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Denmark, Civil Disobedience, and the Holocaust that was not.

We all know that civil disobedience in the face of injustice is a good thing. And we all know that it can be successful even when only a few (but still vocal) people stand up. The main example in the American subconscious is the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s, in which the majority of the country did not participate and against which many actively fought. If King, the NCAAP, and the SCLC could change society from a minority position, how much more incredible would it be if the entire society stood together? What does successful, society-wide civil disobedience look like?

Last week I devoured Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). Everyone with an interest in the Holocaust, in totalitarian systems, or in the Problem of Evil should read it. The book is controversial, it is true, but primarily because Arendt does not reduce the trial or the events of the Third Reich to a simple good guy – bad guy story. Eichmann in Jerusalem is jam-packed with the ironies of a totalitarian state that cannot become maximally evil because of the classic failures of bureaucracy. Because the S.S., the R.S.H.A., the W.V.H.A., the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Transportation, etc. etc. etc., were in never-ending competition, they would logistically undermine each other to make themselves look good in the eyes of the Party leadership; yet, for exactly the same reason, they each tried as hard as possible to meet the goals of the First, then Second, then Final solutions. In this way the Third Reich was nearly, nearly as efficiently evil as a human system can be.

However, this was not true everywhere. “For various reasons,” Adolf Eichmann later said in his trial, “the action against the Jews in Denmark has been a failure.” What are those various reasons? By what acts of civil disobedience and subversion did the Danish people conduct undermine their Nazi occupiers? Rather than trying to summarize what is already a superb summary by Arendt, I will merely reproduce that summary here. As you read, take special notice of the lines I have bolded; they are especially key to her analysis, and may hold something valuable for a practice of civil disobedience today.


eichmann in jerusalem cover

At the Wannsee Conference, Martin Luther, of the Foreign Office, warned of great difficulties in the Scandinavian countries, notably in Norway and Denmark. (Sweden was never occupied, and Finland, though in the war on the side of the Axis, was the one country the Nazis hardly ever even approached on the Jewish question. This surprising exception of Finland, with some two thousand Jews, may have been due to Hitler’s great esteem for the Finns, whom perhaps he did not want to subject to threats and humiliating blackmail.) Luther proposed postponing evacuations from Scandinavia for the time being, and as far as Denmark was concerned, this really went without saying, since the country retained its independent government, and was respected as a neutral state, until the fall of 1943, although it, along with Norway, had been invaded by the German Army in April, 1940. There existed no Fascist or Nazi movement in Denmark worth mentioning, and therefore no collaborators. In NORWAY, however, the Germans had been able to find enthusiastic supporters; indeed, Vidkun Quisling, leader of the pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic Norwegian party, gave his name to what later became known as a “quisling government.” The bulk of Norway’s seventeen hundred Jews were stateless, refugees from Germany; they were seized and interned in a few lightning operations in October and November, 1942. When Eichmann’s office ordered their deportation to Auschwitz, some of Quisling’s own men resigned their government posts. This may not have come as a surprise to Mr. Luther and the Foreign Office, but what was much more serious, and certainly totally unexpected, was that Sweden immediately offered asylum, and sometimes even Swedish nationality, to all who were persecuted. Ernst von Weizsacker, Undersecretary of State of the Foreign Office, who received the proposal, refused to discuss it, but the offer helped nevertheless. It is always relatively easy to get out of a country illegally, whereas it is nearly impossible to enter the place of refuge without permission and to dodge the immigration authorities. Hence, about nine hundred people, slightly more than half of the small Norwegian community, could be smuggled into Sweden.

