One of Hitler’s Inflatables

Mark Mazower

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.

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