Halvdan Koht

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Halvdan Koht : biography

7 July 1873 – 12 December 1965

Following the 1936 outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the Nygaardsvold Cabinet followed a policy of non-intervention in the conflict between the Spanish government and rebels led by General Franco. Koht’s view of the matter was that Norway should not be involved in the conflict in any way; this became the policy of the government for the duration of the civil war.Moen and Sæther, 2009: pp. 28–29 The government soon banned the sale or transfer of Norwegian arms, aircraft and ships to Spain. Koht himself promoted a ban on the use of Norwegian ships to transport arms, ammunition and aircraft to foreign countries in general, to ensure that there could be no Norwegian connection to any such items that were delivered to Spain. The strict non-intervention policy promoted by Koht and Prime Minister Nygaardsvold was heavily criticized by forces within the Labor Party. Martin Tranmæl, a central figure in the apparatus of the Labor Party and the editor of the party newspaper Arbeiderbladet, led the critics of the policy towards the conflict in Spain. Tranmæl and other critics saw the non-intervention policy of the government as giving equal standing to both the elected government of Spain and the rebels.Moen and Sæther, 2009: pp. 39–41 Koht went to great lengths to avoid any direct Norwegian involvement in the conflict, especially trying to block Norwegians from travelling to Spain to join the International Brigades.Moen and Sæther, 2009: pp. 92–94 On 19 September 1936, Koht attempted to have the League of Nations impose a ceasefire in Spain, to be followed by a popular referendum on the country’s constitution. Koht’s proposal received little support and failed.Moen and Sæther, 2009: p. 164

For Koht personally the civil war in Spain came close to ending his cabinet career on several occasions. On 9 April 1937, following a series of incidents where Francoist warships intercepted Norwegian vessels sailing on Spanish ports and confiscated both cargoes and ships, and Norwegian protests failing to gain results, Koht made a formal proposal to dispatch the Norwegian minelayer Olav Tryggvason to Spain to protect Norwegian shipping. After the proposal met opposition in parliament and was set to fail, Koht offered to resign. Prime Minister Nygaardsvold refused to accept Koht’s resignation, stating that he "would rather be shot than lose Koht". The case came close to causing the whole cabinet’s fall in parliament, before it was agreed that it would be dropped.Moen and Sæther, 2009: pp. 170–81 When Koht in 1938 attempted to establish a trade agreement with Franco, he was blocked by his own party and the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions. Again requesting to be allowed to resign, Koht stayed after months of debating ended with the party giving the cabinet free rein to do what it saw as best with regards to trade with Franco. By October 1938 Koht had negotiated a trade agreement with Franco. The formal Norwegian recognition of the Franco government as the representative of Spain followed on 31 March 1939, three days after the fall of Madrid to the nationalist forces.Moen and Sæther, 2009: pp. 199–208, 260, 271

Second World War

Pre-war phase

With the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, the Norwegian government declared the country neutral in the conflict. Both warring sides subsequently stated that they would respect Norway’s neutrality, provided that she protect her neutrality against trespasses by the other side. Koht was clear from early on that Norway should remain neutral, but also that in the event of her being forced to enter the war it was critical that it was on the side of the British.Lunde, 2009: pp. 2, 4

Over the first months of the Second World War Norwegian neutrality was violated repeatedly in the air and at sea by both warring parties, most dramatically with the 16 February Altmark Incident in Jøssingfjorden. This, along with other incidents, and the lack of a firm Norwegian response, led the warring parties to the impression that Norway could or would not effectively protect her neutrality.Lunde, 2009: pp. 26–32 Initially the German view of Norwegian neutrality had been one of it being positive for the German war effort, allowing German merchant ships to transport cargo via Norwegian territorial waters without interference from the British.Lunde, 2009: p. 49