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One Country Saved Its Jews. Were They Just Better People?

The surprising truth about Denmark in the Holocaust

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty

This magnificent book states its central argument in its title. Danish Jews survived Hitler’s rule in World War II, when other European Jews did not, because Danes regarded their Jewish neighbors as countrymen. There was no “us” and “them;” there was just us.

When, in October 1943, the Gestapo came to round up the 7,500 Jews of Copenhagen, the Danish police did not help them to smash down the doors. The churches read letters of protest to their congregations. Neighbors helped families to flee to villages on the Baltic coast, where local people gave them shelter in churches, basements, and holiday houses and local fishermen loaded up their boats and landed them safely in neutral Sweden. Bo Lidegaard, the editor of the leading Danish newspaper Politiken, has retold this story using astonishingly vivid unpublished material from families who escaped, and the testimony of contemporary eyewitnesses, senior Danish leaders (including the king himself), and even the Germans who ordered the roundups. The result is an intensely human account of one episode in the persecution of European Jews that ended in survival.

The story may have ended well, but it is a complex tale. The central ambiguity is that the Germans warned the Jews and let most of them escape. Lidegaard claims this was because the Danes refused to help the Germans, but the causation might also have worked in the other direction. It was when the Danes realized that the Germans were letting some Jews go that they found the courage to help the rest of their Jewish community escape. Countrymen is a fascinating study in the ambiguity of virtue.

The Danes knew long before the war that their army could not resist a German invasion. Instead of overtly criticizing Hitler, the Social Democratic governments of the 1930s sought to inoculate their populations against the racist ideology next door. It was in those ominous years that the shared identity of all Danes as democratic citizens was drummed into the political culture, just in time to render most Danes deeply resistant to the Nazi claim that there existed a “Jewish problem” in Denmark. Lidegaard’s central insight is that human solidarity in crisis depended on the prior consolidation of a decent politics, on the creation of a shared political imagination. Some Danes did harbor anti-Semitic feelings, but even they understood the Jews to be members of a political community, and so any attack on them was an attack on the Danish nation as such.

The nation in question was imagined in civic terms rather than ethnic terms. What mattered was a shared commitment to democracy and law, not a common race or religion. We can see this in the fact that Danish citizens did not defend several hundred communists who were interned and deported by the Danish government for denouncing the Danish monarchy and supporting the Hitler-Stalin pact. The Danes did nothing to defend their own communists, but they did stand up for the Jews.

The Danish response to the Nazis illuminates a crucial fact about the Holocaust: the Germans did not always force the issue of extermination where they faced determined resistance from occupied populations. In Bulgaria, as Tzvetan Todorov has shown in his aptly titled book The Fragility of Goodness, the Jews were saved because the king of Bulgaria, the Orthodox Church, and a few key Bulgarian politicians refused to assist the German occupiers. Why did a similar civic sense of solidarity not take root in other countries? In Holland, why did 80 percent of Dutch Jews perish? And what about France: why did liberty, equality, and fraternity not apply to the citizens driven from their homes by French police and sent to deportation and death? These questions become harder to answer in the light of the Danish and Bulgarian counterexamples. One possible explanation is that the German occupation’s presence in Denmark was lighter than in either France or Holland. The Danes, like the Bulgarians, kept their king and maintained their own government throughout the occupation. Self-government gave them a capacity to defend Jews that was never possible in the occupied zones of France or Holland.

Both the Danish king and the Danish government decided that their best hope of maintaining Denmark’s sovereignty lay in cooperating but not collaborating with the German occupiers. This “cooperation” profited some Danes but shamed many others. The Danish population harbored ancestral hostility to the Germans, and the occupation reinforced these feelings. The Germans, for their part, put up with this frigid relationship: they needed Danish food, and Danish cooperation freed up German military resources for battle on the Eastern Front, and the Nazis wanted to be liked. They wanted their “cooperative” relationship with Denmark to serve as a model for a future European community under Hitler’s domination.

