It’s easy to be cynical about humanity. The capacity of humans for crass, base, depraved behavior is splashed before us daily; relating it to other people is one of our booming industries; from TMZ to Mixed Martial Arts to “Protect” Minnesota, it’s made a lot of entrepreneurs fabulously wealthy.
But every once in a while, if you look carefully, you find examples of humanity – of individuals, and small groups of people, and every once in a very rare while significant mass movements – putting our base, depraved nature aside and not just doing the right thing, but doing it in ways that stagger the imagination.
One of those episodes entered its final, fearsomely risky, climactic phase seventy years ago tonight.
When it comes to warfare, Denmark got the short end of the stick. A nation with a small population on a low-lying peninsula that abuts a strategic maritime byway, the nation’s topography is virtually indefensible.
And they knew it. Denmark’s main defense in the years after it split from Norway and Sweden in the early 1900s was a strict, absolute neutrality. Like many European nations – Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands – the Danes figured that eschewing all sides in a conflict would buy them some safety. The theory’s record was spotty at best – especially during World War 2.
Controlled Collapse: Denmark fell to the Blitzkrieg in about two hours, the same day Hitler invaded Norway in 1940. Whatever resistance there was – some units along the German border, the royal guards – lasted about two hours, leaving sixteen Danes dead.
Danish soldiers, before World War II
The government gave in to reality; Denmark had virtually no military, and unlike mountainous Norway, the terrain was nearly worthless for defense.
The Danish government negotiated a controlled surrender, in the hopes of preserving as much of Danish society as possible.
A German light tank on the streets of Copenhagen, 1940.
They had a friendly negotating partner in Hitler. While Germany had only limited strategic interest in Denmark – the only thing of military value was the airbase at Aalborg, on the northern tip of the country, which covered the strategic Skagerrak straits, the western entrace to the Baltic Sea – the Germans had some less concrete interests in Denmark. Danes, according to Nazi racial orthodoxy, were considered every bit as Aryan as Germans. Hitler was interested in preserving Denmark as a showcase of Nazi occupation – what could happen if a country cooperated. King Christian X was allowed to remain on his throne; moreover, the Parliament remained not only in session, but kept most of its powers.
King Christian X, riding through the streets of Copenhagen, in the 1930s.
Denmark’s army was largely demobilized, and its tiny Navy kept in port (but in Danish hands) – but the Parliament refused to turn over its ships and troops to German operational control, refused a German demand to institute the death penalty, and declined to join in a trade and customs union – essentially a Nazified European Union – with the Germans. The Germans even allowed free parliamentary elections as late as 1943 – and the four traditional Danish parties spanked the tiny National Socialist Party of Denmark.
Among all the nations conquered by the Nazis, Denmark was the only one to get away with such impudence.
And one other thing.
North Star of David: Unlike many Central European nations – and Scandinavian ones, for that matter – Jews were highly integrated into Danish civil, commercial and social life.
Danish King Christian X had ascended to the throne in 1910. He’d presided over a turbulent period in Danish history already; the Depression, the aftermath of World War I, the rise of European Communism and the realignment of Denmark from a small global empire into an even smaller European state (including the loss of Norway and the 1916 sale of the “Danish West Indies” to the US, which became the “US Virgin Islands”) had all challenged the Danish monarchy’s stability and even existence. Christian wasn’t an especially popular king by the late 1930s – but the monarchy was slimmed down but secure.
But in 1933, Christian X had been the first European monarch to visit a synagogue. It seems downright mundane to 21st-century Americans – as indeed it should. But it was a major statement. It was made all the more trenchant by the fact that Christian made the visit over the objection of his advisers, and even of Copenhagen’s head rabbi; the Nazis had just come to power in neighboring Germany, and such a visit was thought to send a less-than-accommodating message to Denmark’s powerful neighbors. To which Christian (possibly apocryphally) responded to the rabbi “all the more reason to do it”.
At any rate – under occupation, surrounded by Germans, the Parliament refused to accede to German demands to register, ghettoize and deport Denmark’s Jewish population.
All of these measures were thumbs in Hitler’s eye – but the regime allowed them all. Denmark’s value as a propaganda piece was greater than the insult the tiny nation could offer Germany, who had bigger fish – including the UK and the USSR – to fry by this point.
The Schizophrenic State: So it could be fairly said that the Danish government as a whole “collaborated” with the Nazis. It’s true; in exchange for concessions, the Danish monarchy and parliament – including the major political parties (except the Communists) – played along.
And yet resistance started early.
The day after the surrender, some Danish Army units, who had not yet been contacted and inventoried by the occupiers, stashed extra firearms in secret cashes around the country, for later use by a resistance movement to be named later. And Danish intelligence officers made covert contact with the British embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, the beginnings of an intelligence pipeline that was the conduit for a wealth of information sent to the Allies during the war.
And so a resistance movement began.
