Norway Annexes Svalbard Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After years of international indecision, Norway was allowed to annex the distant northern archipelago of Svalbard under the terms of a unique and far-reaching agreement.

Summary of Event

Under provisions of the Svalbard Treaty of 1920, Norway took possession of the Svalbard archipelago on August 14, 1925. The treaty had been signed at the Paris Peace Conference by representatives of nine nations—Denmark, France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United States—and represented an unusual but practical solution to a complex and long-standing international problem. While Norway assumed control of the archipelago, the economic right of citizens of other nations to operate within the islands was recognized and guaranteed. [kw]Norway Annexes Svalbard (Aug. 14, 1925) [kw]Annexes Svalbard, Norway (Aug. 14, 1925) [kw]Svalbard, Norway Annexes (Aug. 14, 1925) Svalbard, annexation Svalbard Act (1925) Norway;annexation of Svalbard Spitsbergen Commission Svalbard Treaty (1920) [g]Norway;Aug. 14, 1925: Norway Annexes Svalbard[06500] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Aug. 14, 1925: Norway Annexes Svalbard[06500] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Aug. 14, 1925: Norway Annexes Svalbard[06500] [c]Government and politics;Aug. 14, 1925: Norway Annexes Svalbard[06500] Wedel-Jarlsberg, Fredrik Hartvig Herman Lansing, Robert Stang, Fredrik Berg, Paal Bassøe, Johannes Gerckens

Mountainous and forbidding Svalbard, the northernmost territory in Europe, lies in the Arctic Ocean about halfway between Norway’s North Cape and the North Pole. Its area is 23,951 square miles (62,033 square kilometers), nearly two-thirds of which is occupied by the island of Spitsbergen, a name sometimes applied to the entire group. The archipelago had no permanent inhabitants until the early twentieth century and had been legally regarded as terra nullius (Latin for “no-man’s-land”). However, the pressure of commercial and scientific attention from a range of nations made this status increasingly difficult to maintain as the nineteenth century drew to a close.

Svalbard’s position far above the Arctic Circle means that the area has a harsh climate, but its commercial potential has been recognized for centuries. Whale and seal hunters from Denmark, England, Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway were active in the group as early as the seventeenth century, while the Pomor peoples of Russia established several short-lived settlements during the early eighteenth century. Early hunters had discovered coal, but it was only in 1899 that a Norwegian entrepreneur made the first commercial coal mining venture. Several other Norwegians followed suit, and within a few years companies representing American, English, Soviet, and Swedish interests also established claims. Scientific expeditions from several countries had also begun a series of visits in the late eighteenth century; in Svalbard they found a living laboratory in which to study extreme geological and meteorological conditions.

In the early years of the twentieth century, several conferences were held to settle Svalbard’s status, but none of them was successful. At the end of World War I, Norway again raised the issue by submitting the question to the Paris Peace Conference, Paris Peace Conference (1919) which had been established to negotiate treaties ending the war. On July 7, 1919, the conference created the Spitsbergen Commission, which consisted of representatives from France, Italy, Great Britain, Japan, and the United States. This commission considered three choices: declaring the islands an international territory with a multinational administration, giving Norway a mandate over the islands under the supervision of the newly created League of Nations, or simply conferring sovereignty on Norway.

In the past, Norway had advocated preservation of Svalbard’s terra nullius status, but it had recently come to regard that solution as unworkable. Now the country campaigned for Norwegian sovereignty, a position advanced by the influential Norwegian ambassador to France, Baron Fredrik Herman Wedel-Jarlsberg. In addition, the Norwegian coal company Store Norske had appointed a committee, headed by Fredrik Stang, to draft a treaty that reflected Norwegian commercial interests. Wedel-Jarlsberg presented this document to the commission on July 24, 1919.

The United States also favored Norwegian control, a solution prompted in part by the sale of American mines to a Norwegian banking syndicate in 1916 and publicly espoused by American secretary of state Robert Lansing the following year. The eventual decision of the Spitsbergen Commission, ratified on February 9, 1920, as the Svalbard Treaty, favored Norway’s annexation with several reservations, some of which had been anticipated by Stang’s committee.

