An atypical betrayal
John Sealy’s The Betrayal of Norway, published this spring, is surprisingly less about Quisling in WWII than the historically fictional account of Captain Wilhelm Schmidt of the German occupation force, who arrived in Norway in April 1940. In the book, Schmidt and many other German commanders were supposedly selected to lead German troops in key towns and cities across Norway because they had learned Norwegian there during the first World War. They had been evacuated from Vienna to escape the “Italian bombing” of that city.
The bombing of Vienna is presented here as a historical fact, but my research shows that Vienna saw no combat nor bombing during World War I. The Italians did actually fly bombers over Vienna on Aug. 9, 1918, and symbolically bombed it… with thousands of propaganda leaflets, not bombs. I also turned up no evidence of Germans or Austrians being evacuated to Norway, and it seems somewhat unlikely given Germany’s U-boat action against British and Norwegian merchant fleets.
Setting that aside, I suspended my disbelief that German evacuees stayed in Norwegian homes during WWI, learning the language and culture while teenagers, because it made them plausibly ideal commanders for the occupation of Norway in WWII. In the case of Wilhelm Schmidt, he found his Norwegian hosts very gracious and had a teenage romance with Kristin, the daughter of the hosting family.
This then kicks off the plot of the book, as Wilhelm discovers that his orders are to take over the city government of a town in Norway, where this same Kristin is now the acting mayor. Both of them recognize each other but don’t let on, and tension builds as some townspeople—including Kristin’s family—begin to resist the occupation and plan sabotage.
Wilhelm’s struggle of conscience between his allegiance to the Reich and his fondness for the family over which he has to increasing apply harsh control is a refreshing change from the one-sided, “brutal Nazi” depiction so common to anything related to Germans and WWII. Kristin’s cleverness in seemingly following orders while resisting the man she once loved also makes for an interesting character study.
A few of this novel’s oddities include a couple of unexpectedly torrid love scenes between Norwegian lovers, which felt a bit gratuitous. Then there was the relatively mild language among the German soldiers compared to the f-bomb dropped by one of the Norwegian resistance fighters. I wasn’t sure how these two things were essential to the setting or the plot.
At times the scenes of high drama portrayed seemed a little over the top, as if the book were more a set of stereotyped scenes cobbled together to make a story. Wilhelm, for example, undergoes a dramatic change of attitude near the end, which I found less than believable for his character—but it did make for great drama.
The author, John Sealy, is a television and film editor, director, and producer. He undoubtedly thinks cinematically, which perhaps explains why the book, to me, read a bit like a book adaptation of a movie. As far as I can tell, though, this is Sealy’s debut novel, which does him great credit.
Eric Stavney is a graduate of the UW Scandinavian Studies Department and cohosts the Scandinavian Hour on KKNW 1150AM, Saturdays at 9 a.m. Pacific at 1150kknw.com/listen.
This article originally appeared in the October 5, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.