Article | Last updated: 14/05/2013
Peter Christian Hersleb Kjerschow Michelsen was shipowner and politician.
Councillor of State 22 October 1903-11 March 1905, member of the Norwegian Council of State Division in Stockholm. Chief of the Ministry of Finance September 1904.
Prime Minister 11 March 1905-28 October 1907, also Chief of the Ministry of Justice until 7 June. Also President of the Council of State 7 June-27 November 1905, also Chief of the Ministry of Finance 31 October-27 November 1905, also Chief of the Ministry of Auditing 27 November 1905, also Chief of the Ministry of Defence 25 May1907.
Born in Bergen 15 March 1857, son of stock exchange commissioner and Member of Storting Jacob Andreas Michelsen (1821-1902) and Caroline Sophie Erastine Kjerschow (1827-1902).
Married 4 November 1881 to Johanne Benedicte Wallendahl (1861-1910), daughter of merchant Rasmus Carolius Hansen Wallendahl (1823-1896) and Johanne Cathinka Boalth (1837-1917).
Deceased at Gamlehaugen in Fana (Bergen) 29 June 1925. Buried at Gamlehaugen.
Christian Michelsen was raised in a conservative merchant family in Bergen, as the eldest of five children. He received cultural, intellectual and political impulses. At a young age he stood out with his gift of speech, his interest in the theatre and his passion for debate.
Following university qualifying examination in Bergen in 1875, Michelsen enrolled as a law student at the University of Christiania (Oslo). He became editor of the Students’ Association newspaper in 1877, and was known for his dislike of political parties. Michelsen achieved his law degree in the spring of 1879, the year after he had become engaged to Benny Wallendahl.
For a short period Michelsen served as a clerk with the district stipendiary magistrate in Midthordland, before settling as an upper court lawyer in his home town Bergen. His aim, however, was to enter politics, but he first had to secure his economic independence. He engaged in shipping, stock speculation and broking. After marrying in 1881, he founded Chr. Michelsen & Co Shipping Company in 1882.
In 1884 Michelsen attempted to establish a centrist political association in Bergen, critical to the Conservatives as well as to the Liberals. He did not succeed, and later that year he joined the Liberal Party – although he considered himself conservative. In 1888 he was elected to Bergen’s city council and to the council’s executive board, and was also elected deputy Member of Storting.
In national politics Michelsen became visible when the issue of the union with Sweden surfaced on the agenda in 1891. He was member of the committee studying the issue of a separate Norwegian consular service in 1891, and in September that year he became permanent Member of Storting. In 1892 he contributed to toning down the conflict on union issues, by motioning that Johannes Steen’s Government should comply with King Oscar II’s wish and withdraw its resignation.
Michelsen was now re-elected as chairman of the Storting’s standing committee on constitutional affairs, while it was becoming increasingly evident that he belonged to a moderate minority in the Liberal Party. He proposed that union issues should now be negotiated with Sweden on an independent basis, but was voted down. In 1892-1893 Michelsen stayed in Bergen for two longer periods, for personal and business reasons. He was not re-elected to the Storting in 1894.
Until 1902 Michelsen concentrated on local politics in Bergen, where his development in a conservative direction became more evident. After a failed attempt to gain control of the local Liberal association in the summer of 1903, Michelsen and his supporters left the Liberal Party and founded Bergen Liberal Voters’ Association (the Coalition Party).
In 1903 Michelsen was re-elected to the Storting. In October he joined Francis Hagerup’s Second Government, first as one of the two ministers at the Norwegian Council of State Division in Stockholm, and from September 1904 as chief of the Ministry of Finance in Kristiania. On entering the Government Michelsen – and Jacob Schøning – made the reservation that they would be free to choose what to do should negotiations with Sweden on a separate Norwegian consular service break down.
When Sweden in November 1904 proposed parallel Swedish and Norwegian laws on the issue, the split within the Government became evident. In late February 1905 Michelsen and Schøning tendered their resignations, and the next day the rest of the Government did the same.
After the Storting’s special committee in early March 1905 had reached a compromise on how to handle the issue on a separate consular service, Michelsen was asked to form a new government. He withdrew his resignation and was on 11 March appointed head of a coalition government. The Government declaration said all disagreement now had to be put aside in order to settle the consular service issue.
