The fate of Denmark’s Jews: an interview with Bo Lidegaard

By Jonathan Derbyshire  

In 1943, 7,742 Jewish citizens of Denmark—95 per cent of the country’s Jews—were spirited away to neutral Sweden with the help of their fellow Danes, under the noses of the occupying German forces. In his new book “Countrymen“, Bo Lidegaard, editor-in-chief of the Danish newspaper Politiken, recounts the “untold story of how Denmark’s Jews escaped the Nazis”. 

“Countrymen” is not just a book about the fate of Denmark’s Jews, however. It is also about the Danish experience—and the moral ambiguities—of Nazi occupation. Unlike other occupied countries, Denmark was able to preserve a degree of self-rule after the German invasion—it kept its king and maintained its government throughout the occupation. When I spoke to Lidegaard earlier this week, he told that me that he sees the book as a “study of the moral dilemma of facing overwhelming power and of the moral decisions you have to make when you cannot fight against injustice. To what extent do you cooperate and what does that cooperation entail, both in terms concessions and in terms of the ability to do good?”

JD: You use the word “cooperation”. Presumably you deliberately avoided using the word “collaboration” to describe the behaviour the Danish government under Nazi occupation?

BL: We have a debate here in Denmark about those two terms. In my opinion, the term “collaboration” connotes a degree of opportunism or even expectation of a German victory that was completely absent from both the thinking of the Danish government and the actions of that government.

Was this debate ongoing when you began writing or is it one that your book has reignited?

Both. It’s always simmering in our attempts to come to terms with the war years. My book sparked a new wave of discussion about that. Not so much about those two words, in particular—rather, the overarching question at the core of the Danish debate is this: Is it defensible for a democratic government, attempting to rescue democracy, to enter into a pragmatic relationship with the occupying power? There’s a general question here, and a specific one about the Nazi occupying power in particular. Is it acceptable to choose a lesser evil in order to avoid the greater one? Of course, it’s very easy today to say that one shouldn’t compromise. But at the time the question facing the Danes was to what degree they should compromise.

And your answer in the book is, yes, it is acceptable to choose the lesser evil.

Yes. I’m arguing that under such harsh circumstances one will always face this kind of dilemma. What you are obliged to do is do whatever you can to avoid evil. But my opponents say that by exporting foodstuffs, by not fighting, by not encouraging armed resistance, by refusing to take in Jewish refugees from Germany before the occupation, Denmark did help the Third Reich.

Denmark implemented restrictive immigration laws before the war which prevented German Jewish refugees from entering the country. Do you think, perversely, that those strict immigration laws subsequently made it possible for Denmark to protect its own Jews and to help them to escape once the country had been occupied?

In a roundabout way, yes. But that was not the calculation made at the time. Those immigration laws were not directed specifically against Jewish refugees, but against refugees in general. The Danish government tried to protect the social balance of Danish society, which they saw as the best line of national defence. What they feared was a major influx of refugees that would unravel the social balance and undermine political stability, thus creating fertile ground for Nazism to take root.

Connected to what you’ve just said is one of the most interesting aspects of the book: your account of the political and moral mobilisation launched by the Social Democratic Party in Denmark in the 1930s. The aim of this was to establish a sense of social solidarity in which Danish Jews were recognised as Danish citizens first and Jews second. 

The aim was even wider. It was not directed specifically at the Jews in Denmark. That was a particular aspect of a more general policy that was driven by the logic that if you have fewer socially marginalised individuals you also have fewer people vulnerable to Nazi or Communist propaganda. It was an attempt to mobilise all citizens behind democracy.

And the Communists in Denmark were stigmatised as enemies of democracy in the same way as the Nazis weren’t they?

Exactly. And the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939 confirmed the government’s analysis that those two evils were not at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but were in fact part of the same threat. Not a threat from the right or the left, but a threat to the foundation of democracy, understood as respect for the individual.

This social democratic mobilisation in 1930s was a mobilisation around an ideal of democratic citizenship. Would it be fair to say that this was the birth of modern Denmark?

It was very much the birth of that. The four parties across the political spectrum—minus the Communist and Nazi extremes—eventually agreed on that strategy and participated in it. Those four parties remained firmly in control of power in Denmark for the rest of the 20th century. Their mutual understanding of the fundamentals remained intact until 2001. In 2001 this political consensus, which did allow for shifts in government back and forth from centre-right to centre-left, unravelled. For the first time, the right of centre parties campaigned for a majority with the extreme right and won. This led to the creation of not a centre-right government, but a right-wing one, with the entry of the right-wing Danish People’s Party into the government of Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

The main heroes of this book are obviously the ordinary Danes who came to the aid of their Jewish fellow citizens. But there’s another hero, a more ambiguous figure, the Foreign Minister Erik Scavenius, who oversaw the policy of cooperation with the Germans. And it does look as though it was that policy of cooperation that, paradoxically, helped Denmark’s Jews. As you argue in the book, all-out confrontation with Germany would have placed the most vulnerable, ie the Jews, in the greatest peril.

The role of Erik Scavenius is very strongly contested in Denmark. Scavenius was not the brains behind this policy of cooperation. The elected Social Democratic and Liberal politicians in the government were. Scavenius was the executor of the policy. By the time war broke out, he was no longer a politician, he was retired. He was a tough cookie—very unsentimental. He was effectively contracted by the politicians to do a job which they knew would be highly contested and which they knew would be extremely unpopular. So he became the leading figure, not because he was the most credible or popular, but because he lacked a popular mandate and was thus able to carry out the policy with greater rigour.

Bo Lidegaard’s “Countrymen: The Untold Story of How Denmark’s Jews Escaped the Nazis” is published by Atlantic Books (£22).

 

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