From very early on in this ambiguous relationship, the Danes, from the king on down, made it clear that harming the Jews would bring cooperation to an end and force the Germans to occupy the country altogether. The king famously told his prime minister, in private, that if the Germans forced the Danish Jews to wear a yellow star, then he would wear one too. Word of the royal position went public and even led to a myth that the king had actually ridden through the streets of Copenhagen on horseback wearing a yellow star on his uniform. The king never did wear a star. He didn’t have to wear one, because, thanks to his opposition, the Germans never imposed such a regulation in Denmark.

When, in late summer in 1943, the order came down from Eichmann to the local German authorities in Copenhagen that they had to rid the city of its Jews, these authorities faced a dilemma. They knew that the Danish politicians, police, and media—that Danish society as a whole—would resist and that, once the cooperation of the Danes had been lost, the Germans would have to run the country themselves. The Germans in Copenhagen were also beginning to have second thoughts about the war itself. By then the German armies had been defeated at Stalingrad. While the Gestapo in Poland and Eastern Europe faced the prospect of defeat by accelerating the infernal rhythm of extermination in the death camps, the Gestapo in Denmark began to look for a way out. The local Gauleiter, a conniving opportunist named Werner Best, did launch the roundup of the Jews, but only after letting the Jewish community find out in advance what was coming, giving them time to escape. He did get his hands on some people in an old-age home and dispatch them to Theresienstadt, but all but 1 percent of the Jewish community escaped his clutches. It is an astonishing number.

Illustration by Paul Blow

When Adolf Eichmann came to Copenhagen in 1943 to find out why so many Jews had escaped, he did not cashier the local Gestapo. Instead he backed down and called off the deportations of Danes who were half-Jewish or married to Jews. Lidegaard’s explanation for Eichmann’s volte face is simply that the institutions of Danish society all refused to go along. And without their cooperation, a Final Solution in Denmark became impossible. Totalitarianism, not to mention ethnic cleansing and ethnic extermination, always requires a great deal of collaboration.

When they got wind of German plans in September 1943, the Danish government resigned, and no politician agreed to serve in a collaborationist government with the Germans thereafter. After the roundups of Jews were announced, leading Danish politicians of different parties issued a joint statement declaring, “The Danish Jews are an integral part of the people, and therefore all the people are deeply affected by the measures taken, which are seen as a violation of the Danish sense of justice.” This is the political culture of “countrymen” with which Lidegaard explains the extraordinary determination—and success—of the Danes in protecting their Jewish population.

Such general support across Danish society seems to have empowered the Jews of Copenhagen. When the Gestapo came to search the Jewish community’s offices in September 1943, the community treasurer, Axel Hertz, did not hesitate to ask the intruders, “By what right do you come here?” The German in charge replied, quite candidly: “By the right of the stronger.” And Hertz retorted: “That is no good right.” Jews in Denmark behaved like rights-bearers, not like victims in search of compassion. And they were not wrong: their feeling of membership in the Danish polity had a basis in its political culture.

When the Germans arrived to begin the deportations, Jews had already been warned—in their synagogues—and they simply vanished into the countryside, heading for the coast to seek a crossing to neutral Sweden. There was little or no Jewish communal organization and no Danish underground to help them. What ensued was a chaotic family-by-family flight, made possible simply because ordinary members of Danish society feigned ignorance when Germans questioned them, while sheltering families in seaside villages, hotels, and country cottages. Danish police on the coast warned hiding families when the Gestapo came to call, and signaled all-clear so that boats bearing Danish Jews could slip away to Sweden. The fishermen who took the Danish Jews across the Baltic demanded huge sums for the crossing, but managed to get their frightened fellow citizens to safety. When the Gestapo did seize Jewish families hiding in the church of the small fishing village of Gilleleje, the people were so outraged that they banded together to assist others to flee. One villager even confronted the local Gestapo officer, shining a flashlight in his face and exclaiming: “The poor Jews!” When the German replied, “It is written in the Bible that this shall be their fate,” the villager unforgettably replied: “But it is not written that it has to happen in Gilleleje.”

Why did the Danes behave so differently from most other societies and populations in occupied Europe? For a start, they were the only nation where escape to a safe neutral country lay across a narrow strait of water. Moreover, they were not subject to exterminatory pressure themselves. They were not directly occupied, and their leadership structures from the monarch down to the local mayors were not ripped apart. The newspapers in Copenhagen were free enough to report the deportations and thus to assist any Jews still not in the know to flee. The relatively free circulation of information also made it impossible for non-Jewish Danes to claim, as so many Germans did, that “of this we had no knowledge.”

