Oslo’s Hidden May 17th

May 17th is Norway’s Constitution day, a day for bunads and flags and kids parading up and down Karl Johan street while the Royal Family tries to not strain their wrists during four straight hours of hand-waving.

There are some smaller celebrations, though, that are easily overlooked. NRK doesn’t film these acts of remembrance – only those few who gather together in the early morning hours (and in the case of this year, brave the morning downpours) can see and be part of these ceremonies.

May 17th isn’t simply a day of parades and fancy clothes, but is also a time to recall what made Norway the place it is today. There are a number of Norwegians who have had a profound impact on the country, and through their acts the country was reshaped, sometimes radically and sometimes violently, into the form we are all familiar with. Most of these names are now confined to history books and wouldn’t be recognized by most Norwegians, but fortunately there are a few who still take the time once a year to give these great men of Norway’s past the recognition they deserve.

This May 17th I was able to attend two such ceremonies, one for the man who helped to create a modern Norwegian identity, and another who defended Norway’s constitution on the battlefield, and in the process set the groundwork for Norway’s ultimate independence.

 The crowd at the rainy remembrance ceremony for Henrik Wergeland at Vår Frelsers Graveyard

The first ceremony, which was fairly well attended, was at the grave of poet Henrik Wergeland. This is quite fitting as Wergeland was a major proponent for holding celebrations on May 17th. There had been annual commemorations of the date that the constitution was ratified on since 1814, but they were rather small affairs. Nevertheless, the celebrations caused concern for the Swedish-Norwegian king at the time, Karl Johan, who in 1828 prohibited any patriotic songs or speeches on May 17th.

When the next Constitution day came around in 1829, a number of Norwegians in Oslo (Christiania at the time), led in part by Wergeland, celebrated anyway. Swedish troops attacked and began to beat the Norwegians while they were gathered on Stortorvet, just in front of the cathedral. Though the patriotic demonstration was broken up, Wergeland used the event and its aftermath to further push for May 17th to be a day of commemoration of the constitution. Karl Johan relented and revoked his prohibition, after which the size and scope of May 17th celebrations continued grow across Norway.

 The crowd listens as a speech about Wergeland is given

The remembrance ceremony at the graveyard is lead by Oslo’s Jewish community, as a way of giving thanks to Wergeland’s efforts on behalf of Jews in Norway. As I mentioned in a previous post, the first Norwegian constitution prohibited Jews from living in the country. It was only after several decades of effort, in a large part spearheaded by Wergeland, that the constitution was amended and a Jewish community could grow in Norway.

A even lesser-attended ceremony is in a small graveyard behind Deichman Library. Known as Christ Graveyard, it was established following a massive outbreak of plague in Christiania in 1654. Several notable people were buried here over the next two centuries, such as Edvard Munch’s parents and his sister, who died as a teenager (she was the model for several of his paintings, such as “The Sick Child“).

On May 17th, all attention in this graveyard is focused on a impressive grave near the back gate. A tall granite obelisk, it has a handsome profile of a man without whom Norway as we know it today might not exist. That man is Andreas Samuel Krebs – “The Hero from Matrand”.

 A close-up of Krebs’ grave monument

The general story of Norway in 1814 is sadly not presented in any good English-language book. With the 200th anniversary of the events 1814 just two years away, I hope this unfortunate situation will be remedied soon. For the time being, if you are not familiar with the rather epic story of the creation of Norway’s constitution and its brief struggle for independence, you can read a quick summary here.

The initial push for independence that year culminated in the constitution being signed on May 17th, 1814. This document called for radical changes to the way governance was carried out in Norway, most importantly through the creation of the parliament, the Storting.

Norway, however, had little outside support in their push for independence, and the Swedes, who had been promised Norway by the European powers, were eager to collect their prize. In the summer of 1814 Swedish troops crossed into Norway, lead by Karl Johan. The understanding was that Norway was not destined to be a true co-equal in a union with Sweden, but would rather find themselves as the much lesser member, functioning more as a Swedish province, in much the same way as Norway had been a de-facto Danish province since the Reformation. This new constitution and Storting were not to be tolerated, and the Swedish forces were there to crush any aspirations of independence once and for all. For the Norwegians, it was not enough that they had created their own constitution – now they had to defend it.

This task fell in part to Krebs, a major in the Norwegian-Danish army who threw his lot in with the Norwegians in 1814. In two battles on August 2 and 5 he first stopped and then routed the Swedish forces advancing on Kongsvinger. These victories were the moral boost Norway needed, and the successful tactical retreat by the Norwegian army a few days later at Langnes further drove home the fact that the Norwegians were ready to defend the accomplishments of Eidsvoll. If the Swedes wanted to destroy the Eidsvoll constitution, they would have to fight their way across all of eastern Norway, a slow and costly proposition. Instead, Karl Johan decided to negotiate with the Norwegians. The peace treaty, known as the Convention of Moss, was a victory for the Norwegians (despite what modern Norwegian historians might say) in that it allowed them to keep their constitution and parliament. These would serve to greatly strengthen Norway’s position in the union with Sweden, and it lay the groundwork for the May 17th celebrations and subsequent growth of nationalism and identity in Norway over the next century.

