Countrymen: Hints of Denmark

The Danes' wartime protection of Jews was not the entire story.


By Tony Kushner, March 26, 2014
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Bo Lidegaard: attempts to reconcile contrasting aspects of the rescue of Danish Jewry in the Second World War

Bo Lidegaard: attempts to reconcile contrasting aspects of the rescue of Danish Jewry in the Second World War

By Bo Lidegaard
Atlantic Books, £22

We cannot get enough, these days, of Scandinavian crime thrillers but the only mystery here is how the publisher has tried to get away with suggesting, in a sub-title, that the rescue of Danish Jewry in October 1943 is an "untold story". As the author - editor of the leading Danish paper, Politiken and former diplomat, Bo Lidegaard - himself admits, the smuggling of close to 8,000 Jews from Denmark to Sweden over a two-week period is one of the most mythologised in Danish history.

What we need, some 70 years after the event, is a critical history that goes beyond myth-making on the one hand and revisionist dismissal on the other. So far, the dominant note inside and outside Denmark is celebratory, regarding the case as exemplary, showing how the Jews might have been saved elsewhere.

However, there was almost no risk to those involved in helping Jews in Denmark. It became apparent very quickly that the German authorities were willing to let the rescue happen without intervening. And, yes, Danish democracy remained intact but at the cost of collaborating with the Nazis.

On liberation day, according to one source, King Christian remarked: "Our achievement after all was that Copenhagen was not bombed, and that the country was not destroyed". Lidegaard understands what the King was saying: "That short phrase says it all. The 'after all' refers to the lack of struggle and therefore to lost honour'." But Lidegaard also wants to rescue the Danish reputation. The phrase "after all," he suggests, "also serves to highlight the crucial point that democracy had passed its toughest test". But had it really and at what cost?

Danish resistance to its genocidal partner/protectorate was minuscule and the rescue of the Jews was more an attempt to rescue some national pride. The Danes, especially Danish Jews, were lucky that the Nazi authorities didn't care about the tiny Jewish population. Werner Best, Reich chief in Denmark, played a canny game, making a token effort to arrest some Jews and leaving the others to flee - if nothing else, Denmark had been made "Jew free".

Lidegaard is caught between his understanding that the "special Danish example cannot be used to reproach others who experienced the German occupation under far worse conditions" and his desire to trumpet Denmark's refusal to discriminate between Danish and Danish Jewish citizens. He gets himself in some very dubious territory, however, when comparisons slip in. What are we to make of the following: "It was precisely this view of the Jews as barely human that elsewhere had robbed them of their fellow citizens' natural sympathy and protection. In Denmark… this attempt was met only with massive rejections by their fellow Danes, but also with an active defiance by the Jews themselves." There are dangerous assumptions that need unpacking here, but the author appears to have a limited knowledge of Holocaust historiography.

I am sure that, in its original Danish, this is an exciting and compelling read. No doubt the juxtaposition of discussions at a high level in Danish politics - including with the Jewish leadership - with the diaries and reports of ordinary Jews works well. Alas, however, the English translation is at best workaday and at worst incomprehensible.

Ultimately, this is a well-meaning but flawed account. It brings in some new sources but does not engage with recent, searching scholarship. It celebrates the Danish rescue (including those deported and then taken out of Terezin) but does not really query why Danish refugee policy was so mean in the 1930s or why the rescue scheme did not become more embracing as it did in Sweden. A sense of shame in its Scandinavian neighbour led first to helping Norwegian Jews, then the Danes and finally the Hungarians in 1944. Any discussion of Denmark and the Second World War should acknowledge that October 1943 was a part of and not apart from its nonresistance and full economic assistance given to Nazism.

Tony Kushner is Director of the Parkes Institute, which is currently commemorating the 50th anniversary since its transfer to the University of Southampton in 1964/65

    Last updated: 5:38pm, March 26 2014