The Savage Canary: The Danish resistance started with all sorts of strikes against it.
In most nations that had large, powerful resistance movements during the war, the guerillas had some natural or geological feature to conceal them; Poland’s forests and the urban warren of Warsaw, Byelorussia’s swamps, Norway and Yugoslavia’s mountains all hid and provided bases for huge guerilla movements.
Denmark, though, was tiny, and flat, and dotted with small towns and a few sizeable cities; nature would provide little cover for any resistance movement. Danish guerillas’ only concealment was social. Denmark’s small, highly homogenous society, imbued with the sort of stoic passive-aggression that marks all rural Scandinavians, presented the resistance with a form of social concealment that was riskier than hills or trees – there were plenty of Danes who sympathized with the Nazis – but eventually nurtured one of the craftiest, fiercest resistance movements in Europe.
The resistance was fairly passive, early in the war; strikes against German-controlled and German-leaning businesses, publishing anti-German newspapers and handbills, gathering of information to send to England via Sweden, and smuggling of contraband – escaped POWs, downed Allied airmen and the like – to Sweden. Many Danes were in fact tolerant of the occupiers – given the alternative presented them in every direction.
Some Danish resistance was more brazen. Danish machine shops covertly manufactured weapons and explosives. And Bang and Olufsen – known for much of the last 70 years as producers of ultra-high-end sound and recording systems – according to a source on the subject, spent the war years making clandestine radios for the resistance.
And so Denmark was caught in a dichotomy; a government that collaborated – albeit imperfectly, and with signifcant political resistance on the details – with the Germans, and a resistance movement that, as the war ground on, started making life more difficult for the Nazis.
Decay: In the war’s early years, the Nazis tolerated – more or less – the Danes’ most galling ideological transgression, their protection of the Jews. Denmark was the only German possession where Jews were never required to wear the Star of David.
The Germans were frustrated by the Danish foot-dragging on the Jews – and tried to goad the government into action. Danish Nazis published slanderous anti-Semitic tracts; there were other provocations. And in 1941, arsonists tried to set fire to Copenhagen’s main synagogue.
The arsonists were caught. And then they were prosecuted, and sentenced by the Copenhagen civil authorities – very much against the wishes of the occupiers.
As the war ground on into its fourth year, things finally started going badly for the Germans – and as things started to decay, the accommodation between the Danish government and the German regime began to sour. Several labor stoppages resolved into armed battles between Danes and German occupiers; sabotage of goods and equipment intended for Germany (especially ammunition, boats and ships, and electronics) became more and more common, as did eventually the murder of overt collaborators. This was starting by this point in 1943. We’ll come back to that.
The resistance was growing more effective – German economic output from their Danish conquest was dropping. And more and more overt collaborators were turning up dead – or not turning up at all.
The Nazis – angered by the resistance, stung by the sabotage, and looking ahead to an imminent invasion of Europe from the West – began to lower the boom. On August 28, the Nazis presented the Danish government an ultimatum; impose a curfew, institute a death penalty for sabotage, and be ready to give up the Jews. The following day, the Government resigned in protest. The Germans immediately imposed martial law.
The Good Nazi: George Ferdinand Duckwitz had spent a career as a German shipping executive, working for various cargo and passenger lines. He’d joined the Nazi Party in 1932. As the war approached, the Party brought him into the Foreign Service; in 1939, he was given the shipping attaché position in Copenhagen. He remained there after the 1940 occupation.
Among his social and professional circle in Denmark was Werner Best. Best, an early Nazi, had been one of Heinrich Himmler’s deputies in organizing the Gestapo. He’d lost a political scuffle earlier in the war, and became an occupation administrator, first in France, and then in Copenhagen, where he served as the Reich’s plenipotentiary – key representative – to the then-still-extant Danish court and government. With the resignation of the government and the imposition of martial law, Best became the top Nazi civilian official in Denmark.
On September 11, 1943, in a meeting on commercial issues, Best confided in Duckwitz that the Gestapo, finally free of Danish government interference, was putting the finishing touches on its plans to round up and deport Denmark’s 8,000 Jews.
Duckwitz, privately horrified, travelled to Berlin to try to forestall or cancel the roundup on economic grounds; Jews occupied many key positions in Danish society, and losing them would put a crimp in Denmark’s economy. He was rebuffed.
Two weeks later, on September 25, Duckwitz flew to Stockholm, ostensibly to discuss access to Swedish waters for German ships with Swedish Prime Minister Per Albin Hanssen. Sweden, nervous about being almost completely surrounded by Germany, its vassal states or allies, had been very tacitly taking in Jewish refugees from Norway, provided they could supply some Swedish connection, however laboriously constructed. But they were in no hurry to agitate their Nazi neighbors.
But in a few days of closed-door meetings, Duckwitz got Hanssen to commit to giving asylum to Jews who made it ashore in Sweden. Then, quietly, he returned to Copenhagen, where he quietly informed Danish Social Democrat party chief Hans Hedtoff of the upcoming roundups.
