Quisling: A Study in Treachery 
by Hans Fredrik Dahl, translated by Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife.
Cambridge, 452 pp., £30, May 1999, 0 521 49697 7
Show More
Show More

It was not always easy being a Fascist prophet in interwar Europe. The local electorate seemed deaf to one’s warnings and strangely faithful to old, uncharismatic Conservatives or stolid Labour leaders. Mussolini and Hitler were exhilarating examples of success, but they seemed to scare off as many potential recruits to the cause as they attracted. Oswald Mosley was only one of the numerous would-be saviours of the Right to suffer by such association; Léon Degrelle in Belgium was another. Without an army behind them, most Fascists badly needed fate to lend them a hand in one way or another. Ioannis Metaxas was a Parliamentary failure in Greece before being parachuted into power at the whim of an authoritarian monarch, while only the Second World War and a German invasion rescued the Croatian Fascist Ante Pavelic from the monotony of exile and enabled him to attain power in Zagreb.

Vidkun Quisling became Norwegian prime minister in exactly the same way as Pavelic, and almost immediately found himself entering history as the archetypal traitor. The Nazis were puzzled and dismayed by this. Goebbels, normally such a realist about the possibilities of propaganda, thought they should counter the spread of the term ‘quisling’ by picking out the names of pro-Allied politicians and accusing them of leading their countries into disaster. It didn’t work. Quisling himself was not so worried; he knew that what he had done was right, and after a German victory his country, too, would come to realise it. Megalomaniacs are not necessarily stupid, and Quisling was a highly intelligent man: as the war slipped away from the Axis, he began to doubt even Hitler. Perhaps the Germans were not the ones to unify Europe, as he had once thought. His political life ended much as it had begun, in the search for a way to unite a bitterly divided world, and on a characteristic note of failure.

Quisling’s extraordinary last five years were the culmination of a series of misjudgments and blunders, and to understand how he could have come, by 1939, to see national catastrophe as an opportunity for redemption, the moment he had been working towards all his life, one has to retrace the vicissitudes of his early years. It is, in many ways, a sad story of promise betrayed and of a gradual withdrawal from the world masquerading as political engagement.

Quisling remained to the end the dutiful eldest son of a scholarly country parson, with a close sense of family and place. He was a brilliant pupil at school, and achieved record grades when passing out as an Army cadet. Fellow students regarded him as a genius and were prepared to excuse his shyness and weakness as a dancer. His brother Jorgen was more out-going and less moralistic, but, like Vidkun, was inclined to philosophise: his 1931 book on ‘anthropomorphism’ aimed to explain how the whole world was constructed. Their father, the pastor, was the author of a three-volume pietistic work entitled The Souls of Angels, and was known as Norway’s ‘foremost authority on the Devil’. His sons were to carry on their father’s spiritual search in a more secular age.

While Jorgen dabbled in sexology, Vidkun became an authority on a different kind of devil – Bolshevism. In March 1918, he was appointed military attaché at the Norwegian Legation in Petrograd, so beginning a decade of close involvement in Russian affairs. Quisling immediately understood the historical significance of what was happening, and his despatches on the Revolution were highly valued back in Oslo. He emphasised the ‘tremendous strength in such revolutionary masses once mobilised’, and though he was able to appreciate the sheer political achievement of the Reds, he was – especially after the onset of the Terror – more and more worried about the threat they posed to civilised values. In 1919, he became intelligence officer in Helsinki, and was able to see at first hand the aftermath of the Finnish Civil War. He began to fear that the Revolution might spread to Norway and warned his superiors that when class divisions are exacerbated ‘one can hardly speak of one nation any more.’ It was at this time that he began to articulate his philosophy of Universism, which eventually filled hundreds of unpublished manuscript pages. To the Bolshevik dream of unifying the world through class warfare, Quisling would counterpose his own world religion, fusing Christianity and recent developments in the natural sciences. Against Marxist materialism, he would demonstrate the superiority of a single world consciousness.

