How Denmark Saved Its Jews From the Nazis

Thousands of Jews fled Denmark by boat for Sweden during the night hours.

ByGerhard Spörl, SPIEGEL
November 1, 2013, 3:39 AM
PHOTO: This 1943 photo shows a boat carrying people during the escape across the Oresound of some of 7,000 Danish Jews who fled to safety in neighboring Sweden three years after the German Nazi invasion.
This 1943 photo shows a boat carrying people during the escape across the Oresound of some of 7,000 Danish Jews who fled to safety in neighboring Sweden three years after the German Nazi invasion.
AFP/Getty Images

Nov. 3, 2013— -- Denmark was the only European country to save almost all of its Jewish residents from the Holocaust. After being tipped off about imminent roundups by prominent Nazis, resisters evacuated the country's 7,000 Jews to Sweden by boat. A new book examines this historical anomaly.

They left at night, thousands of Jewish families, setting out by car, bicycle, streetcar or train. They left the Danish cities they had long called home and fled to the countryside, which was unfamiliar to many of them. Along the way, they found shelter in the homes of friends or business partners, squatted in abandoned summer homes or spent the night with hospitable farmers. "We came across kind and good people, but they had no idea about what was happening at the time," writes Poul Hannover, one of the refugees, about those dark days in which humanity triumphed.

At some point, however, the refugees no longer knew what to do next. Where would they be safe? How were the Nazis attempting to find them? There was no refugee center, no leadership, no organization and exasperatingly little reliable information. But what did exist was the art of improvisation and the helpfulness of many Danes, who now had a chance to prove themselves.

Members of the Danish underground movement emerged who could tell the Jews who was to be trusted. There were police officers who not only looked the other way when the refugees turned up in groups, but also warned them about Nazi checkpoints. And there were skippers who were willing to take the refugees across the Baltic Sea to Sweden in their fishing cutters, boats and sailboats.

A Small Country With a Big Heart

Denmark in October 1943 was a small country with a big heart. It had been under Nazi occupation for three-and-a-half years. And although Denmark was too small to have defended itself militarily, it also refused to be subjugated by the Nazis. The Danes negotiated a privileged status that even enabled them to retain their own government. They assessed their options realistically, but they also set limits on how far they were willing to go to cooperate with the Germans.

The small country defended its democracy, while Germany, a large, warmongering country under Hitler, was satisfied with controlling the country from afar and, from then on, viewed Denmark as a "model protectorate." That was the situation until the summer of 1943, when strikes and acts of sabotage began to cause unrest. This prompted the Germans to threaten Denmark with court martials and, in late August, to declare martial law. The Danish government resigned in protest.

At this point, the deportation and murder of European Jews had already been underway for some time in other countries that had submitted to Nazi control. In the Netherlands, Hungary, Greece, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, the overwhelming majority of Jews, between 70 and 90 percent of the Jewish population, disappeared and were murdered. The Nazis deported and killed close to half of all Jews in Estonia, Belgium, Norway and Romania. About a fifth of French and Italian Jews died. As historian Peter Longerich writes, the Holocaust was dependent, "to a considerable extent, on the practical cooperation and support of an occupied country or territory."

The Danes provided no assistance to the Nazis in their "Jewish campaign" in Denmark. They viewed the Jews as Danes and placed them under their protection, a story documented in "Countrymen," a new book by Danish author Bo Lidegaard. "The history of the rescue of the Danish Jews," writes Lidegaard, "is only a tiny part of the massive history of the Shoah. But it teaches us a lesson, because it is a story about the survival instinct, civil disobedience and the assistance provided by an entire people when, outraged and angry, it rebelled against the deportation of its fellow Danes."

Ten Years Documenting the Danish Resistance

Lidegaard, born in 1958, is a tall intellectual with many talents. As a diplomat, he represented his country in Geneva and Paris. After that, he served as an adviser to two succeeding Danish prime ministers and, in 2009, he organized the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen. He has been the editor-in-chief of Politiken, Denmark's large, left-liberal daily newspaper, since April 2011.

He worked on his book for 10 years. During a conversation in Hamburg, Lidegaard said that he was interested in finding out why Denmark had wanted to save the Jews -- and why the Nazis allowed them to be saved. Two men played a key role in the affair -- two German Nazis, each with his own story.

One of the Germans was named Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz. He was from a merchant's family in the northern port city of Bremen and joined the Nazi Party in 1932. Duckwitz was a Nazi and an anti-Semite out of conviction. He worked for Alfred Rosenberg, one of Hitler's race ideologues, who was sentenced to death in Nuremberg in 1946 and executed.

Duckwitz gradually developed an aversion to the Nazis' brutishness and bloodlust. Because he was familiar with Denmark from his earlier days and had a fondness for the country, he went to Copenhagen in September 1939, working as a shipping expert for the German Reich's Ministry of Transport.

