When one thinks of World War II and the countries involved, Denmark rarely comes to mind. This is probably due, in large part, to the relative lack of resistance to the Nazis by the Danes, at least in the early years of the war, and the corresponding freedom given to the Danish government. The government remained intact and the parliament continued to function much as it had before the German invasion. The Danes were able to maintain much of their control over domestic policy, including the police and judicial system, and King Christian X remained in the country as the Danish head of state. The people, for the most part, supported their government’s decision as a pragmatic course of action.
However, as the war went on and ultimate German victory seemed more in doubt, acts of resistance increased. The initial opposition consisted of minor actions such as the publishing of underground newspapers. Then, after the invasion of the Soviet Union, the communists in Denmark began to commit acts of greater violence. In the fall of 1942, Germany declared Denmark to be enemy territory for the first time, and in August, 1943 the Germans officially dissolved the Danish government and instituted martial law.
In Hornet Flight, Ken Follett tells the story of Harald Olufsen, how he evolved from a passive Nazi-hater to an active resistance fighter. It’s unclear how much of the book is based on actual events, but according to the author, “Some of what follows really happened.”
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Harald’s transformation is the way it came about. There is no single act that impels him to action, but rather a series of events that focuses and hardens his resolve. And these events are driven not so much by the Nazis but by Danes—his family, friends, and neighbors. Starting with a shortcut taken in the rain and a harmless but ill-advised act of graffiti, Harald is ultimately compelled to leave school, home, and eventually his country. But he does so pretty much on his terms.
One of the most appealing elements of the story is the range of attitudes held by various characters. Some, like Harald and his brother’s fiancée, Hermia, feel strongly that the Germans must be stopped and that they are morally responsible to do what they can to bring that about. Others, like Harald’s parents and his friend, Tik, dislike the Nazis but choose to stay unobtrusively on the sidelines. And still others collaborate with the occupiers in the belief that siding with the winners will profit them the most. Follett weaves them all together into a tale unique because of its setting: a country overrun by the enemy but where much is still possible for those with the will to act.
Although the primary theme revolves around Harald’s development as a resistor, a secondary theme is the way that the actions of a few in unexpected places can have incredible consequences. As the story opens, Britain is in trouble because their bombers are being shot down at will by the German Luftwaffe. The British know that if something doesn’t change the war will be lost. It turns out that Harald and Hermia each have part of the answer, and their actions are what make the difference, not so much in Denmark but in the larger, more significant arena of the Allied air war.
Overall, I enjoyed the book very much. The characters were compelling, and their actions, for the most part, were believable. I enjoyed reading about a familiar theme (resistance to Nazi aggressions) from an unfamiliar vantage point (Denmark). The plot was convincing if not innovative, and the various settings reinforce the mixture of danger and opportunity. All in all a worthwhile read.