Halvdan Koht


Halvdan Koht : biography

7 July 1873 – 12 December 1965

Peace activism

Koht’s first travel abroad was in 1890, when he accompanied his father as well as Hans Jacob Horst and John Theodor Lund to an interparliamentary peace conference in London. In 1895 he was a founding member and board member of the Norwegian Peace Association, serving as chairman from 1900 to 1902. From 1901 to 1902 he edited his own monthly periodical named Fredstidende ("Peace Times").

The Peace Association was dominated by Liberal Party politicians—from a Marxist perspective, "bourgeois" people. Historian Nils Ivar Agøy had noted that the socialists who were active in the bourgeois peace movement—the most prominent being Koht, Adam Egede-Nissen and Carl Bonnevie—were "radicalized sons of the bourgeoisie". This meant that they were "capable of asserting themselves among the ship-owners and county governors in the board" of the Norwegian Peace Association. Koht also followed his own goals during his first period as chairman. He wanted to tie the "apolitical" peace movement closer to the labor movement, to create "economic justice" and to employ the use of arbitration in labor conflicts. These goals were not embraced by all of the members, particularly not those who wanted to keep the Peace Association politically neutral. A larger problem, however, was that Koht rated Norwegian nationalism higher than pacifism. He had thus carried out his compulsory military service "with fervor", notes Agøy. Koht demanded that the Peace Association did not resist to an armed defense of the "fatherland". The national convention in 1902 refused to acknowledge this principle, and Koht therefore resigned his membership.Agøy, 2000: pp. 86–87 He was followed by others, as a result of a schism in the Peace Association between the pacifists and the more pragmatic peace activists. Koht has also been assessed as an ineffective organizational leader.Rønning and Ringsby, 2010: p. 52 The defense question more or less solved itself when the Swedish-Norwegian union was peacefully dissolved in 1905. Koht later returned to the Peace Association to serve as a board member from 1910 to 1912.

He became a member of Institut International de la Paix in 1913. He was a consultant for the Norwegian Nobel Institute from 1904 to 1913, with the task of examining proposed candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize. From 1918 to 1942 he served on the Norwegian Nobel Committee, but was absent in the decisive meeting in 1936 that awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Carl von Ossietzky. He was also absent while serving as Minister of Foreign Affairs, not wishing to combine the two roles. He returned briefly afterwards, before leaving again in 1942. Another reason for his inactivity was that he had not lived in Norway since 1940, but either way the Prize was not awarded in any of the years from 1939 to 1943.

Koht’s academic writing also encompassed the peace issue. His books on the subject include Histoire du mouvement de la paix en Norvège ("History of the Peace Movement in Norway", 1900) and Fredstanken i Noregs-sogo ("The Notion of Peace in the History of Norway", 1906).

Family background; early and personal life

Halvdan Koht was born on 7 August 1873 in Tromsø, one of the larger cities in Northern Norway. He was the second of four children born to Paul Steenstrup Koht (1844–1892), an educator and politician, and Betty Giæver (1845–1936), a part-time teacher with a penchant for singing, languages and drawing. Betty’s antecedents were mixed: she was maternally descended from Northern Germany, yet on her father’s side she was of Norwegian origin—a distinguished forebear on that side was her great-grandfather, the civil servant Jens Holmboe from Tromsø.Genealogical entries for and (vestraat.net) Through the offspring of his maternal grand-uncle, Halvdan Koht was a third cousin of the parliamentarian Ola Krogseng Giæver.Genealogical entries for (vestraat.net) and NSD data for In Paul Koht’s lineage, Kjeld Stub was a distant ancestor. The name Koht stems from German immigrants to Norway in the 17th century.Koht, 1951: p. 11

He was intended to have the name Joachim, but this was stopped on request from Joachim G. Giæver who voiced his dislike for the name. He was then christened Halfdan, changed to Halvdan some years later.Koht, 1951: pp. 7–8 The family lived in Tromsø, where Paul Steenstrup Koht was a headmaster and mayor. The family moved to Skien when Halvdan was twelve years old, where his father again immersed himself in politics: he served as mayor as well as parliamentarian for the Liberal Party. Koht finished school here, taking his examen artium in 1890. His father was among his teachers for a while in Norwegian and Greek.Koht, 1951: p. 20 In 1893, one year after the death of Koht’s father, the family moved to Bekkelaget, a borough in Aker. Koht studied at the Royal Frederick University (now the University of Oslo).

In September 1898 in Kristiania, Koht married Karen Elisabeth Grude (1871–1960), an essay writer and women’s rights activist one and a half years his senior; she bore him three children. One child died in infancy, but the remaining two had distinguished careers: Åse Gruda Skard (née Koht) became a child psychologist and Paul Koht an ambassador. Through Åsa, Halvdan Koht was a father-in-law of literary scholar Sigmund Skard and a grandfather of politician and academic Torild Skard, psychologist and ombud Målfrid Grude Flekkøy and politician and organizational leader Halvdan Skard. In the late 1920s, Karen’s declining health and Halvdan’s preoccupation with his work placed a strain on their relationship. Disenchanted with the loveless union, Koht entered several extramarital friendships in the following decade, often pen friends. During the Second World War, there were rumors about a romantic relationship with his secretary Unni Diesen. After 1945 the relationship to Karen regrew in strength.