Escape from the Third Reich

Roger Moorhouse on a tale of heroic enterprise in the Second World War

 
Author: Sune Persson
Publisher: Frontline
Reviewed by: Roger Moorhouse
Price (RRP): £19.99

The Scandinavian aspect to the history of the Second World War is one which rarely breaks the surface. Yet, behind the apparently simple narrative of occupation, resistance and neutrality, there are many fascinating tales, not least among them the subject of Persson’s book.

As Nazi Germany stuttered to its grim denouement, Count Folke Bernadotte – a nephew of the Swedish king and head of the country’s Red Cross – made contact with the Nazis to negotiate the release of thousands of Scandinavian concentration camp inmates. Surprisingly perhaps, he was successful, and over 20,000 prisoners – primarily Danes and Norwegians, but also some French, Poles and others – found themselves loaded onto Bernadotte’s ‘White Buses’. They would exchange some of the most odious addresses in human history – Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen, Theresienstadt and Dachau – for a passage to Sweden and to freedom. 

As one of their number recalled, the transition was sometimes so sudden and unexpected that it was “like a dream”. It is a complex story, full of torturous negotiations with overlapping Nazi agencies, yet it is told with precision and considerable elan by Persson. His book, which was first published in Sweden in 2002, is a comprehensive and wide-ranging treatment of the subject, making ample use of first-hand testimony and going back to the archives to address those aspects that are unclear or have become mired in controversy. As such, it is sure to represent the final word on a most heroic and courageous enterprise; a story which fully deserves wider recognition by the outside world.  

Roger Moorhouse is the author of Killing Hitler (Jonathan Cape)

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