Ragnvald Blix, born in Oslo, son of E. Blix
THE ORIGIN OF THE KING CHRISTIAN LEGEND:
THE RAGNVALD BLIX CARTOON
by professor Leo Goldberger
Ever since the popular stories of King Christian X of Denmark and the Yellow Star of David surfaced in the public consciousness throughout much of the Western world, there have been several attempts to track down its source. Such authoritative Danish historians as Ole Barfoed and Jørgen Hæstrup, among others, readily dismissed the stories as “legends”.
Even Harald Flender, an American TV writer, in his overly dramatic and somewhat flawed account made a note of the mythological nature of the story (Rescue in Denmark, W.H. Allen, 1963). An earlier, very earnest and factual first-hand account (October ’43, /Gyldendal, 1952; in English translation, Putnam, 1954) by a leading rescuer of Jews, Aage Bertelsen , was less definite on the matter of the King.
In Bertelsen’s recollection, which admittedly he could no longer substantiate when queried some 10 years later by the Israeli historian Leni Yahil, the story had been confirmed to him by the King’s own secretary, he said! (Cf. The Rescue of Danish Jewry, Jewish Publication Society, 1969, p. 443).
The search for the origin of the stories became a continuing puzzle to many authors writing about the rescue, either because of scholarly interest in the formation of legends or simply out of curiosity. While everyone agreed that as with most legends an ounce of truth was to be found in them, nevertheless the search for the causal chain in the story’s formation and subsequent spread has continued unabated to this day.
The captions read: Stauning:
“What should we do then, your Majesty?”
The King: “Then we must all wear the Yellow Star’!
THE INITIAL MENTION OF THE LEGEND
The first exhaustive piece of research into the question of the legend’s origin was mounted by a Danish-American anthropologist, Jens Lund, and published in a relatively obscure professional journal in 1975 (Indiana Folklore, vol.8, #1-2). While The Israeli historian, Lenil Yahil, whose landmark volume on the rescue is the unquestioned classic, the credit should definitely go to Jens Lund for tracing the initial appearance of the legend’s mention in the political cartoon by the Norwegian artist Ragnvald Blix.
As he pointed out, the cartoon in question appeared for the first time in the Swedish paper Gøteborg Handels- och Sjöfartstidning (GHT) on January 10, 1942. Though Lund did not see the cartoon himself, he reported the detailed description of it, which appeared in the May 15th 1942 issue of the Danish-American newsletter, The Listening Post, a mimeographed bi-weekly, dispersed out of the office of the Danish-American businessman Caspar Hasselriis in NYC.
As already indicated, most legends (as well as simply rumors) usually have some foot in reality. In this case, the presumed facts as depicted in the cartoon was an interchange between Danish prime minister, Thorvald Stauning and the King about the eventuality that Danish Jews be required to wear the yellow star should Erik Scavenius, the more-German friendly foreign minister, become head the new government, which was increasingly insisted upon by the Germans.
Thorvald Stauning Prime Minister of Denmark.
In office 1924 - 1926. Source: Wikipedia
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND FACTORS
In recent years there appears to have been some unheralded confirmation that a conversation along the lines depicted in the cartoon actually took place. This substantiation was reported by professor Knud V. Jespersen (the royal court historian) and appears in his extensive biography of King Christian’s—in preparation for which he scrutinized some 60,000 pages of the King’s personal diaries (Cf. K.V. Jespersen, Rytterkongen: Et portræt af Christian X, Gyldendal 2007). According to Jespersen, it was Stauning’s deputy, Vilhelm Buhl -- a staunch anti-German in the ministerial cabinet who briefly succeeded Stauning’s on his death on May 3, 1942-- who brought up his concern about the potential consequence for the Danish Jews of a Scavenuis takeover.
Vilhelm Buhl Prime Minister
May 3, 1942 - 9 November 1942
In an interview about his book, Jespersen very clearly concludes that :
…the diaries reveal that the myth about the king wearing the yellow star has a certain basis in reality. In connection with the decision by the Nazis of whether all Jews were to wear a visible Star of David on their outer clothes, the King said to the acting Prime Minister, Vilhelm Buhl in 1941, it might be an idea “if we all wore the Star of David on our clothes” (cf. Kirsten Boas, “Den Complicerede Konge”, Kristlige Dagblad, Oct. 24, 2007).
