The Exception: How Denmark Saved Its Jews from the Nazis

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Photo Gallery: The Rescue of Denmark's Jews Photos
AFP

Denmark was the only European country to save almost all of its Jewish residents from the Holocaust. After being tipped off about imminent roundups by prominent Nazis, resisters evacuated the country's 7,000 Jews to Sweden by boat. A new book examines this historical anomaly.

They left at night, thousands of Jewish families, setting out by car, bicycle, streetcar or train. They left the Danish cities they had long called home and fled to the countryside, which was unfamiliar to many of them. Along the way, they found shelter in the homes of friends or business partners, squatted in abandoned summer homes or spent the night with hospitable farmers. "We came across kind and good people, but they had no idea about what was happening at the time," writes Poul Hannover, one of the refugees, about those dark days in which humanity triumphed.

At some point, however, the refugees no longer knew what to do next. Where would they be safe? How were the Nazis attempting to find them? There was no refugee center, no leadership, no organization and exasperatingly little reliable information. But what did exist was the art of improvisation and the helpfulness of many Danes, who now had a chance to prove themselves.

Members of the Danish underground movement emerged who could tell the Jews who was to be trusted. There were police officers who not only looked the other way when the refugees turned up in groups, but also warned them about Nazi checkpoints. And there were skippers who were willing to take the refugees across the Baltic Sea to Sweden in their fishing cutters, boats and sailboats.

A Small Country With a Big Heart

Denmark in October 1943 was a small country with a big heart. It had been under Nazi occupation for three-and-a-half years. And although Denmark was too small to have defended itself militarily, it also refused to be subjugated by the Nazis. The Danes negotiated a privileged status that even enabled them to retain their own government. They assessed their options realistically, but they also set limits on how far they were willing to go to cooperate with the Germans.

The small country defended its democracy, while Germany, a large, warmongering country under Hitler, was satisfied with controlling the country from afar and, from then on, viewed Denmark as a "model protectorate." That was the situation until the summer of 1943, when strikes and acts of sabotage began to cause unrest. This prompted the Germans to threaten Denmark with court martials and, in late August, to declare martial law. The Danish government resigned in protest.

At this point, the deportation and murder of European Jews had already been underway for some time in other countries that had submitted to Nazi control. In the Netherlands, Hungary, Greece, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, the overwhelming majority of Jews, between 70 and 90 percent of the Jewish population, disappeared and were murdered. The Nazis deported and killed close to half of all Jews in Estonia, Belgium, Norway and Romania. About a fifth of French and Italian Jews died. As historian Peter Longerich writes, the Holocaust was dependent, "to a considerable extent, on the practical cooperation and support of an occupied country or territory."

The Danes provided no assistance to the Nazis in their "Jewish campaign" in Denmark. They viewed the Jews as Danes and placed them under their protection, a story documented in "Countrymen," a new book by Danish author Bo Lidegaard. "The history of the rescue of the Danish Jews," writes Lidegaard, "is only a tiny part of the massive history of the Shoah. But it teaches us a lesson, because it is a story about the survival instinct, civil disobedience and the assistance provided by an entire people when, outranged and angry, it rebelled against the deportation of its fellow Danes."

Ten Years Documenting the Danish Resistance

Lidegaard, born in 1958, is a tall intellectual with many talents. As a diplomat, he represented his country in Geneva and Paris. After that, he served as an adviser to two succeeding Danish prime ministers and, in 2009, he organized the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen. He has been the editor-in-chief of Politiken, Denmark's large, left-liberal daily newspaper, since April 2011.

He worked on his book for 10 years. During a conversation in Hamburg, Lidegaard said that he was interested in finding out why Denmark had wanted to save the Jews -- and why the Nazis allowed them to be saved. Two men played a key role in the affair -- two German Nazis, each with his own story.

One of the Germans was named Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz. He was from a merchant's family in the northern port city of Bremen and joined the Nazi Party in 1932. Duckwitz was a Nazi and an anti-Semite out of conviction. He worked for Alfred Rosenberg, one of Hitler's race ideologues, who was sentenced to death in Nuremberg in 1946 and executed.

Duckwitz gradually developed an aversion to the Nazis' brutishness and bloodlust. Because he was familiar with Denmark from his earlier days and had a fondness for the country, he went to Copenhagen in September 1939, working as a shipping expert for the German Reich's Ministry of Transport.

Germany occupied Denmark on April 9, 1940, but the protectorate was allowed to direct its internal affairs. It kept a certain amount of latitude and rejected the Nazis' demand that it introduce the death penalty and segregate Jews. The country asserted itself as much as it could.

Germany declared Denmark a model for the protectorates that Hitler intended to establish in Western Europe after the end of the war. The Nazis initially sent only 89 officials to the country, and they were responsible for 3.8 million Danes. By contrast, Berlin sent 22,000 officials to France. Unlike France, Denmark was small and had only a small Jewish population. The country also had no raw materials of importance to the war effort. Denmark supplied agricultural products to Germany, but its economic role was relatively small.

An Enemy from Within

Duckwitz wrote a manuscript describing his official and unofficial activities in Copenhagen. The document, which remains in the political archive of the German Foreign Ministry today, both complements and contradicts Lidegaard's account.

Part of Duckwitz's job was to manage German ships calling at Danish ports. He signed agreements with Danish government agencies that regulated "the reciprocal use of tonnage." He was also required to report to Berlin when the Danish underground committed acts of sabotage against ships.

In addition, Duckwitz established ties with Social Democrats and young labor leader Hans Hedtoft, and he assisted Danes who had fallen into the Germans' clutches. Duckwitz's office soon became unofficially known as "the office for rescuing people."

A Nazi himself, Duckwitz became an opponent of the Nazis who simultaneously had good connections in Berlin. The Nazis could hardly have failed to notice the change. They threatened to recall him several times but never followed through.

Duckwitz exemplified what the German philosopher Hannah Arendt called "the role played by the German authorities in Denmark, their obvious sabotage of orders from Berlin," a phenomenon that she found astonishing. "It is the only case we know of in which the Nazis met with open native resistance, and the result seems to have been that those exposed to it changed their minds.

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1. optional
val.gorianin 10/17/2013
What about Bulgaria? Bulgarian saved all the Bulgarian jews. it couldn't save the one of Aegean Thrace, Macedonia and other lands controlled by Bulgaria during World War II were not considered Bulgarian; they were only administered by Bulgaria, but Bulgaria had no say as to the affairs of these lands; the orders came from Germany.
2. graphics
lenger 10/18/2013
I read your exceptional articles almost once a week, many years already. I would like you to consider changing the photo illustrating the "World War II" section, as it makes me cringe every time I look at it. I am sure you will find something better in your archives. Thank you.
3.
fantaxico 10/18/2013
and what about portugal? denmark was not the only european country to save is jews. im sorry but this article is historically wrong.
4. Finland
villevittumainen 10/18/2013
Denmark may be the only _occupied_ country to save its jewish population. It is noteworthy to mention in this context that Finland saved all their jewish population as well. Finland was not occupied, but Finland was brother in arms together with Nazi-Germany. Finnish jews were in fact soldiers fighting together with german soldiers.
5. optional
peskyvera 10/18/2013
And not forgetting the fact that, when ordered to wear the Star of David, the Danish king also wore it.
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