Had the Norwegians lost at Lier and Matrand then the entire history of the Norwegian-Swedish union would have been much different, to Norway’s detriment. For this reason, and for his bravery as a solider, Andreas Krebs is remembered to this day in a Royal Guard ceremony every May 17th.

The Royal Guard in formation near Krebs’ grave in Christ Graveyard on May 17th

This ceremony this year was decently attended, given the relatively unknown status of Major Krebs (a status that is completely undeserved, considering his contributions to his country). I would estimate there were around 50 people or so in attendance, not counting the Royal Guard members. There were even several descendants of Krebs there, continuing to honor the memory of their ancestor. 
A wreath is laid on Krebs’ grave every May 17th

After giving a speech highlighting Krebs’ bravery and service and laying a wreath, a member of the Royal Guard salutes towards the grave

 Descendants of Andreas Krebs talking with a member of the Royal Guard after the ceremony
There are several other wreath-laying ceremonies around Oslo on May 17th, including one at the statue of King Haakon VII, the graves of Norwegian excited by Nazi forces during World War II, and the grave of Christian Magnus Falsen, who was instrumental in writing the constitution at Eidsvoll. The memorials by the graves of Krebs and Falsen are the only two events on May 17th which  commemorate someone directly involved in the events of 1814.

If you are interested in seeing more of May 17th in Oslo besides what happens on Karl Johan street, check the official May 17th schedule before next year’s events to see what is planned. It will be a worthwhile experience.

Eidsvoll: Under Construction

I had heard that plans were underway at the Eidsvoll Manor house to completely refurbish the place in preparation for the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian constitution. If you’re not familiar with the name Eidsvoll, here’s a quick bit of background – the Eidsvoll Manor house, located about 20 minutes north of Gardermoen airport, is where an assembly of leading Norwegians meet in the early months of 1814 and drafted the Norwegian constitution as part of Norway’s push for independence during the Napoleonic Wars. The constitution was signed in this building on May 17, 1814, and is the same constitution still in use today (with some later amendments, such as changing the second paragraph which originally decreed that Jews couldn’t live in Norway – yes, it really said that). It is actually the second oldest constitution in the world after the American constitution. The date of the constitution’s ratification became Norway’s day of national celebration – May 17th.

Since I was going to the airport to pick up a friend, I decided to leave a little early to take a side-trip by this historic house and see how things were going. And right now the refurbishing is certainly in full swing…

 Eidsvoll Manor is now one massive construction zone

 This is what the building normally looks like:

And here is what one of the front wings looks like today:

It’s interesting to see the building in this state. With the paneling removed, you can see the actual timbers underneath, and gain a sense of the building’s construction and the construction styles of the period. For the time being the manor itself is completely closed. While I understand the desire to keep the public out, so that work can proceed quickly, there is a lost opportunity here. The reconstruction and refurbishment efforts would make an incredibly interesting exhibition in their own right, since this work gives us a rare opportunity to literally “see under the skin” of the historic building. But alas, all that can be done now is visit the small museum off to the side, with the usual exhibits on 1814.
 The backside of Eidsvoll Manor

Both the main house and the side buildings are being worked on

As I mentioned, this is all being done to prepare the building for a flurry of festivities (and a likely upswing in visitors) in 2014. One of the staff at the museum told me the focus now is on authenticity. Past refurbishments did not try to retain the specific appearance of the house from 1814, instead using general “period” furniture and wallpaper. As a result, the look of the 1814 interior has been somewhat lost. The hope is that once the current work is done, the inside of the manor will appear as near as possible to how it looked in those heady days of 1814, when the fate of the country was literally being decided within its walls.

If you live in Oslo but haven’t been to Eidsvoll Manor, you really should go – just not right now. While the museum is interesting, the real point of visiting Eidsvoll is to see the rooms where the historic events of 1814 actually occurred, which of course can’t be done at this moment. The house should (hopefully) be open again for visitors in early 2014, if not sooner, and once it is be sure to make a point to visit. In the meantime, check out the house/museum website at www.eidsvoll1814.no (English version here) to learn more about the events surrounding the creation of the constitution. It is actually a very gripping story, and I’m surprised that there is no English-language book focusing on 1814 in Norway (if there is one and I’ve missed it, please let me know). Read up and share some history with your friends this May 17th!