Meanwhile, he had to earn a living. In 1921, the explorer Fridtjof Nansen was appointed League of Nations High Commissioner for Russian Refugees. He had met Quisling the year before and taken an instant liking to him. The young idealist agreed to take charge of Nansen’s private relief initiative to help victims of the Russian famine. He moved to the Ukraine and acted fast: within weeks he had analysed the desperate situation there and by May 1922 was successfully overseeing the distribution of relief. The following year, he went back to Kharkov, and found the situation much improved. When the work ended, he decided not to return to the General Staff: he accepted an offer of early retirement and settled in Paris, where he studied, working on Universism, writing articles about the Russian Revolution and browsing in secondhand bookstores.

Only now he was not alone. In Russia he had acquired not one but two wives, for the stern pastor’s son was a bigamist. The first wife, 17-year-old Alexandra Voronina, was a switchboard operator whom he married and brought back to Norway after his first stint in the Ukraine. On his second visit, he fell in love with Maria Pasetsjnikova and brought her back, too. She was the most important of the several romances he had in these years; the only problem was that he was already married to Voronina. The three set up together in Paris, passing Alexandra off as a ‘foster daughter’. When they moved back to Oslo, their ménage scandalised Quisling’s friends and family, and matters only improved when Alexandra was packed off to France and eventually to the United States. Thereafter, Quisling and Maria lived together as man and wife.

He now needed money, since for all his moralising he always liked to live well. In 1925, he approached the Norwegian Labour Party and offered to help them set up a unit of Red Guards to resist a Fascist attack; he also offered to obtain details of the Army’s surveillance of their activities. But the Labour leaders had misgivings and wisely kept their distance; later, the episode would resurface as yet one more scandal bedevilling his efforts to set himself up as a political leader of the Right.

In June 1925, he managed to get away again, travelling with Nansen to Armenia and the Caucasus to set up a scheme to help Armenians settle in the Soviet Union. The project occupied him intermittently until it finally collapsed in 1929. In the meantime, he found temporary work in Moscow liaising between Norwegian businessmen and the Soviet trade authorities. But Quisling was always better at spending money than earning it. He invested most of his savings in the fine paintings and furniture that were available on the cheap in Moscow in the early years of the Revolution, creating a collection intended to be his retirement nest egg. Unfortunately, when he needed the money – in the early Thirties – and tried to sell his most prized Old Masters, he found they were forgeries and in the depressed art market of 1933 fakes, even good fakes were not selling well. Losing a court case in 1938 against a firm of Jewish dealers over a disputed Franz Hals increased his disaffection with the world of bourgeois capitalism, not to mention the Jews.

The decade after 1929 saw Quisling, who was now back in Norway, embark on a career in radical right-wing politics. His father died; then so did Nansen: it was time to act on his own. A group of friends with money agreed to help launch a new national unification movement, with him at the helm. He was remarkably successful to start with, but in May 1931, before the new party had had a chance to contest elections, Quisling was appointed Defence Minister. Norwegian politics seem to have worked in a peculiar way: asked why Quisling had been appointed, the Prime Minister, who did not know him, replied: ‘He has written such a good book about Russia.’

In the worst of the Depression, austerity and serious labour unrest brought the possibility of class war closer than ever. Quisling took a hard line, sending in troops against the workers and drawing up plans for a military coup to forestall any revolution. But would ‘the Fascist in the Government’, as he was dubbed by his enemies, have acted on these plans? In late 1932, he picked a fight with the Prime Minister to force a political crisis, and seemed on the brink of attempting a coup. Instead, he pulled back, and announced that he was setting up a new party to help form a government which ‘must stand over and above party polities’.

Quisling’s numerous weaknesses as a politician were already much in evidence. He was intransigent and reluctant to compromise, even with allies, and the moralist whom his friends had once likened to Jesus seemed a magnet for rumour and innuendo. His notoriety increased after the bizarre Pepper Scandal: working alone in the Ministry one night, he was attacked by an unknown assailant. Quisling himself refused to shed light on the attacker’s identity until 1945, when he claimed he had thwarted an act of espionage. Others suspected him of being mixed up in a love affair with the office cleaner and a jealous husband.