Hedtoff in turn informed the leaders of Denmark’s Jewish community, including acting Chief Rabbi Marcus Melchior.
And it was seventy years ago this morning – a Saturday – that Denmark’s rabbis, briefed by Melchior, warned their congregations at synagogue to go immediately into hiding and await further instructions.
What those instructions would be, Melchior knew only very abstractly. Everyone was winging it at this point.
Hearing the news, other sympathetic Danes pitched in, grabbing phone books and calling every Jewish-looking name to warn them to go underground.
And so almost overnight, by means that sound like they were borrowed from a Spanky and Our Gang movie the vast majority of Denmark’s 8,000 Jews disappeared into the woods, into hiding places in small coastal towns, and into the charity of thousands of Danes, resistance members and plain concerned citizens, who took the fugitives in and waited for what came next.
It was a half-measure. The Jewish community, and the Resistance, were banking on the fact that the Gestapo in Denmark was very short-handed – but with an entire population of Jews disappearing from view, it couldn’t last.
7,000 people hiding in attics and barns couldn’t stay invisible forever.
The Øresund Express: Several things happened in rapid succession next.
The Swedish Foreign Ministry instructed its offices in Copenhagen to start issuing Swedish passports to Danish Jews. The document would grant them safe passage – if they could get to Copenhagen without being caught.
The Resistance also undertook two massive operations; first, to locate boats to carry refugees (and, equally important, safe routes to coastal towns where the refugees would meet the boats), and a fund-raising operation to raise money to pay the boatmen for the trip. Wealthy Danes ponied up a fairly huge amount under the circumstances – as did many, many others. According to some reports, Christian X also contributed heavily to the effort through a variety of intermediaries, to conceal the money trail.
Finally, in early October, Sweden issued a statement through its foreign ministry, and finally on Swedish state radio, that they would accept Jewish refugees.
All they had to do was get to Sweden.
And so over the course of the next month or so, small parties of Jews, guided by locals and resistance members, made their way from hiding place to hiding place, to the coast, there to board boats to make the short voyage across the Øresund strait – about 2-3 hours’ voyage by fishing boat. Others went across in small sailboats, rowboats, even kayaks.
Still others – especially the old, and families with very young children – were smuggled into rail cars headed for the rail ferries that shuttled trains to Sweden. The Resistance broke into rail cars that’d been sealed after inspection, put the Jews aboard, and re-sealed the cars with forged inspection seals.
Not everyone made it. A few dozen were known to have died when less-seaworthy craft sank en route to Sweden. A few more were captured by German patrol boats – although it was noted that the Germans pressed the search for the Jews without much vigor. Partly it was because intercepting Jews was the least of the crews’ worries; raids by the British Royal Air Force Coastal Command’s maritime strike planes made life brisk and dangerous for German craft in the west Baltic. Beyond that, it’s considered likely that at least some German officers took a pass on getting overly involved with the search out of worries about Germany’s prospects in the war.
Other Jews were picked up as they waited to be evacuated – at least one group was betrayed by a Danish girl who wanted to curry favor for her German soldier boyfriend.
But they were, blessedly, the outliers. By the end of October, 86% of Denmark’s Jews – some 7,000 – had been evacuated to Sweden. Among them were physicist Niels Bohr, who was flown almost immediately via the UK to the US to start work on the Manhattan Project – but not before demanding that the Swedish government announce that Jews were welcome (a decision which had already been made, although Bohr frequently is credited with inspiring the action).
Aftermath: The few hundred Danish Jews that didn’t escape were largely rounded up – although a few did remain in hiding for the rest of the war. Most were shipped to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt, in Czechoslovakia.
There, the Danish government exerted themselves to try to look out for their welfare – incredibly, getting additional food supplies through to the Danes, via pressure on the Swiss Red Cross. Although many Danes died at Theresienstadt – especially the very old – incredibly, the majority were alive at the end of the war. Denmark’s Jewish community escaped the war with the lowest Jewish death rate in Europe; Yad Vashem records a little over 100 Danish Jews who died in the Holocaust.
(Norway, which started with much smaller population of around 2,000, saved about 3/4 of its Jews, mostly in ones and twos and families. Those who were caught and deported, though, went to Auschwitz, according to the B’nai B’rith’s Black Book. The Black Book reported that none of them were ever seen again).
After the war the Israeli government, in building their Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem solicited the former heads of the Danish resistance for information. The surviving leaders of the Danish Resistance insisted that no single member of the Resistance be credited; it was a team effort.
And so the Israeli government recognized Christian X and the entire Danish Resistance collectively among the Righteous Among The Nations.
And they were joined in 1971 by George Duckwitz, the German bureaucrat and Nazi Party member who quietly sounded the alarm.
I’m not aware if there are other Nazis recognized at Yad Vashem. I’d think it highly unlikely.