This is the first confirmation of the kernel of truth in the story. The previous royal historian, Tage Kaarsted in 1990, had only maintained that “nothing in the King’s papers suggest for sure that the King ever threatened to wear the star”. But then Kaarsted did not have access to the complete set of personal diaries.
ADDITIONAL BACKGROUND FACTORS
To be sure, there were additional factors that coalesced in the timing of the cartoon, not the least of which was Denmark’s signing of the Comintern Pact in November 1941 which was quite upsetting to many Danes at home and abroad. This in turn was followed by the troublesome news of an attempted arson attack on the Synagogue on December 20, 1941 by emboldened Danish Nazis who were pushing for a ”solution to the Jewish problem” in Denmark.
What was unlikely to have been widely know, at home or abroad, was the King’s handwritten note to Rabbi Marcus Melchior a week or so later expressing his concern about the fire. However, this gesture was conflated with a number of fairly widespread stories about the king’s positive stance towards the Jewish community, not to mention the false rumor of his visit to the Synagogue, a visit that actually occurred in 1933 on the 100-year anniversary of the Copenhagen Synagogue.
THE UNIQUE SIGNIFICANCE OF RAGNVALD BLIX
After its first appearance in 1942, and following Jen Lund’s identification of its very existence, the cartoon was eventually referenced and reproduced in articles by Hans Kirchhoff, the leading contemporary Danish historian of the German occupation period and the persecution of the Jews (Kirchhoff, in Føreren har befalet, Samlern, 1993, Sofie Lene Bak, (Jødeaktionen October 1934, Museum Tusculanums, 2001, and most recently also by Bo Lidegaard, in his forthcoming book, Countrymen, Knopf, 2013 ).
They correctly note the name of Stig Höök (Blix’s Swedish pseudonym) as the cartoonist and suggest, with varying degrees of conviction, that this might have been the spark for the legend, but they seem to fail to appreciate the genuine significance of Ragnvald Blix himself (1882-1958) in getting the story off the ground, never wondering who he was and what his unique role in giving the cartoon its credibility and spread.
Even a cursory check of who he was reveals him to have been an enormously popular and influential Norwegian artist with an intensely personal motivation and mission in creating his many and varied political cartoons —and they might have finally ended their search for the originator of the royal myth that so captured our attention. It could have been none other than Ragnvald Blix! And it was created out of his need to make a political statement—after which propaganda experts who knew a valuable piece of “copy” when they saw it wisely picked it up. Caspar Hasselriis himself, in his pamphlet Denmark Fights On, which he circulated from New York along with The Listening Post, he quite cleverly juxtaposed the statement “If they have to wear the yellow star, we’ll all wear it ” against a vivid photograph of King Christian on his daily ride (Cf. T.M. Terkelsen, Front Line in Denmark, London, 1944),
Blix’s biography is too extensive to cover in this brief article (the better source is Rikke Petterson “The cartoonist who challenged Hitler”, Journal Baltic Worlds, March 2011, pp. 22-25), but let it be said he was an extraordinary person and a highly regarded artist in his day, with his works—unique caricatures of most of the well-known literati, artists and even the most sacrosanct iconic paintings of his time--still to be found housed in several Scandinavian Museums. He also left a wealth of historic books and records behind, documenting how he was regarded as a pest by the German hierarchy, both in WWI and II, by his virulent attacks on their persons and inhumane deeds.
Goering himself sent a personal appeal to the Swedish Foreign Minister urging him to ban Blix’s anti-German cartoons from further publication at the risk of damaging the relations between their 2 countries. Mussolini, Quisling and the other major fascists whom he targeted with immunity, despised him. It might also be noted that before moving on to Sweden in 1940, he had among other places in his life, lived in Copenhagen, where he worked for the largest daily, Berlingske Tidene, a paper that so worried about his political bite they fired him for fear of Nazi reprisals. (It should be noted that it was the brave Swedish editor of HST in Gøteborg, Torgney Segerstedt, who encouraged Blix’s political cartoons despite threats from the Germans and lent it much credibility!)
Blix remained in Sweden throughout the war. He established the illegal publication of Haandslaget (The Handshake), distributed by the resistance movement throughout Norway and Denmark, his cartoons being seen by millions, with the text often supplied by the Norwegian writer Torolf and the German political refugee -- none other than Willy Brandt! Indeed, Ragnvald Blix as well as Torgney Segerstedt are names to be remembered and honored for their exceptional courage!
