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Norway 1905-2005

1905 – A Peaceful Separation

On 7 June 1905, the Norwegian Storting held an emergency meeting, during which Prime Minister Christian Michelsen submitted the resignation of his government. Since Swedish King Oscar II could only exercise power over Norway through its government, this meant that the King lost the ability to exercise his royal functions. Thereafter, the Storting adopted a unanimous declaration conferring power on the former government “to exercise the authority vested in the King in accordance with the Constitution and the Laws of the Realm of Norway – with those changes necessitated in light of the fact that the King has ceased to function as the King of Norway, thereby bringing to an end the union between Norway and Sweden under a single monarch.” With the help of a subordinate clause, Norway broke out of its union with Sweden. 

In 1814, Norway was forced into its union with Sweden after being taken away from Denmark in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. The Norwegians revolted against the imposition of another union, establishing the Norwegian Constitution on 17 May 1814. Although this gained Norway some degree of internal self-rule, the Norwegian state was nonetheless compelled to enter into a new – albeit loose – union comprising two nations under the same monarch with a common diplomatic service. The union was formalized in the Riksakten (Document of the Realm) of 1814.

By the 1890s, there was mounting conflict between the two parties to the union. Nationalistic tendencies were emerging in both countries, but these were based on widely divergent political principles. Growing protectionism in Sweden was having an adverse effect on economic relations between the two countries, making it difficult for union supporters in Norway to argue convincingly that the arrangement still held economic benefits for the country. After 1895, both countries launched substantial military build-up efforts.

Early in 1905, it appeared that the union was heading for a break-up. Presiding Prime Minister Francis Hagerup resigned, acknowledging that he had no backing for further negotiation with the Swedes on the introduction of a Norwegian consular service. A new government was then formed by Christian Michelsen. Norwegian national hero Fridtjof Nansen published a series of articles in the foreign press in an effort to enlighten the public and explain Norwegian claims. In May, the members of the Storting adopted a bill to establish a Norwegian consular service, knowing full well that King Oscar II would not approve the legislation. The King’s refusal to sanction the bill arrived on 27 May, leading to a complete rupture between the King and government – and between Sweden and Norway. Both nations sought to gain the support of the major powers in Europe, but none of these countries wished to get involved in a war in Scandinavia.

A special committee in the Riksdag (Swedish national assembly) concluded that Sweden could accept the dissolution of the union, but that the matter had to be decided in a plebiscite in Norway, and that the conditions for dissolution were subject to negotiation. This recommendation was adopted by the Riksdag. A Norwegian plebiscite held on 13 August showed an overwhelming majority in favour of dissolving the union.

The Norwegian and Swedish negotiators met in Karlstad, Sweden on 31 August. The negotiations included dealing with difficult issues such as the status of Norwegian military fortresses along the border. The situation was very tense. After much tough discussion, the negotiations ended in a compromise known today as the Karlstad Agreement. The agreement was controversial in Norway, but was, ultimately, adopted by the Storting. The Riksdag approved the Karlstad Agreement without a vote. On 16 October, The Swedish Riksdag voted to recognize Norway as an independent nation, and on 27 October the Karlstad Agreement was finally signed. At the same time, Oscar II abdicated from the Norwegian throne. 

There was debate in Norway about the new nation’s form of government. A new plebiscite was held on 12 and 13 November to decide whether Norway should be a monarchy or a republic. A vast majority of the voters voted in favour of a monarchy. The candidate chosen to accede to the Norwegian throne was Prince Carl of Denmark, who was married to one of the daughters of King Edward VII of Great Britain. Prince Carl and his family arrived in Norway on 25 November. Two days later he adopted the name King Haakon VII and took an oath before the Storting to uphold the Norwegian Constitution. 

What made it possible to dissolve the union between Sweden and Norway without resorting to armed conflict? The primary reason was that those involved in the negotiations held moderate views and were willing to be the agents of compromise. Had the negotiations failed, it is likely that war would have broken out. Both Norway and Sweden had built up their defences, but the Swedish war machine was greatly superior. One possible scenario would have been that the Norwegian forces would have managed to stave off a Swedish attack long enough to allow the major powers to step in and broker peace. Another is that a Swedish attack and occupation would be initially successful, but that the Norwegian forces would continue to strike back, making it a long-drawn-out conflict. Sweden would have little to gain from such a war, a fact that was probably widely understood. So in the end, all parties came to believe that the best solution would be a peaceful dissolution of a union that had clearly outlived its function.

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"Riksforsamlingen på Eidsvold"
Painting from the signing of the Norwegian Constitution, May 17. 1814 in Eidsvoll, by Oscar WergelandPhoto: DNFI / Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

King Haakon VII and queen Maud were crowned in Nidarosdomen in Trondheim in 1906.Photo: Aschehoug forlags arkiv/ Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs