July 18, 2019


July 18 is the birthday of Vidkun Quisling (1887), a true Norwegian rat.

n. a person cooperating with an occupying enemy force; a collaborator; a traitor
Oxford English Dictionary

Arab diamond traders used to grade gems as first water, second water, and third water—diamonds of the first water being perfect, flawless ones—with water signifying the transparency of the diamonds. Europeans used the Arab grading system for more than three centuries, and the expression “of the first water” has remained in English as a synonym for superlative perfection. Vidkun Quisling was a jackass of the first water, and his last name has been used as a synonym for traitor ever since the betrayal of his native country of Norway to the Nazis in World War II.

Quisling was born in the Telemark county of Norway in 1887. He quickly distinguished himself as an extraordinary student and wanker by sending in corrections to Norway’s national textbook for mathematics while still a young teenager. He became a major in the Norwegian army in his early twenties before moving into politics. In 1933, Quisling and a lawyer friend founded the National Unity Party (Nasjonal Samling)—an anti-democratic and anti-Semitic, but pro-fascist and pro-Nazi political group—with Quisling self-appointing himself the Fører—the Norwegian equivalent of Hitler’s Führer. He was only able to muster a small following for his party, and membership was around 2,000 on the eve of Germany’s invasion of Norway in 1940.

Unfortunately, while most Norwegians considered him to be a bit of a right-wing lunatic, the Nazis had colluded with Quisling in advance of their April 9 attack and planned to capture the king and prime minister and appoint Quisling as the new puppet prime minister. Quisling could not contain himself (or wait for the Nazis) and commandeered a radio station, proclaiming himself the prime minister and insisting that Norwegians cease all resistance to Hitler. Though this initial self-aggrandizement backfired after Quisling received no popular support from his own countrymen, the Nazis did eventually succeed in abolishing the monarchy and appointed Quisling the Minister President in 1942. Then he really went bonkers.

Quisling began driving around in a bulletproof limousine that was a gift from Hitler. He employed 150 bodyguards and insisted on having official tasters ensure that his food was not poisoned. He issued postage stamps bearing his likeness and insisted that portraits of him be hung all over his palace. Most tragically, he encouraged Norwegians to serve in the Nazi SS, he deported Jews, and he orchestrated the execution of Norwegian patriots.

Once the war ended, the oft-named “Hitler of Norway” was finally arrested on May 9, 1945. The country’s civilian courts had not executed anyone in nearly sixty years, but such was the public and political outrage at him that Norway applied its military penal code to allow for the death penalty in anticipation of his case. He was found guilty of treason, murder, and theft and then executed by firing squad on October 24, 1945.

Quisling’s name was used to signify traitorous behavior almost immediately after the 1940 Nazi invasion. Within six days (April 15), the British newspaper The Times had set the brand:

“Comment in the Press urges that there should be unremitting vigilance also against possible ‘Quislings’ inside the country.”

Using quisling to describe a traitor has been common in the press and popular media ever since. For humorous effect, everyone from a cartoon turkey (about Daffy Duck) to Peanuts’ Linus (about Snoopy) to David Letterman (about Saturday Night Live’s Norm MacDonald) have called others quislings.

What is curious is the incredible staying power of Quisling’s name. There were certainly other Nazi collaborators whose names were initially used to imply treason—Frenchmen Henri Philippe Petain and Pierre Laval, in particular, had short-lived runs at etymological infamy—much as Americans still use Benedict Arnold’s name today. But it is only Vidkun Quisling who had his name lowercased and dropped into common usage. Perhaps its persistence owes the most to the very satisfying quality it provides as it rolls off the tongue, as The Times pointed out in the same April 15, 1940 edition:

“To writers, the word Quisling is a gift from the gods. If they had been ordered to invent a new word for traitor... they could hardly have hit upon a more brilliant combination of letters. Actually it contrives to suggest something at once slippery and tortuous.”