Reporting on the War in the Asia-Pacific Region in the German-controlled Danish Press, 1940-1945
Updated: Jan 8, 2019
By Peter Harmsen
Editorial Note: On 22-23 June 2017, the Second World War Research Group held its annual conference on the theme of ‘When East meets West: The Second World War in Global Perspective. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting blog articles written by some of the conference’s presenters.
In early 1942, Danish university professor Frantz Wendt was in a sombre mood. It was not because of the domestic situation in occupied Denmark, nor did it have anything to do with the ongoing war in North Africa or Russia. Instead, he was preoccupied with events half a world away. Japan was on the offensive throughout the Far East, sweeping aside the western colonial powers with shocking ease.
Specifically, the fate of Singapore was the cause of considerable concern for Wendt. On February 9, 1942, he noted in his diary that ‘if Singapore falls, it will be terrible.’ One week later, after the ‘the Gibraltar of the East’ had indeed been humiliatingly captured by a numerically inferior Japanese force, another Danish diary writer commented that ‘the mood is poor’ because of Singapore’s fall.
These diary entries demonstrate a high level of awareness among people in occupied Europe about the global nature of the Second World War. This is somewhat unexpected since it would otherwise make sense to assume that a much narrower and more parochial focus would result from the daily deprivations of war, even in a country such as Denmark, which had escaped many of the horrors that were visited on other nations in Europe.
Why does it matter?
What the people of Europe knew about the progress of the war is essential. News filtering past the censors about the changing fortunes of the Axis powers had a direct impact on public opinion in the occupied countries. It not only affected morale but also at times triggered popular mass action.
To provide a couple of examples from Denmark, a series of protests against the German occupation broke out in Copenhagen and other big cities in the summer of 1943 immediately following the Allied invasion of Sicily. This prompted the German authorities to institute martial law and triggered the most severe political crisis since the occupation in April 1940.
Also in Denmark, a wave of industrial strikes and protests erupted in the summer of 1944 after the Normandy landings, resulting in some of the most tumultuous scenes of the entire occupation period, especially in the capital.
In both cases, the origins of the mass protests were complex, but it is beyond doubt that German setbacks and the prospect of an early end to the war constituted a key causal variable. In other words, knowledge about the war was an essential aspect of life in German-controlled Europe, although in the vast literature about the period it remains somewhat understudied.
The Pacific War
The examples of the Danish protests in 1943 and 1944 highlight how events on European battlefields moulded public opinion and even at times performed as catalysts for action. However, as the diary entries provided in the introduction indicate, this mood was not influenced exclusively by news from Europe.
This leads to the question what kind of information about the war in far-off theatres was accessible to people in occupied Europe, and more specifically in Denmark. To approach an answer, it is instructive to look at how two Danish newspapers, Berlingske Tidende and Vendsyssel Tidende, a national and a regional daily respectively, reported on the war in the Pacific. Two case studies will suffice for this tentative investigation: the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the Battle of Midway in June 1942.
The front pages of both papers on December 8, 1941, the first to appear after the start of the Japanese surprise attack, are devoted to full coverage of the dramatic events in the Far East. The focus is on Pearl Harbor, but the papers also described operations in the Philippines, Indochina and Malaya.
The most striking aspect is the objectivity of the editorial tone, which is achieved partly through the use of a variety of sources. For example, Berlingske Tidende had enlisted the services of its correspondent in the unoccupied Swedish capital of Stockholm, who had unhindered access to news sources from both sides in the global conflict.
At the same time, both papers use as their sources news agencies reporting from both the United States and Japan. The Danish wire service, Ritzau, which had a long reputation for disinterested coverage, is used particularly frequently.
There is no discernible attempt at editorialising, at least not on December 8. This could reflect time pressure, pushing the papers to merely report the facts while having little time left to think about layout or clever headlines to imbue the news with a certain meaning.
In the following days, the consequences of the Pearl Harbor attack moved into focus, and while significant space is spent on the rapid Japanese advances, attention is also given to the way the Allied camp has been radically strengthened by the entry of the United States into the war.
On December 9, the papers reported that Tokyo faced a ‘flood of war declarations, including from countries such as El Salvador, Costa Rica and Guatemala. The papers made no effort to remind their readers that the actual significance of the participation in the war of the Central American countries was likely to be mainly symbolic.
Rather, it seems to be attempts by the papers to signal to their readers that there may now be light at the end of the tunnel. Frequent coverage of American plans for rapid increases in the production of war materiel has the same effect.
The Battle of Midway six months later is presented in a way almost to suggest that it is the beginning of the end for the Japanese side. Vendsyssel Tidende, the regional paper, reported on June 5, 1942, that ‘in American military circles the general opinion is that the operations form the initial stages of a larger Japanese attempt at preventing Allied preparations for the long-awaited major offensive against the Japanese home islands.’
The following day, the same newspaper described a ‘giant naval battle’ taking place between Japanese and American forces, with the involvement of large numbers of naval aircraft. Two days later, American Admiral Ernest King is quoted as saying in a press conference that its outcome could be decisive for the entire war in the Pacific.
After that, reporting on the battle fizzled out, and readers were left unaware who had won. This could be the work of the Press Department at the Danish Foreign Ministry, which oversaw censorship on behalf of the German authorities and may merely have blocked wire reports declaring an outright Allied victory.
Remarkably, however, for the entire duration of the Battle, and unlike the coverage of Pearl Harbor, the sourcing is exclusively American, sometimes via the Danish wire service Ritzau. The newspapers could have picked reports from the Japanese side, for example as quoted in the German media, but preferred not to do so.
Did the Danes care?
The war in Europe was of far greater immediate significance to the Danish public than the war against Japan. After all events in Europe had a direct bearing on when and how the German occupation would end. However, this does not mean, however, that interest in developments in the Pacific was completely absent, as the comments about the fall of Singapore showed.
The monograph The Danes and the Occupation (2005) by Danish historian Palle Roslyng-Jensen, which contained those excerpts, also quoted other diary entries expressing concern about the war in the East. For example, one diarist on December 8, 1941, wrote the following: ‘Today the Japanese attacked the United States, without a prior declaration of war. Luckily for them, they have learned something from the Germans.’
What kind of news raised the mood? Only news about Allied victories. Reports of Allied defeats tended to depress the mood, while the absence of any concrete news did the same thing by convincing the public that it will be a long wait before the war ends. For example, one of the diaries had the following entry for September 1, 1942: ‘Everyone is tired of the war. You don’t want to read or hear more about.’
What this limited sample suggests is that there was not the same specific interest in the Pacific War as there was in, for example, the war in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic or Western Europe – or even the Eastern Front.
Even so, Danish newspaper readers, assuming the perspective of the Allied powers, understood very well that setbacks in the war against Japan would add to the overall challenges facing the Allied nations and prolong the time before the war could be concluded.
Peter Harmsen worked as a foreign correspondent in Asia for more than 20 years, reporting from almost every country in the region for media such as AFP, Bloomberg and the Economist Intelligence Unit. He has written two books about China during the Second World War, Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze (2013) and Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City (2015). He is currently completing a PhD at the University of Copenhagen.