Thursday, May 10, 2012

Farewell to a Hero

Viking, April 2011 interview with Gunnar Sønsteby

Gunnar Sønsteby died today at the age of 94. He was one of the most influential leaders in Norway’s WWII resistance movement and the most decorated citizen in the country's history.

Known as Kjakan (“The Chin”) and “Nr. 24,” Sønsteby was a master of disguise, coordinating and carrying out spectacular feats of sabotage against the occupying Nazi forces while evading arrest. Throughout the rest of his life, he shared his wartime experiences with audiences on both sides of the Atlantic so that younger generations might learn from the lessons of World War II.

I was honored to interview Sønsteby when he visited Minneapolis in April, 2010. His visit coincided with a screening of the film "Max Manus" (English title: "Man of War"), the 2008 blockbuster based on the events of the Norwegian resistance movement. Here's my conversation with Sønsteby as it appeared in Viking.

Viking: What were you doing when the Nazi occupation began?
Gunnar Sønsteby: When the war broke out I was a student and I had a job besides. I studied economics. I had a job in an insurance company, so I was working [part-time] and studying at the same time.

The students in Oslo were the first people who really wanted voluntary military training and they [trained] in ’39. That was the only [training] in Norway, I think. We had a feeling that something could come up and our feelings were right: The war came.

V: How did you get involved in the resistance movement?
GS: When the war came, I went to the office as usual. An army lieutenant [Philip Hansteen, who worked at the insurance company] said, “I think we have to start up a volunteer ski company. I know they’re fighting outside Oslo. … You can all meet me and we’ll go to the northern part of Nordmarka [the woods north of Oslo]. I know [of] a place where you can get uniforms and guns. It has been taken over from a [nearby] depot. Let’s meet there tomorrow.” So we left the office and we came together. One came by train, one went skiing over Nordmarka, and we all met that next day at that depot.

V: What were your first actions in the war? 
GS: The Germans had already started [arriving at] a place called Stryken. We had [formed] Philip Hansteens Ski Company, and stopped the Germans at Stryken so they couldn’t get north. We stopped them for two days and then Hansteen didn’t want to retreat. He stood there on the 16th of April and shot and shot. He was killed. It made a deep impression on me, of course.

We had to retreat up to Valdres. The [fighting] was over for a time. We discussed, what can we do? We knew we couldn’t fight [openly] any longer because there were now [so many] Germans in Norway.

V: How did you meet Max Manus?
GS: In July 1940, I was standing outside the place where I lived. I had a small apartment. There was a small café [nearby] and I met a fellow there. I [talked to] him and I [learned] that he had been in Finland fighting [in the Winter War] and when he heard that I had been in Nordmarka fighting, we started talking. The man’s name was Max Manus.

V: Describe your work with Manus.
GS: We knew now we couldn’t do anymore direct fighting. It [was] all a dictatorship. It was all German propaganda—that’s all we got. So we tried to support a small illegal newspaper [“Vi Vil Oss Et Land”]. We kept that going for a few months.

We used a typewriter but Manus wanted to print it. He thought it would be much better. So he went out from his apartment to look for [a printing press]. But when he came back, [there had been] a traitor. We don’t know how, but [the traitor] warned the Gestapo. When [Manus] was taken and brought in, he jumped out of the window [to escape]. Max had to flee to England and I kept on working in Norway. We met again in ‘44 back in “The Oslo Gang” [a sabotage group operating in Oslo from May 1944 to May 1945].

V: How did members of the resistance movement communicate with each other? 
GS: We had to be very careful. … We used old friends when we started out, then new friends, and then their friends. So we were pretty sure that we were only anti-Nazis. But you had to be very careful of informers. You had to be very careful with the Nazi party.

V: Was your family aware of your activities?
GS: Yes, when [the Gestapo] didn’t get me, they arrested my father as a reprisal. I [believed] that if I didn’t stop, they would shoot him, but he was put in prison. We had talked about it, my father and myself, and he said “You do your job, and I’ll do mine.”  His “job” was being in prison for years. They didn’t shoot him, but the chance was there, of course.

V: Looking back during the occupation, were there any decisions made by you or the resistance movement that you wish you could do differently? 
GS: No. I feel that what we did what was the right thing—fighting it all the time.

V: How do you think your role in the Norwegian Resistance movement affected your later life? 
GS: I changed when the war was over. I had my business career. Just a year after [the war ended], I started a [newspaper] business in Germany.

V: So you were able to separate the events of the war from the people? 
GS: Yes, immediately. The war was over and I knew what I had to do. Especially in business, it was very important to help Germany…to forget about the Nazis and start over.

V: You still go to your office each day and your calendar is full of speaking engagements. What motivates you to keep working so hard?
GS: I want people to know what happened and how difficult it is when … a democracy [is] failing, and you get a dictatorship. We were fighting for a democracy and it’s so important to know what happens if you don’t. …You have to be aware of it all the time.

Amy Boxrud is editor of Viking magazine. She lives with her family in Northfield, Minn., where she’s a member of Nordmarka 1-585.
Photo: Olav Hasselknippe/Aftenposten

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