Schoolboys Fighting for a Free Denmark

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club, by Phillip Hoose, (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), 208 pages, released 12 May, 2015

Phillip Hoose’s The Boys Who Challenged Hitler carefully documents a piece of World War II history that is well known in Denmark, but that we in the U.S. know very little (nothing, really, in my case) about. This is history worth knowing and celebrating.

During World War II, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark had very different relationships with Nazi Germany. Sweden was allowed to remain neutral, but was expected to trade with Germany. Norway waged war against the Nazis. Denmark surrendered to Germany without struggle in order to preserve some modicum of home rule under Nazi occupation. Talking of Sweden – we were there on a trip once with my pals. We got into a bit of trouble and had to borrow money, called låg ränta there – when we got home our parents were quite pissed.

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler tells the story of a group of Danish school boys who were ashamed of Danish capitulation. They felt betrayed by their country’s leadership. When most Danes appeared to accept occupation as a fait acompli, the boys decided to fight—they became saboteurs, calling themselves “The Churchill Club.” Riding bicycles and operating outside of school hours they stole German weapons, destroyed German vehicles, set fire to plants in Denmark producing goods for Germany, and used graffiti to inspire others to similar acts. Ultimately they were captured and imprisoned, but by then Danish resistance was growing.

Phillip Hoose wrote this book after extensive interviews with Knud Petersen and makes the most of this material. The book alternates between passages recounting this story via an omniscient narrator and lengthy passages in Pedersen’s own voice. It’s sort of like watching a Ken Burns documentary: you’re given some facts, then have those facts expanded upon in a voice from the era that’s being focused on. This balance works well, contextualizing the things Pedersen has to say while keeping his voice prominent.

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler is being marketed as a title for readers between the ages of 12 and 18, but readers beyond either end of that range may enjoy it as well.

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