The King’s Choice, a Norwegian film nominated for an Oscar this year, will soon receive an international release. Alexander Brett explores the life in exile of Haakon VII and his government, and his refusal to give in to occupying Nazis
This autumn critically acclaimed Norwegian film, The King’s Choice (Kongens Nei) will receive an international release (some may recognise it already from its nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in this year’s Oscars). The film tells the story of – as its title would suggest – a perilous choice for the King of Norway following the German invasion of 1940: whether to give in to Nazi demands or urge the Norwegian people to keep fighting. The film depicts only the first part of the king’s role in the war, so here is the full story to fill in any gaps.
In the early hours of 9th April 1940 Norway was invaded by the German Navy. Initially, the invasion was 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 Olso after occupation were killed, the Nazis was forced to withdraw and return home to replenish their troops, thereby opening a window for members of the royal family and the Storting (Parliament) to escape Norway on a special train.
Before they could escape, however, the German Envoy to Norway, Curt Bräuer, called upon King Haakon VII with an ultimatum demanding that resistance be abandoned and Vidkun Quisling, head of the Nasjonal Samling (the Norwegian Fascist party) be appointed prime minister. As Haakon showed unease to push ahead without the advice of his government, Bräuer pointed to the example of his brother, King Christian X of Denmark, who had surrendered immediately after the German invasion and even threatened Norway with repercussions should it fail to do the same. But the king was steadfast, and in an emotional address to the Cabinet at Nybergsund, he made his position clear; that 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 to give them an opportunity to proceed.
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 within hours, 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 takes 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 completely destroy the unyielding king and his government. Just sixteen miles away lay neutral Sweden, whose government informed the Norwegian the king that, should he attempt to cross the border, he would be “detained and incarcerated”. If anything, this betrayal from a clearly collaborative Sweden 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. But German advances soon forced them onto HMS Glasgow, which then took them on to Tromsø, where they would stay until the British were forced to withdraw and concentrate their efforts on France. Haakon and his government were then evacuated to London on board HMS Devonshire in what became an extremely costly voyage: HMS Acosta and HMS Ardent were both attacked and destroyed near Devonshire’s position, but having to keep radio silence, their positions could not be broadcast and around 1,519 British officers perished.
The king arrived safely in London, however, and a government in exile was successfully set-up. But, as he had been forced to do in Norway, Haakon was constantly moved around; first from Buckingham Palace to Bowdon House during the Blitz, then, after an RAF base was set up near Bowdon, to Foliejon Park in Berkshire. But throughout occupation his official residence and the seat of his government in exile remained 10 Palace Green in Kensington Gardens, where the Cabinet held weekly meetings and the king broadcast to his countrymen over the BBC World Service. The royal family were also regular worshippers at St Olav’s Norwegian Church in Rotherhithe, alongside many fellow Norwegian refugees.
Back in Norway Hitler installed Josef Torboven as the Norwegian Reichkommissar and ordered him to demand that the Storting depose the king in order to 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. The Storting wrote to their monarch asking him to abdicate, but still the king refused, stating in his response on BBC radio that the Storting was simply “acting under duress”. After one more threat to topple the monarchy, 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 return. On 7th June 1945 the royal family were met with cheering crowds as they disembarked in Oslo from HMS Norfolk, exactly five years after their escape from Tromsø. And the monarch’s determination not to give in to German demands- unlike his brother in Denmark- remains a source of immense pride to Norwegians today. Norwegians also remain thankful to the British for providing an open door when Sweden’s was firmly closed, and naturally hope the film will be a great success in the UK.