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Norway 1905-2005

The Great Powers and the union crisis

Scandinavia was not an area of prime interest for the European great powers around 1905. Other countries and other areas were more important. In 1905, the situation in Europe was dominated by the war between Russia and Japan. The Great Powers were squabbling amongst themselves about influence in the colonies. They were particularly preoccupied with the struggle for Morocco. This issue reached crisis point between France and Germany in June 1905. In general then, the Great Powers were busy with other matters and did not want a conflict in the north to deal with on top of everything else. The unilateral Norwegian decision to sever the union with Sweden on 7 June was perceived as a revolutionary act that might lead to war. The most important thing for the European Great Powers in 1905 was to keep the situation calm in the Nordic countries. At the same time, the Great Powers wanted Norway to continue as a monarchy and were concerned about the republican tendencies in the country. This was the background for the Great Powers’ interest and pressure from early summer 1905.

Information campaigns to sway public opinion played an important part in the struggle for the support of the Great Powers. Norway set up an Information Committee in March 1905, the purpose of which was to provide information abroad about Norway’s position in international law and constitutional law. Since the Norwegian government did not have its own diplomatic corps, it had to use other channels. The famous arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen and the equally famous Swedish explorer Sven Hedin argued the two sides of the case back and forth in The Times in spring 1905, in an attempt to rally sympathy for their nations’ point of view. Other Swedes took over from Hedin in summer 1905. Although formally Nansen was acting as a private individual, most of his arguments had been cleared with the Norwegian government beforehand.

The British were quick to start putting pressure on Sweden to find a solution to the union conflict, but were careful not to get too directly involved and thus be seen to be taking sides in the dispute. Both the Russian and the French ministers in Stockholm appealed to the Swedish government to accept an arbitration treaty and to allow the historic fortresses to remain standing. Both the Swedish and the Norwegian negotiators knew that the Great Powers wanted a peaceful, negotiated solution and would intervene if the parties could not agree among themselves. For Sweden, it would be a double humiliation to be forced to accept an imposed solution, as opposed to forging one itself. From this angle, the pressure exerted by the Great Powers played a major role in ensuring that the negotiations were concluded and that the parties reached an agreement, and thus ultimately also to the resolution of the union conflict.

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