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Scandinavia Through Foreign Eyes

ISSUE:  Summer 1939

Rats in the Larder. By Joaehim Joesten. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $2.50. Norway, Changing and Changeless. By Agnes Rothery. New York: The Viking Press. $3.00. Travels in the North. By Karel Capek. Translated by N. and R. Weatherall. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.50.

The growing public interest in Scandinavia that we have witnessed in recent years has been accompanied and stimulated by a steadily increasing number of commentators on Scandinavian affairs. Almost without exception, these commentators have stressed the success with which the Northern countries function, politically and socially, under the democratic form of government. Joachim Joesten’s “Rats in the Larder,” however, according to a statement on the jacket, “explodes the popular conception of a Utopian Scandinavia” and “shows how the Nazis have already attained economic and military dominance in Denmark.”

Although a German by birth and training, Joachim Joesten reveals in this rather sensational treatise, both by the intention of his remarks and the alarmist manner of his writing, a spiritual and intellectual kinship with many of the so-called liberals in the United States. While he has taken the precaution to explain in a prefatory note “that the word ‘Rat’ should be taken as a purely figurative corollary to the equally figurative use of the word ‘Larder’,” and that “it applies to organizations only, not to any individuals in particular,” the reader has no difficulty in identifying the rats, both German and domestic, which infest the Danish larder, especially since many of them are mentioned by name. It is not merely in the title of the book, moreover, that there sounds a blatant note of warning to the Danes to beware of Nazi influence and domination; every chapter heading re-echoes it: “In the Lion’s Mouth,” “Zero Hour” (with the subtitle, “Ami, il est plus tard que vous ne croyez”), “Under Hitler’s Thumb,” and so on.

The Danish government’s view in regard to foreign relations and national defense has been based on the fact that, even at the greatest sacrifice, Denmark would never be able to muster sufficient man power and natural resources to resist successfully the superior forces of a major power; therefore her best policy must remain one of disarmament and strict neutrality. To Mr. Joesten, as to many Danish conservatives, this is an alarming policy, and he attempts, partly by assuming a tone of “j’accuse/’ to shock the government into changing it. He argues that Denmark’s neutrality has become a fiction as a result of the government’s anxious efforts to avoid friction with Germany; that Denmark, succumbing to political and economic pressure, is gradually selling out to the enemy; and, finally, that because of her failure to pursue an active defense policy, she is not only endangering her own national independence but the peace of Europe as well.

After nearly two hundred and fifty pages of fairly concentrated gloom about the state of affairs in Denmark, Mr. Joesten arrives at his last chapter, “Better Late Than Never,” which he opens by assuring the reader that he intends to “end on a more hopeful note.”

Above all [he writes] I certainly do not want anyone to believe that Stauning and Munch [The Danish Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs] to whom a large public looks up as great champions of peace and democracy, are really black scoundrels in the pay of Fascism, Far from that, I feel convinced of their personal integrity as much as of their goodwill and essential sincerity in pursuing the noble goals toward which they profess to be striving. Nor do I mean in the least to question or belittle the achievements of these men and their associates in the fields of social reform, cultural progress, and political appeasement.

My quarrel is exclusively with their foreign and defense policy, which, I feel convinced, is leading Denmark right into the abyss and rendering her a danger to the free North, a liability to all Europe. But this is no case of illwill and gangsterism, as in a certain country next door; it is one of sheer weakness, blindness, and general helplessness.

The question then is: What can be done to help Denmark out of the mire? I confess that it is a ticklish problem, and I have no panaceas to sell. The solution, it seems to me, should be sought on two lines: (a) by stiffening the backs of the Danish government in every possible manner, economically as well as politically; and (b) by giving the potential aggressor to understand in time that he had better keep his hands off. In both respects, the decisive influence, I think, must come from two countries: Great Britain and Sweden.

A different approach to a different Scandinavian scene is offered the reader by Agnes Rothery in “Norway, Changing and Changeless.” Informative and descriptive, rather than critical, Miss Rothery’s latest book deals popularly with various aspects of Norwegian life from whaling to art and literature. Interspersed among its pages are some good photographs by the author’s husband, Harry Rogers Pratt, and there are appended to the text a brief chronological outline of Norwegian history, a list of salient facts and statistics, and a bibliography of books in English on Norway and Norwegians in the United States, as well as of English translations of Old Norse and modern Norwegian literature. In contrast with Mr. Joesten, Miss Rothery has wisely aimed at objectivity in the treatment of her subject. This does not prevent her, however, from giving expression to her personal reactions to people and places, and many of her observations are couched in a prose style which borders on the lyrical. At times her language shows an over-fondness for alliteration, perhaps, as when she speaks of “Farms and farmers, boats and buildings, plump ponies and planted fields”; but often her writing can be quite simple and unselfconscious.

Excellent as it is in many respects, Miss Rothery’s book nevertheless leaves the reader with the impression of having seen things only from the outside. This is not true, on the other hand, of the late Karel Capek’s account of his Scandinavian journey, “Travels in the North.” Even through translation, his book succeeds in conveying to us the spirit of the people and the scenes described. We are aware that a poet is speaking. By deft touches of the pen he evokes sense impressions of the places he has visited, and recreates before us persons whom he has met. We see the Danish landscape through the eyes of one who has caught the Hans Christian Andersen quality in it: “that’s why the toys have come to life, that’s why the cows flick their tails, the horses raise their beautiful heads, and the figures of people move from place to place, even if gently and without noise.” Anyone who has experienced the peculiar texture of the atmosphere beyond the Arctic Circle will feel himself back in it again when he meets it in Karel Capek’s pages, just as he will be aware of making the acquaintance of a real human being in the portrayal of the Norwegian sea captain who piloted the Hakon Adalstein into Arctic waters. The book is delightfully illustrated with the author’s own drawings.


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