How Denmark Saved Its Jews From the Nazis

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.

The second German was and remained a staunch Nazi and anti-Semite. Werner Best was a senior official at the Reich Main Security Office, where he worked closely with SS leader Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the agency. But then Best quarreled with Heydrich and fell from favor. He left Berlin and joined the German military administration of France, where he managed the internment and persecution of Jews, earning the nickname "Bloodhound of Paris."

In the summer of 1942, Best was sent to Denmark as Berlin's new plenipotentiary, which made him the highest authority in the protectorate. "Best was to play a key role in the fate of the Danish Jews, but exactly what that role was is still debated today," writes Lidegaard.

Lidegaard believes that Best was an opportunist who, in the fall of 1943, was smart enough to recognize that the war was lost for Germany. He tolerated what Duckwitz was doing, because he assumed that he would be treated more leniently after the war if he had turned a blind eye to Duckwitz's activities. But Duckwitz would have disagreed with Lidegaard. He saw Best as a man who had changed his mind in Copenhagen, in the way Hannah Arendt described.

In his manuscript, Duckwitz writes that the Nazis had intended from the beginning to proceed eventually against the Jews in Denmark. In early September 1943, Best and Duckwitz received word from Berlin that Hitler's cohorts were pushing to have the Danish Jews deported. This prompted Best to take initiative, writes Duckwitz. On Sept. 8, the plenipotentiary sent a telegram to Berlin in which he proposed that the German military, the Wehrmacht, should take action against the Jews in Denmark -- in effect appropriating what had, until then, only been a rumor.

But that was only a trick, suggests the well-meaning Duckwitz, who asserts that Best had believed "that his suggestion to launch a campaign against the Danish Jews would be rejected outright. He saw a great benefit in taking the initiative away from those groups that wanted Hitler to persecute the Jews in Denmark."

As Duckwitz tells it, Best had never meant the Nazis to take up his suggestion. He had bluffed and miscalculated. But Lidegaard doesn't buy that assessment. He believes it was an earnest request.

In any case, the response arrived from Berlin on Sept. 19, 1943. Hitler approved of Best's proposal and had ordered Himmler to execute the plan.

Preempting the 'Jewish Campaign'

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