Sunday, 1 May 2011

New books: The drama of April 1940

There seems to be no end to the flow of books on World War II and one such book which has become an instant bestseller is the journalist Alf R. Jacobsen’s Kongens nei – 10. april 1940, which was published by Vega Forlag in Oslo some weeks ago.
The book’s title, which translates as “The King’s No: 10 April 1940”, is rather misleading. More than half of the book takes place on 9 April and it is really an account of the campaign in south-eastern Norway up until 23 April and telling the story of much more than King Haakon’s historic no to the German demands that he should appoint the Nazi leader Vidkun Quisling Prime Minister.
The story of the German attack on Norway in April 1940 and the following campaign is well-known and has been told over and over again. There are some long and detailed accounts of the military action in this book, but Jacobsen’s way of (re-)telling the story is mostly well-written and riveting, although the way he jumps back and forth between various events taking place in different places does occasionally make his narrative rather fragmentary and at times one must concentrate in order not to lose the thread.
What is new in this book is primarily the author’s perspective on two key events. In the night between 9 and 10 April the air attaché at the German legation in Oslo, Eberhard Spiller, made an attempt at capturing the King, the Crown Prince and the government, but the attempt failed and Spiller himself was mortally wounded. When meeting King Haakon the next day, the German Minister, Curt von Bräuer, brushed the incident away by saying that it had been Spiller’s own initiative.
Jacobsen argues convincingly that although this version has entered history books, it was merely a convenient excuse used by Bräuer (and later repeated by General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst when he stood trial) and that Spiller’s attempt was in fact authorised by his superiors, indeed not only by Falkenhorst, but by Hitler himself, who had taken personal command of “Operation Weserübung”.
In recent years there some revisionist writers have wanted to downplay the role played by King Haakon in order to present a picture where Prime Minister Johan Nygaardsvold and his government were the decisive actors behind the refusal of the German demands on 10 April 1940. As Jacobsen sees it King Haakon and Crown Prince Olav tower above the cabinet and he is of the opinion that “the King’s decisiveness and strength of character on several occasions saved the government from capitulating and made it continue the fight against bad odds”.
Indeed Jacobsen argues that Johan Nygaardsvold’s words at 7.15 p.m. on 9 April that “One of the conditions [for negotiations] ought to be that we got Quisling out or perhaps rather in” can hardly be interpreted in other ways than that the Prime Minister was willing to include Quisling in the cabinet. However, there are other possible interpretations; one of them that “getting Quisling in” could possibly mean “into prison”.
Nevertheless, such defeatism as was expressed by Nygaardsvold was stalled by King Haakon’s decision that he would for his own part rather abdicate than agree to the German demands, which would mean that he would have had to violate his oath to uphold the Constitution. But when Jacobsen writes that King Haakon through 35 years had become an integral part of “Europe’s youngest parliamentary democracy”, one must ask oneself from where on earth he has got the idea that Norway in 1940 was “Europe’s youngest parliamentary democracy”.
As a historian one may also note that the endnotes are not altogether satisfactory. For some quotes a source can be found in the endnotes, for other quotes there are no sources given, and occasionally the endnotes will refer to a book which is not listed in the bibliography (am I allowed to complain that my name is given wrongly?). But all in all it is a book worth reading.

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