- A Stand Against Tyranny: Norway’s Physicians and the Nazis
This book tells the story of the involvement of Norwegian physicians in the resistance movement against the Nazis during the German occupation, 1940–45. Maynard Cohen’s interest in the subject arose when he was an invited lecturer in neuropathology at the Medical School of the University of Oslo in 1951. During a later visit to Oslo as a Fulbright professor in 1977, he conducted a more systematic study, including personal interviews with more than twenty Norwegian physicians. In addition, he reviewed Norwegian newspapers and gathered historical information from various sources.
The strength of A Stand Against Tyranny is the authentic, detailed stories about the activities of the physicians. The reader gets a good impression of their initiative, their mode of operation, and the great personal risks many of them were willing to take. Cohen points out that they were able to utilize their professional and personal network to develop a communication system for clandestine operations, including an illegal press and the distribution of weapons. Their relatively free position, with opportunities to travel and contact with different groups in the population, facilitated this type of work. Another contributing factor was the simple fact that Norway is a small country: before World War II there was only one university and one medical school; almost all the Norwegian physicians had graduated from the same school, and they could count on mutual knowledge and friendship.
Among the outstanding personalities the author presents should be mentioned Johan Scharffenberg, a specialist in forensic psychiatry who held a unique position in Norwegian society due to his independence and moral integrity. His famous speech to the Norwegian Student Association in September 1940 was the starting signal for the resistance movement among academic youth. He was immediately arrested, but was soon released because the German occupation authorities were anxious to avoid further public attention to this person. As early as 1933 Scharffenberg had written an extensive psychiatric review of Hitler’s [End Page 531] personality in a Norwegian newspaper—a memory that the Germans wished to silence.
Some physicians had to flee the country, but they continued their resistance work from Sweden, England, or the United States. Many of them held prominent university positions in the postwar period. Among those interviewed by Cohen are Jan Jansen, Leiv Kreyberg, Kristian Kristiansen, Ole Jakob Malm, Håkon Natvik, Olav Torgersen, and Hjalmar Wergeland, whom I remember as inspiring teachers from my time as a medical student in the years 1952–58.
Cohen also presents the story of Leo Eitinger, a Jewish refugee and young medical doctor who came to Norway from Czechoslovakia in 1939. He was imprisoned and sent to Auschwitz in 1942, and was one of the very few survivors of that camp. After the war he continued his career as a psychiatrist, becoming a professor at the University of Oslo. He was well known internationally for his studies among concentration camp survivors.
The close personal contact between the author and his informants gives the reader a vivid impression of their activities. However, the focus of the book is on the resistance group, and it does not give an overview of the whole medical establishment during the war. It is well known, for example, that 133 of 2,700 Norwegian physicians (4.9 percent) joined the Quisling Party, as described by Anders Gogstad in Helse og hakekors (which is on the author’s reference list).1
The chapter describing the general history of Norway before, during, and after the German occupation has a rather strong heroic flavor, with the image of Fridtjof Nansen in the background. But the history of the German occupation also contains passivity, collaboration, and traitors. In the trials after the war, 46,000 Norwegians were sentenced—including the famous writer Knut Hamsun, whose name is omitted from the discussion of Norwegian Nobel Prize winners on the first page of the introductory chapter.
These few critical remarks about the broader historical context of the story should not overshadow...