Between good and evil: The many lens of the Second World War occupation in Aarhus

By Laura Galante, photos by Madalina Paxaman

Imagine that it’s 1940. The Germans have occupied Aarhus and the Danish government has chosen to side with them with promises of keeping the national sovereignty and better times to come. You are an auto repair shop owner with a family to feed and during this time, your business isn’t faring so well. So, you are faced with a decision: The Germans offer you to work for them lest you go bankrupt; after all, petrol is scarce and no one drives their car around these days. By offering your services to the Gestapo you might succeed in sustaining your family. On the other hand, if you do, Danish resistance fighters will most likely bomb your shop, as you are in cahoots with the enemy. What do you do?

More complicated than we make it out to be

Though we look at this period with a sense of historical distance, we should not automatically assume that our time is void of such dilemmas. In fact, if anything, today they are more relevant than ever.

That is what the Occupation Museum in Aarhus (Besaettelsesmuseum) strives to convey, whose building was formerly used as Gestapo headquarters between 1943 and 1945. Through artefacts, photos and descriptions of that time, the Occupation Museum gives an account of what Aarhus was like during the German occupation and provides stories of what civilians, resistance fighters and German forces were faced with during the war period. The museum was built in 1982 by former resistance fighters and their descendants. Through witness accounts, they pieced the story together, using this project as a way to tackle their traumas from the occupation period.

Since 18th of February, however, the Occupation Museum has been closed for the next two years to completely refurbish the installation and will reopen in 2020. It will aim to portray the resistance through a more open perspective and tackle these ethical dilemmas in a brand new restoration of the 300m2 exhibition.

The reason for the refurbishment has to do with the way the 1940-45 timeframe is told. “I feel that especially younger people have a harder time connecting [with the exhibition] because…the things they will learn while they’re reading will not always make sense to them,” says museum Curator Søren Tange Rasmussen. “a lot about life during the occupation has been forgotten and it’s not easy for younger people to understand what this is all about.” This is all the more reason why today certain views and perceptions of the war diverge with regard to its unfolding.

One war, many perspectives

According to a study conducted by the University of Southern Denmark, there is no common understanding of the Second World War between the Germans, the Danish and the Finnish. In the Danish collective narrative, Danish resistance forces are praised as heroes. However, it is often forgotten how many also collaborated with the Germans, and the more common heroic narrative is maintained without nuance.

On the other hand, when looking at the Danish people’s decision to cooperate with the Germans, at first one might frown at a presumed cowardice. However, the context should be taken into account. “The government tried to shield the Danish population from things that happened all over Europe. I know it’s not very courageous but it was pretty smart,” remarks Søren. In telling this story, no one single version is complete or universal. Likewise, it is easy to see how problematic different viewpoints become in assessing the facts. In this sense, bringing these to light through the Occupation Museum gives the opportunity to understand that things were not always black and white. In fact, much less are they are black and white today in similar political contexts such as the rise of populist and nationalistic movements around the world.

Danish citizens cheered for the Liberation day of May 1945 in front of where Nordea Bank is in the present day (photo: Madalina Paxaman)

“We want to tell this story in a more nuanced manner than it used to be because prior it was all a question of being ‘good’ or ‘evil,’ Søren points out. “If you were a collaborator you were by definition evil. This story is worn out now.” Rather than this being ‘the resistance movement story’, Søren mentions that it’s going to be mostly from the point of view of the resistance fighters themselves and the collaborators to get a more insightful perspective. This is why many questions are raised; for instance, what denotes a resistance fighter other than a military member working against the Germans? What makes you an ‘enemy’ of the Danish and a ‘collaborator’ to the Germans? Only by being aware of the different lens of history can we grasp these nuances and extend this understanding to today’s political scenario.

The 1940s through the Occupation Museum

In presenting the ethical dilemmas that people were faced with during the occupation, and making its history more accessible, investment is going to be made to research more on the individual lives of witnesses and survivors in collaboration with Aarhus University and the Women’s Museum. Visitors will be handed a fictional ID card at the entrance of the Occupation Museum with the identity of an individual who lived at that time. The visitor will then be confronted with a dilemma and be offered a choice, which will have an impact on how they will experience their visit. These identities are based on real memoirs of people who lived there.

The space is to be kept as it is, though the installation will be completely redone to accommodate more visuals such as photographs and film in a more engaging manner. In collaboration with the Women’s Museum, the Occupation museum will also be hosting a variety of events outside of it, to take history into the streets in a similar fashion to Gamle By, the open air museum nearby.

“Everyone who lived during this time frame did not have the luxury of knowing how it would end.” Søren points out. “That is often forgotten because today when we make judgments we say people should have known better.” Of course, we cannot predict this early on. However, making past narratives accessible and relatable today is a constructive start to fully grasp the contexts that induced decisions and thought processes, and being able to better understand them in future scenarios.

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