THE SPREAD OF NEWS AND PROPAGANDA
As mentioned above, Caspar Hasselriis was clearly the key figure in spreading the story of the King and the Star of David. He was the acknowledged “soul” of the Danish-American group, which had sprung into service in late 1939 with its concern for Denmark’s welfare and reputation within the US government and public at large. The Listening Post surfaced in NY in 1941 with Hasselriis as chief.
Ship magnate Hans Isbrandtsen and other prominent Danish-Americans, such as General Motor’s president General William S. Knudsen--along with advice from the innovative spin-meister Edward Bernays, got the ball rolling by 1941. The exact role Bernays played, as a “dollar-a-year” consultant is not specified in his memoir, other than he helped establish the organization and its news and propaganda outlet, The Listening Post. While short on details, Bernays does proudly acknowledge having received King Christian’s citation and Pro-Dania Medal for his efforts. (E. L. Bernays, Biography of an idea, Simon & Schuster, 1965).
The aim of the Listening Post was to keep Americans informed about occupied Denmark, supplying readers with what sparse reliable information that was available. However, it also served as a propaganda vehicle to counteract the growing impression that Denmark was being too cooperative with the Germans. They went to great length to amplify the cruelty of the German occupiers against the Danish populace and tended to exaggerate the prevailing tenor of anti-Nazi sentiment, while exaggerating the early manifestations of active resistance in the country. In this regard, they were in close contact with the underground news and propaganda networks out of Stockholm and London’s Danish Section of the OSE, the Free Danish Council and the illegal paper “Frit Danmark”.
Needless to say, these efforts had the full support of the courageous Danish Ambassador Henrik Kaufmann in Washington and the Danish Ambassador in London. The “Listening Post” was on a seriously important mission to make Denmark look its best in an attempt to insure its potential acceptance into the United Nations as an inherently Allied nation at war’s ultimate end. And it was no mean achievement when Kaufmann, represented by Hasselriis, won full membership in the Inter Allied Council, later to become the UN Information Board (Cf. Besættelsen 1940-45: Politik, Modstand, Befrielse. Politiken Forlag, 1979].
By no means to be forgotten was the significant role played by Victor Borge, who upon his arrival in to the USA in 1940 as a penniless thirty-year old, with but a few social connections for getting a break, fairly quickly met the very hospitable and helpful Caspar Hasselriis in New York. A warm friendship between them ensued, which more than likely involved him in Hasselriis’s propaganda efforts.
Before very long, Borge’s incredible talent for “Comedy in Music” was widely recognized in the USA and his service for the Office of War Information, rallying support for Denmark and the cause of liberty became a regular feature of his entertainment platform, Though classified “4-F” by the draft board because of his age, he never tired of offering his service for the war effort. The fact that he had left family and loved one’s behind, in Denmark, including his mother's older sister who sadly enough ended up in Theresienstadt during the 1943 roundup of the Danish Jews, made his desire to fight the Nazi’s even more personal.
While living in California he signed up as a volunteer in the coastal “Evacuation Corp”, quickly earning the rank of second lieutenant, charged with helping in the evacuation of women and children in case of a Japanese’s invasion. His potential assistance was also enlisted near the end of the war by the secret mission asked of him by the U.S. War Office: to parachute into Western Jutland for the purpose of preparing the local population –among whom he would still be a recognizable celebrity –for an allied invasion, should that be planned. An amateur flyer, the unfazed Victor Borge accepted the challenge and even kept the secret from his beloved wife, Sanna, while he prepared a small suitcase in readiness.
Needless to say, his commitment to Denmark and all efforts of positive propaganda was close to his heart—and of course he never tired of telling the story of the King and the Yellow Star—in the mode of a Hans Christian Andersen tale no doubt. (Cf. Victor Borge, Smilet er den korteste afstand…, Gyldendal, 1997). As he shared the mean-spirited satire of Ragnvald Blix’s cartoons and, like Blix, was named high on the list of “the most wanted” by the Gestapo, it is not unlikely that Borge and Blix actually knew one another from the days in Copenhagen when both lived there—a fascinating further inquiry.
Author: Prof. Leo Goldberger - Professor emeritus, New York University & editor, The Rescue of the Danish Jews: Moral Courage Under Stress, NYU Press, 1987
Published by Scandinavian Jewish Forum