The history of the Norwegian term ‘jøssing’ is as curious and complicated as the political situation that birthed it. First used in 1941 as a snide characterisation of Norwegians sympathising with the British war effort, the word took on a different meaning as the Second World War progressed.
Norway was invaded by German forces on 9 April 1940, at a time when Britain stood alone in the war against Germany. When King Haakon of Norway fled to London together with the prime minister and his Labour government, the English capital became the focal point of Norwegian resistance. It was clear that despite being under German rule, Norway had joined the war on the British side. This made it essential for the German occupiers and their Norwegian collaborators to discredit the British by any means possible.
After the occupation, Vidkun Quisling, founder and leader of the Norwegian national socialist party Nasjonal Samling (NS), had formed a new government in support of the Nazi invaders. As a result, Quisling’s surname became synonymous with the word ‘traitor’ all across occupied Norway. Although the NS argued that they did not view the term ‘quisling’ as an insult, by 1941 they felt it was time to deliver a similar slight to the Norwegian men and women supporting the British. The result was the word ‘jøssing’.
The origin of the term was well known. In February 1940 there had been two consecutive breaches of Norwegian neutrality – one by the Germans, and one by the British. The Royal Navy had been pursuing the German military tanker Altmark for several months, but only detected it once it entered Norwegian waters. Altmark carried almost 300 British prisoners, and on 14 February had to be escorted by Norwegian military vessels as it journeyed south along the coast. This constituted the first breach of neutrality. The second happened the next day, when the Royal Navy attacked the German tanker. Six British fighter planes forced the ship into the narrow, ice clad Jøssingfjord, where the large vessel ran aground before the British opened fire. Seven German sailors lost their lives, and the British ambush in the Jøssingfjord constituted the most serious breach of Norwegian neutrality before the German invasion two months later.
The attacks on Altmark made Hitler more determined to gain control of the Norwegian shoreline. Encouraged by Quisling, plans were made for Operation Weserübung – the invasion of Norway and Denmark. However, Hitler wished to remain on good terms with the Norwegian people, whom he viewed as part of the Germanic race, and hoped at length that they would cooperate with the German forces.
These hopes were shattered within a few hours of the occupation. In the early morning of 9 April, the German heavy cruiser Blücher made its way up the Oslofjord. Quiet and ghostly, the warship sailed through the fog without lanterns. This was viewed as a direct threat by the Norwegian coastal defense battery at Oscarsborg Fortress, and the order was given to open fire. Within hours, Blücher sank nose first into the deep fjord. This defiant act gave the king and government time to escape, and could hardly be interpreted as an outstretched hand from Norway to the Wehrmacht.
Afterthe breach of neutrality in the Jøssingfjord, Nasjonal Samling saw it as a betrayal when the exiled Norwegian government later joined forces with Britain. In February 1941, the NS’s official news organ Fritt Folk stated: ‘It was in the Jøssingfjord…that Norway lost its national honour’. The paper therefore argued that ‘jøssing’was a ‘new, apt description of the Norwegian Englishmen’ and that the name used to describe those who ‘without protest dragged their people’s honour through the mud…is so fitting that it should be used for all future.’
‘Jøssing’ quickly became part of the Norwegian vocabulary, and its usage was frequent, wide-ranging, and sometimes anti-Semitic. According to the Nazified Norwegian press, the ‘jøssings’ were in league with everyone from the Jewish Bolsheviks to the British capitalists, not to mention the King of Norway and the Freemasons. Quisling himself referred to the ‘jøssings’ in several of his speeches, and newspapers were littered with histrionic attacks on the traitorous, unpatriotic ‘jøssings’, who according to the German-friendly journalists would rather have England violate their country than see it protected by the German occupiers.
Although the term was later used to describe virtually anyone who opposed Quisling’s government, its sentiment was always distinctly anti-British, demonstrated by a comment published in Aftenposten in February 1943. Under the headline ‘Exit Jøssing’, the anonymous writer declared:
In the years between the two world wars there arose among Norwegian intellectuals and wealthy aristocrats a perverse inclination towards everything English. These people engaged in spiritual masturbation with their Englishness: They dressed English, lived English, behaved English, ate, drank and smoked English…and crammed their empty heads with English short stories and subpar English literature…They were jubilant when their own neutrality was breached, because it was breached by the English.
Sabotaging the Norwegian people’s trust in England also meant discrediting every outlet bringing news and messages from the Norwegian government in London. The Nazification of Norwegian media led civilians to depend on broadcasts from the BBC Norwegian Service for reliable information. Beginning in the summer of 1940, what became known as London Radio brought daily news broadcasts to the occupied nation. Organised by the circle around the exiled Norwegian government, the programmes consisted of brief newscasts, as well as coded messages and instructions for the Norwegian resistance. Sometimes they included talks and poetry recitals, and on occasion, King Haakon or Prime Minister Johan Nygaardsvold would deliver a speech. ‘Listening to London’ soon became so widespread an activity that by the summer of 1941, the Nazi occupiers saw no other alternative than to confiscate all private radios. However, many persisted with tuning into London Radio on devices kept within walls, stuffed down laundry baskets, stowed away in haystacks, or buried in the garden.