The groundwork for Svalbard’s incorporation into Norway was laid in a piece of internal Norwegian legislation, the Svalbard Act of July 17, 1925, and Norway assumed actual sovereignty over the archipelago on August 14, 1925. Norwegian minister of justice Paal Berg traveled to the Svalbard settlement of Longyearbyen (whose name means “long year city”) to make the official declaration. His country thus became responsible for defending Svalbard, for maintaining its relations with the rest of the world, and for overseeing legislation and administration within the archipelago. A sysselmann, or governor, who also functioned as chief of police and judge when necessary, headed the archipelago’s minuscule government. Edvard Lassen acted briefly in this position until an official sysselmann, Johannes Gerckens Bassøe, was appointed on September 4, 1925.

Although Svalbard had become an integral part of Norway, several provisions of the Svalbard Act placed limitations on the country’s administration. The first of these required Norway to grant full economic and commercial rights to citizens of the signatory countries. Norway was also required to establish a code to regulate mining activities, and this code was subject to the approval of all the treaty’s signatories. Should any nation object, the matter was to be referred to a committee made up of representatives of the signatories. In order to facilitate the process, Norway worked closely and quickly with the other nations to develop this code, and it was adopted as part of Norwegian law on August 7, 1925.

Under terms of the treaty, Norway was forbidden to tax the export of minerals at more than 1 percent, which ensured that mining activities of other countries could continue unhindered. In general, Norway was not to levy taxes in excess of what was needed for direct administration of the archipelago. Another important provision of the treaty stipulated that although Norway bore responsibility for the archipelago’s defense, the area was to remain demilitarized: The construction of naval bases and fortifications was forbidden, as was the commencement of war on or from the archipelago. Initially, Norwegian annexation made little difference in the slow and difficult pace of life in Svalbard, because Norway was inclined to take a laissez-faire approach to almost all affairs in the islands. So little construction had taken place at the time of annexation that Bassøe had to spend his first uneventful winter as sysselmann living at a radio station in the tiny settlement of Green Harbour.


Norway’s annexation of Svalbard represented the first expansion of Norwegian territory in centuries, and the step led to a surge of national pride, strengthened, perhaps, by the fact that Norway had separated from a union with Sweden only in 1905. It also meant that for the first time, Norway had within its own borders a plentiful supply of coal, the lack of which had become a matter of serious national concern during World War I.

On the international scene, the grant of Norwegian sovereignty avoided the inherent complications of an international administration. At the same time, retention of aspects of Svalbard’s terra nullius status and the guarantee of its demilitarization relieved international pressures that might well have led to armed conflict. Although American mining interests had sold their operations to their Norwegian counterparts in 1916, the Soviet Union (which signed the Svalbard Treaty in 1935) had maintained active coal mines since the early years of the twentieth century. Svalbard’s strategic location between the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans would become increasingly significant as the Soviet Union developed an enormous concentration of naval power near the Kola Peninsula. Svalbard, annexation Svalbard Act (1925) Norway;annexation of Svalbard Spitsbergen Commission Svalbard Treaty (1920)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Derry, Thomas Kingston. A Short History of Norway: 1814-1972. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1957. First authoritative survey by an English author, supplemented with a chronology and an excellent bibliography of works in English.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Humlum, Ole. “Svalbard.” In Encyclopedia of the Arctic, edited by Mark Nuttall. New York: Routledge, 2005. Excellent summary covering all aspects of the archipelago’s geography, history, and development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peters, Jochen. “Svalbard Treaty.” In Encyclopedia of the Arctic, edited by Mark Nuttall. New York: Routledge, 2005. Summary of the treaty, its background, and its structure.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Singh, Elen C. The Spitsbergen (Svalbard) Question: United States Foreign Policy, 1907-1935. Oslo, Norway: Universitetsforlaget, 1980. Survey of American policies and attitudes toward Svalbard in light of the country’s changing commercial interests. Includes maps, a substantial bibliography, and the text of the 1920 treaty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ulfstein, Geir. The Svalbard Treaty: From Terra Nullius to Norwegian Sovereignty. Oslo, Norway: Scandinavian University Press, 1995. Extremely detailed consideration of Norwegian administration, nondiscriminatory requirements, military prohibitions, and mining regulations. Includes maps and the text of the treaty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Umbreit, Andreas. Spitsbergen: Svalbard—Franz Josef Land—Jan Mayen. 3d ed. Chalfont St. Peter, Buckinghamshire, England: Bradt Travel Guides, 2004. One of the few publications devoted to the archipelago and its island neighbors written for the general reader. Maps, color illustrations.

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Categories: History