My awareness of the Munthe family began last summer when we visited an old house in Leksand called Munthes Hildasholm. I had seen the house advertised in tourist brochures for years and thought it would be an interesting outing sometime. However, it wasn’t until our cycle tour around Siljan last July that we first saw the old house. It is an imposing edifice, massive and white with red-framed windows, rather unlike the typical red and white log houses one sees in Dalarna. The house’s location on the heights above the shore of Lake Siljan is spectacular.
We cycled past on a grey and stormy day, stopping only briefly to peer through the big white gates before continuing to the Leksand city centre. Some weeks later we came back to Hildasholm with family from Australia who were visiting. We took a guided tour, and as we wandered through the big dark rooms I heard for the first time the story of the rather unusual family who had lived here, the family of Axel Munthe, physician to the Swedish royal family, and his wife, Hilda Pennington, an English society lady whom he met and married early in the 1900s. Munthe was much older than his wife and was also something of a philanderer and I gather that Hilda raised their two sons largely on her own. She lived with them in London and used the house, which her husband built for her (hence the name), as a summer residence. Axel owned numerous houses around Europe and Hilda also came from a wealthy family. After they were both dead their estate was sold off apart from four of the properties, two in the UK, the house in Sweden, and a fourth in Italy. The houses were administered by a trust and were opened to the public.
Axel Munthe was a colourful character, a doctor and writer, whose story is told in his own books but also a recent biography by Bengt Jangfeldt (Axel Munthe. The Road to San Michele). Both the sons, Peter and Malcolm, were officers in the British army in the Second World War. Malcolm was rather eccentric in later life. Often working as a tour guide in the various family houses, he movied from one to another according to the respective tourist seasons, but interestingly he seldom revelaed his identity to the public or mentioned that the stories he was telling were the stories of his own childhood and family. He died in the 1990s.
Something about Malcolm Munthe caught my interest and I resolved to find out more about him. I have recently finished reading a book he wrote in the late 1940s after the end of the Second World War. It has the arresting title, Sweet is War… for them that know it not. In that book he tells the story of his life during WWII as a British army officer. With a knowledge of Scandinavia and the ability to speak Swedish ( he spoke several languages other than English) he found himself initially posted to Finland where he was engaged in the Finnish-Russian war which broke out shortly after the invasion of Poland by Germany. After the fall of Finland to the Russians Munthe made his way to Norway, where he found himself trapped shortly after the German invasion in May 1940. As a British soldier he was waiting for forces promised by Britain to assist the beleaguered Norwegians – forces that never eventuated. He was stuck, injured, in Bergen, determined to escape back to the UK, logically across the North Sea to Scotland. One attempt after another was frustrated and he eventually made his way on foot slowly and painfully across the whole of Norway and into Sweden, where he got unofficially (and illegally) involved in assisting the Norwegian resistance movement, spawning the so called Operation Red Horse.
I have been fascinated by stories of Norwegian resistance against their German occupiers in WWII since I read as a child Escape Alone, by David Howarth, a book that was first published under the name We Die Alone. A conversation that I had with my good friend Hamish recently after he had returned from a trip to the Shetland Islands reignited my interest. He mentioned “the Shetland Bus”, an operation based in the Shetlands during WWII to ferry escaping Norwegians and returning Norwegian spies and saboteurs. I subsequently read a book, also by David Howarth, entitled The Shetland Bus, which devotes one chapter to the story told in We Die Alone. Munthe’s book provided a glimpse into Norwegian resistance from the Swedish side of Norway. I have also started reading a new book in Swedish, De glömda agenterna (The forgotten agents), by Anders Johansson, which is about Swedes who were involved (also illegally) in assisting Norwegian refugees to became resistance fighters and re-enter their country to assist in the struggle against their Nazi oppressors.