Unbelievable but yes, the paperclip was at one time used as a resistance symbol during the Second World War.
The Beginning of the Story
World War II had just begun – April 1940. Germany’s Third Reich leader, the infamous Adolf Hitler, realized that he needed to get past the blockade put up by the Allied Forces in Germany for him to have a greater possibility of winning the war. Looking around, he found out that if he could just get control over Norwegian waters, getting goods the Nazi army needed into Germany would be a lot easier. So, he aimed at capturing Norway. The country may declare itself neutral in the midst of the ongoing conflict but it did not stop the German dictator and his troops to take control of it.
The Germans were successful in their invasion against Norway and after a few months of struggle, they began occupying the country after driving Allied troops out. Norway’s royal family and its government went into exile in England and were forced to conduct their business there. Norwegians were then subjected to German rule.
As the real Norwegian government was not able to function anymore because of the Nazis’ occupation of the country, the latter attempted to strip from its citizens Norway’s culture and have it replaced with the organization’s own ideals. Norwegian teachers were ordered to join the Nazi Party and incorporate Nazi teachings into their lessons. The church was also ordered to teach parishioners “obedience to the leader and the state”.
Antisemitism laws were passed resulting in the massive deportation of 700 Norwegian Jews to Auschwitz, the Nazis’ deadliest concentration camp. mass executions were done on smaller scales and in hush compared to the brutal massive killings being done in other parts of Europe that were under Germany’s rule. As if these are not enough, a substantial number of the German army also resided in the country from the time of their occupation and Norwegians had to contend with them everyday, from sunrise to sunset for five years. Over 400,000 Germans soldiers were in the country by 1945, operating and controlling a population that numbered to about 4 million.
Paperclips on Lapels
Autumn, 1940 – students of Oslo University began to attach paperclips to their lapels. This was their way of showing resistance against the taking-over of the Nazi Germans in their country in a non-violent way as well as expressing their unity and national pride in face of the occupation.
Symbols that were blatantly or secretly connected to the Norwegian royal family had already been banned so they could not resort to that. They also wanted an adept way of showing their rejection of the ideologies fed on them by the Nazis. Aside from wearing a single paperclip on their lapels, they also fashioned various paperclip accessories like bracelets. The bracelets were the popular symbols which showed that Norwegians were symbolically bonded together in face of adversity.
Of all the objects to use as a resistance symbol, why did the Norwegians have to pick the very simple always looked-over thing, the paperclip?
Aside from the idea that paperclips are used to bind things (paper), it was also believed, albeit incorrectly, that its inventor was a Norwegian innovator by the name of Johan Vaaler. Vaaler was granted patents for his paperclip in Germany and in the United States in 1901 though he did not apply for one in his native country.
There is just one misstep in the Norwegians’ belief – Vaaler was not really the inventor of the paperclip and that the paperclip the resistance used at that time had the design of the Gem paperclip which had become widely popular and was already in existence in Europe even before the innovator made up his own paperclip design.
In Vaaler’s design, the outer wire of the paperclip had to be lifted slightly and the papers pushed into the loop so that they could get inserted. With the papers in place, the rest of the clip stood out at around a 90-degree angle from them as Vaaler’s design lack a second vital loop that allowed it to be embedded into the stack flatly. The innovator’s design also did not hold papers very well as his paperclips had the make that relied greatly on its flexibility.
However, the Gem paperclip was double-looped and used the torsion principle to aid it in successfully binding stacks of paper together.
Vaaler’s single-loop design never did get manufactured and sold; his patents ultimately expired. But that did not stop countless of encyclopedias from giving him the credit for the invention of the paperclip. In fact a paperclip monument was made in honor of him in 1989 though the sculpture showed clearly the Gem paperclip. There was also the celebratory stamp printed in honor of Vaaler but the said piece depicted the Gem paperclip design instead of the inventor’s.
But during that particular time in WWII, the idea that Vaaler was the inventor of the paperclip was very prevalent and couple with the facts that it bound things together, was very cheap to get, fell in place anywhere and readily available made it the perfect mark to use for the subtle, non-violent resistance the Norwegians were carrying.
And so, they adopted it.
Afterwards, though, the Germans had caught on the real reason behind why Norwegians were wearing paperclips on their lapels – that it was their way of voicing out their resistance against the Nazis’ rule – and wearing of paperclips quickly became a criminal violation.