Halvdan Koht

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Halvdan Koht : biography

7 July 1873 – 12 December 1965

Halvdan Koht (7 July 1873 – 12 December 1965) was a Norwegian historian and politician representing the Labor Party.

Born in the north of Norway to a fairly distinguished family, he soon became interested in politics and history. Starting his political career in the Liberal Party, he switched to the Labor Party around the turn of the 20th century. He represented that party in the Bærum municipal council for parts of the interwar period. He was never elected a member of Parliament, but served nonetheless as Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1935 to 1941. In the latter capacity he sought to preserve Norway’s neutrality in the Second World War, an action that garnered him political infamy. Growing discontentment with Koht’s political decisions ultimately led to his exit from the cabinet. After the war, however, he returned to an academic career track and wrote major works in the 1950s and 1960s.

As an academic he was a professor of history at the Royal Frederick University (now the University of Oslo) from 1910 to 1935, having become a research fellow in 1900 and docent in 1908. Among many honors, he held an honorary degree at the University of Oxford. He was a prolific writer, and touched on numerous subjects during his long academic career. He wrote several biographies; his works on Johan Sverdrup and Henrik Ibsen spanned several volumes each. He became known for syntheses on Norwegian history, and emphasized the roles of peasants and wage laborers as historical agents who found their place in an expanding notion of the Norwegian nation. He was also interested in the United States and its history, and was a pioneer in Norway in this respect.

Koht’s views on the Norwegian language also garnered him nationwide academic recognition. He championed the Samnorsk language reform, the declared aim of which was to consolidate the two standards of written Norwegian. A reform pushing the formal written language in this direction was indeed implemented in 1938, but historical events led to the failure of this policy. A pertinacious and unyielding advocate of international peace, Koht was a founding member of the Norwegian Peace Association and an ordinary member of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. As an activist and politician he was described as a strong-willed and individualistic, and nurturing a strong belief in taking an academic and legal perspective on political problems.

Post-political life

Having stepped down from the exiled cabinet in 1941, Koht lived in the United States for the remainder of the war. There he continued his literary production; however, the books Norway Neutral and Invaded (1941) and The Voice of Norway (1944) were both released in London. The first book dealt directly with the advent of war in Norway, and was released in Swedish in the same year. The second book, written together with his son-in-law Sigmund Skard, dealt more with older history and the literature of Norway. It was released in Swedish in 1944 and Norwegian in 1948. Koht returned to Norway at the end of war.

Upon returning to Norway, Koht published three books on the war-time events in Norway: For fred og fridom i krigstid 1939–1940, Frå skanse til skanse. Minne frå krigsmånadene i Noreg 1940 and Norsk utanrikspolitikk fram til 9. april 1940. Synspunkt frå hendingstida, all of which were released in 1947. These memoir-like books have been analyzed as putting a self-apologetic message forth. His political career was effectively ended, but some of his ideas had prevailed. For instance, his analysis of the class situation in Norway became a part of the general social-democratic ideology of the post-war years.

Despite not holding the professor chair any longer, Koht continued his academic writing; his principal work from the post-war epoch was the six-volume Kriseår i norsk historie. The six volumes each describe a decisive moment in Norwegian history. The first volume, released in 1950, centers on "Vincens Lunge contra Henrik Krummedige". The second volume (1951) describes Olav Engelbriktsson and Norway’s descent into dependency to Denmark in 1537. The third and fourth volumes, released in 1952 and 1955, are about medieval kings: Sverre I and Harald I. The fifth volume (1956) focuses on "Queen Margaret and the Kalmar Union". The sixth and final volume (1960) chronicles the years from 1657 to 1661, when Denmark (and thus Norway) transitioned into an absolute monarchy.