Of all the statistics generated by the Holocaust, perhaps some of the most disturbing in the questions they give rise to are the following. Of the Jews in Hungary, the Netherlands, Greece, Latvia and Poland, between 70 and 90 per cent died, while the corresponding figures for Estonia, Belgium Norway and Romania were between 40 and 50. In France and Italy somewhere around 20 per cent perished. In both Bulgaria and Denmark, however, just one.
Bo Lidegaard’s Countrymen is the story of how Denmark to a great extent saved its Jewish population from the labour and extermination camps, but it inevitably raises issues of equal relevance to the rest of Europe. The author is careful to underline the cultural and racial differences that made each country’s experience of Nazi occupation different, and yet at the end of his lucid, compelling and scrupulously fair book nothing rings more true than his assertion that there was nothing ‘inevitable’ in occupied Europe’s collaboration in the Holocaust and that Denmark was the stirring proof of that.
There had been nothing heroic about Denmark’s response to German aggression in the early years of the war; but when the crunch came late in 1943 and plans were activated for the deportation of its Jewish population, a whole country woke to its humanitarian, civic and democratic collective duty. For three years of virtually peaceful ‘co-operation’ the Danish authorities had followed an uneasy path between pragmatic self-interest and principle; but there had always been one line that they were never prepared to cross. King Christian X noted in his diary after a conversation with his prime minister in September 1940:
I interjected that after the Germans’ past performance one might expect that they would demand the expulsion of Jews who were present, and that such a requirement would be repugnant to me … I considered our own Jews to be Danish citizens, and the Germans could not touch them. The prime minister shared my view and added that there could be no question about that.
The Danes could, in a sense, ‘afford’ to take a lofty line with the Nazis — and make it work for as long as it did — because Germany had more to lose than to gain by disrupting the cosy relationship that it enjoyed with Denmark in these first years of war. In terms both of defence and military and agricultural resources, a tranquil Denmark made irresistible sense; but when in 1943 Nazi ideology finally won out over Germany’s other war aims and strategic sense, Denmark had its chance to make good its commitment to its Jewish citizens.
Countrymen offers a clear and fair-minded assessment of the painful — and, some thought, shameful — compromises and moral equivocations involved in Denmark’s decision to co-operate with Nazi Germany, but at the heart of the book is the story of the few days in October 1943 when the Danish people took matters into their own hands. For three years the politicians and the civil servants had sacrificed more than many Danes could bear to hold the country together, and in one sense Berlin’s decision to round up the country’s Jews offered a chance for the population to redeem Denmark’s national honour, not just in its own eyes but in the eyes of the world and of posterity.
Even at this stage there were Nazi sympathisers and Danish SS men (Lidegaard does not shirk any of the murkier aspects of this story), politicians who were still advocating further compromises and fishermen who made more money out of running refugees to Sweden, but the overwhelming response of the country was one of a compassion that recognised no distinction between Dane and Dane or even the existence of a ‘Jewish issue’. In the words of the historian Saul Friedländer, the Holocaust was only made possible because ‘Not one social group … throughout Europe declared its solidarity with the Jews.’ But as the Gestapo moved in to round up the country’s 6,000 Jews, Denmark proved the triumphant exception. The whole community — from the churches to the unions and professions and police force, from the city to the villages and the isolated farmhouses — united to spirit their fellow ‘countrymen’ (it is a well-chosen title) across the few dangerous miles to Sweden and safety.
It was made possible for a whole range of reasons — the Germans on the ground with an eye to the future were only ever lukewarm in prosecuting Berlin’s orders — but none of them changes the central fact that the Nazis failed in Denmark because the Danish people stood up for what was right in the face of dangers they could only guess at. With the benefit of hindsight it might now seem clear that they were not in as much danger as they imagined. But the men and women who hid their colleagues in hospitals or the villagers who risked their own safety to conceal total strangers in their barns and church lofts did not know that. Lindegaard has done them and their story proud in a history that combines all the immediacy of personal drama with an unerring sense of the wider implications of Denmark’s achievement.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £18.50. Tel: 08430 600033
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free