Halvdan Koht


Halvdan Koht : biography

7 July 1873 – 12 December 1965

Koht spoke of language in a social context in general and of the class struggle in particular. He eventually used the Labor Party as a vehicle for his language activism, especially after being asked by the party to write Arbeidarreising og målspørsmål in 1921. In it, he synthesized the class struggle and language struggle in Norway, and because he was an integrationist he wanted a popular gathering around one written language. Koht became a member of Rettskrivingsnemnda in 1934, and in 1936 the Labor Party agreed that a language reform should be carried out, moving the two language forms Bokmål and Nynorsk closer to one another. The language reforms took place in 1938 and promoted the Samnorsk ideal. The reforms were reversed in 1941 under Nazi rule; the original changes were reinstated after the end of the occupation of Norway by Nazi Germany. According to historian Kåre Lunden, Koht was much hated by many because of his language reforms, which were routinely perceived as attacks and degradations on their preferred language. His ideals were dubbed "det kohtske knot", i.e. "the Kohtian mishmash". For his own part, Koht often used spellings that contrasted with both Nynorsk and Bokmål. The definite article, which is formally the suffix "-et", was substituted with the suffix "-e", such as in the titles of his publications Det vitskapelege grunnlage for målstræve and Sosialdemokratie.

Academic career

Appointments and doctorate

In 1901 he was appointed as a research fellow at the Royal Frederick University. He rarely had responsibility for any teaching of the students, and since he was often busy with Norsk Forfatter-lexikon he remained a research fellow until 1907. In 1908 he took his dr.philos. degree on the thesis Die Stellung Norwegens und Schwedens im Deutsch-Dänischen Konflikt 1863–1864. Opponents at the dissertation were Ebbe Hertzberg and Yngvar Nielsen.Koht, 1951: pp. 119–122

Koht was then hired as a docent at the University in 1908. Because Koht had internal opponents at the university, the docenture was designated to cover "cultural history" instead of "history". A while later the university changed it to "history". The cabinet changed it back to "cultural history", before the Parliament finally decided on "history". Koht was going to start his tenure as a docent, but argued with Waldemar Christofer Brøgger that he deserved to travel abroad first.Koht, 1951: p. 124 From 1908 to 1909 Koht travelled around in the United States, England and Sweden, visiting the peace conferences in London (1908), Chicago (1909) and Stockholm (1910). During these years, his wife, daughter and her nanny lived in Eidsvoll.Skard, 1974: p. 123 Koht then returned to Norway and the university, and remained docent until being promoted to professor in 1910. He remained professor until 1935, and also served as the dean of his Faculty from 1912 to 1917.

Fields of research

Koht faced considerable skepticism among academics when announcing his intentions to study social history from the farmers’ perspective. Gustav Storm claimed that farmers in Norway had "done no effort of their own". Ludvig Ludvigsen Daae exclaimed that a person whom Koht wanted to study, the farmer-politician John G. Neergaard, was a "crook … oh well, trahit sua quemque voluptas".Koht, 1951: p. 34 Koht was given to do research in Nordmøre on Neergaard.Koht, 1951: p. 104 In 1896 professor Cathrinus Bang replied to Koht’s wish to study social history: "Yes, do not go out and become a socialist!"Koht, 1951: p. 106

In 1910, Koht completed the dissertation Bonde mot borgar i nynorsk historie, in which he further developed his theories on the role of the farmers in history.Koht, 1951: 152 Published in the journal Historisk Tidsskrift in 1912, it featured an elaboration on Koht’s theory about class and the nation. According to Koht, the community of the nation was expanded in a democratic way when the agrarian movement, then the labor movement, both rose from political passivity to demand a place in the political and national sphere. He wrote about this in the 1910 article Norsk folkesamling as well.Koht, 1951: 153 The book Norsk bondereisning, published in 1926 as a compilation of Koht’s presented material in his university lectures, represented the culmination of Koht’s work on the topic of class conflict between the agrarian and the urban population. Koht argued that the peasant movement had abandoned the cause of class interest in favour of universal rights and social reforms. The same perspective had to be applied to the struggle of the labor movement, Koht maintained. An economic background for the farmers’ rising was presented in 1912, in Priser og politikk i norsk historie, originally a lecture for the second Norwegian conference of historians.Koht, 1951: 154–155 This lecture was also where his historical materialism came to fruition. In 1951 he stated that he "has never thought that the theories could be foundational for a political or social uprising".