year when peasants were able to take part in the cultural heritage of the country.  Folk schools provide one year to explore oneself and are a place where young and old come together to learn in creative ways.

There are about 80 folk schools in Norway and everyone is welcome to attend, but a prerequisite is that all students must speak Norwegian.  There are three departments at the Nansen Folk School- Art, Writing and Ideas, Society and Culture.- but everyone is required to take a few common courses on the history of art, music, philosophy and literature.

We visited the Nansen School on the first day of the Seminar for Winter Art where students make sculptures in the snow for three straight days.  On Wednesday there is a performance and presentation to the community.  Everyone is invited and the sculptures remain throughout the entire winter for people to enjoy (weather pending, of course).

Basic principles for The Fridtjof Nansen Academy

1.     Love of your neighbor

2.     Respect for the human being- regardless of nationality, religion, class or  ethnicity

3.     Faithfulness to truth

4.     Freedom and responsibility

5.     Democracy

The school is named after Fridtjog Nansen and Luther actually has a room in the student Union that is also named after this famous Norwegian to honor his accomplishments.

The Life of Fridtjog Nansen

Fridtjog Nansen is a story in and of himself.  We were fortunate to be able to hear his story from one of the best storytellers that we’ve come across on our trip. 

In 1888 Nansen crossed the interior of Greenland on skis with six other men.  No one had ever been to the interior of Greenland, but a scientist thought there might be something else besides ice in the interior and Nansen wanted to check it out.   Turns out that it’s all just ice.  Apparently Greenland was named “Greenland’ as a public relations stunt.  They wanted more people to move there so they gave it a more pleasant name.  Nansen returned from Greenland a hero and Norway needed a hero in the 1880’s.

--Brief Norwegian History Lesson—

In 1380 Norway was under the rule of Denmark and was governed from Copenhagen.  Previous to this date it had been an independent country. 

In 1814 the Swedish King defeated Napolean and as a gift he was handed Norway (from Denmark).  There was a short war in 1814 between Sweden and Norway over this decision, which only lasted two weeks.

In 1905 Norway got independence.


 As a natural explorer Nansen embodied independence in a time when Norway craved it.  He decided that he wanted to be the first man to reach the North Pole.  He knew of an ocean current that went from the coast of Siberia to the North Pole.  His plan was to build a ship and take it up to the North Pole, following this current.  He would sail for as long as possible and then let his boat freeze into an iceberg that would float with the current all the way to the North Pole.   When he presented his plan to the Geologic Council they told him he was crazy and that his boat would be crushed.  Not discouraged by their feedback, he responded that he would make an egg-shaped boat that would lift itself on top of the ice.  It would be indestructible!

In 1893 Nansen’s boat, named “Fram” (forward) was ready and he had chosen 30 men and 48 dogs to accompany him on the journey.  They took enough equipment and food to last them 5-6 years because they didn’t know how long they would be away from home.  Nansen left behind his wife of one year and six-month child and left on an excursion that he very well knew could be his last.

The best laid plans don’t always work.  Nansen’s ship didn’t actually drift to the North Pole as planned, but rather drifted just south of the North Pole.  When he discovered that they weren’t going to get to the North Pole by boat, Nansen asked one of his friends to leave the ship with him to try and reach the pole by skis. They took two sleds and 12 dogs.  No radios, no means of communication with the outside world.  Just two men, lots of ice and very chilly temperatures. 

They encountered horrible weather and knew that they would never again see “Fram” and the rest of the crew.  For three weeks they hiked towards the North Pole, but finally they turned around when they discovered that their lives were in serious jeopardy if they didn’t return soon.  They headed south where they found a small group of uninhabited islands where they passed the winter.  After three years away from home, in 1896 a British exploration passed them and took them back to Norway.  In Norway they met up with the rest of the crew from the North Pole expedition and sailed into the Oslo port together, where they were greeted by thousands of people who welcomed them home. 

If Nansen was a hero before he left for the North Pole, he was really a hero when he returned.  People wanted Nansen to be the President of Norway, but Nansen said, “No, I’m not a politician.”

--Norwegian History lesson—

Norway decided that it wanted to have royalty, in addition to a President.  Having never had a royal family, Norway looked to Sweden and Denmark for princes that would be willing to serve as the Norwegian King.  The only requirement was that the prince spoke a Scandinavian language because they figured he could learn Norwegian quite easily.  They asked Cahr, the Danish Prince if he would like to be the Norwegian King.  He said that he would be happy to be Norway’s King, if the country would have him.

Norwegians decided that there was only one problem with Cahr- his name.  So, they asked him to change it.  He agreed and Norwegians gave him the name Haakon (7th in a long line of Viking Kings named Haakon).  Norwegians decided that there was one more problem with Cahr- his son’s name was Alexander.  They knew that Alexander would one day be King and couldn’t imagine him not also having a Norwegian name, so Cahr was asked to change his son’s name to Olav.


Nansen played a crucial role in developing the kingdom of Norway and for this reason, in 1906 Nansen was selected as the 1st Norwegian Ambassador to London.  The country wanted to send its best representative and Nansen was the man for the job.

Why was Nansen’s name used for the Academy?

Nansen’s name was chosen for the Nansen school as a way of honoring all the work that he did in the areas of promoting democracy, advocating for human rights and working on issues of immigration and peace.

Nansen headed the first delegation to the League of Nations.  He repatriated one million war prisoners, after which he was asked to be the high commissioner by the League of Nations.

During his tenure Nansen recognized that something needed to be done to help the nearly 500,000 “stateless people” (people who could not return to their home country, but also weren’t officially accepted by another country).  Nansen thought they needed passports and asked the League of Nations whether he could issue them passports.  There was debate over which country they would get a passport from.  Nansen solved this by saying that he would hand out “Nansen Passports.”  Everyone laughed at the idea, because of course an individual person isn’t allowed to just issue a passport.  What country would access this type of document?  Nansen responded by saying that he would go around the world talking to governments and persuading them to accept the Nansen passport.  Travel he did, and he ended up with a list of 52 countries that agreed to accept the Nansen passport.

425,000 refugees were given the Nansen passport and were able to settle in any of the 52 countries that they chose.  The school is celebrating Nansen this year, which is why it’s so ironic that a “paperless refugee” was arrested right in front of the school named after the very man who had fought so hard to help out immigrants.

A few years back our presenter was telling this story to a group of Americans and Canadians and one Canadian woman got teary-eyed and shared with the group that the Nansen Passport saved her parents from the European camp where they were forced to live.

Next, Nansen was asked to take on hunger issues in the Soviet Union.  His efforts ended up helping hundreds of thousands of people.  He took a trip to the Soviet Union where he traveled for months and saw firsthand the effects of hunger.  He told the League of Nations that the Soviets needed help.  At first people didn’t want to help because they didn’t want to support the Soviet government in any way.  He made many strong arguments saying that letting hungry people starve wasn’t going to prove anything to anybody.

In 1922 he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. 

He died in 1930 and ironically, in 1933 the Nazi party was started in Norway by Quisling, a man whom Nansen had worked alongside in the Soviet Union.  Quisling died after the war when he was sentenced to death.  After his execution the death penalty was made illegal in Norway.

At his funeral there was no service and no speeches- just music.  Nansen was agnostic and was not a member of the Church of Norway. 

Sunrise in Lillehammer.

{ Return to Green Germany J-Term Blog for more posts. }

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