H-Diplo Article Review 1178: Holtsmark on Jakubec, “Reading the Signs of the Times"

christopher ball Discussion

H-Diplo Article Review 1178

2 May 2023

Pavol Jakubec. “Reading the Signs of the Times: Norway, Slovakia and the Recognition Puzzle, 1939-1940.” Diplomacy & Statecraft 33:3 (September 2022): 474-492.  DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/09592296.2022.2113256

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Thomas Maddux | Production Editor: Christopher Ball

Review by Sven G. Holtsmark, Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies/Norwegian Defence University College

In December 1943, Trygve Lie, Norway’s foreign minister who became the first secretary-general of the United Nations in 1946, received a letter from his predecessor Halvdan Koht., As described by his close adviser, Arne Ording, in the letter Koht “partly raged against the Poles (skjelte ut polakkene), partly reproached the Czechs for wanting to repress the Slovaks, and [claimed] that Norway recognized Slovakia before 9 April and that he had [as foreign minister] made [his] reservations [known]” when the Norwegians recognized the Czechoslovak government-in-exile in the summer of 1940.[1] Since 1935 Koht had been in charge of foreign affairs in Johan Nygaardsvold’s Labour (Arbeiderpartiet –‘Workers’ Party’) government. Norway’s security policy was framed as non-alignment in peace and neutrality in war but based on an implicit understanding that Norway was safely placed in the Western camp—what political scientists and historians in the field have dubbed the belief in an ‘implicit guarantee’ (implisitt garanti) of British assistance if Norway came under attack.[2]

When Koht was succeeded in November 1940 by Lie (he only resigned formally in January 1941), his departure was the result of a growing split between Koht’s vision of Norway’s place in the war and that of Lie and other influential members of the cabinet. Pessimistic, or at least far from certain, about an ultimate Allied victory and convinced that the Soviet Union would play a major part in post-war Europe, Koht was hesitant to bind Norway’s future unequivocally to that of Great Britain. In 1940 the USSR claimed not to be part of the war between the ‘imperialist powers’ but was seemingly closer to Germany than to the Allies. According to the Soviet ambassador, Ivan Maisky, Koht spoke of Norway as “still remaining ‘neutral,’ though at war with Germany.”[3] Lie and his allies in the government condemned Koht’s thinking as a defeatist continuation of Norway’s failed neutrality policy and advocated the strongest possible political and military ties with the United Kingdom and its Commonwealth. In February 1941 Koht departed for the United States, where he spent the rest of the war.

Koht’s frustration over the real and imagined actions of Polish émigré circles in the United States reflected more than his personal ill feelings; negative attitudes to the Poles were widely shared within Norwegian government circles and regularly appeared in unofficial as well as official contexts. Behind this was the Norwegians’ tendency to identify General Władysław Sikorski’s new government with the increasingly authoritarian Sanacja regime of the interwar period, but also, and more importantly, the two countries’ different approaches to the Soviet Union. More precisely, it involved the Norwegians’ perceptions of the Polish government’s policy and attitudes as running counter to their own ideas of how the post-war world should be structured. While harbouring their own deep apprehensions about the long-term intentions of the Soviet Union, including possible Soviet territorial ambitions to acquire Norwegian territory, the Norwegians nevertheless construed their foreign policy almost unconditionally around the present and future relations between the leading Allied powers—the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union.

Within this political world view, the Poles and their insistence on reclaiming not only the country’s freedom but also the territories that the Soviet Union had annexed in 1939 were a source of constant irritation to the Norwegians, as they seemed to undermine the hopes for continued harmonious relations between the Soviet Union and the two major Western Allies. To this was added the Poles’ propagation of the idea of small and medium-sized states’ cooperation in Europe as a counterweight to great power dominance—an idea that the Norwegians angrily rejected as running against their vision of a post-war world prefaced on the acceptance of the superiority of the great powers as the point of departure when building the new world order.[4] For instance, in the negotiations leading to the signing of the UN Charter, Norway, contrary to most other small states, argued in favour of the veto power of the permanent members of the Security Council. As its leaders saw it, the veto was just mirroring the world as it was—there was no use pretending that crucial questions of war and peace could be resolved against the will and interest of any of the leading great powers.[5] Pavol Jakubec discusses some of these issues in his earlier work on Polish-Czechoslovak-Norwegian foreign policy and their triangular relationship during the war.[6]

