Dissolution of the union between Norway and Sweden in 1905

Dissolution of the union between Norway and Sweden in 1905
A postcard from around the time of the Norwegian referendum. It translates to "Yes, we love this country", the national anthem of Norway.

The parliament of Norway broke the personal union with Sweden under the House of Bernadotte on 7 June 1905. After some months of tension and fear of war between the two neighbouring nations, negotiations between the two governments led to Norway's recognition by Sweden as an independent constitutional monarchy on 26 October 1905. On that date, King Oscar II renounced his claim to the Norwegian throne, effectively dissolving the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway. This event was quickly followed by Prince Carl of Denmark's accession to the Norwegian throne on 18 November the same year, taking the name Haakon VII.



Norwegian nationalistic aspirations in 1814 were frustrated by Sweden's victory in a brief, but decisive war that resulted in Norway entering into a personal union with Sweden. The Norwegian constitution was largely kept intact, allowing for an independent Norwegian state with its own parliament, judiciary, and executive powers. Foreign relations were, however, conducted by the King through the Swedish ministry of foreign affairs. There were largely feelings of goodwill between the two peoples, and the common Kings generally tried to act in the interest of both Kingdoms.

However over the years, a divergence of Norwegian and Swedish interests became apparent. In particular, Norwegians felt that their foreign policy interests were inadequately served by Sweden's ministry of foreign affairs. There were several driving factors behind the growing conflict:

  • Norway's economy was more dependent on foreign trade and therefore more sensitive to the protectionist measures the Swedes were adopting.
  • Norway had an affiliation with the United Kingdom; Sweden had an affiliation with Germany.[citation needed]
  • Norway had greater interests outside of Europe than Sweden.

In addition, Norwegian politics were increasingly dominated by liberal tendencies characterized by the growth of Parliamentarism, whereas Swedish politics tended more toward the conservative, with the king exercising greater discretionary political power.

When free trade between the countries was restricted in 1895 through the abolition of the "Interstate laws" (Mellomrikslovene), the economic reasons for the continued union were also diminished.

The conflict came to a head over the so-called "consul affair," in which successive Norwegian governments insisted that Norway establish its own consular offices abroad rather than rely on the common consuls appointed by the Swedish foreign minister. As the long-standing practice for the conduct of joint foreign policy had been that a Swede always hold the office of foreign minister, the Swedish government and king rejected this insistence as an abdication of the throne's right to set foreign policy.

While Norway's Liberal Party had pioneered an uncompromising position through the so-called "fist policy," the Conservative Party also came to adopt a strong policy in favour of at least de facto independence and equality within the personal union. Although both parties made efforts to resolve the issue through negotiations, Norwegian public opinion became gradually more entrenched.

Both Sweden and Norway increased military expenditures. Norway modernized the frontier forts at Kongsvinger and Fredriksten and built a series of new forts along the border.

Prelude to dissolution

The Norwegian Storting passes the "revolutionary" resolution

In early 1905, Christian Michelsen formed a coalition government consisting of liberals and conservatives, whose only stated objective was to establish a separate Norwegian corps of consuls. The law was passed by the Norwegian parliament. As expected and probably as planned, King Oscar II refused to accept the laws, and the Michelsen government resigned. When the king declared himself unable to form a cabinet under the present circumstances, a constitutional crisis broke out on 7 June 1905. The Norwegian position was that the impasse had resulted in a de facto dissolution of the union. Norway considers 7 June to be the date that it regained its independence, even though Norway had possessed the legal status of an independent state since 1814.

The text of the unanimous declaration, remarkable for the fact that the declaration of the dissolution was an aside to the main clause, read:

Since all the members of the cabinet have resigned their positions; since His Majesty the King has declared his inability to obtain for the country a new government; and since the constitutional monarchy has ceased to exist, the Storting hereby authorizes the cabinet that resigned today to exercise the powers held by the King in accordance with the Constitution of Norway and relevant laws - with the amendments necessitated by the dissolution of the union with Sweden under one King, resulting from the fact that the King no longer functions as a Norwegian King.

Initially reacting to this declaration as a rebellious act, the Swedish government indicated an openness to a negotiated end to the union, insisting among other things on a Norwegian plebiscite.

Besides internal changes within Norway, a major key factor that allowed Norway to break from Sweden was the emerging Swedish social democratic movement. In the early years of the 20th century, Hjalmar Branting led the Social Democrats in opposing a war to keep Norway united with Sweden. When the crisis came in 1905, he coined the slogan "Hands off Norway, King!" The Social Democrats organized resistance to a call-up of reserves and a general strike against a war. Basically, the majority of Sweden supported a free state of Norway as much as the people of Norway did.

The plebiscite was held on 13 August and resulted in an overwhelming 368,208 votes (99.95%) in favour of dissolution against 184 (0.05%) opposed. The government thereby had confirmation of the dissolution. 85 percent of Norwegian men had cast their votes, but no women (universal suffrage was not extended to women until 1913, but Norwegian feminists collected more than 200,000 signatures in favour of dissolution).

Polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen weighed in heavily for dissolving the union and travelled to the United Kingdom, where he successfully lobbied for British support for Norway's independence movement.

