More war

Martin R, ever supplying me with MÖP material, a while back forwarded me a then new book from Gyldendal: Danskere i krig 1936–48 (Danes at war 1936–48), edited by Rasmus Mariager.

Finland and Norway have never doubted they did the right things during the Second World War, they fought against overwhelming force and acquitted themselves well under the circumstances. That Finland fought alongside with Nazi Germany is considered OK, since it was against bolsheviks. Sweden and Denmark have a more troubled relation to their history, was their collaboration with Nazi Germany necessary for survival or was it due to national spinelessness?

This book studies how Denmark was affected by the conflicts around the time of the Second World War through the examples of a few Danes who took part in these conflicts.

The first chapter is about Leo Kari, a volunteer on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Now, Morten Heiberg’s text actually does not say very much about Kari, but rather discusses the political situation in Europe around the time of the war. Much of it was new to me, apparently sources unavailable during the Franco period are only now being explored, even if few eyewitnesses are left anymore.
The Spanish Civil War was a time of intense political manœuvring and positioning, with allegiances shifting over time. For example, at the time Germany and Italy were not yet formal allies, but rather rivals, so that Germany saw it fit to sell arms to the Republican side, partially in order to bring in some cash, but also so that the more numerous Italian forces on the Nationalist side would be, eh, culled. The side-effect that German participants might end up being shot with German weapons was an acceptable price. Since the Western Powers did not allow arms trade with Spain, all weapons had to be smuggled into the country, preferrably with the help of Greek merchants and ships. My reflection is that the enormous economic upswing this caused in Greece may have been an additional reason for the now-allied Germany and Italy to invade Greece some years later. The Spanish government’s arms purchases completely spent the Spanish gold reserve, which had been the fourth largest in the world.

The next chapter tells the story of Hans Fenger. When Finland was attacked by the Soviet Union in 1939 this caused dismay all over Europe and with surprising speed various help actions were organised. In Denmark many wanted to volunteer to fight on the Finnish side, but the Danish government decided this would be a breach of Danish neutrality and forbade its citizens to take part. Many managed to travel to Finland anyway, among these Fenger, even though he was an officer on active duty and thus formally guilty of desertion. Fenger travelled through Sweden to northern Finland where the various volunteers were organised and got initial training. In particular he had to learn to ski. Eventually he managed to get to the front where he got killed in his unit’s first skirmish. His body was brought home to Denmark and given a hero’s funeral. When the other Danish volunteers returned to Denmark everybody agreed to at most slap their wrists for their desertions, as they had after all defended the Danish national honour. Interestingly enough the authors Ahtola Nielsen and Kirkebæk seem to imply that Finland probably would have been better off acquiescing to the original demands by the Soviet Union than going to war to defend its territory, even though one would think that the fresh experiences at the time would have suggested this was not a sustainable strategy.

Mere weeks after the end of the Winter War, Denmark was invaded by Germany. Resistance being considered futile, Denmark capitulated with nary a shot. The Danish government then for several years continued a policy of not rocking the boat and trying to getting along with the occupational forces. This was by many felt to be humiliating and a blot on the Danish escutcheon. Paradoxically, this led to many enrolling in the German armed forces, to show that Danes could fight. In line with the policy of not giving the Germans any excuses for being dissatisfied with Denmark, Danish citizens, including military on active duty, were freely allowed to join German forces. The about 6000 Danes that did, did so for many reasons, not least of which was that signing up promised food for the day. Many professional soldiers joined up to get a chance to practice their métier and then there was a large contingent who politically aligned with Nazism, among those the subject of the next chapter: Per Sørensen. He was a Danish officer who joined the Waffen-SS and made a spectacular career before getting killed defending Berlin a few weeks before the end of the war. The authors Bundgård Christensen, Bo Paulsen and Scharff Smith point out that since all SS units committed war crimes, there is no reason to assume Danish SS members did not also do so, even though little documentary material on the Danish units exists. After the war, all Danes who enrolled in the German forces were retroactively declared criminal and in many cases sent to prison for longer or shorter periods.

A number of Danes, mostly those who were abroad at the time of the German invasion, but also a few who managed to escape from Denmark, joined Allied forces. Werner Michael Iversen was a Danish ex-soldier and merchant who acutely felt the necessity for Danes to join the fight and eventually liberate Denmark and thus worked hard at forming a Danish recruitment office in London and build up a Danish unit within the British Army. This was not entirely uncontroversial among exiled Danes in Britain, many who felt they should not get involved, not least to protect family members still in Denmark. Others agreed they should join up and many of these passed through Iversen’s recruitment office. The most promising ones were silently passed on to SOE to become secret agents in occupied Europe. Eventually though, not least due to Iversen’s abrasive and self-important personality, he was taken out of the loop and the recruitment office closed somewhat later.

After the war ended in Europe, grateful Danish volunteers offered to enlist in the British Army, at first to join the war in the Pacific, but after Japan’s capitulation wherever else Her Majesty’s Government saw fit to use them. Britain hardly could refuse this gesture and out of about 11000 volunteers, 2500 were selected to serve in the British Army, most in various parts of Asia. Per Christensen was one of these. He ended up mostly serving on guard duty in the Far East, but other Danish units were used for policing in Palestine and India, both subject to civil unrest at the time. The Danish volunteers came home in 1948, when most had already forgotten about them in Denmark.

The final chapter by Ib Faurby puts all of this in context and how the foreign and defence policy of Denmark had been formed by its relations with Germany ever since the Napoleonic wars, Schleswig-Holstein being conquered and reconquered, but history eventually making Germany a Great Power and Denmark a small country that needed to keep good relations with its southern neighbour (Sweden by this time having dropped its traditional enmity with Denmark). Still, Danish volunteers have taken part in various wars and conflicts all through the 20th Century, shifting alliances causing the volunteers to sometimes fight alongside each other and later against each other.

So, what was my impression of the book? Well, it seems a slightly haphazard collection of various essays that did not necessarily form a coherent whole, and the use of select individuals (because they have left at least some amount of written material behind) as symbols of various subjects does not, in my opinion, work very well. Faurby’s wrapping-up chapter gives a much needed overview, unobscured by the minutiæ of the life stories of individuals. In the same way Heiberg’s overview of the context of the Spanish Civil war works well, and the few paragraphs about Leo Kari could have been easily excluded without losing any of the informative content.

The book ends in 1950, when Denmark joins NATO, as if Denmark just returned to its Sleeping Beauty status, but of course Danish volunteers have continued to serve in wars, now latest in Afghanistan.

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