- A Conspiracy of Decency: The Rescue of the Danish Jews During World War II
The events of October 1943 in occupied Denmark constitute one of the most enduringly compelling stories of the Second World War. Over a period of several weeks, a massive popular effort led by the Danish resistance managed to save almost all of the nation’s Jews from a German effort to capture and deport them. The story has been told in a number of popular books, most of them now rather dated; there has also been a more extensive scholarly literature, focusing on the complexities of Danish motives and the roles of particular actors. In this book, Emmy Werner updates the popular studies, offering an accessible account of the rescue that incorporates some of the recent historical analyses. The result is a useful and often moving introduction to a story all too little known among contemporary Americans.
The book follows the rescue chronologically, beginning with the German invasion of 1940 and concluding with the return of the Jews from exile in 1945. Its early chapters focus on opposition to the Nazis before the rescue. While Denmark fell under German control very early in the war, the conditions of occupation were unusually mild; the Danish government remained in operation, and no actions were initially taken against the Jews. Werner describes the development of the resistance movement in the first years after the invasion, as well as the events which led to the attempted roundups in late 1943. She does so primarily through individual accounts, forgoing detailed historical exposition in favor of anecdotes and first-person recollections. This approach tends to produce a relatively thin and somewhat oversimplified historical picture. It does, however, allow Werner to include some memorable details, such as the daily lives of resistance saboteurs and the dry ridicule directed at the Germans by the Danes. Her discussion of German shipping attaché Georg Duckwitz is particularly compelling. Duckwitz, a confidant of German commander Werner Best, learned early of the planned deportations; after failing to dissuade Best from giving the orders, he notified Danish authorities and arranged for Jewish asylum in Sweden. Werner ably reconstructs his actions during that period, conveying his determined and increasingly frantic struggle to head off a catastrophe.
The book then turns to the rescue itself. Again, Werner’s emphasis is on personal experience. She follows a number of participants through their stories of October 1943, incorporating first-person narratives from both Jews and their rescuers. These stories appear as disconnected anecdotes, with only a sketchy outline of the overall pattern of events. The episodes Werner includes are undeniably affecting, the kinds of stories which have made the rescue an icon of moral courage during the Holocaust. Danes find themselves faced with Jews in trouble and unhesitatingly take them in; Jews flee German troops and find shelter and financial support from Danish strangers; resistance workers outwit Gestapo troops, while fishermen ferry Jews to Sweden. Some of the most moving stories concern the experience of Jewish children, whose displacement from their safe [End Page 158] middle-class worlds was frightening and surreal. Werner paints this picture with broad strokes, leaving out many of the inconsistencies that historians have identified in the behavior of the actors. The Danes appear mainly as saints, while the complexities and contradictions of German actions are largely ignored; as a scholarly study, this depiction of the rescue would be a weak one. But for those new to the story of the rescue, these chapters bring the events of the time vividly to life.
Many accounts of the rescue essentially end with the arrival of the Danish Jews in Sweden. To her great credit, Werner pursues the subject further, devoting as much space to the period of exile and return as to the rescue itself. One chapter describes the conditions of Jews in Sweden; anecdotes recount the dramatic arrival onto Swedish soil, the confusion of the early days of exile, and the Jews’ gradual settling into temporary jobs and...