How Denmark Fought the Nazi Terror

Over 99% of Denmark's Jewish population survived the Holocaust due to the power of non-violent action in defiance of the Nazi machine.

Once there was a political leader with a wild hairdo and a powerful speaking style who had a knack for haranguing an audience. He preyed on their fears and blamed the country's woes on outsiders and a phalanx of enemies within. Enemies of a certain religion that he declared dangerous. These people, he averred should be rounded up and deported.

I am speaking, of course, of Adolf Hitler. Later he decided deporting Jews to Madagascar was not efficient enough. Better to just kill them off. He marched his armies into other European countries and set up puppet governments. And he ordered that the Jews in these occupied countries be deported to the extermination camps in Germany and Poland.

In Hannah Arendt's revealing account of the Eichmann trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem, she goes over some of the testimony and some of the history of these countries. Scandinavia in particular, was able to resist the Nazis, not through guns and fighting so much as through example.

Difficulties in Scandinavia

Arendt notes that at the Wannsee Conference where the extermination of the Jews was planned, one bureaucrat "warned of great difficulties in the Scandinavian countries." Indeed, "Sweden was never occupied, and Finland was hardly ever even approached on the Jewish question."

Denmark had no native Nazi or Fascist movement so, although invaded by the German army, the government was left independent as there were no puppets to install. Norway was different. They had Quisling, whose name later became part of the English language as a synonym for a traitor or collaborator with the enemy.

"What he did not reckon with," notes Arendt, "was that the German officials who had been living in the country for years were no longer the same.

"When Eichmann's office ordered deportation (of Norway's 1,700 Jews) to Auschwitz," notes Arendt, "some of Quisling's own men resigned their government posts." Worse for the Nazis, free and independent Sweden "immediately offered asylum, and sometimes even Swedish nationality, to all who were persecuted." Around nine hundred Norwegian Jews were smuggled into Sweden.

But the truly amazing and inspiring story happened in Denmark. "The behavior of the Danish people and their government was unique among all the countries of Europe," Arendt avers. "One is tempted to recommend the story as required reading in political science for all students who wish to learn something about the enormous power potential inherent in non-violent action and in resistance to an opponent possessing vastly superior means of violence."

While Bulgaria and Italy, also under the German sphere, sabotaged German orders to save their Jews, they "never contested the policy as such." But Denmark did. "When the Germans approached them rather cautiously about introducing the yellow badge," writes Arendt, "they were simply told that the King would be the first to wear it, and the Danish government officials were careful to point out that anti-Jewish measures of any sort would cause their own immediate resignation." The Danish government even refused to help the Germans distinguish between native Danish Jews and refugees who had fled Germany and elsewhere who had been declared stateless by the Nazis.

Then the most unexpected thing happened. The Swedes rescinded permission for German troops to pass through the country and Danish dock workers decided to help the resistance along by rioting, refusing to repair German ships and going on strike. "The German military commander imposed martial law" which gave Himmler the idea that the time was ripe to move on the Jewish question.

A Change of Heart

"What he did not reckon with," notes Arendt, "was that the German officials who had been living in the country for years were no longer the same. Not only did General von Hannecken, the military commander, refuse to put troops at the disposal of the Reich plenipotentiary, Dr. Werner Best; the special S.S. units (Einsatzkommandos) employed in Denmark very frequently objected to 'the measures they were ordered to carry out by the central agencies' - according to Best's testimony at Nuremberg."Over 99% of Denmark's Jewish population survived the Holocaust.

Even "Best himself, an old Gestapo man and former legal advisor to Heydrich, could no longer be trusted." Eichmann sent a special envoy, the ruthless Rolf Günther, to deal with the situation. "Günther made no impression on his colleagues in Copenhagen, and now von Hannecken refused even to issue a decree requiring all Jews to report for work."

Plans were made to ship Denmark's Jews to Theresienstadt concentration camp on October 1, 1943. They were to be seized and loaded onto ships. "Since neither the Danes nor the Jews nor the German troops stationed in Denmark could be relied on to help," says Arendt, "Police units arrived from Germany for a door-to-door search. At the last moment, Best told them that they were not permitted to break into apartments, because the Danish police might interfere. Hence they could only seize those Jews who voluntarily opened their doors."

Their 'toughness' had melted like butter in the sun, they had even been able to show a few timid beginnings of genuine courage."

But the Jews were tipped off, likely by Best himself, and they went into hiding "which was very easy in Denmark, because, in the words of the judgment, 'all sections of the Danish people, from the King down to simple citizens,' stood ready to receive them."

The Power of Non-Violent Defiance

According to Wikipedia, 7,220 of Denmark's 7,800 Jews were spirited away to neutral Sweden which not only welcomed them but allowed them to work. Only 464 were captured and sent to Theresienstadt. And of those, only 48 died there, mostly elderly people. "Over 99% of Denmark's Jewish population survived the Holocaust."

Hannah Arendt concludes that the case of Denmark "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. They themselves apparently no longer looked upon the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course. They had met with resistance based on principle, and their 'toughness' had melted like butter in the sun, they had even been able to show a few timid beginnings of genuine courage."

Now America is at a crossroads. How many of America's citizens will stand with their fellow human beings and offer sanctuary from the midnight knock on the door from jackbooted thugs ready to take them away to prison camps and later ship them out of the country? How many will acquiesce and even spur on the government's minions? How many will take matters into their own hands and attack those others?

Will there be an underground railroad spiriting the persecuted out of the United States to Canada, just as the underground railroad rescued Negro slaves before the Civil War? Will Canada accept them?

I leave you with a song from the a capella gospel group, Sweet Honey in the Rock who ask the musical question, would you harbor me. A powerful song and something to think about.

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