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100 Years After Split, Nordic Neighbors Spar in Fun

November 27, 2005|Doug Mellgren | Associated Press Writer

OSLO, Norway — A young Norwegian's T-shirt is adorned with six flags and three words: "Find five mistakes."

One banner is Norwegian. The other five -- the "mistakes" of his barb -- are Sweden's national flag.

It has been a century since Norway split from Swedish rule, but both still fire lighthearted insults across their border.

"The touch of rivalry between the neighbors is as it should be in a close and good sibling relationship as exists between our two countries," Norway's largest newspaper, Verdens Gang, said in a recent editorial.

There was more than sibling annoyances back in 1905, when the two nations nearly came to war over Norway's desire for independence.

Norwegians had contentedly been in a union with Denmark for more than 400 years when the Danes ended up on the losing side of the Napoleonic Wars and had to cede Norway to Sweden in 1814. The Norwegians did not take it well; they defiantly elected a Danish prince as their king.

Sweden sent in troops for a brief war to claim its new territory. But the union remained a grudging one for Norwegians, and tensions grew over the decades. Norway finally declared independence on June 7, 1905.

Many Swedes howled for war as troops massed along both sides of the border, but Sweden's leaders knew that even though their army of 170,000 was far bigger than Norway's 76,000, an invasion was likely to lead to guerrilla warfare.

"Norwegian forces, both regular and guerrilla, would have kept fighting from bases in roadless areas. Norway would have become a quagmire for the Swedes," said Norwegian historian Oeystein Soerensen.

Sweden agreed to negotiate independence, on condition that a majority of Norwegians voted for it. The referendum produced a stunning rejection of Swedish rule -- 384,208 votes for independence and only 184 for union.

The divorce was arranged in October 1905.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently said the peaceful breakup "remains an example to aspire to in our world, a world still riven by conflict."

Today, the neighbors are among the world's richest countries, strong democracies with extensive welfare systems and stable societies. They are seen as great places to live, with a United Nations ranking putting Norway at No. 1 last year and Sweden at No. 2.

The two nations are key trading partners and cooperate in many areas. Their people marry each other. They work and vacation in each other's countries. Swedes own businesses in Norway, and the other way around. They read each other's writers, and see each other's movies.

"The brotherhood has deep roots for our two peoples," Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson said during a recent visit to Norway.

But although the countries share Europe's longest land border and have many similarities, they are very different.

Sweden, with a population of about 9 million, is known for its industrial prowess, with companies such as Ericsson, Volvo and Saab. The Swedes are members of the European Union, but as a neutral nation have stayed outside NATO.

Norway, with 4.6 million people, is a NATO member but has stayed out of the EU. And it has become the richer of the two on the strength of its natural resources, especially oil as the world's third-largest exporter, but also fish and metals.

According to an exhibition on the Norwegian-Swedish union at the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History, Norwegians see Swedes as efficient, elegant and arrogant. Swedes tend to see Norwegians in an image trapped in the past: farmers and fishermen in knitted sweaters and rubber boots. Sweden traditionally has been oriented eastward to the Baltic Sea and neighbors like Germany, while Norway looks west, to Britain and the United States.

During World War II, Norway was invaded by Nazi Germany, while neutral Sweden escaped occupation and allowed German troop trains to pass through its territory. Still, tens of thousands of Norwegians who fled their homes were sheltered by Swedes.

After centuries as neighbors, and 91 years as one nation, the two peoples might be expected to understand each other's versions of the Scandinavian language. Not always.

For example, Swedes use "tull" for "customs," as at a border crossing. For Norwegians it means "nonsense."

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