Vidkun Quisling was born in 1887 to a well-off upper-middle class family. His father was a Norwegian pastor and genealogist. As a young man Quisling attended military academy, graduating with the highest score ever achieved until then. In November 1911 he joined the army with the rank of major and was given Russia as his special field of study.
During the carnage of World War 1, Norway maintained its official policy of neutrality. Despite this, German submarines deliberately sank several hundred Norwegian merchant ships in the North Sea, and from 1917 Norway complied with Britain’s demand to stop trade with Germany. Thereafter, Norway’s political sympathies lay with Britain.
In March 1918, Quisling found work as a military attaché at the Norwegian legation in Petrograd, Russia. Though horrified by Russia’s poverty and harsh living conditions, he watched with reluctant admiration as the Bolsheviks asserted their control of the country with brutal efficiency and enthusiasm. From December 1918 to September 1919 he had a brief spell as intelligence officer for the Norwegian legation in Helsinki.
The Russian revolution of 1917 had a momentous effect on post-war Europe. Norway shared a small border with the Soviet Union, and there was brief unrest during the general strike of 1921. From 1919 to 1921, the Norwegian Labour Party adhered to the Comintern line, a fact not lost on Norway’s conservatives and businessmen. In the austere decade of the 1920s, the newly formed Farmers’ Party particularly resented the growth of trade unionism.
Meanwhile, Quisling found work with Norwegian explorer and humanitarian Fridthof Nansen, under the auspices of the League of Nations. In April 1920, at the League's request, Nansen began organising the repatriation of around half a million prisoners of war, stranded in various parts of the world. Of these, 300,000 were in Russia which, gripped by revolution and civil war, had little interest in their fate. Nansen was able to report to the Assembly in November 1920 that around 200,000 men had been returned to their homes. In the autumn of 1921, Quisling left Norway at Nansen’s request, and in January 1922 he arrived in the Ukrainian capital Kharkov to aid the League of Nations humanitarian relief effort there. Highlighting the massive mismanagement of the area and the death toll of approximately ten thousand a day, Quisling produced a report that attracted aid and demonstrated his administrative skills, as well as his dogged determination to get what he wanted. In Nansen’s final report in 1922, he stated that 427,886 prisoners had been repatriated to around 30 different countries.
In summer 1923, Quisling took a temporary discharge from the army to spend a year in Paris. However, he learned that army cutbacks meant that there would be no position available for him when he returned. Quisling felt a certain grievance at having his chosen career cut short. Quisling devoted much of his time in the French capital to study, reading works of political theory and working on his philosophical project, which he called Universism. On 2 October 1923 he published an article calling for diplomatic recognition of the Soviet government. Quisling's stay in Paris did not last long - in late 1923 he started work on Nansen's new repatriation project in the Balkans, arriving in Sofia in November. In the summer of 1924 he returned to Norway where, to his later embarrassment, he found himself drawn into the communist Norwegian labour movement. Quisling’s biographer Frederik Dahl states that Quisling's political views at this time could be summarised as "a fusion of socialism and nationalism", with definite sympathies for the Soviet regime in Russia. It is of course common enough for political extremists to switch from left to right, or vice versa, but Quisling’s flirtation with communism apparently did not last long.