Book Review | Countrymen by Bo Lidegaard
The Untold Story of How Denmark’s Jews Escaped the Nazis, of the Courage of Their Fellow Danes—and of the Extraordinary Role of the SS
2013, 432 pp. $28.95
Review by Leo Goldberger
The Defiant Danes
Shortly after my bar mitzvah in 1943 at the Great Synagogue of Copenhagen, where my father had arrived from Czechoslovakia in 1934 to be the chief cantor, the roof caved in with all the uncertainties, terror and threats of annihilation. My family, along with some seven to eight thousand Danish Jews, were forced to flee their homes. It is surprising that it has taken 70 years and much archival digging to fully learn the details, especially the Danish and German political maneuvers, that made the escape possible.
Bo Lidegaard, a historian, former diplomat and current editor-in-chief of the leading Danish newspaper, Politiken, has carefully sifted through the work of numerous German and Danish archivists, who worked for decades to nail down the details of the events and grasp the roles of major players. This compelling, important book offers the American reader a comprehensive and judiciously balanced account of what actually took place back in my old country in the late summer of 1943 during the worst months of the rescue crisis.
The centerpiece of the work is the rich lode of diary entries from Jewish families, who recorded their traumatic experiences as they anxiously cast about for places to hide, made lists of what to pack for the children and worried about their homes, belongings and money as they suddenly became fugitives, desperately seeking a way to get to neutral Sweden (which was to welcome us with open arms!). Lidegaard’s compassionate comments on the diary entries and his cogent day-by-day reportage of the political situation on the ground over the critical two-week period of the pursuit further provide the riveting narrative with a sense of immediacy and suspense.
One clue to understanding why the Danish Jews did not suffer the fate of other European Jews is in the title of Lidegaard’s book itself. Countrymen embodies the idea that Jews in Denmark were simply fellow countrymen. In the author’s preferred usage, they were Jewish Danes, not Danish Jews. The historic absence of anti-Semitism in the country—from King Christian X to ordinary Danes—is a key element in understanding its humanistic character. Thus Lidegaard’s choice to open the book with a political cartoon illustrating this point makes perfect sense. The cartoon (dating back to January 10, 1942, in a Swedish anti-Nazi paper) depicts Danish King Christian X and his prime minister pondering what to do if the German occupiers were to demand that Jews wear the Star of David, with the King responding: “Well, then we’ll probably all wear yellow stars!” The cartoon is the original source of the famous but apocryphal legend that the King wore the yellow star on his daily horseback rides through the streets of Copenhagen. Based on a careful study of the King’s personal diaries, Lidegaard reports that the King actually expressed this pro-Jewish sentiment—just as on other occasions the King was observed with tears in his eyes when he heard rumors of the Jewish roundup. We further learn from Lidegaard that not only the King but all his ministers and leading politicians regarded any sort of discrimination as totally unacceptable. In a word, this was the line in the sand that the Germans were not to cross—or else. The “or else” clearly became the paramount issue for the Danes to struggle with during the occupation as the Nazis made increased inroads into Danish autonomy.
The Germans invaded Denmark on April 9, 1940—on the pretext of protecting Denmark from an English invasion—despite Denmark’s avowed neutrality and anti-aggression pact with their German neighbor. Within hours, King and government, seeing no realistic way out, agreed to a modus operandi for a peaceful occupation. They signed off on a “policy of negotiation,” a document that allowed Denmark to maintain its sovereignty, with its King, ministers, parliament, constitution, civil service, judiciary, police and military in place. Most importantly, it left all civil and domestic matters in the hands of the Danes themselves. In return for these “concessions,” resistance was prohibited and was to be severely dealt with by the Danish authorities. In Lidegaard’s reading, this agreement created the essential shield for the Jewish community.
