2015 Planned News/Events, Large Newsroom finalist

The Norwegian Victims of WW2


About the Project

Norway was under Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1945. Although Wehrmacht’s behavior was less brutal in Norway than in many other European countries, we still had our share of victims:

  • The Norwegian merchant fleet was at the time the world’s fourth largest, and by far the most modern. It played a key role in supplying Europe with military equipment from the United States. But it came to a cost: 12 percent of the Norwegian war sailors lost their lives, primarily to German submarine attacks: one example.
  • More than half of Norway’s Jewish population managed to escape to neutral Sweden. The rest was deported to Auschwitz extermination camp, where almost all perished.
  • Many Norwegian civilians were also random victims of allied campaigns, such as the bombing of the German submarine harbor in Bergen, which also hit an elementary school nearby.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the invasion and the 70th anniversary of the liberation. During the winter, an ambitious idea emerged: Would it be possible to map every Norwegian who perished as a victim of the Second World War?

It quickly became clear that our main source would be ”Våre falne” a four-volume book series released by the Norwegian government in 1949, with information about 11,724 Norwegian victims of the war. The books included short biographies and pictures of (almost) each person. The data was not digitalized in any way.

Luckily for us, the Genealogy Society of Norway (DIS Norge) had digitalized parts of the volumes, and we quickly got an agreement on sharing the data. The database contained names and key information, but not the biographies or images.

We then inquired for a digital copy at the National Library of Norway. At first we were told that the biographies were copyrighted to the authors of the volumes. We claimed that the books as a whole should be in the public domain according to the Norwegian freedom of information act (offentleglova), as they were planned and published by the Norwegian Government and financed by the Norwegian municipalities. The Library’s legal department spent one hour to consider our claim, and then basically answered “Yes, you’re right, we just haven’t thought of it that way before.”

They gave us all the pages as JPGs and, as a bonus, their XML-version of each page. Each page had been run through the National Library’s text-recognition software. Suddenly we had a digital version of the biographies and a JPG of each page.

A core-developer at VG got hold of the JPGs, and within 24 hours he managed to create a Python-script which detected the images on each page, and with open source text-recognition (Tesseract from Google) managed to link 70 % of the images directly to a person.

But this was not enough. We also wanted to geolocate as many individuals as possible.

From the Norwegian Warsailors association we were given permission to use pictures and the stories of each ship that was sunk during the war. We combined these data with information from the excellent site Warsailors in order to complete our map. German submarine captains neatly logged the position of the ships they sunk. This information wasn’t available to the authors of “Våre falne” in 1949, but it is now. Most of this was added through geolocation in Mapbox and scripts to extract the positioning from plain text. Almost all the red dots in the Atlantic Ocean on our map are actual locations, not just approximations.

One huge problem still remained, which programming could not solve. Our biographies were machine-read text, and appeared sloppy. Some of the issues we could solve with scripting (like changing every instance of iBBi to 1881), but it was clear for us we have to proof-read all of the 11,724 biographies.

At the same time, we took into account that some people would be missing from the lists, so we had to add a feature for that. Last but not least, 30 % of our profile-pictures were not connected to a person. Partly because of people having the same name (e.g. seven men called Ole Olsen), partly because of our machine-reading was not fool-proof, and partly because of typos in our default data.

To make the job as easy as possible, we created an extensive toolbox for proof-reading, editing and creation of new profiles.

When we published the feature in the morning of 9th April 2015, it immediately got a lot of attention. It’s one of the most read features in VG’s history, with 1.3 million unique visitors (out of a population of 5 million people). 2.7 million profiles have been shown, and brought a lot of unknown Norwegian war history into the light:

  • Some Jewish families came to Norway in the 1930s as refugees from pogroms in Russia. They were never registered in official Norwegian records, and hence not mentioned in “Våre falne”. Newer research has given us more information about these families, and they are now included in our database.
  • At least 62 Norwegian Romani (so-called “gypsy”) individuals were deprived their Norwegian citizenship in 1924, later detained in Belgium and finally killed in Auschwitz. This is a little known eyesore in Norwegian history. They are now, for the first time, included in a list of Norwegian war victims. “It is about time to shed light on these events. This means a lot to Norwegian Romani people”, Natalina Jansen, one of the descendants, said to VG.
  • A few Norwegians joined the US Army as US citizens. They are now included in our feature as Norwegians.

The feedback has been almost entirely positive. Our readers have embraced the feature and helped us complete the database. We have made more than 2000 additions and changes based on reader feedback.

The database now consists of 11,893 Norwegians who perished as a direct cause of the Second World War. The complete dataset will be given back to the Genealogy Society of Norway and open sourced.