Germany occupied Denmark on April 9, 1940, but the protectorate was allowed to direct its internal affairs. It kept a certain amount of latitude and rejected the Nazis' demand that it introduce the death penalty and segregate Jews. The country asserted itself as much as it could.

Germany declared Denmark a model for the protectorates that Hitler intended to establish in Western Europe after the end of the war. The Nazis initially sent only 89 officials to the country, and they were responsible for 3.8 million Danes. By contrast, Berlin sent 22,000 officials to France. Unlike France, Denmark was small and had only a small Jewish population. The country also had no raw materials of importance to the war effort. Denmark supplied agricultural products to Germany, but its economic role was relatively small.

An Enemy from Within

Duckwitz wrote a manuscript describing his official and unofficial activities in Copenhagen. The document, which remains in the political archive of the German Foreign Ministry today, both complements and contradicts Lidegaard's account.

Part of Duckwitz's job was to manage German ships calling at Danish ports. He signed agreements with Danish government agencies that regulated "the reciprocal use of tonnage." He was also required to report to Berlin when the Danish underground committed acts of sabotage against ships.

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'

Duckwitz promptly notified his Danish informants in the government, among the Social Democrats and within the Jewish community. He traveled to Sweden and told Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson what was about to happen. The Swedish government instructed its envoy in Copenhagen to freely issue passports to Danish Jews and made preparations to accept refugees at home.

The "Jewish Campaign" began on the night of Oct. 1. The German security forces consisted of 1,300 to 1,400 police officers, together with Danish volunteers and the Schalburg Corps, an SS unit consisting of Danes. Several hundred Jews fell into their hands, and 202 were designated for deportation and taken, along with 150 Danish communists, to the Wartheland, a ship with the capacity to hold 5,000 passengers.

Neither the German Wehrmacht nor the police "proved to be especially eager to help the Gestapo hunt down the Danish Jews," writes Lidegaard. The campaign was declared over at 1 a.m., and Best wrote in his report to Berlin that Denmark had been "de-Jewed."

"De-Jewed?" One can hardly assume that the Nazis failed to notice that only a few hundred people had been transported on the large ship, while at the same time, thousands of Jews were fleeing to the coast in order to escape to Sweden. It is also difficult to imagine that Duckwitz's conspiratorial activities remained completely unnoticed in Berlin. So why didn't the Nazis do anything about it?

Denmark simply wasn't that important to them, Lidegaard said during the conversation in Hamburg. Besides, he added, the Nazis knew that the Danes would protect their Jews from mass deportation. They had opted to present Denmark to the world as a model protectorate, so they decided for once to dispense with violent reprisals.


What about Duckwitz and Best? Lidegaard believes they acted in the knowledge that Berlin had only a moderate interest in Denmark. One of the oddities of the Danish situation, he says, is that Adolf Eichmann traveled to Copenhagen in November 1943 and expressed his satisfaction with the "Jewish Campaign."

In the end, 7,742 Jews were able to flee to Sweden across the Baltic Sea. Each of the refugees received government support in Sweden if it was needed. The Danish government also advocated on behalf of those who had been deported. After negotiations with Himmler, 423 Danes were released from the Theresienstadt concentration camp in early 1945.

How many Danish Jews were killed? An estimated 70, or one percent of the country's Jewish population at the time. Denmark is a shining exception in the history of the European Holocaust.

Both Best and Duckwitz survived the war in Copenhagen. Best was arrested, testified in the Nuremberg War Crimes trial and was later extradited to Denmark. The Copenhagen Municipal Court sentenced him to death on Sep. 20, 1948, but in appeal proceedings his sentence was reduced to 12 years in prison. He was given credit for his behavior in the fall of 1943, and in response to pressure from the new German government in Bonn, he was released on Aug. 24, 1951.

After that, he worked in the office of Ernst Achenbach, a politician with the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), for the rehabilitation of former Nazis. He provided the defense with exonerating material in many Nazi trials without making an appearance himself.

Honor, Dishonor

In Germany, Best lived undisturbed for two decades. Only in the late 1960s did documents and witnesses turn up to shed light on his past in the Reich Main Security Office. But his trial was repeatedly postponed for health reasons. Best, an eternally colorful but sinister figure, died in June 1989.

Duckwitz remained in Copenhagen after the war, initially working as a representative of the West German chambers of commerce. He entered the diplomatic service when the Foreign Ministry was rebuilt in West Germany. He returned to Denmark as the West German ambassador in 1955. Ten years later, he chose to retire early, because he disagreed with Bonn's policy of marginalizing East Germany.

But soon Chancellor Willy Brandt brought him back and made him his chief negotiator for the Treaty of Warsaw, which was designed to reconcile Poles and Germans.

Soon after the end of the war, Denmark honored Duckwitz, the converted Nazi, for his role in the rescue campaign. In 1971, two years before his death, Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, presented him with its "Righteous Among the Nations" award.

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