His­to­rian ex­am­ines Nazi fail­ure in Den­mark

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT -

ON Oct. 1 it will be 70 years since the Ger­man oc­cu­piers largely failed in their at­tempt to round up the Jewish pop­u­la­tion of Den­mark.

Coun­try­men is a grip­ping nar­ra­tive of the pogrom, the rea­sons for its fail­ure, and its im­me­di­ate af­ter­math. Its author, Bo Lide­gaard, is a his­to­rian by train­ing and the edi­tor-in-chief of the Dan­ish news­pa­per Poli­tiken who has writ­ten sev­eral books on 20th-cen­tury Dan­ish his­tory.

Par­tic­u­larly well-ar­gued is Lide­gaard’s ex­pla­na­tion of the po­lit­i­cal back­ground to the res­cue, the fact that since 1933 the So­cial Demo­cratic govern­ment had pur­pose­fully gen­er­ated a cul­ture that re­jected any no­tion Jews were dif­fer­ent from other Danes.

When the Ger­mans in­vaded Den­mark in April 1940, an agree­ment was made that pro­vided for a Dan­ish “unity” govern­ment to stay in power, with the con­sti­tu­tion in­tact, un­der Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion. For that rea­son, Jews in Den­mark never wore a yel­low star or other iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.

As Lide­gaard ex­plains, this “pol­icy of ne­go­ti­a­tion” al­lowed the Ger­mans easy ac­cess to Dan­ish prod­ucts and agri­cul­ture, at very lit­tle ad­min­is­tra­tive cost to them­selves, while Dan­ish life could con­tinue more or less unim­peded and mostly with­out the bru­tal­ity ex­pe­ri­enced in many other oc­cu­pied coun­tries.

The ar­range­ment fell apart when in frus­tra­tion over strikes, sab­o­tage and civil un­rest in Au­gust 1943, the Ger­mans in­sisted on im­pos­ing mar­tial law. In re­sponse, the Dan­ish govern­ment re­signed, mar­tial law was de­clared and the le­gal pro­tec­tion of the Jewish pop­u­la­tion dis­ap­peared.

In or­der to ob­tain the ad­dresses of Jews, the Nazis had to steal the mem­ber­ship rolls from the syn­a­gogue and the Jewish com­mu­nity coun­cil.

How the fears of an im­pend­ing raid against the Jews spread through­out the coun­try is nar­rated through first-per­son ac­counts writ­ten at the time. Most could not be­lieve that any­thing would hap­pen in Den­mark, but the anx­i­ety was none­the­less pal­pa­ble.

Lide­gaard goes into con­sid­er­able de­tail about how the ac­tion was planned, un­der di­rect or­ders from Hitler, and given twofaced sup­port by the Re­ich plenipo­ten­tiary in Den­mark, Werner Best. Best was con­cerned Dan­ish reaction to the de­por­ta­tion of Jews to con­cen­tra­tion camps would jeop­ar­dize the peace­ful oc­cu­pa­tion.

On Sept. 28, Ge­org Duck­witz, the mar­itime ex­pert at the Ger­man lega­tion in Copen­hagen and a con­fi­dante of Best’s, con­tacted the leader of the Dan­ish So­cial Demo­cratic Party, Hans Hedtoft, and told him a roundup was planned for the com­ing Fri­day and that ships were ar­riv­ing to carry peo­ple away. Hedtoft, in turn, alerted the pres­i­dent of the Jewish com­mu­nity.

The next day the in­for­ma­tion spread through the com­mu­nity. Thus when the Ger­man po­lice, along with Dan­ish SS vol­un­teers, ar­rived at Jewish homes, most had al­ready left, and were on their way via cir­cuitous routes, of­ten helped and hid­den by com­plete strangers, to var­i­ous fish­ing vil­lages on the coast. From there they were shipped across the sound to Swe­den.

Fewer than 300 were caught in Copen­hagen, where the vast ma­jor­ity lived, and an­other 82 in the prov­inces, of the to­tal Ger­man es­ti­mate of 6,000 Jews. Re­cent fig­ures re­ported by Lide­gaard show 7,742 Jews, in­clud­ing 1,376 Ger­man refugees, fled to Swe­den.

Those caught were sent to There­sien­stadt and, like the refugees, most re­turned home af­ter the war, to find, but for a few ex­cep­tions, their prop­erty and apart­ments hav­ing been main­tained as they had left them.

Along with its su­perb and per­sua­sive anal­y­sis of be­hind-the-scenes ma­noeu­vres, Coun­try­men fol­lows the es­cape of sev­eral peo­ple via their con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous notes, let­ters and di­aries, al­low­ing a reader to em­pathize with their or­deal.

Lide­gaard has de­liv­ered an im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tion to our on­go­ing search for an­swers to how the Holo­caust could have hap­pened.

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