When Michelsen Government’s proposal for a new law on the consular service had been passed by the Odelsting as well as the Lagting (the major and minor house of the Storting), it was presented to King Oscar II in a Norwegian council of state session in Stockholm on 27 May. The King refused to sanction, while the Government refused to countersign the King’s decision not to sanction. Rather, the Norwegian Prime Minister in Stockholm, Jørgen Løvland, handed in the Government’s resignation.
When the King refused to accept the resignation as he did not see any possibility to have a new government formed, Michelsen chose a daring strategy: the union between Sweden and Norway would have to be dissolved on a legitimate basis, while at the same time Sweden and other states should be reassured by an invitation to the King to let a Swedish prince become king of Norway.
Based on the King’s argument not to accept the Government’s resignation, Michelsen on 2 June had a three-step deduction ready, where the dissolving of the union appeared as a logical and political consequence – although with a constitutionally debatable foundation: 1) The Government had tendered its resignation and the King had declared himself unable to provide the country with a new government. 2) As it was the King’s duty to provide the country with a new government, the royal power had ceased to function. 3) As it was the King that held the union together, the union had now been broken – by the King and not by the Storting.
Michelsen’s plan was now that the Government should leave their posts in the hands of the Storting, and that the Storting should request the Government to continue and declare the union to be dissolved. At the moment only the Storting’s presidency had been informed, and not until a secret evening session on 6 June did the Storting give its approval of the plan – with the exception of a few representatives.
In the plenary session of the Storting on 7 June 1905 Michelsen’s plan was followed, and the Government was authorised to execute ”the authority resting with the King in accordance with the Constitution and the prevailing laws of the Realm of Norway – with the changes that have become necessary since the union with Sweden under one king has been dissolved as the King has ceased to function as the King of Norway”.
The motion was passed unanimously and without debate; the King had been dethroned and the union dissolved ”in the subordinate clause within the subordinate clause”. The Storting then passed the request to King Oscar II to let a prince of the House of Bernadotte become king of Norway. A proclamation to the people of Norway on the issue was also passed. On 8 June Norwegian generals had to give their vow of loyalty and on 9 June the union flag was replaced by the flag of Norway on state ships and buildings.
The one-sided Norwegian dissolving of the union now made it necessary to clarify Norway’s relations to Sweden and other states. Michelsen had well-known Norwegian citizens, among them polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, sent abroad to advocate Norway’s decision. He also initiated secret negotiations to find out whether Danish Prince Carl would be willing to accept the Norwegian throne. The hope was that the Prince would give a rapid reply, be elected and then conduct negotiations with Sweden. The Prince was initially positive, but the political situation made it necessary to postpone the matter.
On 19 June the Storting passed a new request to King Oscar II, for negotiations on a final settlement of the now dissolved union. In late July the Riksdag (the Swedish parliament) requested a referendum in Norway before negotiations could come about. However, Michelsen saw to it that the Storting decided on a referendum before the Swedish request had been published, to keep the illusion that this was Norway’s own initiative. On 13 August an overwhelming majority of Norwegian voters supported the dissolution of the union, and on 31 August negotiations started in Karlstad in Värmland.
Norwegian negotiators in Karlstad were Prime Ministers Michelsen and Jørgen Løvland, Storting President Carl Berner and former councillor of state Benjamin Vogt. Negotiations lasted until 23 September, and Michelsen played a central role with his practical political sense. Norway had to agree to demolish border fortresses, with the exception of Kongsvinger Fortress and the historic parts Fredriksten Fortress. The Karlstad Settlement was approved by the Storting and the Riksdag in October, and on 26 October King Oscar II waived the right to the throne of Norway for himself and for his descendants. The union had now been dissolved also from the Swedish side.
The Government and the Storting majority held the view that dissolving the union did not alter Norway’s status as a constitutional monarchy. However, the republican opposition wanted the issue of the system of government to be presented to the people in a referendum. Signals from Norway had also initially made Prince Carl request a referendum. Michelsen found it best to stage a second referendum, to approve the Storting’s choice of Prince Carl as king – not to choose between monarchy and republic. Michelsen requested the Storting’s vote of confidence on the issue, and gained sufficient support – against 29 republican votes.
The referendum saw a clear majority in support of the Government’s line, and on 18 November the Storting unanimously elected Prince Carl king of Norway. He took the name Haakon VII, arrived in Kristiania on 25 November and swore his oath to the Constitution in the Storting on 27 November, before leading his first session of the Council of State. Michelsen’s months as acting head of state were over. In On 22 June 1906 King Haakon VII and Queen Maud were crowned in Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim.
Michelsen’s Government had been formed to settle the consular service issue and uphold Norway’s sovereignty, and was intended to leave when the job was done. According to Michelsen that was also his understanding. Still, the Government remained in office – due to the young King’s lack of experience and the uncertain parliamentary situation. But Michelsen also had more profound reasons to remain in office: to carry on the coalition policy of 1903 and to isolate the Liberal Party’s radical wing.
The Liberal Party triumphed in the 1906 national elections, but the Government continued since a sufficient number of Liberal representatives supported the coalition line. However, during 1907 the Government’s basis in the Storting started to crumble, and on 28 October the Government was reconstructed with Minister of Foreign Affairs Jørgen Løvland as prime minister. Michelsen was hailed at Akershus Fortress by Kristiania’s largest peoples’ parade ever, and his return to Bergen became a triumphant voyage along the coast. A national collection raised a large amount of money which Michelsen placed in a new fund, Nationalgaven til Chr. Michelsen (”The National Gift to Chr. Michelsen”).
In the spring of 1908 Michelsen initiated the new Liberal Left Party, which in March 1909 was founded with Abraham Berge as chairman. Among Michelsen’s supporters were Fridtjof Nansen and Wollert Konow (Søndre Bergenhus). The party was liberalistic and in opposition to the Liberal Party. In the Storting elections of 1909 the Conservative Party and the Liberal Left Party won a narrow majority. Michelsen had been active in the campaign and was seen as candidate for prime minister. However, he referred to Konow, who formed a coalition government in early February 1910.
Following the Konow Government’s resignation in 1912, Michelsen faded out of national politics. Still, he was expected to be at the disposal when Gunnar Knudsen’s Government was requested to resign or accept to become a coalition. Nansen was particularly active in this. Following the Liberal Party’s strong setback in the 1918 elections, and Knudsen’s resignation, King Haakon turned to Michelsen. Michelsen went to Kristiania, but returned to Bergen that same evening without having received sufficient support to form a majority government.
From 1919 Michelsen’s political activity was more sporadic. At the founding of Fedrelandslaget (“Patriotic Association”) in 1924 he became a leading profile together with Nansen. The association was not a political party, but a middle-class movement with a democratic-conservative basis and in opposition to the growing socialist movement. Michelsen’s main speech at the opening rally in Bergen in late January 1925 came to be his last major public appearance.
Also in his busy years as a politician in Kristiania, Michelsen was in full control of the shipping company he had developed in Bergen. He represented a generational change in shipping, as he – with the help of telephone and telegraph – conducted the bulk of management operations from his office. In 1903 he moved the company’s office to the Gamlehaugen Estate in Fana, which he had purchased in 1898 and where he had settled in 1901.
Michelsen held a central position in shipping circles in Bergen, among other things as chairman of the board of Bergens Dampskibs-Assuranceforening (“Bergen Steamships Insurance Association”) for many years. In 1890 he was among the founders of Norway’s first shipowners’ association, and became the first chairman of Bergen Shipowners’ Association. In 1909 he was among the founders of the Norwegian Shipowner’s Association and became its first president.
Michelsen was central also in Bergen’s cultural life, among other things as chairman of the board of Bergen’s National Venue of Theatre from 1881 until his death, as member of the board of the Bergen Museum and as chairman of the board of Chr. Michelsens Institute. He purchased and built several country houses, and invested in fiord hotels like Solstrand and Godøysund.
As Michelsen’s children Einar and Benny did not have children, with the exception of Benny’s adopted daughter Evy, Michelsen in 1918 had the Inheritance Act altered to the effect that in the case of a major fortune the statutory portions to heirs might be reduced in favour of public welfare. This made it possible for him to leave most of his fortune to the Chr. Michelsen Fund. The fund’s yield would go to the establishment and conduct of Chr. Michelsens Institute for Science and Intellectual Freedom, supposed to promote i.a. “cultural and scientific work to foster tolerance between nations and races - religious, social, economic and political”.
Christian Michelsen died at Gamlehaugen in late June 1925, and was buried there. Present at his funeral were King Haakon, Storting President Ivar Lykke, Prime Minister Johan Ludvig Mowinckel and the three surviving members of his 7 June government: Edvard Hagerup Bull, Gunnar Knudsen and Kristofer Lemkuhl.
Norsk Biografisk Leksikon