This year, Denmark celebrates 75 years of liberation from the Second World War. The German Capitulation was declared on the evening of the 4th of May 1945. Candles are lit yearly to commemorate this, gracing the windowsills of every Danish home. Flags are then raised on the 5th of May to celebrate the end of German occupation.
This year’s 75th anniversary strangely coincides with the new-found freedom being felt by Danes from another affliction: the pandemic of the Coronavirus, Covid-19.
Every story has its sinners and saints, its devils and angels. Some are easy to detect- the Villainous Virus and the Heroic Health Workers.
This year the Danes celebrate a double victory of Liberation of oppression, as we can finally walk outdoors and enjoy the new-found freedom of life once more. The heroes we celebrate today, are once again those who put their lives in the line of fire for us, they simply wear a different uniform: the doctors and nurses. Yet we raise our flags, light our candles, and remember too, the heroes of yesterday.
At the end of the Second World War, for most, it was also easy to distinguish between the villains and heroes. Yet before the war, during, and even up until the end, there was, for many, a thick fog that continued to cloud rational judgement.
Some took a stand and fought against Germany, others stood back and preferred being neutral, while there were those who actually joined the German aggression, choosing to be a part of the force of Evil.
At the very beginning of the outbreak in Wuhan, there was no straightforward understanding of the virus, and it was seen as just another strain of influenza. Yet when doctors began to acknowledge that it was a type of Coronavirus, and a deadly one, then alarms should have sounded for the world to hear and then act upon.
The same with 1930’s Europe.
Hitler had already been in power for three years when Berlin hosted the 1936 Olympics, the world’s then most fanatical propaganda parade. Though the US and some of Europe called for a boycott, only Spain followed through. (Along with the odd contester, such as a French fencer because he was Jewish; other Jewish athletes chose to compete. Two women fencers from Turkey, the first Muslim female athletes to ever partake in the Olympics, protested by refusing to be introduced to Hitler because he was anti-Jewish.)
The Olympics this year was cancelled, and rightly so. Yet, for a while, there was mulling, and discussions, and doubt- until eventually, Canada bravely pulled out and slowly the rest came to their senses and followed suit.
The US only needed three votes to swing the boycott of the 1936 Olympics and then Europe would have followed. Instead, the US sent the largest team of athletes to that date, to the largest show of Nazi propaganda, which was not only permitted to take place, but because it was well attended, lent an air of acceptance and acknowledgement of Nazi Germany. This likely also accelerated Nazi tyranny, culminating in the Second World War.
When Denmark was first invaded by the Germans in April 1940, there were some that laid flowers at the German soldiers’ feet. And, although Denmark had kept itself neutral, the Danish government chose not to fight the German invasion, deeming it a hopeless fight with too many casualties and no possible victory.
The patriotic Danes thought this a shameful and cowardly decision that placed Denmark in the wrong camp. They then defied this decision and went to fight, either with allied countries, such as Great Britain, or joined the internal resistance. They were regarded by their own government as terrorists, and to the Germans as the outright enemy.
One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.
There were also the non-partisan, whom to some, were simply the cowards. And then there were those who not only collaborated with the Germans, but created Germanic SS detachments, such as The Free Corps and the Schalburg Corps. Some were more than mere Nazi sympathisers, they actually went to fight for Germany.
King Christian X, who reigned during the Danish occupation, although King of the Kingdom of Denmark, had no political power, yet he had popular power with the people. Every day he rode his horse Jubilee, unaccompanied through the streets of Copenhagen, offering encouragement to the Danes, as well as displaying, to both Danes and Germans alike, that he had not, and would not, abandon his claim to national sovereignty.
As with 75 years ago, Denmark once again undergoes the peculiar and unique way of celebrating these liberation days. The Queen of Denmark, Margrethe II, King Christian X’s granddaughter, walked alone with the Danish Prime Minister to lay a wreath at Mindelund, Remembrance Park, to the sound of a solitary bugle.
There was no parade or large gathering: it was all cancelled for safety reasons. The celebration, once again, revered indoors; homage and honour being paid in the quiet of the home.
The Queen was dressed in the Danish national colour of red: symbolising love, strength, but especially as the mark of courage and sacrifice.
The 4th and 5th of May 1945 were not celebrated with huge euphoric parties and dancing in the street. For some it was still a sad, confused time. People had lost loved ones – not knowing if they were dead, or alive in hiding or in camps. The glorious sense of freedom from the many curfews placed by the Germans, as well as their lost sense of pride had to be, once again, rekindled.
For our family, those days were more than troubling.
My husband’s father, Carl-Johan, spent the entire night of the 4th of May, stripped and tied up in the barn, interrogated before inevitable execution by German soldiers- guns pointed to his head and chest. Then near dawn, a German officer, having been told that the allied forces had accepted the German capitulation, walked in and gave order for his release. The officer then turned and quietly told Carl-Johan that he was permitted to go as a liberated man and that he hoped that they would one day meet in a free and civilized Europe.
