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The Passing of a WWII Hero: Joachim Ronneberg, 1919-2018

The worst thing about living in Norway for the past nineteen years (twenty next April) has been contemplating the dire future that lies in wait for the Norwegian children of today, whose feckless leaders are surrendering their beautiful country to a totalitarian religion. One of the best things about living here has been learning about Norway's history. What is especially stirring to me is the story of the Norwegian resistance -- which is a story almost entirely about a group of very young men who, faced with the occupation of their kingdom by a totalitarian foe, chose not to knuckle under and lie low but to risk their lives in an effort to (at the very least) cramp the enemy's style. It has been moving just to be alive at the same time as some of these men.

Among them was Max Manus, who was 25 years old at the time of the Nazi invasion. A fearless saboteur, he was captured by the Gestapo only to escape, flee to Sweden, make his way to the Soviet Union and to travel, from there, mostly by ship, to the U.S., then Canada, and finally Britain, undergoing training in all three of the last-named countries for undercover work. He died in 1996 and was memorialized in a terrific movie, Max Manus (2008).

Then there's Gunnar Sonsteby, who was a 22-year-old accountant in Oslo when the Nazis invaded. Joining the Resistance, he was soon head of the Oslo Gang, described by one historian as “the best groups of saboteurs in Europe.” A master of disguise and a gifted forger, Sonsteby, after the war, became Norway's most decorated citizen. When he died six years ago, his state funeral was broadcast live on national TV.

Now a third Norwegian hero has joined them. On Sunday evening came news that Joachim Ronneberg, one of the nation's last remaining World War II heroes, had died at age 99. Only twenty when the Germans invaded, Ronneberg was the youngest member -- but also the leader -- of the team that carried out the famous 1943 raid on the heavy-water plant in Vemork that has been dramatized on film in the 1948 Norwegian-French co-production Kampen om tungtvannet (currently available on YouTube with English subtitles), the historically unreliable Kirk Douglas vehicle Heroes of Telemark (1965), and, most recently, the excellent six-part Netflix miniseries The Heavy Water War (2015).

In an NRK-TV profile of Ronneberg that was broadcast in 2014, when he turned ninety-five (it opens with a group of children serenading him with the Norwegian “happy birthday” song), a Resistance expert ticked off some of Ronneberg's virtues as a Resistance member: he was intelligent, physically fit, and, having spent much of his youth hiking and playing in the mountains around his west Norway hometown of Ålesund, was very good at navigating such terrain and brilliant at memorizing landscapes. A 2015 New York Times profile described him as “still possessed of the unflappable calm that so impressed British military commanders more than 70 years ago.”

After the war, Manus and Sonsteby became successful businessmen. Ronneberg became a broadcaster. To watch interviews with them is to see men who combined a quiet nobility with a common touch. All three were strong “friends of America,” as the saying goes in Norway. In the 1970s, Ronneberg began visiting schools to talk to students about the war; in the NRK-TV program, explaining why he considered it important to tell young people about his experiences, he emphasized that they need to learn that “peace and freedom are not to be taken for granted. You have to be willing to defend them.” Indeed, the Times profile notes that the statement “Peace and Freedom are not to be taken for granted” is inscribed on the base of a statue of Ronneberg in Ålesund.

In his last years, Ronneberg criticized Norway's lack of military readiness. He told the Times in 2015 that he worried about “the reluctance of many in Europe to understand that 'it is not a stable world' and that peace is not guaranteed. 'It ought to be obvious to people that peace and freedom have to be fought for,' he said. 'Politicians seem to have forgotten this.'”

In these days of of undergraduate snowflakes who whine about microaggressions, it can be hard to imagine a man in his early twenties summoning the resolve and courage that Ronneberg did when the Nazis conquered his country. But of course the snowflakes don't represent their whole generation. The ones who make the most noise are always the ones who have the least of value to say. In any event, given that the current totalitarian threat is growing more pronounced by the day, we will learn soon enough how many young men and women there are among us who, like Joachim Ronneberg, are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for their freedom.