Most of all, Denmark was a small, homogeneous society, with a stable democracy, a monarchy that commanded respect, and a shared national hostility to the Germans. Denmark offers some confirmation of Rousseau’s observation that virtue is most easily fostered in small republics.

Lidegaard is an excellent guide to this story when he sticks close to Danish realities. When he ventures further and asks bigger questions, he goes astray. At the end of his book he asks: “Are human beings fundamentally good but weak? Or are we brutal by nature, checked and controlled only by civilization?” He wants the Danish story to answer such questions, but it cannot bear such weight. There simply are no general answers to the question of why humans behave as they do in times of extremity. What Lidegaard’s story really demonstrates is that history and context are all. Denmark was Denmark: that is all one can truthfully say.

Lidegaard makes the argument, in his conclusion, that had resistance been as strong elsewhere in Europe as it was in Denmark, the Nazis might never have been able to drive the Final Solution to its conclusion. He writes:

Hatred of the different was not some primordial force that was unleashed. Rather, it was a political convenience that could be used as needed, and in most occupied territories the Nazis followed their interests in pursuing this with disastrous consequences. But without a sounding board the strategy did not work. It could be countered by simple means—even by a country that was defenseless and occupied—by the persistent national rejection of the assumption that there was a “Jewish problem.”

This strikes me as only half-right. Anti-Semitism was indeed not “a primordial force” that the Nazis simply tapped into wherever they conquered. Jews met different fates in each country the Nazis occupied—or at least the rates of destruction and escape varied. But it does not follow that what the Danes did other peoples could have also done. The Germans faced resistance of varying degrees of ferocity in every country that they occupied in Europe. Where they possessed the military and police power to do so, they crushed that resistance with unbridled cruelty. Where, as in Denmark, they attempted a strategy of indirect rule, they had to live with the consequences: a populace that could not be terrorized into doing their bidding, and could therefore be counted on to react when fellow citizens were arrested and carried away.

One uncomfortable possibility that Lidegaard does not explore is that the Nazis sought a strategy of indirect rule precisely because they saw the Danes as fellow Aryans, potential allies in an Aryan Europe. This would explain why the Nazis were so comfortable in Copenhagen and so shaken by Danish resistance. The Poles they could dismiss as Untermenschen, and the French as ancient enemies; but to be resisted by supposed Aryans was perversely disarming. Why else would a ferocious bureaucrat such as Eichmann melt before Danish objections to the arrest of Jews married to Danes? One paradoxical possibility is that the Nazis bowed to Danish protests because their delusional racial anthropology led them to view the Danes as members of their own family. To their eternal credit, the Danes exploited this imagined family resemblance to defy an act of infamy.

Countrymen is a story about a little country that did the right thing for complicated reasons, and got away with it for equally complicated reasons. It is a story that reinforces an old truth: solidarity and decency depend on a dense tissue of connection among people, on long-formed habits of the heart, on resilient cultures of common citizenship, and on leaders who marshal these virtues by their example. In Denmark, this dense tissue bound human beings together and indirect rule made it impossible for the Germans to rip it apart. Elsewhere in Europe, by contrast, it was destroyed in stages, first by ghettoizing and isolating the Jewish people and then by insulating bystanders from the full horror of Nazi intentions. Once Jews had been stripped of citizenship, property, rights, and social existence—once they could appeal only to the common humanity of persecutors and bystanders alike—it was too late.

There is a sobering message in Lidegaard’s tale for the human rights era that came after these abominations. If a people come to rely for their protection on human rights alone, on the mutual recognition of common humanity, they are already in serious danger. The Danish story seems to tell us that it is not the universal human chain that binds peoples together in extremity, but more local and granular ties: the particular consciousness of time, place, and heritage that led a Danish villager to stand up to the Gestapo and say no, it will not happen here, not in our village. This extraordinary story of one small country has resonance beyond its Danish context. Countrymen should be read by anyone seeking to understand what precise set of shared social and political understandings can make possible, in times of terrible darkness, acts of civil courage and uncommon decency. 

Michael Ignatieff teaches at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.