Koht’s concern about the alleged bad intentions of Czech leaders towards the Slovaks may seem surprising. After all, this issue was hardly on the agenda in discussions among the Allied governments, whether of great powers or small states. Koht’s remark about Czech-Slovak relations reflects a peculiarity in Norwegian political and literary history—namely the Nobel Prize-winning (1903)[7] author Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910) and his vocal support for the Slovak people’s struggle for equal rights within the Habsburg monarchy.[8] Were it not for Bjørnson’s legacy, there is every reason to believe that Koht, Lie, and others in Norwegian government circles would have known even less about the Slovaks’ national aspirations than they did about Poland’s experience as an early victim of not only German but also Soviet expansionism, which clearly limited their understanding of the situation and empathy for the Poles.

The article under review discusses the background to the final part of Ording’s brief reference to Koht’s letter: Norway’s relations with the self-proclaimed Slovak state that emerged due to German insistence after Germany’s destruction of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Did Norway recognise Jozef Tisov’s government or not? If yes, this would represent a degree of diplomatic hurdle for the Norwegian government after the issue was brought to light with Koht’s letter in December 1943. Since autumn 1940, Nygaardsvold’s government had maintained official and cordial relations with the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, unaware of what Koht now claimed was an already existing and necessarily conflicting recognition of the separatist Slovak government—a state now within the enemy camp. Having received Koht’s letter, Lie promptly launched an investigation to find out what had happened in the period between the time at which separatist Slovakia emerged in March 1939 and 9 April 1940, when Germany launched its attack on Norway and Denmark.

Undoubtedly to the relief of Lie and his cabinet colleagues, the conclusion of the inquiry was that Koht, on the very eve of the German invasion of Norway, did indeed decide to follow Sweden’s lead and grant Slovakia’s government de facto recognition. However, there was no indication that the letter had been dispatched, let alone received and recognised by any representative of the Slovak government. What most likely happened is that Koht had not immediately signed the letter, and then the Germans attacked in the morning of 9 April 1940, causing the hurried evacuation from Oslo of the king and the government. The issue of recognition of Slovakia, even in normal times a minor one, was simply forgotten.

What had happened following the Norwegian government’s arrival in London in mid-June 1940, remained more of a mystery: Koht left no minutes of his talks with the Czechoslovaks, and he had the habit of running diplomatic affairs without consulting or informing beyond a bare minimum the prime minister or his cabinet colleagues. The inquiry that Lie ordered following Koht’s letter nevertheless made it clear that Koht had not expressed reservations regarding an independent Slovakia when he formalised relations with the Czechoslovaks. After he was succeeded by Lie in November, the issue of Norway’s relationship with separatist Slovakia was on nobody’s mind, as had been the case after 9 April of that year. Only the arrival of Koht’s letter in December 1943 raised the spectre of a possible diplomatic hurdle. As it soon turned out that Koht’s memory had failed him on both points—the intended recognition in April 1940 had never been effected and he had not expressed reservations regarding separatist Slovakia in London a few months later—it all blew over, apparently without leaving any traces in the cordial relationship between the Czechoslovak and Norwegian governments-in-exile.

