Freedom and occupation

Liberation day celebrations on Rådhuspladsen, Copenhagen. 4 May 2015. Photo: Mick.

Liberation day celebrations on Rådhuspladsen, Copenhagen. 4 May 2015. Photo: Mick.

Today is the 70th anniversary of the Danish liberation from German occupation. The Germans capitulated on 4 May 1945 and Danes put candles in their normally blackened windows. All of Denmark? No, while the Germans left some days later, the Soviet troops came to the island of Bornholm, lying strategically in the Baltic sea below the southern tip of Sweden. It took nearly another year before Bornholm was liberated, but that is a different story.

German occupation lasted just over five years. German troops breached the Danish-German border in the early hours of 9 April 1940. They did so under the guise of protecting Denmark (and Norway) from the English and French, who according to the Germans were trying to make Scandinavia a battlefield against Germany. Planes flying over Denmark dropped this note in thousands of copies. They could have done with Danish proficient writer – this reads worse than a Google translation!

The five-year occupation is part of the Danish cultural fabric and collective memory of history. It has been subject of much literature, visual art, film and other forms of story telling. But some stories have taken years to be told. On the anniversary of the occupation I saw the new Danish movie, 9. April, about a small part of a defence system against Germany. It sounds, and was, absurd that a small band of soldiers on bikes had orders to fight back against the invaders, who came with tanks and heavy artillery. The protagonist, a young second lieutenant, was a man of the system who knew his role was to follow the order, but balance it with the responsibility to his men. Thus he continued to fight long after the Danish Government had capitulated: he did not know because communication from the far-away centre of Danish power, Copenhagen, had broken down. He led his shrinking band of men into combat in the border town of Haderslev and capitulated only when one of his men is shot dead by the overwhelming enemy presence. As he and his remaining men are piled into a bus to take them away to their barracks, the German officer asks the second lieutenant why on earth he kept fighting when his government capitulated some hours ago. Hours that could have saved the lives of his men, but unfortunately the lines of communications where down.

German invasion in Haderslev, 9 April 1945. Photo: Unkown photographer, Statens Arkiver. https://www.flickr.com/photos/statensarkiver/16999419642/in/set-72157649360860234

German invasion in Haderslev, 9 April 1945. Photo: Unknown photographer, Statens Arkiver. https://www.flickr.com/photos/statensarkiver/16999419642/in/set-72157649360860234

This is a story that deserves to be told. Not only because of the futility of the exercise, but also because it has been hidden in the myth that Denmark did not resist the invasion. Men still alive today fought bravely and deserve recognition.

Even though I did not live through the war, it still affects me. My mother was born just before the occupation ended and my father was born a year into the occupation. Thus he was just a small boy in his memory of feeling scared, standing in the court yard at his family’s small farm watching large black birds flying over. Those birds were war planes and he was probably right to feel scared. He also remembered the Germans in their tanks occupying the railway station in Lundfod and a tank coming very close to the farm. Both remembered scarcity: rationing of food, fuel and other commodities continued for years after the end of occupation because rebuilding a country and a continent, necessarily took time.

The stories of World War II shape the cultural identity of every Dane, whether or not we are aware of it. We feel proud of the cyclist soldiers who fought for Denmark’s freedom like David against Goliath, even if the fight was futile and lost almost before they started. The absurdly uneven fight support our sense of being but a small international player with audacity to seek to punch above our weight. Stories of ordinary Danes responding to the German Jew Action by helping Danish Jews to flee in rickety boats to Sweden in 1943 swell our breasts with pride because they emphasise our empathy with those in need and suffering injustice. Stories of brave freedom fighters we also cherish, because we love our freedoms and democratic rights. At the time, the activities of the resistance movement was damned by the Danish Government as young hoodlums’ vandalism at the time. The cooperation policy of the Government until August 1943 we despise or rationalise: Was it not better that a Danish Government retain the maximum control over Danish internal politics? The policy meant that collaborating with the German occupiers was encouraged, though people who did were later condemned by the people, in a frenzy of vigilante punishments, once Denmark was set free. German guilt lives on in people with German allegiances in the border country and Danish children born to German soldiers.

In Australia this World War II was far more remote. Australians may know about the Brisbane line, the Japanese bombing of Darwin, the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea and the prisoners of war in Thailand and Singapore, if they are taught about the war at all. ANZAC soldiers continue to be celebrated – especially in the context of the devastating Gallipoli landing during World War I. Denmark remained neutral during the Great War, so in contrast it has much less impact on Danish identity than World War II – the polar opposite to the importance in Australia.

Celebrating 70 years since the occupation ended makes me grateful that global politics worked in Denmark’s favour in the 1940s. But in other places in the world, war continues to rage and destroy people’s lives, including wars in which Denmark and Australia participate as occupying forces. The 4. May initiative in Copenhagen was held under the banner: No more racism, nazism and hatred of strangers. No more 9. April. This should be a given for everyone, anywhere in the world.

When we learn to love each other – including those who marched with PEGIDA tonight – peace will come. And May the 4. be with you.

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3 thoughts on “Freedom and occupation

  1. Ian Hamlin

    Really good post, there are always many views of these events and looking back at history its hard to tell what were peoples motivations and fears. Especially in the face of the propaganda industry which is again working overtime at present in defence of the 1%. Theres a strong case for us to stand together in the face of this divide and rule meme.

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    1. lonebonekaffekone Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Ian – Good point about the ‘propaganda industry’ and its service of the 1%. The economic interests of the few can be protected by whipping up real or imagined conflict and unrest and political parties win on slogans where the policy behind really does not bear a full and frank public debate. I am reminded of an pre-Obama care interview with an unemployed couple, living in a trailer park in the middle of nowhere. They complained that the universal health care policy would cost their tax dollars. They both looked like they could do with some health and dental care, but were unable to afford it. The propaganda machine had those who had the most to gain from the policy speak up against it – the faith in the Chigago school economic growth narrative is entrenched. Curious, eh?

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