When 1100 teachers defied Hitler — and won!

More than 80 years ago, Norwegian teachers refused to teach Nazi ideology to their students. They were tortured, imprisoned and starved. But they prevailed. The story of how they won — and why it still matters.

When Hitler’s troops stormed into Norway on April 9, 1940, Germany’s goal was to secure the country’s 1200 km long coastline. They needed iron ore from Swedish mines to flow to the northern Norwegian port of Narvik — and eventually to the German war machine.

Teachers: Josef Terboven and Vidkun Quisling during WWII when Nazi Germany occupied Norway

Josef Terboven and Vidkun Quisling during WWII when Nazi Germany occupied Norway. Photo: Archives

But that wasn’t all that Hitler and his followers hoped for, as Norwegian teachers would come to learn.

Teachers: A propaganda poster promoting Quisling's Nazi-oriented youth group for Norwegian children.

A propaganda poster promoting Quisling’s Nazi-oriented youth group for Norwegian children, the NSUF. Poster:Digital Museum, Justice Museum, Trondheim.

Vidkun Quisling, a Nazi collaborator who nominally headed the Norwegian government during the occupation, wanted Norway to embrace Nazi ideology. He decided the best way to do this was through teachers and schoolchildren.

They send people out with messages, sometimes written with invisible ink, sometimes hidden in match boxes.. It’s like a spy movie.

In February 1942, he ordered all teachers to join a new union that would require them to introduce Nazi doctrine to their students. Students were also ordered to join the Norwegian equivalent of the Hitler Youth.

But the teachers refused.

Months of torture and hard work

The teachers organized using tactics right out of a spy movie to organize their response to Quisling’s demands, said Martin Øystese on 63 Degrees North, NTNU’s English-language podcast.

Teachers who fought against Nazi ideology at a prison camp in northern Norway.

These teachers were among the hundreds who were arrested and shipped to northern Norway to work in labour camps. Their housing was made from a thin cardboard. Photo: Unknown photographer/Borderland Museum

“They have contacts in different places, and they send people out with messages, sometimes written with invisible ink, sometimes hidden in match boxes,” he said. “It’s like a spy movie.”

For their efforts, 1100 were arrested — and subjected to months of starvation, torture and hard labour. At least one teacher died during their ordeal.

Øystese is an assistant professor at NTNU’s Department of Teacher Education. He and his NTNU colleague Unni Eikeseth published a comprehensive retelling of the teacher’s rebellion in a three-part podcast last year, on the 80th anniversary of the uprising.

The teachers’ fight against Nazism is history, but the fight to keep schools open and free for all kinds of expression is equally relevant today.

Listen to the teachers’ story in “1100 Norwegian teachers defied Hitler, and won!” on 63 Degrees North, wherever you get podcasts.

Learn more:

The Teacher’s Protest tells the full story of the teachers’ resistance, in a 2020 video by Jon Seal and available for rental from Vimeo.

Tyranny could not quell them,” by Gene Sharp, a 24-page booklet published in 1958 by the International Pacifist Weekly that describes the teachers’ rebellion, and how the tactics they used could help other groups interested in non-violent resistance.

Lærarkrigen mot Quisling, the Norwegian three-part podcast about the teacher’s rebellion (in Norwegian)

Ø. Hetland, N. Karcher & K. B. Simonsen (2021) Navigating troubled waters: collaboration and resistance in state institutions in Nazi-occupied Norway, Scandinavian Journal of History, 46:1, 84-104, DOI: 10.1080/03468755.2020.1846075

Norway’s Teachers Stand Firm, booklet published by the Royal Norwegian Government Press Representatives, 1942.