To this reviewer’s knowledge, Jakubec is the first historian to have looked into this episode of Norwegian foreign policy in all its three stages—from March 1939 to 9 April 1940, in the late summer and autumn of 1940, and then when it was finally settled from December 1943 to early 1944.[9] This may be more than a coincidence: Jakubec uses his extraordinary language skills to combine Norwegian (and English, German, and French) sources with both published and archival documents of the wartime Slovak government in Bratislava and the Czechoslovak government-in-exile as well as research literature in all the relevant languages (it appears from Jakubec’s publications that he is a true polyglot). He is thus able to fill the lacunae in the Norwegian sources and draw conclusions that go beyond what was possible when Foreign Minister Lie launched his inquiry in December 1943. His conclusion—contrary to at least two major works, one Norwegian and one Czechoslovak—is that Norway did not recognise separatist Slovakia, neither de facto nor de jure.[10]

And this is what this article is about—reconstructing the thinking within the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs from March 1939 when the issue of recognising separatist Slovakia first came up. In the months that followed, Norwegian leaders deliberated on the issue, hesitant to make a decision that could in any way backfire diplomatically on the country’s relations with more important international partners—a typical aspect of Norway’s approach to diplomacy. In view of Norway’s limited commercial interests in Slovakia, there appeared to be no feeling of urgency within the ministry to settle the matter. Then, in August 1939, the foreign ministers of the four Nordic countries met in Stockholm, discussing inter alia the Slovak issue. Sweden, which had already granted the Slovak government de facto recognition, based the decision on Swedish commercial interests. Then, somewhat surprisingly, Koht allegedly hinted at the possibility of Norway recognising Slovakia not only de facto but even de jure. In Jakubec’s view this change of mind may at least partly have been a result of Koht’s memory of Bjørnson’s involvement in the Slovak national struggle: Koht, a prominent professor of history and a man of wide cultural interests and learning, had known Bjørnson personally and was himself a proponent of the rights of small nations.

But then Germany’s assault on Poland followed only a few hours after the end of the meeting in Stockholm. In the following months, Koht’s overriding task as foreign minister was to handle what turned out to be an impossible balancing act of steering neutral Norway between the Scylla of British insistence on concessions to accommodate the needs of the Royal Navy for access to Norwegian waters and the Charybdis of Germany’s demands for Norway’s strict compliance with the rules of neutrality[11]—all while taking precautions least Norway end up ‘on the wrong side’ (på den range sida)[12] of the war. At the end of the year, and despite signals of Denmark’s readiness to grant Slovakia even recognition de jure, Koht had returned to his previous cautious stance: “As long as there is a war going on and all is unsettled, it is best to leave the affair alone” (481).

It appears that it was the apparently minor issue of securing the continued smooth working of Norway’s consulate representation in Bratislava that finally changed the minds of Koht and his subordinates. In early April 1940 he decided to ask for an exequatur for a Norwegian consular representative in Slovakia, a form of de facto recognition. But then, for Norway, consular issues were never minor: for Norway, with its proportionally large foreign-trade sector but lack of ambition to play an international role apart from contributing to the development of international law in selected areas, consular affairs were at the core of its diplomacy. It was, as a matter of fact, a dispute over Norway’s right to its own independent consular service that led to the rupture in 1905 of the Swedish-Norwegian union and the birth of a fully independent Norway.[13] Jakubec also points to Norway’s involvement in various ‘peace initiatives’ (the last months have once more demonstrated the often ambiguous nature of such efforts) during the phoney war period that contributed to “an impression that Slovakia was going to survive,” thus giving credence to the relevance of establishing working relations with the government in Bratislava (485).

Up to this point Jakubec can tell the Norwegian side of the story largely based on Norwegian archival sources. When recreating what happened between Koht’s and Beneš’s representatives in late summer 1940 he relies largely on published and unpublished Slovak and Czechoslovak sources, thus adding hitherto unknown details to the otherwise well-researched history of Norwegian foreign policy during the war. It appears that Koht, when he wrote his letter to Lie in late 1943, was convinced that Norway’s de facto recognition of separatist Slovakia had been effectuated, and that he had expressed his reservations about this when appointing an envoy to the Czechoslovak government. It was, apparently, as the result of the repeated appeals of Ladislav Szathmáry, the designated envoy to the Norwegian government, that he eventually backed down and omitted his reservations when the Norwegian representative was appointed later the same year.