Negotiations in Karlstad

The peace monument erected on the city square on the 50th anniversary of the dissolution of the union between Norway and Sweden

On 31 August, Norwegian and Swedish delegates met in the Swedish city of Karlstad to negotiate the terms of the dissolution. Although many prominent right-wing Swedish politicians favoured a hard-line approach to the issue, historical scholars have found that the Swedish King had determined early on that it would be better to lose the union than risk a war with Norway. The overwhelming public support among Norwegians for independence had convinced the major European powers that the independence movement was legitimate, and Sweden feared it would be isolated by suppressing it; also, there was little appetite for creating additional ill will between the countries, closely related as they were (and are).

Even as the negotiations made progress, military forces were quietly deployed on both sides of the border between Sweden and Norway, though separated by two kilometres. Public opinion among Norwegian leftists favoured a war of independence if necessary, even against Sweden's numerical superiority.

On 23 September, the negotiations closed. On 9 October the Norwegian parliament voted to accept the terms of the dissolution; on 13 October the Swedish parliament followed suit. Although Norway had considered itself independent since 7 June, Sweden formally recognised Norwegian independence on 26 October when Oscar II renounced his and any of his descendants' claims to the Norwegian throne.

Choosing a Norwegian King

The new king Haakon VII arrives in Oslo with Crown Prince Olav on his arm and is greeted on the pier by Prime Minister Christian Michelsen.

In its resolution of 7 June, the Storting had invited King Oscar II to allow one of his younger sons to assume the Norwegian throne, called the Bernadotte offer. The offer was an attempt from the Norwegian government to demonstrate that their unilateral declaration of independence would not change the fact that Norway would remain a monarchy. In this way, Norway aimed to gather support from the other large European countries which, with the exception of France, were mostly monarchic.

Unlike the declaration of independence, the Bernadotte offer was controversial in the Norwegian government. Five socialists in the parliament voted against monarchy, and the finance minister Gunnar Knudsen, a republican member of the cabinet, resigned over this issue.

It was known that King Oscar II was not amenable to accepting the Bernadotte offer, but the issue remained unsettled until the offer was formally declined by the king when he renounced his claim on 26 October.[1]

The King's rejection of the Bernadotte offer had been anticipated months earlier, and already during the summer a Norwegian delegation approached the 33-year-old Prince Carl of Denmark, the second son of the Crown Prince Frederick of Denmark. The Norwegian parliament had considered other candidates but ultimately chose Prince Carl, partly because he already had a son to continue the line of succession, but more significantly because Carl was married to Maud of Wales, the daughter of King Edward VII. By bringing in a king with a British-born queen, it was hoped that Norway could court Britain's support.

Prince Carl impressed the delegation in many ways, not the least because of his sensitivity to the liberal and democratic movements that had led to Norway's independence. Though the Norwegian constitution stipulated that the Storting could choose a new king if the throne were vacant, Carl was aware that many Norwegians — including leading politicians and high-ranking military officers — favoured a republican form of government. Attempts to persuade the prince to accept the throne on the basis of Parliament's choice failed; Carl insisted that he would accept the crown only if the Norwegian people expressed their will for monarchy by referendum and if the parliament then elected him king.

The swearing in as king of Haakon VII in the Parliament of Norway Building.

On 12 and 13 November, in the second constitutional plebiscite in three months, Norwegian voters decided by a nearly 79 percent majority (259,563 to 69,264) to establish a monarchy instead of a republic. Many who favoured a republic in principle voted for a monarchy because they felt it would help the newly-independent Norwegian nation gain legitimacy among the European monarchies.

Following the November plebiscite affirming Norwegians' desire for a monarchy, the parliament by an overwhelming majority offered Carl a clear mandate to the Norwegian throne on 18 November, and the prince accepted the same evening, choosing the name Haakon, a traditional name used by Norwegian kings. The last king with that name was Haakon VI, who died in the year 1380.

The new king therefore became Haakon VII, King of Norway. His two-year-old son Alexander, the heir apparent, was renamed Olav and became Crown Prince Olav. The new royal family arrived in the capital Kristiania (later renamed Oslo) on 25 November.

Haakon VII was sworn in as king of Norway on 27 November.

Important individuals in the dissolution

The following individuals played a role in the events surrounding the dissolution of the union between Norway and Sweden:

Importance of the events of 1905

Statue of King Haakon VII at the 7th June Plaza in Oslo

In many ways, the events of 1905 formed a sequel to the events of 1814, but there were some important differences:

  • Whereas the 1814 independence movement in large part was driven by political opportunism among the national elite, the 1905 movement was a result of political trends largely driven by elected officials with massive popular support.
  • In 1905, Norway was not put in play by war as a territorial prize.
  • By 1905, Norwegians had established many of the institutions and infrastructure of a sovereign, independent state.
  • By 1905, European statesmanship was more inclined to favour Norwegian independence than in 1814.

Much has been made of the supremacy of diplomacy in averting war between Sweden and Norway in 1905. In truth, the Norwegians had much more to fight for than the Swedes if it had come to war. Both parties recognized that their geographical proximity made long-term hostility untenable under any circumstance.

Many documents related to the specific events of 1905 were destroyed during and following those years. Some historians speculate [1] that foreign interests played a stronger role than what had previously been assumed; in particular, that Great Britain influenced the dissolution in order to reduce German influence over Atlantic ports. Although Sweden's close relationship with Germany did not last long, Norway's independence immediately put it inside the British sphere of influence.

See also

  • Dissolution of Czechoslovakia - similar in its peaceful character, but different because Sweden and Norway were two separate states, but Czechoslovakia was one amalgamated state.

External resources

  1. ^ Haakon VII Biography of King Haakon VII in connection with NRK's series "Store norske" (Great Norwegians) (Norwegian)

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