It was in DENMARK, however, that the Germans found out how fully justified the Foreign Office’s apprehensions had been. The story of the Danish Jews is sui generis, and the behavior of the Danish people and their government was unique among all the countries of Europe – whether occupied, or a partner of the Axis, or neutral and truly independent. One is tempted to recommend the story as required reading in political science for all students who wish to learn something about the enormous power potential inherent in non-violent action and in resistance to an opponent possessing vastly superior means of violence. To be sure, a few other countries in Europe lacked proper “understanding of the Jewish question,” and actually a majority of them were opposed to “radical” and “final” solutions. Like Denmark, Sweden, Italy, and Bulgaria proved to be nearly immune to anti-Semitism, but of the three that were in the German sphere of influence, only the Danes dared speak out on the subject to their German masters. Italy and Bulgaria sabotaged German orders and indulged in a complicated game of double-dealing and double-crossing, saving their Jews by a tour de force of sheer ingenuity, but they never contested the policy as such. That was totally different from what the Danes did. When the Germans approached them rather cautiously about introducing the yellow badge, they were simply told that the King would be the first to wear it, and the Danish government officials were careful to point out that anti-Jewish measures of any sort would cause their own immediate resignation. It was decisive in this whole matter that the Germans did not even succeed in introducing the vitally important distinction between native Danes of Jewish origin, of whom there were about sixty-four hundred, and the fourteen hundred German Jewish refugees who had found asylum in the country prior to the war and who now had been declared stateless by the German government. This refusal must have surprised the Germans no end, since it appeared so “illogical” for a government to protect people to whom it had categorically denied naturalization and even permission to work. (Legally, the prewar situation of refugees in Denmark was not unlike that in France, except that the general corruption in the Third Republic’s civil services enabled a few of them to obtain naturalization papers, through bribes or “connections,” and most refugees in France could work illegally, without a permit. But Denmark, like Switzerland, was no country pour se débrouiller.) The Danes, however, explained to the German officials that because the stateless refugees were no longer German citizens, the Nazis could not claim them without Danish assent. This was one of the few cases in which statelessness turned out to be an asset, although it was of course not statelessness per se that saved the Jews but, on the contrary, the fact that the Danish government had decided to protect them. Thus, none of the preparatory moves, so important for the bureaucracy of murder, could carried out, and operations were postponed until the fall of 1943.

What happened then was truly amazing; compared with what took place in other European countries, everything went topsy-turvy. In August, 1943 – after the German offensive in Russia had failed, the Afrika Korps had surrendered in Tunisia, and the Allies had invaded Italy – the Swedish government canceled its 1940 agreement with Germany which had permitted German troops the right to pass through the country. Thereupon, the Danish workers decided that they could help a bit in hurrying things up; riots broke out in Danish shipyards, where the dock workers refused to repair German ships and then went on strike. The German military commander proclaimed a state of emergency and imposed martial law, and Himmler thought this was the right moment to tackle the Jewish question, whose “solution” was long overdue. What he did not reckon with was that – quite apart from Danish resistance – the German officials who had been living in the country for years were no longer the same. Not only did General von Hannecken, the military commander, refuse to put troops at the disposal of the Reich plenipotentiary, Dr. Werner Best; the special S.S. units (Einsatzkommandos) employed in Denmark very frequently objected to “the measures they were ordered to carry out by the central agencies” – according to Best’s testimony at Nuremberg. And Best himself, an old Gestapo man and former legal adviser to Heydrich, author of a then famous book on the police, who had worked for the military government in Paris to the entire satisfaction of his superiors, could no longer be trusted, although it is doubtful that Berlin ever learned the extent of his unreliability. Still, it was clear from the beginning that things were not going well, and Eichmann’s office sent one of its best men to Denmark – Rolf Günther, whom no one had ever accused of not possessing the required “ruthless toughness.” Günther made no impression on his colleagues in Copenhagen, and now von Hannecken refused even to issue a decree requiring all Jews to report for work.