Jakubec has done a solid job of reconstructing the twists and turns of the Norwegian non-recognition of separatist Slovakia. He demonstrates knowledge of the (not so extensive) Norwegian literature, with one exception—I find no reference to Dagfinn Christian Selvaag’s monograph on the theory and practice of state recognition, briefly alluded to above.[14] Including this work would not have affected his conclusions, but it would have enriched the discussion: Both authors use the files of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but Selvaag missed the crucial point that Koht’s intention to recognise Slovakia was never effected.

It may be, though, that Jakubec somewhat overstates the significance of the entire affair. He claims that “a close aide to Lie mentioned a scandal in the making” after the arrival of Koht’s letter (475). The source reference gives no hint as to who this might have been. The brief entry in Ording’s diary (not mentioned by Jakubec), quoted above, gives no impression of any alarm whatsoever. And reasonably so, since it is hard to see that it would have made much of a difference if Koht had proved to be right—that Norway had recognised Tiso’s government in April 1940 and then expressed reservations when establishing relations with the Czechoslovak government later the same year: Norway could simply have revoked both the recognition and the reservations. There are also some examples of statements of simple facts becoming overloaded by superfluous theorising, as when one reads that “states [1938-1939] emerged or ceased to exist owing to the anarchical nature of international life” (475). It is possible that one can imagine a version of international life in which things like this do not happen, but the anarchical nature of the system was certainly not the cause of these events.

I am equally in doubt about this statement: “By granting or declining recognition, a state takes a stand. This makes the act overtly political—‘ideographic politics’” (476, see also 486). That decisions about state recognition are political is a truism—as is diplomacy in general, and it is not clear what is “ideographic” about this process. Equally true, but also obvious, is the fact that “divides across international society may persist for decades” (476)—I would only add that ‘divides’ as such are the norm between entities in the international system. The statement that “Norwegian neutrality lacked the legal basis of its permanent Swiss equivalent” (483) is questionable. If the meaning is that the legal basis for Norway’s neutrality (and that of other states that did not enjoy the exceptional state of permanent neutrality) was different than that of Switzerland’s, it is true. But there was, of course, a solid legal regime also for states that, like Norway, declared their neutrality once war broke out. One can quibble with Jakubec’s portrayal of the Norwegian foreign policymaking process. He writes, “[t]he decision was always Koht’s prerogative, yet he agreed with the Ministry officials who were in principle [my emphasis, SGH] responsible for formulating Norway’s position on the matter” (485). I would say that the one responsible in principle was Koht, but in Norway as elsewhere much of the footwork was left, in practice, to ministry officials.

Of minor importance is some ambiguity about the status of Norway’s consular representative in Slovakia, Matej Stanislav Murín, at various points between March 1939 and April 1940. He is described as both having been and not having been recognised by the Slovak government (various pages). Also, and since the devil is in the details, the reference in footnote 41 should be to Ørvik, Sikkerhetpolitikken II, not I.

Most likely without being overly disturbed by Koht’s letter, Lie and his advisors continued to work on their vision of a post-war security system, dubbed ‘the Atlantic Policy’—a system of post-war military cooperation between the ‘Atlantic powers’ that irritated the Soviets[15] and was met with only lukewarm interest in the United States and Britain.[16] Although it was soon overtaken by a policy of ‘bridge-building’ between the East and West based on hopes about the new United Nations and continued cooperation between the Soviet Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom, the ideas of Lie and his advisors foreshadowed the final demise of Norwegian non-alignment as soon as these hopes turned out to be not much more than wishful thinking. Through these twists and turns of its foreign policy line, Norway consistently looked to its relations with the great powers and the state of relations between the great powers as ultimately the decisive factors. Ironically, Norway, which was one of Europe’s smallest nations, was largely dismissive of small-state competition.


Sven G. Holtsmark is a professor of modern history at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies/Norwegian Defence University College. Among his latest publications is “Improvised Liberation, October 1944: The Petsamo-Kirkenes Operation and the Red Army in Norway,” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, parts 1-2, issues 2 and 3 (2021).


