- rescuing the Jews
- the spiral of violence
- departure and return
- further reading
Rescuing the Jews
At the time of the Occupation, Denmark was home to about 8,000 Jews. The largest group were native Danes, settled for generations; about 1,500 were the children of mixed marriages; a further 1,500 were recent refugees from 1930s Nazi Germany. The discredited Werner Best, looking for ways to redeem himself with his boss, turned his mind to the Jews. So far he had resisted imposing Nazi anti-Jewish policy ('It would make a bad impression on the Danes'); but now he contacted Berlin and asked for additional troops and transport so that arrests and deportations could be carried out. Hitler agreed; the raid was scheduled for the night of Friday October 1, the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
One of the few people who knew about the raid in advance was Georg Duckwitz, a German shipping expert and diplomat based in Copenhagen. He thought it would be a disaster for Germany, who needed Denmark's compliance; and he knew that Werner Best was already regretting what he'd done. On September 28 Georg Duckwitz met influential Danish politicians privately and asked them to warn the Jews. The message was urgently spread by word of mouth. Just as German security forces and transport ships had quietly and discreetly slipped into Denmark to carry out the raid, so the Jews quietly and secretly departed from their homes.
Danes everywhere offered them help. Hiding places were provided in houses, farms, town flats and country cottages - and hospitals, where refugees were disguised as patients (with new names and imaginary illnesses). Doctors and medical staff helped to organise the transit of their 'patients' to fishing boats hired to take them to safety in Sweden. On one occasion 200 refugees were packed into over 20 cabs as part of a 'funeral' procession following an empty hearse, minutes before their hospital hiding-place was searched by the Gestapo. 'In train, tram or street,' said a Jewish survivor, 'unknown Danes turned to us and offered their help or gave us money. Someone gave me a gold ring, a man took off his coat and asked if I'd take it, a tram conductor refused to take my fare, saying that he was ashamed of what was happening.' Students, newspaper staff, shopkeepers, lawyers, police and even a sabotage group all organised themselves into co-ordinated rescue teams and communication links.
One organiser was the pacifist schoolteacher Aage Bertelsen. His home - 'the house with the blue curtains' in a Copenhagen suburb - became a renowned transit station: by the end of October almost 500 Jewish refugees had passed through it. It wasn't easy work. One night news came that 11 fishing boats were available for the escape voyage; trucks were hastily filled with exhausted and anxious people. 'We lifted them up and hauled them across the sides of the trucks and placed them flat so that they couldn't be seen. It all took place in total silence, without a single complaint, but the way we were obliged to load them - as if they were animals or sacks of produce - gave the scene a touch of horror. This was emphasised by the surroundings: the gloomy barn, the darkness of the night, the moon rising behind rain-clouds.' And when they reached the sea, there was only one boat waiting. Most of the passengers had to be taken back to the farm to wait for the next time.
Despite difficulties, setbacks and problems with money (for example, the fishing boat skippers had to be paid), the Danes felt a renewal of hope and dignity through their concerted action. As one said: 'In the midst of the tragedy we underwent a great experience. The population which had said, in the face of German power, "What can we do?" rose as one and together actively helped their innocent brothers.' In all, 7,220 Jews were helped to reach Sweden safely. In the raids on October 1 and 2, only 284 were captured; 275 were caught later, but 85 of those were released.
Several things had made possible a rescue on this scale. The famous Danish physicist Niels Bohr had visited Sweden on September 30 and successfully persuaded the government there to relax its resistance to refugees and welcome the Danish Jews. Denmark itself wasn't in the terrorising grip of hard-line élite Gestapo or SS men: many of the German security forces were elderly, or newly recruited; many more were posted to Denmark to recover from war wounds received on the front line. These men didn't hunt down refugees; they chose to look the other way. (One Jew who escaped by rail remembered how 'there were at least as many Germans as Jews on the train, but, having looked each other over, each side pretended that the other did not exist.') But above all, it was the united action of the Danish people against oppression that saved the lives of most of the Jewish population. Denmark was the only country in occupied Europe which managed to do so.
The spiral of violence
It was another minority - people who wanted to show resistance with the use of weapons - who brought the most violence and civilian deaths to Denmark, and so halted a remarkable experiment in nonviolent action. Danish army officers, released from prison in October 1943, had set up their own underground army, but not for armed struggle: they looked ahead to the chaotic period after the war, when they would be needed to protect industry, transport systems and communications. It was civilian saboteurs who wanted armed action - and the Allied countries were happy to provide them with weapons. Air drops from January 1944 to the end of the war delivered thousands of rocket-launchers, rifles, hand guns and ammunition, together with around 74,000 pounds of plastic explosives and detonating cord.
Intensified sabotage brought violent reprisals, of course. A corps of Danish pro-Nazis was brought under the control of German officers and used as a vicious retaliation force every time the saboteurs struck. In June 1944 Werner Best once again declared a state of emergency. Shipyard workers in Copenhagen responded by going on strike; after the curfew hour, crowds massed on the streets, lighting fires and putting up barricades. German patrols hit back by killing 6 civilians; the strike spread. The Germans executed 9 imprisoned saboteurs; the demonstrations became more violent. Troops cut off Copenhagen's power and water supplies, and blocked roads out of the city; street fighting intensified, and German artillery moved in. Complete catastrophe was finally averted by a politician acting as mediator. The German-sponsored 'retaliation force' was called off, patrols agreed not to shoot at civilians, and power supplies were restored. In return, the Danes went back to work. 23 had been killed and 203 wounded.
The angry German government realised that Denmark, led by its Freedom Council set up to coordinate resistance groups in 1943, was no longer in the mood to compromise. The Germans' next repressive move came on September 19 1944: the entire Danish police force was rounded up and disarmed, and several hundred were deported to prison in Germany. The result: demoralisation. Danish society, which had retained most of its integrity during nearly four years of occupation, began to collapse. The crime rate shot up, black market traders operated freely, saboteurs acted without restraint - and as armed resistance continued to grow, so did Gestapo counter-violence, in the vicious spiral of conflict that violence always creates. The sabotage leader operating in Jutland now liaised with Britain to organise air raids, which began in late October. Among the victims of British bombs were 86 children in a school targeted by mistake.
Departure and return
However, it was now March 1945, and the end of Occupation was in sight. An informal network had been in place for some time to manage the return of Scandinavians from German prison camps. 200 Danish policemen, all of them invalids, had been brought back as early as December 1944; most of the rest were placed in Swedish Red Cross care by the end of March, and orders for their release were given in April.
On May 8 the Germans, as eager as the Danes to see an end to the war, surrendered and began to withdraw, 'with few illusions left'. As, over the next six weeks, they reached the border and filed across it, British soldiers stripped them of their personal weapons, money and valuables. SS troopers were physically kicked into Germany; ordinary soldiers were allowed to walk at their own pace.
Clearing German troops from the island of Bornholm took a week. They were transported by Russian troops, who gave Danish officials a reassuring message: 'The Red Army on Bornholm will refrain from disturbing the normal life of the inhabitants or interfering in matters of Danish administration'. They knew what occupation was like.
It was discovered that the German government had given a last nod of acknowledgement to the Danes: all the Danish Jews who had been taken to concentration camps were exempted from the death trains travelling east in the last months of war. Swedish buses, painted white, brought back to Denmark women who had been imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp: they were welcomed by open-air feasts, with white tablecloths and vases of spring flowers.