The fate of Denmark’s Jews in October, 1943 was an anecdote in a sea of malice. My Danish friend Michael was on one of those boats, the ones wandering around in the Øresund on a dark night in October, lights out lest the Nazi patrols find them, and also lost in an autumn storm, headed possibly for Sweden, but also possibly to Poland or Germany itself.
I asked Michael how it was that night, and he said, “I was two months old.”
I said, “Make an effort,” but stubbornly he couldn’t remember what happened, so instead at breakfast the next morning a book landed at my breakfast place, the panoramic study Countrymen, by Bo Lidegaard, the editor in chief of Danish daily Politiken. (London: Atlantic Books, 2015.)
After reading it on the flight home to Washington, I see there was more to the Rescue than I’d thought — more disconnected circumstance, timing, opportunism all around, and dumb luck. Knowing more now than I did, I admire Danes more, not less.
A cipher in an infinity of dashed hopes, the 7000 saved did well for themselves, communicated and chronicled the event, and their countrymen did well by them also.
Even so, I had never before really made the connection between the date and the rescue. By late 1943, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union was already going badly, and many in Europe thought the nightmare might soon be over. Nazis were already thinking ahead to the reckoning which later had a name: Nuremberg. No “good” Nazis I guess, but they were not fools. They knew they would end up twisting on meat hooks either if they failed to do Berlin’s bidding, or possibly if they did so and were captured by the Allies afterward.
Navigating between these two consequences was not easy, and some of them did so very ably. Some get “credit” for looking the other way as Danish fishermen packed their boats and stole away in the autumn night for Sweden on the other side. In the case of the commercial attaché at the German embassy in Copenhagen, Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, it seemed there was genuine revulsion for the actions of his Nazi bosses in arranging roundups despite promises to the contrary. He went to tip off the Danish Socialist Party of the date of the round-up (no, it wasn’t the local rabbi.) But might he have done so with the knowledge of the commanding civilian Nazi on the scene, Werner Best — protégé and confidant of one Heinrich Himmler? Duckwitz certainly did this at risk of his life, and maybe of Best’s as well, but did both have a stake in their escape from prosecution after War’s end?
This is one of the more intriguing conundrums of the drama. And of course people behave more interestingly in dramas, under stress, and that is why we have movies and plays. If these were no-brainers, they wouldn’t have happened.
Other variables I hadn’t focused on earlier: we know that Herr Hitler loved Scandinavians, and in particular Denmark’s king, Christian X. Hitler kept courting Christian, who in return only displayed his contempt for the upstart sadist very openly — one of the few Europeans to get away with such a thing. When Christian was recovering in the hospital from a nasty fall from a horse, the Führer sent a get-well telegram to the King. The famous reply (“Herr Hitler, my only regret is that you are not here [in the hospital] with me”) was a verbal finger that only Scandinavian royalty could pull off or survive. And no, the King did not “wear” the Star of David in the streets of Copenhagen (urban legend) but he did say at a meeting, “Well if they must wear them, then I guess we all must do so.”
Another twist which made this odd confabulation possible: while the neutral Swedes had behaved questionably in 1940-41 in offering their train system for Hitler’s invasion of Norway, and supplying the famous “Big Bertha” for the Nazi weapons arsenal, it seems they switched course as a nation in the following two years, and were extremely gracious and welcoming to any refugee who made it to their shores. All the eyewitness accounts seem to corroborate this. Was it their better angels coming out, or a cold calculation of how things would shake out after War’s end, or just decency getting the upper hand? It seemed, the latter.
Yet more peculiarities: The Hitlerian presence in Denmark was neither by invasion nor Anschluss, but by something called “cooperation” (samarbeitet.) Danes knew they could not oppose Nazism alone, and reasonably enough submitted to the inevitable. They even accepted responsibility for policing their own country, and yet the police were wholly uncooperative when it came to persecuting any of their fellow countrymen without due process. The Nazis could count on local cooperation in racial eradication in most European countries. But in Denmark, while anti-Semitism lay under the surface, so did the countervailing force of reason (“If they round them up, we could be next”) and an embedded veneration of rule of law. The oldest surviving parliamentary documents in the world, after all, are to this day in the Faroe Islands, which were and are part of the Danish realm. Nazis were not about to kill their favorite Aryans, but their cat-and-mouse games at making everything appear legal just didn’t work at all with Danes. Local police were trained to keep things by the book, not by superior forces from the outside.
