Halvdan Koht

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Halvdan Koht : biography

7 July 1873 – 12 December 1965

In exile

The cabinet eventually fled the country on 7 June. Koht landed in London on 19 June 1940, now heading the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in exile. Norway was now a close ally of the United Kingdom, but Koht was seen as clinging somewhat to his neutrality policy, and not embracing the alliance with the United Kingdom enough. From the autumn of 1940, Trygve Lie championed a change in policy which meant seeking lasting allies in the western world. Koht viewed this as "distrust". A schism between him and the rest of the cabinet grew as it also became known that Koht’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had received reports of a possible forthcoming assault on Norway, without Koht having informed the cabinet thoroughly. Furthermore, there was discontent over Koht’s decision to establish the headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in exile in Bracknell, several miles west of the cabinet headquarters.

Koht was granted leave of absence on 19 November 1940, and ultimately left the post of Minister of Foreign Affairs on 20 February 1941, being succeeded by Trygve Lie. Koht decided to travel to Canada and then the United States. He lived with his daughter Åsa and her family in Washington, DC, returning to Norway after the end of the Second World War.

Political legacy

Trygve Lie, who after the war had become the first Secretary-General of the United Nations, characterized Koht in his memoirs as an expert on foreign affairs, but introvert. He had relatively little contact with other politicians, kept to himself to study in peace, and spent much time on his extensive writing. Koht reportedly preferred to solve a problem by himself instead of involving co-workers and employees, even the experts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His way of thinking was logical and rational, but he allegedly nurtured an "exaggerated belief in paragraphs" and a "dogmatic belief in international law", and wrongly thought that other countries would obey formal regulations at most times.Lie, 1955: pp. 68–69 Koht had few or no alternatives to his neutrality policy, and in many ways he based his entire career in foreign affairs on that policy. Trygve Lie claimed that before the Second World War, the neutrality policy had "become a religion" for Koht.Lie, 1955: pp. 266–267

Koht’s role in the weak and unorganized defense against Operation Weserübung was debated during and after the occupation. After the World War, a commission named Undersøkelseskommisjonen av 1945 ("Scrutiny Commission of 1945") was set to scrutinize the actions of the Norwegian government in 1940. It concluded with a partial criticism of Koht’s dispositions. After receiving Undersøkelseskommisjonen analysis, Koht volunteered to undergo an Impeachment trial. The Parliament of Norway did not find it necessary, and no such trial took place.

Since Koht lived in Lysaker, Bærum Municipality wanted to honor him by naming a street after him. When the street was named in 1967, Koht was still controversial. The street was therefore named Professor Kohts vei ("Professor Koht’s Road") to emphasize his academic, rather than his political career.

Language views

Hailing from Tromsø, Koht spoke a Northern Norwegian dialect in his early life. In Skien his dialect provoked negative reactions from his peers. He was inspired by the dialects of Skien’s surroundings (Telemark); from 1891 he wrote the "rural" language form Landsmål with strong tinges of Bø dialect. Before this he had attempted to write both "Knudsen Riksmål" and "Aasen Landsmål", but neither stuck.Koht, 1951: pp. 58–59 Early publications on the Norwegian language controversy were Det norske målstrævs historie (1898) and Det vitskapelege grunnlage for målstræve (1900). He became a board member of the Landsmål-based publishing house Det Norske Samlaget, and edited the Landsmål periodical Syn og Segn from 1901 to 1908, until 1905 together with Rasmus Flo. He chaired Noregs Mållag, an association the propagation of Landsmål, from 1921 to 1925. In 1929, Landsmål was renamed Nynorsk.