The General Nobody Knew

Paper presented at the International Conference for Film and History in Tutzing near Munich in September 1978. A German translation ”Der General, den niemand kannte,” is printed in Zeitgeschichte in Film und Fernsehen, Studies in History, Film, and Society 3, edd. K.F. Reimers und H. Friedrich. München 1982,

pp. 179-184.


In the evening of May 4th, 1945, the happy message came from Field Marshall Montgomery’s Headquarters that the German troops had capitulated in Holland, North WestGermany, and Denmark. The hour of freedom has arrived, five years of terror, murder, and tyranny were over. The summer of 1945 was a happy one, full of hopes and expectations, but it was also a summer of conflict. It was the days of judgement where the thoughts were turned to the past in attempt to explain and understand, to accuse and defend, to honour and blame. The papers were full of debate, there was a steady flow of books and pamphlets, which has continued up till now. Monographs, memoirs, source publications, etc. have been published in large numbers, so that now the years 1940-45 must be the most-studied period in the history of Denmark.


Quite a number of those books were “authoritative”, that is, large multi-volume works by well-known politicians, officials, and historians, who attempted to describe not only the Danish Resistance Movement and the German Occupation Policy, but also the internal political, social, economic, and cultural conditions in the country during five years of occupation. Børge Outze’s Danmark under den anden verdenskrig (Denmark during the Second World War) is the most recent of this kind.[1]


Its first volume, Overfaldet (The Attack, Copenhagen, 1962) contained a real sensation: the discovery of the presence of a hitherto unknown German general in Copenhagen on the first day of the occupation, April 9th, 1940. This assumption was based on two photographs of a German parade in the Citadel of Copenhagen, showing three high rank officers inspecting a regiment of soldiers.


According to Mr. Outze, the photographs had been found as negatives, and as long as no positive copies had been made there was no doubt that they dated from a parade in honour of General Major Roettig, who had been conducting the military occupation of Copenhagen. But when such copies were provided, Mr. Outze got his first surprise: the general on the photos was in air force uniform and did not look like General Major Roettig.


Then followed the second surprise: Nobody could identify the general. Nobody remembered to have ever seen him before.


Mr. Outze then applied to the Bundesrepublik for assistance, but not even there did anybody seem to know the man. Yet, after some time a message arrived from Cologne:


“Die zwei Photos, die wir wieder mitgeben, wurden verschiedenen hohen Offizieren der Bundeswehr und ehem. Wehrmacht vorgelegt. Die meisten Offiziere vertreten, unabhängig von einander, die Auffassung, dass die gefragte Person der General der Flieger von Stülpnagel ist. von Stülpnagel was 1940 Wehrbefehrshaber in Dänemark, von Stülpnagel wurde am 20/7 1944 hingerichtet.”


(The two photos, which we return, have been shown to different higher Officers in the Bundesmehr und former Wehrmacht. Most of the officers have, independently of eachother, the opinion that the person, you asked for, is Air Force General von Stülpnagel. von Stülpnagel was 1940 commander-in-chief in Denmark. von Stülpnagel was executed on July 20th, 1944).


With this assistance Mr. Outze was thus able to identify the man on the photos as General Heinrich von Stülpnagel. As he had no reason to doubt that the other photos among which the two were found had been taken on April 9th, 1940, von Stülpnagel must have been in Copenhagen on that day.


However, Mr. Outze found no mention of his presence in Denmark in any of the surviving German military documents.[2] Naturally, he found it rather mysterious, that there had been a general nobody mentioned or even knew. He therefore concluded that von Stülpnagel had been in Denmark on a top-secret mission and guessed that the leaders in Berlin had secretly designated him as the military dictator, who was to have ruled the country if the Danish king was to flee or abdicate. The German occupation of Denmark had thus been planned differently from what Danish and German historians had hitherto thought. The Danish king, however, did not flee or abdicate, so von Stülpnagel was not needed, and apparently he left the country again later on the same day.[3] His presence in Copenhagen would never have been revealed if these photographs had not happened to be taken.


Mr. Outze’s use of the above-mentioned photographs is a small but instructive example of how photographs can be used in the practical solution of historical problems. At the same time it is an illustration of how not to go about it. If your solutions are sensational and controversial, you must convince your readers of their validity. Mr. Outze, however, is not convincing. He does not tell us where he found the two photographs; he does not give us the names of the officers in the Bundeswehr or the modern German organization who made the identification; and, finally, he makes no attempt to check his information.


An investigation of Heinrich von Stülpnagel’s military data shows that, like the above-mentioned Roettig, he was General der Infanterie (Infantry General),[4] and could therefore not have appeared in Copenhagen in the uniform of an air force general. Moreover, a photograph shows that he did not in fact look like the general who appears on the two photos.[5] Ordinary historical research would thus not have led to the identification made by Mr. Outze. On the other hand, neither would it have answered his question about the unknown general. That is a problem that can only be solved by investigating the provenance of the two photographs.


