By Roz DeKett
“That was a tough morning.”
Vincent Hunt’s new book, Fire and Ice: the Nazis’ scorched earth campaign in Norway, poignantly and with dignity captures the pain still threading like barbed wire through the communities that survived the German occupation of northern Norway in the Second World War.
On the morning in question, Vince is interviewing Mette Mikalson. He has to stop recording three times while she cries uncontrollably. She is recounting an event on May 5, 1945, two days before the war ended: the execution by German commandos of six local fishermen trying to escape into the mountains. One was her father, one her brother.
“We sat there in the kitchen of this house by a field, and we just waited until she stopped crying, because everybody else in the room knew why she was crying,” Vince says. He’s talking to me via Skype from his desk in his comfortable family home in Manchester, England, but I’m seeing the kitchen of the fisherman’s cottage in Hopseidet in the far north of Norway; Mette trying to tell Vince her story.
“We all understood,” he says. “She’d seen her mother raped in front of her, her father had been shot, her brother had been shot. All the other people who were shot she knew and were members of her extended family and circle of acquaintances. No surprise that she was upset.
“But human experience is about revealing the vulnerability. That teaches you a lot about the human experience.” He sighs. “And what can it be like to have gone through something like that, at the age of five?”
His question hangs in the air. Neither of us can come close to answering it; we don’t try.
I first met Vince in 1990, when we were both working for BBC local radio in Manchester. Vince has gone on to become a maker of award-winning radio documentaries during the course of a 25-year career with the BBC. Fire and Ice is his first book.
It’s also the first book in English that tells the story of the Nazi destruction of the northern Norwegian county of Finnmark, an area larger than Denmark that shares a border with what was then the Soviet Union. Germany saw it as an essential strategic zone and occupied it from almost the start of the war. Then, six months before the war ended, Russian forces liberated Finnmark while the Germans still occupied the south of Norway.
But liberation brought absolute devastation at the hands of the retreating German troops, commanded to carry out Hitler’s scorched earth policy and create a vast firebreak intended to thwart a Russian advance into Norway.
Along with burning and blowing up thousands of homes, farms, hospitals, churches, boats, and telephone poles, as well as the killing or seizure of local livestock, the Nazis forced Finnmark’s citizens to evacuate to the south, which was still under German control. Massively outnumbered, most of Finnmark’s people had found ways to survive under Nazi occupation, working for the Germans, even forming friendships.
Now, if they were discovered trying to hide or resist evacuation to the south, they were shot.
“In a way, Norway has been split in two by the war,” Vince says. “There’s the Norway of the north that was destroyed and took such a pounding, occupied by the Germans who were installing gun batteries and had the [Soviet] prisoners working for them, and shooting the prisoners … it’s this enormous garrison, with people coming and going, soldiers and weapons and horses. The whole place is completely taken over by this war machine. That didn’t happen in Oslo. It didn’t really happen anywhere in the south of Norway.
“There’s this sense that this story in the north of Norway hasn’t come out, that their experience isn’t genuinely reflected in the official Norwegian history of what happened … because the Russians liberated them, and then that region went directly into the Cold War.”
With the onset of the Cold War, before the north of Norway had even been rebuilt, Russia’s new role as enemy overwhelmed its brief status as liberator.
And Finnmark’s dark and troubled history vanished like a shadow in the night.
A social memory, not a military history
I want to explore how Vince’s background as a journalist and maker of radio documentaries shaped the way he chose to write the book. While it has extensive military detail, it’s not a military account. He describes it himself as “part documentary, part ballad, part travelogue.”
But first, I ask him how he learned about these shrouded stories. Long before he knew anything of them, he began visiting Norway because a friend was working there. He explored it as a tourist with no notion of what lay barely turfed over in this staggeringly beautiful country. He loves Norway. One day in the north, something shifted his viewpoint like a telescope coming into focus.
“We came to this place called Honningsvåg,” he says.
In Honningsvåg, in 1944, the retreating German army had destroyed every building except its white church. Vince knew what a scorched earth policy was, but he’d paid it little attention.
That was about to change.
“I stood in the churchyard and looked at all these incredibly bleak hills—it wasn’t even cold at the time—and I thought, imagine what this must have been like, coming back to this landscape and finding the smoking ruins of your house and your life. Imagine what it must be like, building and starting again, and imagine how determined you must be to do that.
“So really it began as a journey into determination, to find out what it might have been like for the Norwegian people who came back. It spread into a wider journey: the German retreat, the experience of the Soviet prisoners of war. From there it branched off into the way that the children of the German-Norwegians were treated in subsequent years.”
When Vince tried to dig into what had happened in Finnmark, he came up empty-handed.
“I knew nothing about the details of this episode of history. The most I could find, before I started doing what you might call unnaturally detailed research, was a couple of lines in history books. There’s one book which talks about the military campaigns in the north, and it stops as soon as you get to the scorched earth retreat.
“And then I found the Nuremberg trials.”
The transcripts of the Nuremberg trials gave Vince eyewitness testimony of events in the story into which he was feeling his way. He started to map out a book; what the narrative would be. Years of experience making documentaries came into play. He found people in Norway who had stories to tell, set up interviews, and began a journey through the north to talk to them.
Fire and Ice weaves its story along three interlocking paths. It’s rooted in the Nuremberg transcripts. From there, Vince adds what he calls the human histories—the stories of the people who were there, in their own words. And he wanted to make his journey personal without imposing his opinions. So he is the traveler, the guide for the reader, describing and photographing the land he walks across and the people he meets.