A few hours later, Carl-Johan Bernstorff stood with his fellow resistance fighters in the town square of Bogense, on the island of Fynen.
On the island of Zealand, in Copenhagen, my husband’s mother (who had yet to meet her future husband) sat quietly with her parents. Only a few weeks before their youngest son, Frants, returned from the German concentration camps, owing to him being a ‘British Officer Out of Uniform’, being Danish not British though he had served under Britain as a SOE officer.
Yet as these frail and emaciated men neared Copenhagen by train, they received word that the Gestapo were waiting for them. Frants jumped from the carriage, was met by the resistance, and he promptly joined them to continue the fight.
The family also waited for word from their eldest son, whom unbeknown to them had died only two weeks earlier; Anders Lassen was killed in northern Italy, by a German soldier who raised the white flag and then fired a shot instead of the agreed surrender.
On the other side of Denmark, on his family farm outside Lemvig in northern Jutland, my father was organizing with his fellow resistance members the finding and collecting of local traitors, both male and female, who would then be taken for questioning and trials.
For some the fog never lifts. The belief never shifted: even at the end of the war, there were Danes who went to fight with the Germans to defend the fall of Berlin.
The disdain of liberal democracy fogs into nationalism.
We have to be more willing to act when we see or feel the good sliding away into chaos. It can be anything from failing education to government corruption, from global environmental issues to family bonds. We have to hear, see, acknowledge and act. Otherwise what is the point of freedom?
The decisions made by Danish government of April 1940, were as difficult and delicate as those the government 75 years on, April 2020, had to make when they imposed isolation rules and shut the country down because of Covid-19. The decision this year considers lives over economy.
The decision in 1940 was lives over dignity.
Each event has its people on either side, some still in the middle, though it should not be a difficult judgement to make.
Allowing German occupation to save the lives of its people is one thing; but to join the Free Corps and fight alongside the Germans as their force spread across Europe, is another. Germany was then the tyrannical offence force of oppression.
Closing the country down in a virus outbreak to save the lives of its people, although at great economic cost is one thing; but defying this order and thus helping and ensuring that this virus spreads further, is another.
Why are there guns and Nazi salutes, swastikas and the flags of tyrannical terror proudly held high in both instances?
This is thought provoking to the point of utter horror.
As the world slowly opens up after this pandemic, our freedom must not be taken for granted or abused. Else the virus will return. And we must be careful and watchful for the new virus that will certainly attack us once more. Much like the freedom many of us have, thanks to those who bravely fought for it, it must be cherished and nurtured and protected. Never taken for granted. The flag of freedom to be raised as many times as possible and passed from one generation to the next, lest they forget.
And when the slight echoes of marching boots come stamping down our quiet, peaceful streets, they must be silenced and stopped with utmost speed, for by then, it is already rather late. Those boots should not have entered through our gates of freedom.
I sit with my children, sharing stories and pictures with them, invoking pride and victorious justice -though harsh and somber, of our families before us, and hope that it seeps in and stays deep so that there never will be an inkling of doubt as to what is right and wrong, and which path to take.
That, in my mind, is one of the most important duties of a parent: to share the morals of life and therefore bring the child up with respect, care, responsibility, justice, honesty, dignity, trustworthiness and citizenship.
Without those morals, we human beings, are worth nothing.
An excerpt from a letter written in May 1945 by my husband’s grandmother, Sophie, to her dear friend Karen Blixen, explaining the strange feelings during their days of Liberation. There had been a contingent of German soldiers living in the wing of their castle/home as well as in the barn where Carl-Johan, her son, had been held captive and interrogated, the last evening of war.
I am so very sorry to hear that you have been ill and therefore unable to enjoy all this happiness that one still has difficulty in comprehending. There have probably not been many dry eyes in Denmark the evening it (the German capitulation) was announced, and one did not know which leg to stand on for joy. That one could again speak freely, is almost something one has forgotten how to do. I have so much to tell you, I do not know where to begin.
Carl-Johan was the military leader for the Freedom-fighters of Northern Fynen. I knew that he was a part of it, but not that he held such a high position. You can imagine how afraid we often were when we knew that he had ventured out at night; though anxiety is a part of war and I have always been happy to know that he was doing his duty for Denmark.
Erich (her husband whom was German born) has been rather splendid under all this, and he took the right path all the way through without a second thought, and has felt like I, throughout, and it has been wonderful to share.
But you know, Tanne, one is but human; when I saw the Germans’ final roll call here on the morning that they finally left, where their officer decorated three of them, and held a speech and they almost all cried, well then the feelings of triumph gave way to a strange sense of pity for these people who would now walk home to Germany, having lost everything, without knowing where their families were, their homes destroyed, many of whom were probably decent country people.”