Thoughts On The Fragility Of Civilization

Thursday, March 25, 2021
Image credit: 
Poster NO 43, Poster collection, Hoover Institution Library & Archives.

Image credit: 
Poster NO 43, Poster collection, Hoover Institution Library & Archives.

A 2017 Norwegian-Irish film (The King’s Choice) examines the hard choice that the nation’s monarch, Haakon VII, confronted in the dark days that followed the German invasion of his country on April 9, 1940. As with Winston Churchill the following month, Haakon confronted the harsh reality that his politicians had simply stuck their heads in the sand as the storm clouds gathered and as Nazi Germany appeared as an increasingly terrifying danger. Even more so than the British, the Norwegian politicians had simply refused to make serious preparations to defend their country. Churchill had quite accurately described the 1930s as the “locust years.” But now the Norwegians confronted the harsh choice as to whether they should knuckle under to the Germans or fight for their independence.

It is a quandary that The King’s Choice lays out in clear fashion. Like Churchill in May 1940, the king confronted the fact that most of his country’s politicians hoped to make a deal with the Germans. But as usual in their ham-handed manner, the Germans provided a rationale that allowed Haakon to decide on a path that was fraught with pain and suffering for his country, but which prevented the splintering of the nation, as was to occur in France as a result of the ignominious surrender that occurred in June1940. By demanding that any deal the Norwegians made with their conquerors would include the traitor Vidkun Quisling to head the government, the Germans insured that Haakon would refuse with the support of the majority of the members of the Parliament of Norway, the Storting.

The British conqueror of Quebec, General James Wolfe, once commented that “war is an option of difficulties.” We might say the same about politics. The path the Norwegians now set out on was one that saw the king head into exile in Britain, the crown princess depart to Sweden and the United States, and the people suffer under five years of merciless occupation. It would also see them mount, with British help, a ferocious resistance movement, which a series of wonderful Norwegian films have examined over the past decade (among others see Max Manus, The Heavy Water War, and The Twelfth Man).

The events of April and May 1940 underline how tenuous human events are. From our perspective in the first decades of the twentieth century, the outcome of World War II seems obvious. Yet in those two months the fate of the world hung in the balance. It took a few great men of extraordinary moral fiber to prevent a very different set of outcomes that would have led, as Churchill warned in one of his greatest speeches in 1940, to the triumph “of a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.” But those few brave men with moral courage stood and resisted.