This willingness to defy the occupiers made it even more important for the NS to present the messages broadcast over London Radio as lies, and to implicate the exiled government’s ‘jøssing’ collaborators. A year into the occupation, another British attack along the Norwegian shoreline gave them just such an opportunity.
On 12 September 1941, the commercial ship D/S Barøy was sunk by a British aerial torpedo. A similar ship was sunk by a British submarine later that same day. The torpedoing of the two ships, which carried only a few German soldiers, was a ruthless assault on civilian lives; more than 200 people were killed, many of them women and children. The attacks led to resentment within the Norwegian population, and helped fuel the occupiers’ anti-English propaganda. Three days after the sinking, Aftenposten characterised the attacks as typical of the British war effort:
The same keeps repeating over and over: the Englishmen attack ruthlessly and without any respect for peaceful human lives… This type of inhuman warfare has at all times been characteristic of the British fleet. The two new cases in the north of Norway are therefore not surprising.
As a result of this, a large protest against the English was organised on 16 September, where hundreds of NS-members and German-friendly Norwegians marched the streets of Oslo. A brass band played in front of a protest sign reading ‘Norwegian gathering against England’. Women wore richly embroidered national costumes, while others had brought Norwegian flags which they waved defiantly. At the front walked the Norwegian Hird, Nasjonal Samling’s paramilitary branch. In their navy-blue suits and brown shirts, with the solar cross gleaming red and gold on their left upper arm, they led the way down along the tramlines of Karl Johans Gate to the University Square.
The entrance to the Faculty of Law was hung with the Norwegian flag as well as the red and gold emblem of the NS. Between the flag-clad pillars stood a podium, watched over by the solar cross and the German Imperial Eagle. Soon, the square swarmed with people, many of whom carried large signs and banners with messages such as ‘English gangsters murder 200 Norwegians’, and ‘Down with the English pirates.’
Flanked by two young boys from Guttehirden – the Hird Youth – NS-minister Gulbrand Lunde addressed the teeming crowd. After delivering scathing remarks on how the English would rather torpedo Norwegians ships filled with civilians than challenge the Wehrmacht outright, Lunde emphasised how the events of the past few days had been misconstrued over London Radio. In the BBC’s address over the ether, the two coastal liners had been described as enemy ships. Lunde went far in implicating King Haakon in the attacks, and claimed that it was the king’s treachery ‘which brought the country into a war where Norwegian blood is spilt for the sake of English interests’.
Vilifying the Norwegian monarch was important for two reasons. Not only did the king’s popular radio speeches bring a measure of hope to Britain’s occupied ally in the north – King Haakon was also the son-in-law of King Edward VII, a connection that further strengthened the bond between England and Norway. It did not help that the King had refused outright to cooperate with the Germans after the occupation. In the aftermath of the attacks on the coastal liners, propaganda posters involving the monarch began appearing everywhere. One featured an enormous bomb dropping out of a blood-red sky, about to strike a ship bearing a Norwegian flag. The bomb carried King Haakon’s official monogram, and his slogan ‘All for Norway’ was plastered above the chilling illustration.
In his speech on 16 September, Gulbrand Lunde scorned the ‘former king’, who according to the minister had fled his own country to join those who would sacrifice Norwegian women and children to assist the Jews working out of London. He finished his speech by placing the blame firmly with the ‘jøssings’, a sentiment echoed on a protest sign across the University Square, which read, in large, black letters: ‘Go to battle against English robbers and Norwegian jøssings’.
As the war progressed, Nasjonal Samling’s hostility against Britain and the traitorous London government did not subside, and Norwegian newspapers continued to use ‘jøssing’ as a derogatory term. By the autumn of 1943, however, something had happened within the Norwegian population which led Quisling and the members of the NS to regret their widespread use of the word.
In their eagerness to invent a slandering phrase to match the term ‘quisling’, they had not predicted how such a designation could end up a badge of honour to those resisting the Germans.Soon, the traitorous ‘jøssings’ had themselves adopted the word. Illegal ‘jøssing newspapers’began appearing in several Norwegian cities. People wore ‘jøssing hats’ knitted in thick, red wool as a way of expressing their non-German allegiance, and a wealth of ‘jøssing jokes’ – Have you heard Quisling has become a merchant? You see, he sold Norway! – began circulating within the population.
Quisling’s propaganda war to discredit the British had failed. In the autumn of 1943, the NS began phasing out their use of the word, and so the term that should have been used ‘for all future’ was instead shelved after two and a half years.
Of the terms ‘jøssing’ and ‘quisling’, only one is known internationally today. But there was a time when Norwegian national socialists thought it would be otherwise, and wrote in their Nazified press, with confidence: ‘Who are Norway’s true friends, the jøssings or the quislings? The future will have to answer these questions.’
A version of this text was first published in the non-fiction anthology Secrets and Lives