Monday, September 28, 2015

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler by Phillip Hoose

The little known story of the beginning of the Danish resistance as told in The Boys Who Challenged Hitler almost never got told. As Hoose relates in his introduction, while on tour in Denmark in 2000, he visited the Museum of Danish Resistance in Copenhagen and came across a special exhibit called the "Churchill Club". This group was started by a group of Danish teens during World War II to resist the Nazi occupation of their country. Unlike neighbouring Norway, the Danish settled quickly into an uneasy relationship with their German occupiers and these teenage boys were shocked and ashamed that their countrymen would be so willing to work with the Germans.

Hoose was encouraged to contact one of the original members, Knud Pedersen, now an elderly man, by the museum's curator. However, when Hoose reached out to Pedersen, he indicated to Hoose that he was unable to work with him due to prior obligations with another American writer. In September 2012, Hoose reconnected with Pedersen after discovering his old file on the Churchill Club. This time Pedersen was interested, as the previously planned book was never written. So in October 2012, Hoose and his wife flew to Denmark where they stayed with the Pedersens. Hoose spent a week interviewing Peterson and the two sent hundreds of emails to one another in the following months as Hoose wrote. However, at Christmas 2013, Knud Pedersen became seriously ill with pneumonia and almost died. In December, 2014, just prior to the publication of The Boys Who Challenged Hitler, Knud Pedersen passed away. The Boys Who Challenged Hitler tells the remarkable story of a group of Danish teens determined to undermine the Nazis in Denmark and awaken their countrymen's courage to stand up to Hitler.

The story begins with the lightning occupation of Denmark on April 9, 1940 by Nazi Germany under the guise of placing Denmark as a "protectorate" of Germany. Fourteen year old Knud Pedersen's family was living in Odense, Denmark's third largest city. The Pedersen family consisted of Reverend Edvard Pedersen, his mother Margrethe, his older brother Jens and his younger siblings, Gertrud, Jorgen and Holger. Denmark was not the only country invaded in early April. The Nazi's also invaded Norway with one significant difference; the Norwegians valiantly fought back, while Denmark quietly and quickly conceded to the German army. Hitler needed all of Scandinavia; Denmark provided a route to transport the iron ore needed in the manufacture of weapons from Sweden (which was neutral) and Norway.

The Churchill Club in front of Holy Ghost Monastery.
Interested in drawing and painting, Knud never paid much attention to politics or the war going on in Europe. From the newspapers Knud and his brother Jens learned of the resistance put up by the Norwegians and the high price they paid for that resistance. Furious and ashamed of his countrymen, Knud and Jens decided that "if the adults would not act, we would."

While Jens wanted to wait until they recruited more people, Knud wanted to act. They formed their group which they decided to call the RAF Club with their cousin Hans Joergen Andersen and their friends harald Holm and Knud Hedelund. Having no weapons or training in the use of them, the boys were limited to disrupting the Germans by cutting telephone lines, destroying signs. The Germans were furious and told the Danish police to find the culprits or they would take over the police force in Odense.

In 1941, Knud's father, Edvard Pedersen moved to Aalborg, Denmark's fourth largest city to accept the pastorship of a new parish. Aalborg was highly prized by the Germans because of its airport which was used by German planes to refuel before traveling on to Norway. The German war machine required the iron-ore from Sweden and controlling Norway allowed them to transport this valuable resource to Germany.  The Pedersen family lived in a very small part of Holy Ghost Monastery. Knud and Jens lived on the second floor and were enrolled in the college prep school, Cathedral School. The school had many pro-Nazi students and faculty so they had to learn who to trust.

Eventually Knud was able to recruit Helge Mil and Eigil Astrup-Frederiksen. Before Christmas, Knud, Jens, Eigil, Helge and two more potential recruits, Mogens Thomsen and Mogens Fjellerup along with two of Jen's classmates, Sigurd and Preben Ollendorf had an intense discussion about the occupation of their country. They decided to act. "We will act. We will behave as Norwegians. We will clean the mud off the Danish flag." Sigurd and Preben decided against getting involved but the others remained committed and named their group,the Churchill Club after Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

They divided themselves into three groups that would look after propaganda, technical and sabotage. The propaganda department painted blue versions of the Nazi swastika with "arrows shooting out of the top of each arm, like thunderbolts" on German cars, barracks and headquarters as well as those stores, homes and offices which were owned by Danish Nazi sympathizers. The technical group was to produce bombs and was headed by Mogens Fjellerup who was nicknamed "the Professor" because he was a brilliant physics student who had been given the keys to the physics lab. The sabotage department was to focus on destroying German property and steal weapons. Knud, being a man of action, was most interested in sabotage.  A fourth group, which was unable or unwilling to actively participate in the club, provided other kinds of assistance such as providing money or materials. All members "had to commit a serious act of sabotage such as stealing a German weapon." and no adults were to be told about the group.