Active resistance was slow in starting, but when it finally erupted in 1943 the increasingly furious Germans harkened back to the original policy agreement, insisting that the Danish government take the toughest police measures against the resistance movement, including summary judgment and the death penalty for saboteurs. In protest, on August 29, 1943, the Danish government resigned en masse, leaving ministries in the care of their non-political civil service secretaries, headed by the foreign ministry’s chief employee, Nils Svenningsen. The Germans declared martial law, placing the Wehrmacht’s General Hermann von Hanneken in charge. The shield protecting the Jews was now gone.
It was in the midst of this turmoil and tense negotiations that Werner Best—the senior SS official in charge of the civilian side of the occupation—grossly blundered by sending a telegram to Hitler calling for a roundup of the Jews. Here, Lidegaard provides us with many new insights. He convincingly depicts Best as a self-promoting conniver who, in his rivalry with his nemesis, General Hanneken, miscalculated the serious consequences of rounding up Denmark’s Jews. Best wanted the roundup to occur as soon as possible, while martial law was still in effect—thus making it Hanneken’s responsibility, not his. But Best neither foresaw the outrage with which the Danes would greet persecution of their Jewish compatriots nor the effect that panicking the Jews might have on maintaining public order. Even Germans flinched over much higher costs in manpower should Germans have to run the country on their own, and the potential loss of Danish goodwill in supplying agricultural and industrial products for them.
After details of Best’s telegram leaked from his inner circle, Svenningsen, the courageous Danish official, held Best’s feet to the fire by insisting daily on answers to the swirling rumors of a roundup of Danish Jews, but his attempt to forestall the Germans by various means, including offers to intern the Jews under Danish supervision within Denmark, was a no-go. Meanwhile, in response to persistent Danish pressure, Best tried desperately to undo the damage and soften the impact of his initiative. In a written memorandum, he explicitly exempted half-Jews and Jews with non-Jewish spouses from arrests. With Adolph Eichmann’s written approval, Best sent assurances that Danish Jews would not be sent to Auschwitz, that the SS would not break down doors to Jewish homes, and that they were to cease active pursuit of Jews after the first night of the roundup. Despite these orders, some fanatic SS-men and Danish Nazis kept up the pursuit for several weeks, sending fearful Jews into hiding and prompting more than a few dozen suicides and drownings.
Another painful reality was the major disconnect between fears and facts. People responded to rumors of all kinds, often quite misleading and conflicting. Many brave helpers were equally subject to rumors and misconceptions of the dangers facing them, as were the fishermen who often only reluctantly agreed to make the choppy three-to-eight-hour trip to carry Jews across the Sound to Sweden even in return for a pot of gold. I still shudder remembering how, after having waited for hours in nearby bushes along the shore, I waded chest-deep into the cold winter water to reach the fishing boat, then was hauled aboard and placed in its smelly hold while my dad abandoned his suitcase to carry two of my little brothers in his arms.
As Lidegaard documents events, the SS, the Wehrmacht and their patrol boats had a higher priority—searching for mines in the waters off the western coast of Denmark, anticipating an attack by allied forces. Best placed the blame for the failure to capture and deport the Jews on everyone but himself. A master of spin, he proudly telegraphed his success to Berlin: Denmark was now Judenrein!
Especially remarkable is the response of the Nazi hierarchy, from Best through Eichmann, Himmler, Ribbentrop and Hitler—how they all backed away from implementing the search on land for Danish Jews— which yielded a mere 482 Jews out of some seven to eight thousand. Why didn’t the Germans go after the Jews? Even if Hitler entertained a soft spot for the racially pure Aryans of Denmark, a prideful showcase for his “model protectorate” in a future Neuropa, Lidegaard believes that the consistent opposition of the Danes to the persecution of their countrymen somehow challenged and weakened the Nazi belief system—as unlikely as it may seem.
An alternate explanation might have been Hitler’s conclusion that the significant propaganda value of allowing Denmark to exist as a limited but peaceful model in his thousand-year Reich was preferable to a bloody revolt by noble Scandinavians for the sake of a handful of Jews. The game wasn’t worth the candle.
Leo Goldberger is professor emeritus of psychology at New York University. He is the editor of and contributor to an original anthology, The Rescue of the Danish Jews.