[1] Erik Opsahl, ed., Arne Ordings dagbøker. 19. juni 1942-23. juli 1945 (Oslo: Tano Aschehoug), 303. This is the first volume of a two-volume edition of the diaries of Arne Ording, a historian and close advisor to foreign minister Trygve Lie.

[2] The term ”implicit guarantee”, used in this context, was introduced by the historian John Sannes in Halle Jørn Hanssen and Eilert Struknes, eds., NATO og et nytt EUROPA. 11 innlegg om Atlantpaktens problemer i en verden i forandring (Oslo: Norsk Utenrikspolitisk Institutt: 1966), 20-21, and was further developed by Olav Riste in multiple works. See Olav Riste, Norway’s Foreign Relations. A History (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 2001), 71.

[3] Sven G. Holtsmark, Between “Russophobia and Bridge-Building.” The Norwegian government and the Soviet Union 1940-1945 (Oslo: Norwegian Institute for defence Studies), 44, DOI: https://fhs.brage.unit.no/fhs-xmlui/handle/11250/99453.

[4] As they rejected related ideas of Scandinavian or Nordic cooperation. See Sven G. Holtsmark, “Atlantic Orientation or Regional Groupings. Elements of Norwegian Foreign Policy Discussions during the Second World War,” Scandinavian Journal of History, 14:4 (2008) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/03468758908579182.

[5] Riste, Norwegian foreign policy (Oslo, Universitetsforlaget, 2001): 184-185.

[6] Pavol Jakubec, “Together and Alone in Allied London: Czechoslovak, Norwegian and Polish Governments-in-Exile, 1940-1945,” The International History Review 42:3 (2020), 465-484.  https://doi.org/10.1080/07075332.2019.1600156. As with the article under review, in this text Jakubec demonstrates his skill in using sources in multiple languages.

[7] Bjørnson’s contemporary and fellow Norwegian Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) never received the Nobel Prize in literature—a confirmation, if any is needed, that the Swedish Academy from time to time has somehow failed in the choice of the worthiest winner.

[8] In Slovakia Bjørnson’s name is still remembered, as witnessed by the street Bjornsonova ulitsa in Bratislava.

[9] The standard work on Norway’s foreign policy during the war is still Olav Riste’s two-volume “London-regjeringa.” Norge i krigsalliansen (Oslo: Samlaget, 1973, 1979). Riste did not mention the issue.

[10] See footnote 2 in the article under review for reference to the Czechoslovak work. Also, Dagfinn Christian Selvaag, Anerkjennelse av stater og regimer (Bergen: Fagbokforlaget, 2021).

[11] See Koht, Norway neutral and invaded (London and Melbourne: Hutchinson Co., 1941). For a British perspective, see Patrick Salmon, Scandinavia and the Great Powers 1890-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), chapter 9. See also Salmon’s “From Myth to History: The British 'Invasion' of Norway in 1940 as a Problem in Post-War Anglo-Norwegian Relations,” and other parts of Salmon, Deadlock and Diversion. Scandinavia in British Strategy During the Twilight War (Bremen: Verlag H. M. Hauschild, 2013): 211-227.

[12] This is Koht’s own expression, as in Halvdan Koht, Frå skanse til skanse. Minne frå krigsmånadene i Noreg 1940 (Oslo: Tiden, 1947), 22-23; also Koht, Norway neutral and invaded, 40-41.

[13] For a brief outline of the events leading to 1905, see Thomas K. Derry, A Short History of Norway (Westport: Connecticut: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1957), chapter X.

[14] See footnote 10.

[15] See Sven G. Holtsmark, “Improvised Liberation, October 1944: The Petsamo-Kirkenes Operation and the Red Army in Norway. Part I”, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies 34:2 (2021), 287-288, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/13518046.2021.1990554

[16] See Riste, Norway’s Foreign Relations, chapter 8.