A remembrance of WWII resistance fighter Reidar Dittmann

Reidar Dittmann
Reidar Dittmann, shown in a recent undated photo. Dittmann was an art history professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., and a member of the Nazi resistance movement in his native Norway during World War II. He died on Dec. 29 at the age of 88.
Photo courtesy of St. Olaf College

Reidar Dittmann, a retired professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield who was a prisoner at a German concentration camp during World War II, is being remembered by friends as a man committed to helping people marginalized by society. Dittmann died Dec. 29 at the age of 88.

Reider Dittmann was born and raised in Norway, one of the countries occupied by the Nazis during World War II.

Dittmann, who was a student and director of a youth choir at the time, became a member of the resistance. During a 1997 interview with Minnesota Public Radio, he recounted his wartime experiences -- beginning with his first arrest, for leading a couple thousand protesters in song.

Norway's puppet government had forbade public singing, and gatherings larger than a few dozen people.

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"I could see the Germans coming, you know, four abreast with their bayonets bared, marching up to split this group apart," Dittmann recalled at the time. "And I did the only sensible thing a person would do. I jumped off my ledge and ran away as fast as I could."

Dittmann hid overnight in the forest on the edge of his hometown. The next morning he went back to his family's home, opened the door -- and inside were two men he'd never seen before.

"One of them stepped forward and said, in German, 'Are you Mr. Dittmann? You are under arrest.' And so I became the first political prisoner in my 1,100-year-old hometown's history."

Dittmann teaching in Norway
In this undated photo, Reidar Dittmann is shown teaching students in a study abroad program in Norway. The group is in the National Gallery in Oslo, in a room featuring the works of famous artist Edvard Munch. Dittmann, was an art history professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. He died on Dec. 29 at the age of 88.
Photo courtesy of St. Olaf College

His first imprisonment lasted three months.

There'd be a second arrest, as well. But it was the third arrest in 1942, as Dittmann was preparing to take a public exam for college, that ended his resistance activities in Norway.

The Nazis decided to take advantage of the large student gathering in the exam room, suspecting that many of them were resistance members, and rounded all of them up at one time.

"Into the auditorium, from the back and from the side, streamed German soldiers with their bayonets bared, and an officer jumped up in front of me on the stage and he shouted out, 'Everybody's under arrest.'"

Dittmann said that he and more than 300 others were interrogated, put on a prisoner ship bound for Germany, transferred to rail box cars and shipped to Buchenwald.

"And above the gateway, emblazoned in brass letters was the motto of the camp, and it said, 'Right or wrong, my country.'"

Dittmann said the Nazis gave him and many other Scandinavian prisoners preferential treatment because of their Nordic or Aryan ethnicity.

They were allowed to live together in their own barracks, but they lived in constant fear of being killed.

Dittmann remembered hearing the numbers of prisoners to be executed on a given day read over the camp public address system, which summoned the victims to the main entrance.

"The public address system crackled and it said, 'All the Norwegians to the gate area.'"

But instead of being killed, the Norwegians were put on buses and then ferries to Sweden, where officials had brokered a deal for their release.

Dittmann also spoke of the motto above the gate at Buchenwald, "Right or wrong, my country." He explained that it was originally uttered by an American naval officer, Stephen Decatur, in the early 1800s.

"He lifted his glass to his fellow soldiers and he said, 'My country, may she always be right. But right or wrong, my country,' thereby issuing forth one of the most immoral statements ever made, one that we've struggled with in America ever after, where we put patriotism ahead of our own moral responsibility," said Dittmann.

After the war, Dittmann moved to the United States, married, raised a family and taught art history at St. Olaf College in Northfield.

Joseph Shaw, Dittmann's friend and a retired St. Olaf religion professor, said Dittmann seldom if ever turned down a chance to recount his wartime experiences.

"He came away with a profound sense of a mission almost to be a spokesperson on behalf of the Jewish people, but I think more broadly than that, just tolerance for marginalized people," said Shaw.

A service for Dittmann will be held Saturday afternoon in Northfield.