Home > Essays > Norway and the Prisoners of Peace
Published: Sun Jul 1 2012
Eva Lundsager, We are quiet (nowhere to hide) (detail), 2021, oil on canvas
Norway and the Prisoners of Peace

Imagine a country, I used to tell my students of Norwegian at Harvard, of beautiful fjords and impressive coastal scenery, of extensive petroleum reserves, natural gas, minerals, lumber, seafood and fresh water, with universal health care, subsidized higher education, a comprehensive social security system and very low unemployment rate. Imagine the world’s most well-functioning and stable country, where parents have forty-seven weeks of paid parental leave and prison cells look like budget hotel rooms. And—as a final flight of Lennonesque imagination—imagine all the people, or at least some, living life in peace in these cells—because they are pacifists.

That broke the spell, didn’t it? Norway’s great international reputation is well deserved, but a student of its language and culture should also learn about the embarrassments lurking behind this utopian image of Norway. There is, for instance, a curious lack of statistics for the number of convicted pacifists in Norway—the country that administers the Nobel Peace Prize, presumably because Alfred Nobel found it even more peaceful than Sweden—a curious lack of information, on Wikipedia and elsewhere, but I know, as John Lennon says in one of his protest songs, that I’m not the only one.


According to European Bureau for Conscientious Objection’s 2011 report, Norway is one of three European countries that “prosecute conscientious objectors repeatedly for their continued refusal to serve in the army” (the other countries are Greece and Turkey). “Each year, between one-hundred and two-hundred conscripts refuse to perform both military and substitute service,” and they are thereby penalized.

I am one of them—a conscientious objector, not only to the military service, but also to the substitute civilian service. In a report of 2002, researchers in Norway’s Ministry of Defense acknowledged that the civilian service, which is labor typically performed in healthcare institutions, retirement homes, kindergartens and schools, is little more than a “sanction of men who refuse to perform military service.” It “costs about 230 million Norwegian kroner per year,” and is “obviously unprofitable based on socio-economic considerations.”

Civilian service is thus a disguised penalty for pacifism; it exists in order to make it more difficult to refuse military service.

Two-thirds of all Norwegian men and—because women are exempted—five-sixths of the Norwegian population will never be enlisted in either military or civilian service. The conscription is “general” in name only. Yet pacifists are punished. During my own trial, these were the facts I wanted the jury to consider. “Accepting civilian service is the acceptance of an outdated and unfair system. If you are going to punish me for my pacifism, please be open and honest about the fact that it is a punishment: Sentence me to prison—or let me go, and create a favorable precedent for future objectors.”


My pacifism, as I insist on naming it, is not of religious nature, nor is it founded on a principle of non-violence at all cost, at all times. I like to think of it as a pragmatic, and not an absolute, pacifism—it is a pacifism that is subject to perpetual reconsideration. My pacifism is aligned with reason, and not adverse to it. I will not commit myself to the decisions of others, and become an instrument for a cause I cannot possibly know in advance. Once I understand the cause, however, and reason and conscience prompt me, I will defend my country—or, you bet, fight it—weapon in hand if no other solution seems possible. Until then, I will defend what must always be defended: the autonomy of man’s reflective judgment, and his conscience. I will not endorse the idea of war as a general solution to international conflicts, as I implicitly would as a soldier trained for war.

The judge glanced at the dock. “The defendant”—that was me—”has had his point of view heard in three court appearances, and the court urges him to find other forums to advocate for his point of view.” This was during sentencing in Courtroom 9 in Trondheim District Court, December 2003.  Two years earlier, when I was convicted for the first time, the court had displayed a similar reluctance to listen to my defense: “The court is of the opinion that the defendant should be advised to advocate for his point of view in proper forums.”

In other words: not in a court. Go somewhere else with your point of view and don’t bother us with this—we have more important issues to consider. I wanted to object in a lawyerly manner, “You are the one who summoned me here,” but the judge brought down the gavel.


And so I found myself lying on a bunk in the locked ward of the Trondheim prison for the second time, venting my frustration on a TV shelf (yes, in Norway, prison cells come with a TV) mounted on the wall above my head; that shelf must have been constructed for uppercuts. I hit that narrow piece of wood night after night for eight weeks, but the feeling of being the injured party didn’t go away—and now, four years after I married an American, left Norway and settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I still think that it—my beautiful, prosperous motherland—committed an offence, and not I.

Henry D. Thoreau made a similar reversal of official justice when he wrote: “I felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax” in reference to his initial 1846 encounter with the prison wall that separated him from the people of Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau had been jailed for tax evasion, “an episode made famous in his essay ‘Civil Disobedience,’” or so it says on the marker at the site of the Old Concord Jail. This 1849 piece, his most important political essay, had an immense influence on pacifists and activists all over the world, including a certain young man in the Trondheim prison in 2004. In a refusal to fund the American government’s war on Mexico, Thoreau hadn’t paid his poll tax for six years; the town of Concord had finally gotten around to jailing him. Despite his imprisonment—or precisely because of it—he felt free. “I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through, before they could get to be as free as I was. I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar.”


