Monday, June 30, 2003

Denmark 1940-1943: Legend & History

(And to hell with Godwin's Law)

Here's a story you may have heard about the Danes during World War II. I first learnt it from the film of Leon Uris Exodus. Posting an mpeg file of the relevant sequence would be tedious to organise, so here's an excerpt from the novel instead:

The situation seethed and seethed - and finally erupted. The morning of August 29, 1943, was ushered in with a blast heard across Zealand. The Danish fleet had scuttled itself in an effort to block the shipping channels!


From German Occupation headquarters at the Hotel D'Angleterre came the decree: ALL JEWS MUST WEAR A YELLOW ARM BAND WITH A STAR OF DAVID.

That night, the underground radio transmitted a message to all Danes. "From Amelienborg Palace King Christian has given the following answer to the German command that Jews must wear a Star of David. The King has said that one Dane is exactly the same as the next Dane. he himself will wear the Star of David and he expects that every loyal Dane will do the same."

The next day in Copenhagen almost the entire population wore arm bands showing a Star of David.

I think you'll all agree that this is a ripping good yarn, and a truly inspirational example of national resistance in a dark time of military occupation. So you can imagine my disappointment, when I read this in Hannah Arendt's Eichmann In Jerusalem:

When the Germans approached [the Danes] 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 gets worse too. I won't post the entirety of Arendt's account of events in Denmark in 1943; for one thing the book went back to the library yesterday, narrowly evading an overdue fine, so I don't have it to hand. But I can provide a brief summary.

After worker riots in the Danish shipyards in 1943, the Germans introduced martial law. Himmler saw an opportunity to do something about the Danish Jews, as well as the 1,000 or so stateless German Jews living in Denmark (the Danish government had refused to hand them back to Germany precisely because Germany had declared them stateless. The Danes took the position that in doing so, the Nazis had forfeited any right to take them back). The German forces in Denmark were considered unreliable for the task of rounding up Denmark's Jewish population, so special police units were brought in from Berlin to conduct operations.

At the last minute, Dr Werner Best, head of Denmark's German administration issued a remarkable order. To avoid conflict with the Danish Police, the German units were not to enter any apartments by force: they could only seize people who opened their doors voluntarily. We Trotskys know a thing or two about these matters; take it from me, this is not the way to run an effective purge. Nor does it help if, as I learnt from this site this morning, you warn the government of the occupied nation of what you're planning. A purge is no time to stand on courtesy.

The end result was that of a population of more than 7,800 Jews in Denmark 5,919 were safely ferried to Sweden. (Zeppo Bakunin tells me that this operation was assisted in no small measure by the fact that the German Navy vessels patrolling the waters between Denmark and Sweden were very punctual in maintaining their regular patrol schedules).

If you're wondering why I'm posting on something that is so totally old hat, you're not alone. Partly it's because of the ongoing Windschuttle kerfuffle of course - if nothing else it's revived my interest in history, and what we can learn from it. Which, as long as we maintain our sentimental attachment to stirring tales of good versus evil, or canny Danes versus stupid Germans, is nothing. (Does anyone seriously imagine that the German occupiers thought that the Danish government would keep knowledge of the planned purge to themselves? That the Navy expected patrols that ran with clockwork regularity to be effective)? When we get past Uris' legend to the real events, a much more complex and interesting tale emerges.

Of course, it's not as comfortable as Uris' version of events: if we accept that it's possible that high ranking Nazis in Denmark were able to engage in acts of covert decency - the sort of decency that we like to think belongs to people like us, we may also have to face up to the possibility that people at the other end of the scale might have started out as people a lot like us too; for example Adolf Eichmann, the failed salesman who entered the SS as (more or less) a good career move. Now there's a worrying thought. It always has been, hasn't it?

Update: thanks to boynton, here's another web page debunking the Denmark legend.

No comments: