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Niels Christian Ditleff
Born (1881-10-29)29 October 1881
Larvik, Norway
Died 18 June 1956(1956-06-18) (aged 74)
Oslo, Norway
Cause of death Automobile accident
Place of burial Vår Frelsers Gravlund, Æreslunden
Nationality Norwegian
Other names Niels Chr Ditleff
Alma mater Norwegian Naval Academy
Occupation Diplomat
Years active 1903–1950
Known for Diplomacy up to and including World War II, White Buses
Spouse(s) Hanne Hagerup Bull
Parents Andreas Ditlef Zachariassen and Anna Karolina Elise Nilsen

Niels Christian Ditleff (29 October 1881 – 18 June 1956) was a Norwegian diplomat noted for his humanitarian efforts on behalf of refugees from Nazi Germany. In spite of opposition from his own and allied governments, he initiated and led the White Buses campaign to rescue Scandinavian prisoners held in German concentration camps. He also played an instrumental role in evacuating foreign diplomats from Warsaw during the German invasion and to rescue Jews in coordination with Nansenhjelpen.[1]


Ditleff was born to a maritime family in the port city of Larvik. His father, a sea captain, died when Niels was only three years old. Niels mustered as a sailor in his youth and subsequently was admitted to the Norwegian Naval Academy. He graduated with a commission as a lieutenant but resigned his commission to pursue a career in diplomacy.[1]

He was first stationed in the Norwegian consulate general in Le Havre from 1903 to 1906 and was thereafter sent as vice consul and chargé d'affaires to missions in Havana, Bilbao, and Lisbon before an interval at the ministry offices in Oslo from 1920 to 1926.[1]

He was stationed in Warsaw in 1926, where he rose through the ranks and became ambassador, both to Poland and Czechoslovakia in 1930. He was also accredited to Romania from 1935 to 1937. Although he had to evacuate Warsaw during the German invasion in 1939, he maintained his official role as emissary until the end of the war.[1]

He was stationed as Norway's ambassador to Finland from 1945 to 1950, after which he chose to retire. Ditleff never sought recognition or fame for his contributions.[1]

In addition to his diplomatic career, Ditleff was also an accomplished composer, artist, and playwright. In 1921, he wrote the three-act play Tahove, and another play Statsministeren, which were both shown at Nationaltheatret. He wrote the libretto for the operetta Don Carrambo, set up at Den Nationale Scene in Bergen. In the course of his work, he also developed fluency in Portuguese, Spanish, and Polish, in addition to his working languages of Norwegian, German, and English. He also published newspaper articles and stories, often with his own illustrations.[1]

At a time when this was unusual, he was also an avid recreational runner, known in the city of Warsaw for his daily runs back and forth along the Vistula River, criss-crossing the bridges. His friend Johan Borgen dubbed him "the running diplomat."[1]

He and his wife died in an automobile accident.[1]

World War II[]

Ditleff's humanitarian contributions during World War II are related to two specific episodes. The evacuation of foreign diplomats and Jews from Warsaw, and the White Buses campaign to rescue Scandinavians held in German concentration camps.

Evacuation from Warsaw[]

In the spring of 1939, Ditleff set up a transit station in Warsaw for Jewish refugees from Czechoslovakia that had been sent there through the sponsorship of Nansenhjelpen. Ditleff arranged for the refugees to receive food, clothing, and transportation to Gdynia, where they boarded ships bound for Norway.[2]

As German forces approached Warsaw in September 1939, both the Polish government and general staff escaped the city; however, most of the foreign diplomatic corps and other foreign nationals remained. Ditleff, acting as the doyen of the corps, tried early to contact German military authorities to arrange an orderly evacuation with a handheld radio. German airplanes tracked the transmission and strafed the car, but eventually he was able to negotiate a 4-hour cease-fire to arrange the evacuation of 1,200 individuals. They left in a convoy consisting of two trucks and sedans. Ditleff himself drove one car for 48 hours until he fell asleep behind the wheel.[3]

White Buses[]

Ditleff had returned to Norway by the time Nazi Germany invaded and occupied Norway but was able to escape to Sweden, where he joined the Norwegian legation there.

Ditleff actively opposed the "stay put doctrine"[4] of the Norwegian and Danish governments, advocating instead an active approach to retrieving Norwegian and Danish citizens held in German concentration camps. In November 1944, he proposed a plan to rescue these prisoners and finally prevailed in securing sponsorship for the White Buses operation that rescued tens of thousands of prisoners in the last months of the war. To negotiate the rescue with the German authorities, he enlisted Folke Bernadotte to act under the good offices of the International Red Cross. Bernadotte subsequently initiated contact with Heinrich Himmler to put into effect the plan, which ultimately led to the evacuation of tens of thousands of refugees.[5][6][7][8]


Ditleff received a large number of Norwegian and foreign orders and decorations, including:

King Christian X's Freedom Award and the Swedish Red Cross' Merit. and Norwegian Red Cross badges of honor.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 Hjeltnes, Guri (2000). "Niels Chr Ditleff". In Helle, Knut (in Norwegian). Norsk biografisk leksikon. 2. Oslo: Kunnskapsforlaget. Retrieved 12 April 2009. 
  2. Cohen, Maynard M. (1997). A Stand Against Tyranny: Norway's Physicians and the Nazis. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. ISBN 081432603X. 63-82. 
  3. Reimers, Herman (1957). "Minister Niels Christian Ditleff under Warszawas beleiring" (in Norwegian). 
  4. At issue was whether it was safer to let Scandinavian (primarily Norwegian and Danish) prisoners stay in German concentration camps until hostilities ended; or to see to evacuate them through dangerous areas. It is unclear whether Norwegian and Danish authorities underestimated the severity of captivity of these camps; or gave the matter lower priority. Historians generally agree that the White Buses operation saved thousands of prisoners from death by murder or deprivation in the final months of the war, though some controversy exists about the overall effect.
  5. Ditleff, Caroline. "Tidsvitner: Caroline Ditleff" (in Norwegian). Oslo: Stiftelsen Hvite Busser. Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 12 April 2009. 
  6. Crowe, David (2008). The Holocaust: roots, history, and aftermath.. Westview Press.. p. 359. ISBN 0-8133-4325-9. 
  7. Ditleff, Niels Christian (1955) (in Norwegian). Da Tysklands-fangene ble reddet.. Oslo: Tanum. 
  8. Manvell, Roger; Fraenkel, Heinrich (2007). Heinrich Himmler: The Sinister Life of the Head of the SS and Gestapo. Skyhorse Publishing.. pp. 231. ISBN 1-60239-178-5. 
  9. Portuguese President's website

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