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The Banality of Goodness: Collaboration and Compromise in the Rescue of Denmark's Jews

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Issue 6, Number 2, July 2013
pp. 41-66 | 10.1353/jji.2013.0018

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Never stand so high upon a principle that you cannot lower it to suit the circumstances.

-Winston Churchill

The rescue of the Jews of Denmark is the stuff of legend. Books and movies, authors, and even scholars have long reflected on what some have called "the most remarkable chapter in human history"—when tiny Denmark stood up to the most powerfully evil regime in human history, refused to bow to its pressure, and in the nick of time, ferried over 7,000 Jews (nearly the entire Jewish population) to safety in neighboring Sweden.

No doubt, the story is remarkable—especially when seen in the light of more ordinarily-tragic events in Norway. But with time, the legend of "little Dunkirk" has grown even larger than the events which inspired it. One story even has the Danish king wearing a yellow star on his sleeve in mockery and defiance of the Nazi decree that Jews wear this identifying badge. But the story is simply false. In fact, precisely because of Danes like King Christian X, the Germans never introduced such anti-Jewish legislation in the first place! But the legend lives on; and historically speaking, legends like this have a tendency to grow. One historian even surmises that the events of October 1943 would have been included in the Bible had they happened in the time of Esther.

But the "miraculous" events of that fateful season did not fall upon the Jews of Denmark like manna from heaven. Rather, they were the culmination of a policy of "negotiation" which dominated Danish-German relations since the occupation began in April 1940. Storywriters and mythmakers may wish to make the rescue of the Jews of Denmark a story of heroism and glory, but it wasn't this. On the contrary, this essay endeavors to show that the "spontaneous" rescue of Danish Jewry has its roots in something other than the national character of the Danish people. Here is indeed a "rare instance," as Leni Yahil writes, "where the researcher must be careful not to overdo his enthusiasm for the rescuer, any more than he should overindulge his hatred for the persecutor."

By comparing the Danish myth with the prevailing situation in the rest of Scandinavia, I will show that the policy of "negotiation" was itself responsible for the ultimate failure of Nazi operations in that country. Though the Danish government seldom showed much enthusiasm for its alliance with Nazi Germany, the fact of the matter is that "negotiation" (which is institutionally indistinguishable from "collaboration") normally worked to the benefit of Denmark and Germany alike. "Negotiation" no doubt saved the lives of countless Danes, Jew and Gentile alike. But the policy, often regarded as the lesser of two evils, only worked because it brought Denmark into the service of the German war effort. The policy of negotiation—which Denmark only gave up when prospects of a German victory grew slim, and then, for reasons having nothing to do with welfare of the country's Jews—thus contributed—indirectly, but not insignificantly—to the suffering of Europeans elsewhere on the continent.

Thus, contrary to most reflections on the rescue of the Jews of Denmark, this essay attributes the survival of Denmark's Jews not to the national character of the Danish people or to the inherent religious tolerance of its political culture, but to the fact that the constitutional leadership of Denmark was willing to "deal" with Nazi Germany, whereas its counterparts elsewhere in Western Europe were not. Because of Denmark's quick capitulation and continued cooperation with overwhelming German forces, the leaders of Denmark were permitted to stay in office and bargain with Nazi Germany under a policy of "negotiation." This policy, and the willingness of Danish leaders to live up to their end of the bargain, gained for Danish citizens (temporarily, at least) a gentler German occupation—one that softened (but did not eliminate) the harsh impact of Nazi policy for nearly everyone in Denmark, Jewish or otherwise. It also laid the foundation for the eventual rescue of Danish Jewry. But the policy involved difficult choices precisely because it required Denmark's close participation in the German war effort. Historical hindsight and the...



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