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The Norsemen are going to Geneva

by Pierre-Etienne Bourneuf on 2023-01-31T10:37:53+01:00 | 0 Comments


by Jonas Tilsted


The school’s building in Colovrex outside Geneva at the inauguration party, P119/43/2 


The new international and multilateral world that was created in Geneva in 1919 with the League of Nations and International Labour Organisation was one of new international standards of conduct and world languages, i.e., English and French. This posed a problem for people from far away and those that did not speak the world languages. How were they to understand what was going on in this faraway place? How were they to join the debate? These were the questions asked by the people behind the Nordic Folk High School in Geneva. They wanted to give Nordic people the key to entering the new world. Nordic People are people from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. 

The association of the Nordic Folk High School in Geneva provides a window into how different countries and people handled the new challenges and opportunities of multilateralism. This way it can provide a better understanding of what multilateralism meant for people at the periphery of the new world. 

During the League of Nations Assembly in 1930 the Dane Ludvig Krabbe (working for the Information Section of the League Secretariat), Swede Sture Thorson (member of the Information Section of the ILO), Norwegian D. Vaage (member of the Scientific Section of the ILO) and the Finn T. Voionmaa (member of the Economic Section of the League Secretariat) met. On 14 November 1930 they sent an invite to a meeting on Viskadalens Fölkehögskola in Sweden on 6 December 1930. This meeting was the constituting meeting of the association of the Nordic Folk High School in Geneva. 

The school’s purpose was to provide education on international questions in Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. The school was open to everybody. The local Geneva Committees in each Nordic country oversaw the selection of the students, who could also receive scholarships. An executive committee consisting of four members from each country and five members living in Geneva were created to manage the school’s administration. It planned the calendar, the courses, and selected the teachers and principal. 

The first course was held from 1st of April till 30th of June 1931. It had three parts. The first covered “Nordic subjects” and was designed to teach the students about Nordic political and cultural history. The second – and biggest – part focused on international matters. These were to teach students about different international questions focusing on multilateralism in a broad sense. The third part consisted of a series of special lectures on international issues given by guest lecturers. All three parts were followed up by independent work by students, and maybe even presentations. Most of the teachers were part of the executive committee or in another way connected to the association. Prominent names that taught the first course were: Helmer Rosting (High Commissioner of Danzig (1932-1934) and director of the Danish Red Cross (1939-1945)) and Gunnar Myrdal (economist and sociologist who in 1974 won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences and the first director of the United Nations Economic Committee of Europe.) 


Circular about the creation of the school, P119/44/2 


When applying for the school, the applicants highlighted their connection with the Social Democratic Party and social democratic organisations, they emphasised how they would promote the school after the course, and they highlighted how they could apply the knowledge gained after the course. Many mentioned what kind of education they had; to directly or indirectly show that they had the ability to study independently. Some of them specifically mentioned experience with study circles – a way of working in a group and exchanging information, particularly popular in the Nordic countries. Thirtyfour students were accepted to join the school’s first course. Most of them were from Sweden. Among the students and the teachers, the school states that all political beliefs were represented at the school. Looking at the list of students most of them were journalists or from the working class. Class is not necessarily a sign of political belief, but it seems unlikely that all political beliefs were equally represented. This is further enhanced by the fact that most students mentioned connections with the social democratic associations and the party itself. 

During the first course, Sture Thorson recommended new regulations for the selection of students for the next course. He highlighted which of the old criteria he believed were good. These can be seen in the applications for the first course; how the students can promote the school afterwards, how they can use the knowledge gained further on in life and their affiliation with social democratic and labour organisations. The new regulations he recommended included a wish that the students had participated in course(s) of a regular folk high school – a school for grownups with focus on personal development and making the students better citizens. At a regular folk high school, the students often work independently with specific topics. It was a wish that followed a general idea he had; he wanted to make sure that students were capable of independent work. It seems that this was an issue during the school’s first course. Furter, he suggested the local Geneva Committees planned preparatory activities for the students. This could take the form of study circles. This way, he believed, the local committees could assess who were capable of independent study and could select students based on these study circles.


Yearly report for the 1931, P119/43/2


The yearly report of 1931 followed Thorson’s recommendations. It was written after the school year and provided an overview of the course. One of the first things the leaders of the association of the Nordic Folk High School believed needed to change was the topics taught. They found the topics too broad in some areas and too narrow in others. Topics of Nordic cultural history was too broad. It was to be limited to modern Nordic history. This way it would be easier to connect Nordic history with the international political questions, that were at the centre of the school’s course plan. In line with this, they also wanted the course to focus more on international questions instead of on the organisations like the League and ILO. 

The report confirms Thorson’s statement that the independent study work was of utmost importance. They state that the facilities and environment for this independent work was not of the best quality. Partly to accommodate this issue and partly to accommodate other Nordic people traveling to Geneva to study international questions, they wanted to create a Scandinavian Study Centre in Geneva. It would be another place for Nordic people with interest in international questions to meet in Geneva. Whether the study centre was created is unclear from the documents, but it seems that it wasn’t created.


Message about the creation of a Scandinavian Study Centre in Geneva, P119/44/7 


This brief look into the Nordic Folk High School in Geneva provides a look into how multilateralism affected the smaller more distant countries where people did not have the language skills needed to study international questions and join the democratic discussion. The Nordic Folk High School still exists today having courses each year. It is now called “Geneveskolan” or the Geneva School. 


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