For a man with such an acute sense of history, Quisling’s timing was always poor: 1933 was a bad moment to found a new Fascist party. The economic upturn had begun, and like Degrelle and Mosley, he lost ground electorally as the economy improved. His party, the National Union, acquired a flag, a salute, an anthem and the necessary uniforms. But finance was a problem, Quisling himself was a disappointing orator, and party membership remained low. They won no seats in the October 1933 elections, and the vote fell even further in 1936. Quisling was now the Forer of the Party – ‘my own party’ – of ‘new, true, Norwegian socialism’, but Norwegians did not seem very interested.

It was not as though successful Fascist movements abroad were not keen to help. Mussolini organised conferences of the CAUR (the Comitati d’Azione per l’Universalità di Roma), a kind of Italian Universism, which Quisling attended. At the Montreux conference in 1934 he spoke about the need to respect the rights of smaller nations in a future Europe – a theme to which he would return time and again during the war. He befriended the Danish Fascist Clausen, and the two men helped to draw up plans for an organisation of Universal Fascism, just one of the many unrealised schemes that attracted Quisling’s attention over the years.

The CAUR conferences were really intended as a means by which the Italian Fascists might assert their superiority over the Nazis. But from 1935, Quisling was more interested in the latter. He met the Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, with whom he shared a deep interest in Russia, and in the summer of 1936 participated in the bizarrely named, German-sponsored Third International Nationalist Congress. And as he moved closer to Berlin, so his rhetoric became more anti-semitic – which lost him even more support in Norway. In fact, as party funds dried up and his own income ran out, Quisling faced ruin.

Then, in the summer of 1939, his spirits finally began to lift. Europe was approaching catastrophe and in the coming conflict he detected a divine redemptive purpose. ‘The time seems to be upon us.’ He had already thanked Hitler for having saved Europe from ‘Bolshevism and Jewish domination’. Now, in league with Nazi Germany, he believed that personal, national, racial and universal salvation were all close at hand.

‘I think Vidkun has gone stark raving mad,’ an old friend reported early in 1940, while someone else found him talking unstoppably about the coming apocalypse in an Oslo patisserie. His efforts to make peace between Chamberlain and Hitler had failed; neither seemed interested in his project for a Greater Nordic Peace Union as the stepping stone towards the ultimate ‘universal peace league’. In December 1939, he had visited Berlin and proposed to Hitler that he should lead a pro-German ministry to stop Norway falling into British hands. He struck Hitler as honest but naive: an accurate assessment, given that Quisling seems not to have realised that Hitler was already planning a full-scale military occupation of the country.

By the spring of 1940 Norwegian public opinion was unmistakably anti-German. Hearing that a German flotilla was headed for Bergen, Quisling set himself up as head of a caretaker, pro-German Government. Hitler’s backing for him lasted just five days. The chorus of anti-Quisling voices in Oslo and Berlin was overwhelming, and even his own party newspaper carried a frontpage article asking: ‘Why is Quisling so much hated?’ On 15 April, a stunned Quisling obeyed German instructions and resigned. Hitler thereupon appointed Josef Terboven as Reichskommissar to keep the Norwegians on a tight rein.

Quisling’s wartime career had only just begun, however. It took more than one setback to deflate the pretensions of the man the German Führer referred to as one of his ‘inflatable animals’. In September, after some successful lobbying in Berlin, he triumphantly returned with Hitler’s support, to work alongside Terboven as Acting Prime Minister. He remained in this position until the end of the war.

Under Quisling’s leadership, the outlines of Norway’s New Order took shape. His old National Union was the only party permitted and its membership rose to a respectable figure for the first time. The Nuremberg race laws were introduced into Norway, and the clause in the original 1814 Constitution prohibiting Jews from entering the country was reintroduced after nearly a century. Taxes were levied to cover the cost of the Occupation and Norwegians encouraged to volunteer for service on the Eastern Front. And with power came a Forer cult: a grand new house with 12 servants, and a national holiday decreed for 1 February – the date in 1942 when Quisling was appointed Minister President.

