Countrymen. By Bo Lidegaard, translated by Robert Maass. Knopf, 2013. $28.95
On April 9, 1940, Denmark accepted “peaceful occupation” by Germany to avoid a suicidal war. In return, and because Adolf Hitler regarded them as fellow “Aryans,” Danes were initially spared many deprivations.
The policy of Danish leaders was “to play for time and to avoid ... major disasters.” Yet they were acutely aware of Nazi atrocities, especially toward Jews, throughout Poland and the Baltic states. In September 1941, King Christian X declared that if the Germans attempted to persecute Danish Jews, “We would have to reject it outright.”
Two and a half years later in September 1943, that very persecution threatened. From Berlin, Heinrich Himmler, whom Hitler had named to oversee the extermination of European Jewry, demanded a round-up of Denmark’s Jews. But in Copenhagen, one of his deputies, Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, by then appalled by the role he was asked to play, tipped off Danish leaders.
The most important of them, Nils Svenningsen, reacted by insisting to his colleagues that they “must consider it a duty to prevent this from happening” even if, as a last resort, they had to offer detaining Denmark’s Jews themselves to prevent deportation and death in the concentration camps.
That last resort was not necessary because between Sept. 26 and Oct. 9, 1943, the Danish people arose as if one, despite the danger, to assist in the escape of their Jewish compatriots — by train, by automobile, and above all by ship — to Sweden, which pledged to accept every single one. In many parts of Europe, the Nazis killed almost all the Jews, and in Italy and France, where the toll was less, it still amounted to more than 20 percent. In Denmark, less than 1 percent of the approximately 8,000 Jews fell into German hands.
This inspiring story of moral courage and national heroism is told by Bo Lidegaard, diplomat, national security specialist, and editor of the newspaper Politiken.
He writes, “The Danish exception shows that the mobilization of civil society’s humanism and protective engagement is not only a theoretical possibility: It can be done. We know because it happened.”
“Countrymen” should be required reading for political cowards everywhere.
Benjamin Franklin Martin is the Price Professor of History at LSU. His most recent book is “Years of Plenty, Years of Want: France and the Legacy of the Great War” (2013).