This self-confidence and loyalty to a personal judicial authority higher than any Supreme Court, this is the law of conscience. Without this higher law, civil disobedience could not exist; it requires freedom of thought and independence from the written law.

But to think is not enough, to speak one’s mind “in proper forums,” as the court asked me to do, is not enough. “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail.” Thoreau did not have time to wait for the votes to be counted. Furthermore, even a majority is fallible. “Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.” You have to take dictation from your conscience, and act. “Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?”


The question may be naïve and indeed nonsensical—insofar as the counter-question becomes: Whose conscience should decide if not the conscience of the majority?

But the ultimate nonsensicality of the question should not distract us from its importance. Democracy and self-reliance—two quintessential American philosophies—are not mutually exclusive, nor are sense and conscience. We have to believe in it all. There is, of course, an insoluble problem in this logic; there is no way of knowing whether an individual’s conscience is “right” or “wrong” before it has become action, and history has been made.

Thoreau’s impressive, unflinching, moral conviction—how would it look on a less clear-sighted man, one with a dubious policy? How are we to distinguish a “civil disobedient” from someone who just insists upon being a rebellious contrarian? Thoreau points out the essential characteristic of civil disobedience: “If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.” Hence, civil disobedients must be peace-oriented and unarmed—civilized, not militant.


But couldn’t Thoreau just be civilized like most people, slouch in his couch and not make a fuss? Peacefully assimilate society’s politics, its well-meant chatter and hopes for a better future? Woe, the discrepancy between words and action: “The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes the war.” We must not mistake the civilized for the well-mannered_._ Action is eloquence, as Shakespeare said, and a true civilization requires gentle, daring brutes that act upon their words, even if that means breaking the law: King, Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, only to name a few.

It is important to note that Thoreau does not criticize government, but attacks what makes its corruption and mismanagement possible: passivity and a common lack of principle and integrity in a given population: “Practically speaking, the opponents to a reform in Massachusetts are not a hundred thousand politicians at the South, but a hundred thousand merchants and farmers here, who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity, and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico, cost what it may.”

In order for others to reclaim their human dignity and freedom of spirit, we must be willing to give up some of our privileges and, if necessary, our physical freedom. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” The right place for a just man is in prison, in solidarity with the other unjustly imprisoned. That is why Thoreau, facing the inside of that high wall, could write: “felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax.”


For a small handful of coins, I was asked to work—rake leaves, peel potatoes—but I did not want to fund the daily operations of my own prison. I said no. This was regarded as a violation of prison rules. I was put in closed custody, confined to a cell twenty-three hours a day. Fortunately, I had pen and paper. I wrote a short story about an imprisoned pacifist who cuts his thin mattress open, and stuffs it with all his prison jottings in order to make the mattress catch fire more easily. I called it “Gutten som sa nei” (“The Boy Who Said No_“_), and it was to become the title story of my first short story collection.

I also read Thoreau, but very little of his noble self-containment and ease rubbed off on me. I told myself that the walls were “a complete waste of stone and mortar,” but it didn’t help. Instead, I lay on the bunk and practiced my uppercuts. To my own defense: Ascetic Thoreau had no idea what it means to miss a good cappuccino. But what he did know—and I deduct this from his fabulous show of stoicism—is that a red-cheeked aunt of his was on her way to the tax collector with a purse full of money. He would be let out after one night in jail. That was “the whole history of ‘My Prisons,’” as he ironically put it sometime later.


I had no such aunt, but what I did have was Thoreau himself, or at least his writing—an inspiration and a survival kit for the four months that I spent in prison. Today, living only half an hour away, I venture out to Concord every July 12—the day of Thoreau’s birth—to see Walden Pond, the old jail site at Monument Square, and his grave at Sleepy Hollow. This year, I was happy to bring news to the old man—the same news that I had shared with my students a few months earlier: The Norwegian government has terminated the civilian service, ending the sanctions of men who refuse to perform military service. Norwegian prisons will most likely see no more convicted pacifists. Now, if Norway only would end whaling, I tell my students, imagine what a country it could become.

F. J. Riopelle is the author of two works of fiction in Norwegian , Gutten som sa nei og andre noveller (The Boy Who Said No and Other Stories, 2007) and Lykkesmeden (The Happiness Smith, 2009). He is a literary critic for the Norwegian daily newspaper Klassekampen. A pacifist and conscientious objector, he has been sentenced to prison twice. He is presently working on a planned tetralogy of novels about life in America. He lives in Boston with his American wife and infant son and teaches Norwegian at Harvard University. (updated 5/2013)

Back to top