The King’s Choice, a Norwegian film nominated for an Oscar this year, is soon to receive an international release. We explore the dramatic escape from Norway of King Haakon VII and his government, and his consistent refusal to give in to the occupying Nazi government.
This autumn critically acclaimed Norwegian film, The King’s Choice (Kongens Nei) will receive an international release, it’s already been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. The King’s Choice tells the story of a – as its title would suggest -perilous choice placed upon the King of Norway in the aftermath the German invasion of 1940: whether to give in to Nazi demands, surrendering his country or urge the Norwegian people to keep fighting, and try to save it.
In the early hours of 9th April 1940 Norway was invaded by the German Navy. Initially, the invasion was successfully fended off; the first ship to arrive, the Blücher, was sunk, along with its comrade ship, the heavy cruiser Lützow. As many of the administrative personnel that were to run Oslo after occupation were killed, the Nazis temporarily withdrew to replenish their troops, thereby opening a small window for members of the royal family and Storting (Parliament) to escape Norway on a hastily arranged train.
But before they could get out, the German Envoy to Norway, Curt Bräuer, called upon King Haakon VII with an ultimatum. It demanded resistance be abandoned and Vidkun Quisling, head of the Nasjonal Samling (Norway’s Fascist party) be appointed prime minister. As Haakon was unwilling to push ahead without the advice of his government, Bräuer pointed to the example of his brother, King Christian X of Denmark, who surrendered but hours after the German invasion. Haakon, however, was steadfast, and in an emotional address to the Cabinet at Nybergsund, he made his position clear: he could never appoint Quisling as prime minister so long as he knew he had neither the support of the Storting or the Norwegian people. Should the Cabinet feel otherwise and choose to accept Bräuer’s demands, the king would abdicate for them to procede.
So inspired by their monarch’s impassioned speech, the Cabinet did not agree to the terms. Nils Hjelmtveit, then minister of education, wrote afterwards that King Haakon “came to us like a great man, just and forceful; a leader in these fateful times to our country.” Bräuer was contacted and NRK (the Norwegian national broadcasting company) aired the government’s rejection, calling on Norwegians to resist the invasion for as long as possible.
King Haakon took cover in a forest outside Molde after fleeing Nybergsund
Furious, Hitler sent squadrons of Luftwaffe bombers to Nybergsund in an attempt to root out and destroy the unyielding king and his government. Just sixteen miles, a neutral Swedish government informed the king that, should he attempt to cross the border, he would be “detained and incarcerated” immediately. It was an betrayal of such spite that older Norwegians bitterly resent to this day. But, if anything, it made Haakon and his government even more determined to struggle on.
Fleeing Nybergsund, they took cover first in a forest then continued north to Molde. Finally, German advances forced them onto HMS Glasgow, which took them on to Tromsø, where they remained until British forces were persuaded to withdraw and concentrate their efforts on France. Haakon and his government evacuated to London on board HMS Devonshire in what became an agonising voyage. HMS Acosta and HMS Ardent were both attacked and destroyed near Devonshire’s position, but, having to keep radio silence, Devonshire’s could not contact them, and around 1,519 British officers perished.
King Haakon, however, arrived safely in London, and a government in exile was successfully set-up. But, as he had been forced to do in Norway, the king was moved constantly: first from Buckingham Palace to Bowdon House when the Blitz hit full-force, then, after an RAF base was set up near Bowdon and the risk of bombardment again became too great, he was sent to Foliejon Park in Berkshire. Throughout the occupation, though, his official residence and seat of the government in exile remained at 10 Palace Green, Kensington Gardens. It was here the Cabinet held weekly meetings and the king broadcast to occupied Norwegians over the BBC World Service. The royal family also became regular worshippers at St Olav’s Norwegian Church in Rotherhithe, alongside many other Norwegian refugees.
Back in Norway, Hitler installed Josef Torboven as the Norwegian Reichkommissar and demanded the Storting depose the king and legally form a government domestically. Citing constitutional problems, the Storting refused and a subsequent ultimatum was issued by the Germans stating that unless the king was removed all Norwegians of military age would be rounded up and placed in concentration camps. Desperate, the Storting wrote to their monarch asking him to abdicate, but still the king would not give in, stating in his response, broadcast on the World Service that the Storting was simply “acting under duress”. Torboven gave in, saying only that the royal family had forfeited their right to return home and that all democratic parties would be dissolved.
But return the king did. On 7th June 1945, three days before the German Army officially withdrew, the royal family were met with cheering crowds as they disembarked in Oslo from HMS Norfolk. It was exactly five years after their escape from Tromsø.
The monarch’s determination not to give in to Nazi demands – unlike his brother in Denmark – remains a source of immense pride to Norwegians today, though, sadly, a source of historical tension among close neighbours and families.