Best went to Berlin and obtained a promise that all Jews from Denmark would be sent to Theresienstadt regardless of their category – a very important concession, from the Nazis’ point of view. The night of October 1 was set for their seizure and immediate departure – ships were ready in the harbor – and since neither the Danes nor the Jews nor the German troops stationed in Denmark could be relied on to help, police units arrived from Germany for a door-to-door search. At the last moment, Best told them that they were not permitted to break into apartments, because the Danish police might then interfere, and they were not supposed to fight it out with the Danes. Hence they could seize only those Jews who voluntarily opened their doors. They found exactly 477 people, out of a total of more than 7,800, at home and willing to let them in. A few days before the date of doom, a German shipping agent, Georg F. Duckwitz, having probably been tipped off by Best himself, had revealed the whole plan to Danish government officials, who, in turn, had hurriedly informed the heads of the Jewish community. They, in marked contrast to Jewish leaders in other countries, had then communicated the news openly in the synagogues on the occasion of the New Year services. The Jews had just time enough to leave their apartments and go into hiding, which was very easy in Denmark, because, in the words of the judgment, “all sections of the Danish people, from the King down to simple citizens,” stood ready to receive them.

They might have remained in hiding until the end of the war if the Danes had not been blessed with Sweden as a neighbor. It seemed reasonable to ship the Jews to Sweden, and this was done with the help of the Danish fishing fleet. The cost of transportation for people without means – about a hundred dollars per person – was paid largely by wealthy Danish citizens, and that was perhaps the most astounding feat of all, since this was a time when Jews were paying for their own deportation, when the rich among them were paying fortunes for exit permits (in Holland, Slovakia, and, later, in Hungary) either by bribing the local authorities or by negotiating “legally” with the S.S., who accepted only hard currency and sold exit permits, in Holland, to the tune of five or ten thousand dollars per person. Even in places where Jews met with genuine sympathy and a sincere willingness to help, they had to pay for it, and the chances poor people had of escaping were nil.

It took the better part of October to ferry all the Jews across the five to fifteen miles of water that separates Denmark from Sweden. The Swedes received 5,919 refugees, of whom at least 1,000 were of German origin, 1,310 were half-Jews, and 686 were non-Jews married to Jews. (Almost half the Danish Jews seem to have remained in the country and survived the war in hiding.) The non-Danish Jews were better off than ever before, they all received permission to work. The few hundred Jews whom the German police had been able to arrest were shipped to Theresienstadt. They were old or poor people, who either had not received the news in time or had not been able to comprehend its meaning. In the ghetto, they enjoyed greater privileges than any other group because of the never-ending “fuss” made about them by Danish institutions and private persons. Forty-eight persons died, a figure that was not particularly high, in view of the average age of the group. When everything was over, it was the considered opinion of Eichmann that “for various reasons the action against the Jews in Denmark has been a failure,” whereas the curious Dr. Best declared that “the objective of the operation was not to seize a great number of Jews but to clean Denmark of Jews, and this objective has now been achieved.”

Politically and psychologically, the most interesting aspect of this incident is perhaps the role played by the German authorities in Denmark, their obvious sabotage of orders from Berlin. It is the only case we know of in which the Nazis met with open native resistance, and the result seems to have been that those exposed to it changed their minds. They themselves apparently no longer looked upon the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course. They had met resistance based on principle, and their “toughness” had melted like butter in the sun, they had even been able to show a few timid beginnings of genuine courage. That the ideal of “toughness,” except, perhaps, for a few half-demented brutes, was nothing but a myth of self-deception, concealing a ruthless desire for conformity at any price, was clearly revealed at the Nuremberg Trials, where the defendants accused and betrayed each other and assured the world that they “had always been against it” or claimed, as Eichmann was to do, that their best qualities had been “abused” by their superiors. (In Jerusalem, he accused “those in power” of having abused his “obedience.” “The subject of a good government is lucky, the subject of a bad government is unlucky. I had no luck.”) The atmosphere had changed, and although most of them must have known that they were doomed, not a single one of them had the guts to defend the Nazi ideology. Werner Best claimed at Nuremberg that he had played a complicated double role and that it was thanks to him that the Danish officials had been warned of the impending catastrophe; documentary evidence showed, on the contrary, that he himself had proposed the Danish operation in Berlin, but he explained that this was all part of the game. He was extradited to Denmark and there condemned to death, but he appealed the sentence, with surprising results; because of “new evidence,” his sentence was commuted to five years in prison, from which he was released soon afterward. He must have been able to prove to the satisfaction of the Danish court that he really had done his best (170-175).

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