As the Eastern Front went badly, Berlin could not afford to divert troops to subdue an unruly state. Berlin was well advised by Werner Best that Danes would be unreliable in a roundup, and would be unmanageable if their local rules or culture were trampled. The timing just wasn’t right, for Berlin to pay attention to anything much else than killing as many Russians as they could during that brutal winter which went about as well for Hitler as it had gone for Napoleon 131 years earlier.
In all of Europe, only Denmark and Bulgaria saved their persecuted countrymen. Denmark had the luck of having a friendly, neutral country just a few kilometers away.
The rescue did not take place during a single night, but over a period of three weeks. Lots of occupiers saw this happening, and they did catch a few hundred unfortunates. But Best reported cunningly to Berlin after the rescue to Sweden that “The Jewish question in Denmark has been settled.” Meaning, none in sight. He skillfully omitted what Berlin probably knew: they hadn’t been killed, just sort of disappeared.
No one at the time had any misunderstanding of what happened to people who were evacuated on trains to Treblinka. The idea that someone in Washington just wasn’t aware is just a silly historic platitude.
It’s hard to put oneself in the mental state of someone learning they would soon be rounded up and killed, or that of the fisherman and boat owners and Danish police, ambulance drivers, nurses, hospital clerks, Lutheran clergy, who all in fact worked together to foil the roundup. Did they really have to go? And if so, was there any chance of making it out alive?
The initial disbelief that Werner Best would actually lie to Danish political leaders was understandable enough. Also, the genuine fear of the boatmen, assuming Nazi patrol boats would come and sweep up all of them, then execute the rescuers and rescued, both. So it doesn’t seem that greed was the main motivator behind fisherman taking payments of 500-1500 kroner per passenger, when in fact no one was left behind for lack of cash. The richer paid for the poorer, and anyway, the boats needed to refuel on the Swedish side to make it back home.
So in many ways, the story is an Andersen fairy tale, only one that actually in fact occurred. Bravos to all involved — except maybe the infamous “Gestapo-Juhl,” the Nazi officer who kept blundering on stage to spoil the party and actually round up Jews. He was a bit tone deaf even to his own colleagues. Any fairy tale needs a good (and stupid) villain to spice up the story.
The problem comes with history itself. Denmark was lucky that fall, for the variables above. Additionally, they met their good luck with exceedingly good and admirable behavior.
But history is not static. All things change, with reliable randomness. Sentiments which were once lethal return with blander faces, narratives, and intentions.
Pia Kjærsgaard, the former leader of the Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti, DF) now serves as Denmark’s equivalent of Speaker of the House, and her party colleagues in the parliament (Folketinget) support the Liberal (Venstre) government with Lars Løkke Rasmussen as prime minister. DF’s tough immigration policy, sometimes compared to France’s National Front under Marine Le Pen, has minded its vocabulary and successfully sues those who call it “nationalist.” So I won’t. They won the European Parliament election in 2014 with almost 27 percent of the Danish vote – the largest percentage of any Danish party. In 2015 they got 21 percent of the vote in the Danish general election, doubled their seats in the Folketing.
No, history does not “repeat” itself. This is a horrible canard and makes arguments (“Munich!”) for the most foolish policies. But it does seem to indicate that disdain for lessons of the past remains a big factor in democracies, and likely always will.
Dan Whitman teaches Foreign Policy at the Washington Semester Program, American University. As Public Diplomacy officer in USIA and the Department of State for more than 25 years, he drafted and edited speeches for U.S. ambassadors in Denmark, Spain, South Africa, Cameroon, Haiti, and Guinea-Conakry. A senior Foreign Service Officer, he retired in 2009 from the Bureau of African Affairs, U.S. Department of State.