Doing so it becomes clear that Mr. Outze had found the photos in a Danish documentary Det gælder din Frihed (Your Freedom is at Stake) made by the famous Danish filmmaker Theodor Christensen in 1946.[6] According to the press release which the distributing company issued before the first showing of his film in May 1946, the longe sequence of the 9th of April is an “authentic report”.[7] An analyses of the provenance of the visual material, used in the film, shows, however, that the greater part of the non-Danish material is German and comes from different issues of the Ufa and the Deutsche Wochenschau (newsreel) as well as from the films Feldzug in Polen (The campaign in Poland) and Sieg im Westen (The Western Victory). Apart from genuine shots from the occupation of Denmark in Det gælder din Frihed we find shots from the occupation of Prague, March 1939, the wars in Poland and France, the occupation of Norway, the advance on Sollum in North Africa, December 1941, the Eastern Front, and the Führer’s Headquarters, April 20th 1941 – all shots which have nothing to do with Denmark. Moreover, most of the Danish filmshots were reconstructions made after the war. Thus it is not an authentic report but a compilation, in which shots are mixed together for the purpose of telling a dramatic and exciting story. Despite the statement to the press, it is obvious that the people behind the film have not bothered greatly about authenticity in the selection of material. It is therefore extremely hazardous to take the visual message of the film at face value.


It seems reasonable to assume that the two photos of German military parade in the Citadel of Copenhagen were taken by a German cameraman. It is therefore obvious to examine whether Theodor Christensen, the director of Det gælder din Frihed, might have taken the parade shots from a German newsreel.


The Ufa 502, censored April 17th, 1940,[8] is the first newsreel that deals with the military “Imschutznahme” (Protective action), as the occupation of Denmark and Norway was called by the Germans. The parade is, however, not to be found in this movie. But the next newsreel, Ufa 503, censored April 24th, 1940, contains a parade sequence from Copenhagen (Film section 2). So there is not doubt. It was from this film that Theodor Christensen had taken the shots.


The question of provenance has thus been solved: The two photos in Mr. Outze’s book came through Det gælder din Frihed from the German newsreel Ufa 503. Furthermore, in this film the speaker gives the solution to Mr. Outze’s problem:


“In Kopenhagen ziehen die deutschen Truppen anlässlich des 51. Geburtstag des Führers zur Zitadelle, wo ein militärische Feier stattfindet. General der Flieger Kaupisch, der Befehlshaber der deutschen Truppen in Dänemark, schreidet die Front ab. Ihm zur Seite General Roettig, der die Ansprache hielt.”


(On the occasion of the Führer’s birthday [April 20th] the German troops march in Copenhagen to the Citadel, where a military celebration is held. Air Force General Kaupisch, the Commander-in-Chief of the German troops in Denmark is passing the line of soldiers. Next to him General Roettig, who made the appeal).


The date of Mr. Outz’s two photographs is thus not April 9th, but April 20th, 1940, and they do not show an unknown general, but the well-known General von Kaupisch, who had been the commander-in-chief of the military operations in Denmark. There is thus no mystery, no problem, no unknown general. The whole affair has come about because Mr. Outze has taken the visual message of the 9th of April-sequence in the Det gælder din Frihed at face value.


My example is not unique. Misinterpretation of film shots and photos are found in all countries, but they have rarely led to such consequences as in the present case, where historical facts had to be changed for a while.


I have wanted to prove that film shots and photographs can be used as historical evidence and source material, but that, on the other hand, we must be aware what kind of material we use. The basis question is thus the question of provenance. Without a knowledge of provenance, identification and dating are uncertain, and with no sure identification and dating our films and photos cannot contributed much to our knowledge of the past.





[1] Vols. 1-4, Copenhagen 1962-1965. The author is a well-known journalist, who started and was leader of Information, an illegal press agency during the war. His work is a popular standard work on the occupation and is widely-read in Denmark.

[2]The fact that von Stülpnagel’s name is not to be found in the German sources explains according to Mr. Outze why he is not mentioned in Walther Hubatsch, Weserübung. Die deutsche Besetzung von Dänemark and Norwegen 1940 (Berlin-Frankfurt, 1960). This book is still the most authoritative account of the military operations in Denmark and Norway in 1940.

[3] Outze vol. 1, pp. 500-501.

[4] H.-A. Jacobsen & Hans Dollinger, Der zweite Weltkrieg in Bildern und Dokumente,(Munich 1968), vol. 8, p. 177.

[5] Ibidem.

[6] Shotnumbers 414 and 415.

[7] Pressekommentar til Det gælder din Frihed, The Danish Film Archive K 72-1, p. 2.

[8] Hans Barkhausen, Findbücher zu Beständen des Bundesarchivs, (Koblenz, 1971), vol. 8, p. 77.