The Churchill Club would meet in Jen's room and then ride around Aalborg to scout out potential targets. Those targets were hit during the daytime since security was less stringent and they all had curfews. Many Germans enjoyed their life in Denmark, partaking of the culture while many Danish collaborated with them producing weapons and parts for the war. However, many Danish began to show patriotism by singing Danish folk songs and wearing special pins called "Kings Badges".

The Churchill Club began by vandalizing directional signs in Aalborg and painting their blue altered swastikas all over the city. They attempted to set an office in the Fuchs Construction Company, a major collaborator with the Nazis, on fire. The next focus of the club was to set German vehicles on fire and to steal German weapons. They managed to steal a pistol from a German car and rifle from the bedroom of a German soldier. The acquiring of these weapons now forced the Churchill Club to decide what they would do with the weapons; would they continue to destroy German assets or would their focus be on armed resistance? If the latter, that meant they would have to train themselves.

The Germans by now were well aware that someone was actively determined to destroy their assets in Aalborg and they were determined to stop whoever was responsible. Eigil's sister worked as a secretary for the Aalborg police and she informed the Churchill Club members that the German's had brought in two investigators to determine who was involved. She pleaded with them to lie low but Knud was not interested in doing so. Their next hit, on the Aalborg railroads would be so successful that Knud and the Churchill Club would be in the sights of the Nazi investigators. The teenagers would be no match for the brutal Nazis determined to end the beginnings of Danish resistance. Little did they know that the Churchill Club was just the impetus the Danish people needed.


The Boys Who Challenged Hitler tells the story of the Churchill Club primarily through the narration of Knud Pedersen, while writer Phillip Hoose sets the stage for the narratives by providing some of the background details. The story, little known outside of Denmark and certainly not well known to younger generations of Canadians, is an important part of the history of World War II and the global resistance to Nazism. Hoose not only focuses on the events during the war but also provides readers with information on what became of the members of the Churchill Club. What is apparent is that the members of the Churchill Club were forever changed by what happened to them during the war. Knud found Denmark had changed drastically in the two years he had been locked up in jail. The resistance was now intense, resulting in Germany identifying Denmark as "enemy territory." "Aalborg had become a hotbed of resistance. Residential gardens bulged with buried guns, smuggled from abroad, tooled at home, or stolen from the Germans. Underground newspapers, at last telling the truth about the war, flew from small, mobile, concealed presses. Massive labor strikes challenged German authority." Knud's family had changed too; his father haboured resisters and raged against the Nazi's from the pulpit. Knud found himself lonely and struggling to reintegrate into what was left of Danish society. He managed to become involved in the organized resistance and did so until the end of the war in 1945.

Despite their hatred of the Germans, Knud and his fellow resisters had a code that they operated according to. While planning to damage the German cars that sat every day outside Knud's bedroom window, one of the members suggested that if the German guard realized what was happening, they would hit him from behind with a pipe. However, other members objected to hitting a man, even a German soldier, from behind considering to do so was an act of cowardice. This was the first time the Churchill Club were forced to confront some hard questions. It was easy for Knud and his brother and the other boys to decide that they would form some kind of resistance group. According to Knud when they formed the group they had "all vowed that we could, and would, kill." But actually acting on this proved to much more difficult. As Knud points out in his narrative, they were middle-class boys who came from regular families and had no military training that would have prepared them to behave as soldiers who are trained to kill.

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler is filled with photographs of the Churchill Club, the occupying Germans in Denmark, Holy Ghost Monastery, and many other relevant people and places. Hoose has included maps, and epilogue, a bibliography, notes on supplemental information used in the book and an index.

Well written in a style that is readable and engaging, readers will feel that they have come to know Knud Pedersen personally. The sadness and confusion he felt when his beloved country was occupied and his determination to resist the Nazis comes through in his narrative, more than seventy years later.

Book Details:

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler by Phillip Hoose
New York: Farrar Straus Giroux        2015
198 pp.

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