Vince is in his fifties, like me. We both have parents who were bombed out in the Blitz: in my case my mother, aged five in London; in his case his father, aged eight in Liverpool. Both survived the destruction of their homes while they were inside them. Vince’s mother was also evacuated as a child.
But this is different.
“My family’s experience of war had been being on the receiving end of bomb damage,” Vince says. “And all of a sudden I’m talking to people who were witnessing death happening on a large scale. It was so much more personal and much more traumatic.”
A leg man’s journey across Norway
Vince is an old school journalist, a “leg man” who knocks on doors and talks to people. He started in Kirkenes and interviewed his way across Finnmark to Tromsø.
“From the minute my first guest opened their mouth, I was thrown into this utterly extreme world,” he says.
“I wrote far more about Kirkenes than I ever imagined would be possible. Nobody has ever written a book about Kirkenes, but it deserves it. Kirkenes was such an intense experience, such a profound, pivotal experience in that whole Arctic front. And it’s still there. This war is still going on in Kirkenes. They’re still finding the ammunition. There are still people who remember what their grandmother went through. The psychological scars and the family trauma is still very much evident.
“I mean, I’m a stranger, and people were telling me this within 20 minutes.”
I am struck by the fact that the first traumatic story in the book is not about Norwegians; it’s about German soldiers, disemboweled and dying by the roadside, calling for their mothers—many were just teenagers. Immediately, you know this is not going to be a book that tells just one side of the story. I ask Vince about this. He’s pleased I’ve noticed.
“How can I say this without sounding ridiculous? I try and see things from a mother’s perspective.” He hesitates. “Imagine it was me lying there by the side of the road with my guts out.”
“Or your son,” I say.
As if on cue, I hear a small commotion outside my Skype field of vision. It’s Vince’s 14-year-old son, home from school. Vince calls him in and he says hello and grins at me. He’s a competitive swimmer, with a meet later this evening. Vince has spent long hours at the side of the pool while his son trains, transcribing the stories he’s recorded, writing his book with the goal of making it a rounded account.
His son disappears from view again, and Vince continues.
“I’m trying to take a compassionate view, a human view, of what happened. The German experience is important to me, the Soviet experience, the Norwegian experience—it’s a collection of human stories, all of which are equally valid.
“It is this sense of being true to people’s stories. This is a story of remarkable and awful events. You just cannot twist that sense of history by some stupid, shallow bias against a particular group of people.”
He walked what’s known as the Russian Road, where thousands of Soviet prisoners were tortured and died in death camps, disposable slave labour for Nazi troops (in this case, mostly Austrian) as they built a defensive infrastructure in the north.
“I don’t think pity is necessarily a good emotion,” Vince says. “But I didn’t half feel for the Soviet prisoners of war who were worked to death, undernourished and kept in turf houses. They’d more or less scrabble ditches with their own bare hands to get away from these extreme [cold] temperatures … sometimes they collapsed and died where they were; sometimes they were shot on the spot.”
In Fire and Ice, Vince describes his climb up the Fals Mountain to the Lyngen Line—in preparing for his journey, he spent weeks searching before he found someone who could show him this German defensive position—and how, coming down again, he slips and falls.
“I thought, that’s an important detail. Because it shows I’m just this bloke from a city in England, who’s walked up and down here, and I’ve had this experience and it’s completely different from the people that lived and died on this mountain. For me, it’s about the detail of these things. That’s my human side to things.”
“Still so strong after so many years”
Norway has been a kingdom for 1,100 years; a constitutional monarchy and democracy since 1814. Its blend of market economy and welfare state, with universal health care and a comprehensive social security system, has made it a country with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world and one of the lowest poverty rates. From 2010 to 2012, Norway was classified as the most democratic country in the world by the Democracy Index. In January 2014, courtesy of the world’s biggest sovereign wealth fund and high prices for oil and gas (which Norway exports, chiefly to the US) every person in Norway became a theoretical millionaire, the fund their security for life.
Yet none of this can wipe out the decades-long reach of war and free the survivors from its charred, relentless grip.
The story that stays with Vince most is that of Erika Schöne, a 23-year-old Luftwaffe clerical auxiliary who fell in love with the north of Norway. She wrote home, saying she wanted to be buried there if she died, and indeed she was after losing her life in the horrific crash of an overloaded German transport plane.
But for me, it’s the story of Mette, the five-year-old girl who cannot accept the murder of her fisherman father months after the burning of Hopseidet and keeps going to the beach to wait for his return; and of her raped and bereaved mother, who saves the life of another fisherman, shot through the knee and left to die, by rowing across the fjord the next day to get help for him.
As Vince leaves, Mette tells him: “Before you came I thought I would be OK talking about it. I thought I could talk about this without crying, but it’s still so strong after so many years.”
This raises the question that I’ve been wanting to ask: the difference, even difficulty, in approaching the stories as a journalist rather than as an academic. Vince has weighed this up himself.
“It’s the issue of intrusion, of sticking your foot in somebody’s door and forcing them to go back and re-live these events. Is it fair? Should you not just accept what’s already been written about it? Can’t you just translate it from the Norwegian?
“For me, my experience as a documentary journalist is that it’s about the person who’s the receptacle of that story. It’s about how that story shaped them as a human being, and it’s about how they tell that story, not just about the facts of the story. It’s about the details that they leave in, and where they draw that line.
“And then of course it’s about me, forcing them to go across that line.”
© Roz DeKett
‘Fire and Ice: the Nazis’ scorched earth campaign in Norway’ is published by The History Press and is available online or from good bookshops in the UK now, and in US bookstores from February 2015.