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The King and the Christmas tree - A N Wilson

Blog | By A N Wilson | Dec 11, 2023

Behind the famous tree in Trafalgar Square lies the tale of a heroic monarch, who saved Norway in its darkest hour. By A N Wilson

Every year, a 65-foot tree is erected in Trafalgar Square, and the people of London know that Christmas has begun.

At the base of the tree stands a plaque, bearing these words: ‘This tree is given by the city of Oslo as a token of Norwegian gratitude to the people of London for their assistance during the years 1940-45. A tree has been given annually since 1942.’

Though it comes and goes each year, and is to that extent as ephemeral as the seasons, the Norwegian Christmas tree could claim to be among the most remarkable memorials contained in that square, which is so packed with links to history. It is a token of the friendship between two northern democracies. It is also a memorial to one of the greatest advertisements for monarchy.

King Haakon VII (1872-1957) was undoubtedly one of the heroes of the Second World War. His heroism consisted not merely in great physical courage, but also in his humility. He was prepared to lay down his life for the principle of parliamentary democracy, and a constitutional monarchy.

On 9th April 1940, German warships advanced up the fjord into the Norwegian capital, heavily supported by aircraft. Determined as the Norwegians might have been to resist the invaders, they stood no chance against the mightiest military force in Europe.

What should they do? Their Scandinavian neighbours could see that the only ‘sensible’ option was to recognise the power of the Third Reich.

Sweden remained neutral in the war – as had Norway until it was invaded. It took Denmark just six hours, after the arrival of the Germans, to realise that armed resistance was pointless.

But the Norwegian Government saw that while the situation was, for the time being, militarily hopeless, this did not alter the political facts of the case.

Norway was a parliamentary democracy. It was a new nation, which had achieved its independence from Sweden less than half a century before. The nation chose to become a constitutional monarchy, offering the crown to Prince Carl of Denmark. He had been crowned in Trondheim Cathedral in November 1906, taking the name King Haakon VII.

He understood completely what his obligation was – to protect the fledgling democratic nation. And no constitutional monarch could have faced a more threatening challenge than Haakon faced in April 1940.

The German minister, or ambassador, Dr Curt Bräuer, informed the King that his new Prime Minister was to be the fascist Vikdun Quisling. Haakon was calm – and resolute. This, he replied, was impossible. He had undertaken, in 1906, to uphold the constitution of Norway, and Quisling had not been elected. His life thereafter was, in a phrase which became the rallying cry for the Norwegian resistance, ‘All for Norway!’

What happened after the German invasion was truly extraordinary. Haakon and his government were far more astute than most of the other European countries when invaded by the Nazis.

First, they realised that the Nazis were running a brigand state intent on plunder – especially of the national gold reserve. Haakon arranged immediately for the entire Norwegian gold reserve to be smuggled out of the country on a vessel of the Royal Navy.

Secondly, he realised the vital importance of the Norwegian merchant navy to the Allies’ cause. Though Norway is a small country, its merchant navy is substantial, and despite prodigious losses over the next five years it managed to keep the Allies fuelled and fed. Without the Norwegian merchant navy, the war at sea and in the air would have ended with an easy German victory.

Thirdly, Haakon saw that when he accepted the role of a constitutional monarch, he was not just becoming a ceremonial figurine. He was appointed to defend the vital principle of democratic freedom which, in 1940, the Nazis and the Communists looked as if they had all but obliterated from the political story.

He moved the Norwegian Government out of Oslo, and eventually set it up in London. Before he did that, refusing the suggestion that he should escape to Sweden, he evaded the Nazi assassins, travelling with his son and a small entourage through the snows, as snipers and bombers pursued them. He eventually got out, again with the assistance of the Royal Navy.

For the next five years, the King and his government in exile kept alive the spirit of resistance to the Nazis. This was not just a form of words. Commando raids by Norwegian forces did vital work, never more so than when they destroyed the ‘heavy water’ of Norsk Hydro which would otherwise have enabled the Nazis to build an atom bomb.

Haakon VII (above) defeated Quisling (left). His initial and crown (far left) were daubed everywhere

Without those few commandos, history could have been horrifically different. Daubed on walls in paint, drawn in the snow, scraped on the ice, all over Norway, the cipher H7 – Haakon the Seventh – became for the Norwegians the focus of their resistance and their belief in the cause.

John Steinbeck, who wrote a marvellous novel about the Norwegian campaign – The Moon Is Down – expressed it flawlessly: ‘Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars.’

For Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, the Christmas tree enshrined the message of hope and love brought into the world, and into our homes, by Christmas.

They devoted their lives – his short, hers long – to promoting the sort of constitutional monarchy espoused by King Haakon VII of Norway, and it is one of the most appalling ironies of history that their beloved Germany, of all places in the world, should have become the seedbed for an ideology that nearly destroyed civilisation itself.

So the journey of the tree from Oslo to Trafalgar Square each year calls back not only the relatively recent alliance between Norway and Britain, but also the values of decency, love and home, of which the German domestic Christmas tree was a symbol.

The switching on of the Trafalgar Square tree lights is done by civic dignitaries. The people of London and the people of Norway do not need an autocrat to be present at such a celebration as this.

They are celebrating Christmas, yes, but, perhaps unwittingly, they are also celebrating their civic freedoms, their right to vote, their freedom of thought and expression; all the political beliefs for which their forebears fought so bravely in the Second World War. They gather to sing carols, not about an invincible Führer, but about a little refugee baby, lying in straw.

Professional historians long ago discarded the ‘great man’ theory of history. Nevertheless, most of us can sometimes look back at the past and recognise that it was the personal qualities of courage and goodness of one woman or man that did in fact alter historical events.

It would have been much easier for King Haakon and the Government of Norway to submit, in April 1940, to the inevitability of what happened.

Had they done so, had the Norwegian merchant navy passed into Nazi hands, those defiant Norwegians who scrawled H7 on walls, daubed H7 across the hated features of Quisling on the posters and drew H7 with sticks in the thick snow, knew that King Haakon VII embodied what they were fighting for, and that he too, in exile though he was, was fighting for them.

Victory in 1945, and the final triumph against the dark powers of Mordor, was indeed the Return of the King.