Terboven remained as Reichskommissar, however, and Quisling was always one full step away from the independence he desperately desired. On more than one occasion, he tried to explain to Hitler the importance of a peace settlement between Norway and Germany. He backed the Nazis on the Jewish question – against these ‘destructive bacilli’, this ‘universal plague’, one needed a common European approach – and supported their war against Bolshevism as part of the ‘recapturing of Russia for European civilisation’. Yet he could not make Hitler see that the European New Order, and especially his own plan for a Greater German Union, would not achieve permanence except as a federation of independent states. Otherwise all you had was a Nazi form of ‘spiritual imperialism’.

By the spring of 1943, he struck German interlocutors as ‘embittered to an extent we have never witnessed before’. The most faithful of all Hitler’s collaborators, he was not able to escape the disillusionment and feeling of betrayal that collaboration invariably brought. He had sacrificed himself to bring Norway into the war on the German side; now the Germans would not fulfil their side of the bargain. That there had been no bargain did not cross his mind. And to the Nazi leadership in their terminal days, even Quisling would come to seem a ‘Horthy man’, a possible ‘Badoglio’, a traitor. It was the final irony.

There were many reasons why Hitler ignored Quisling’s pleas for independence, and his blueprints for a new postwar European union. In the first place, most Norwegians were obviously pro-British: granting independence even under Quisling was too much of a risk. Also, Quisling’s friends in Berlin were usually the wrong ones – second-raters like Admiral Raeder and especially Rosenberg, whose power waned as the war went on. Rosenberg, who was nominally Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, enlisted Quisling’s backing for his policy of supporting the Ukrainians and other nationalities against the Bolsheviks but Hitler ignored them both and sided with Rosenberg’s deputy in the Ukraine, Koch, who was a hardliner and against molly-coddling Slavs of any description.

Quisling was not the only figure of standing in Hitler’s Europe to plead for a politically more sensitive approach to Germany’s collaborators. King Leopold tried for a peace settlement for Belgium; Laval one for France; even the Wehrmacht suggested that peace treaties with the Baltic states might help the Third Reich. But Hitler disliked giving away power and postponed all such discussions to the end of the war. If Quisling liked to ward off the world’s chaos with plans, charts and organisational memoranda, Hitler was happiest improvising. He understood the immediate realities of power in occupied Norway, saw Quisling’s virtues and limitations, and knew he had bound himself in his own mind so tightly to the German mast that he would never jump ship. Quisling’s last visit to Hitler in January 1945 began with the usual mad drafts of peace settlements and European pacts; but it ended, more realistically, with Quisling asking for extra side-arms and ammunition for his personal guard.

By now Norway was close to civil war and not even the high fence Quisling had erected around his boyhood parsonage home in the heart of the countryside could ward off the awareness of impending defeat. The resistance was carrying out assassinations in Oslo itself, the Germans were doing a little ‘flower picking’ of their own, and British bombs were adding to the death toll. With the Wehrmacht’s withdrawal from northern Norway, and the scorched earth policy that followed, the country was physically divided. Quisling was no longer, not even in his own mind, a symbol of national unity, still less a guarantor of national survival. A few days after Hitler committed suicide, Degrelle passed through on his way to Spain. He offered to take Quisling with him. The latter refused. The next day, 8 May 1945, he was arrested.

In prison, he underwent the usual psychiatric evaluations. The reports indicated a man of deep inhibitions, with an exceptionally high opinion of himself. But there was no sign of any pathological tendencies. Dahl is commendably restrained in his own judgment of Quisling, and has little time for the wilder kind of psychohistorical ‘explanations’. Some idea of his character, his beliefs and his context is all we need to understand how this cerebral, somewhat isolated man ended up as the despised head of his country. Today, Pavelic, Franco, Antonescu, even Hitler have their admirers and preserve a certain mystique. Nothing of the kind appears to have attached itself to Quisling. He himself saw his execution, which took place in October 1945, as an act of martyrdom akin to those of Christ and Norway’s patron St Olav – he had already compiled a family tree which traced his descent back to Odin. But what he now regarded as the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, his contribution to the coming of God’s kingdom on earth, everyone else saw as the just punishment of a traitor.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences