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The death of a giant June 3, 2009

Posted by Sverre in : Norwegian politics , trackback

On May 25th a giant in Norwegian politics, passed away. Haakon Lie might not be very well known to foreginers, but he was certainly one of the most influential people in Norway in the 20th century. He was a man of many controversies, but it is hard not to respect his role in building social democracy in Norway.

haakonlieHe was party secretary of the Labour party from 1945 to 1969, a period through which the Labour party was in government for most of the time. The joint leadership between Lie and the most prominent prime minister during the period, Einar Gerhardsen has become famous in Norwegian politics both for its effectiveness in building the country and for its latter days bitter rivalry.

Lie was one of the people who rebuilt the Labour party from a party of class struggle to a broader mass party building the welfare state on a compromise between capitalism and socialism. He was one of the ideologers that formed a new kind of socialism where anti-capitalism was replaced by a modern social democratic quest for liberty for all. In domestic policy he pushed for social reforms along with his comrade in arms Gerhardsen.

In foreign and security policy he was much more controversial. He was driven by a distaste for communism whose anti-democratic tendencies he felt was a corruption of socialism.  He feared its spread and favoured NATO membership and nuclear armament. He went as far as agitating for nuclear arms on Norwegian soil and was somewhat of a Norwegian McCarthy in actively organizing networks to report on “suspicious activities”, and demanded internal loyalty. These things created a growing divide between him and Gerhardsen who had a less realist approach to foreign policy and a more open approach to dissent.

In 1967 the conflict between Gerhardsen and Lie came to a boil as Gerhardsen confronted him at the party congress, proposing to depose him as party secretary. According to eye witnesses Lie responded by threatening to “crush you like a louse”. Lie’s reign survived the attack at the ’67 congress, but he stepped down in 1969.

This was however not the end of his political influence. Even unto his sickbed for the last half year of his life, at age 103, he was approached by politicians and journalists alike for advice and comment. He remained an outspoken critic of the Labour party leadership whenever he meant that they strayed from the right path of social democracy. His retirement was also spent writing books, of which he published a respectable number.

Haakon Lie remained a giant in Norwegian politics until his death, and although controversial in many ways he will remain in Norwegian history as one of the architects of the post-war welfare state.

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