Literature of the Holocaust
maintained by Al Filreis

Discussion of Danish Rescue and King Christian's Moral Leadership

held on the <HOLOCAUS@UICVM.UIC.EDU> discussion list

January -- March 1995

  1. Re. Istvan Deak's concluding reply to the exchange on the Legends of King Christian X (NYRB, Sept. 27, 1990).
  2. Jens Lund: King Christian and the Yellow Star

  3. "Three Cheers for the Danes?" -- deconstructing the myth

# From: Leo Goldberger <gberger@xp.psych.nyu.edu>

Deak succinctly and accurately rendered the historical fact and situated the underlying issues that surround a more comprehensive understanding and evaluation of the rescue of the Danish Jews. A few errors did creep in, but they were quite minor: the German legation attache's name was misspelled, it should have been Duckwitz rather than "Dubowitz"; and my NYU colleague (and author of a fine book: " The Bitter Years: The Invasion of Denmark and Norway, April 1940-May 1945") is a journalist, not a historian.

But on a more substantive level, I found it misleading for Deak to suggest that Denmark's "economic and political collaboration" was "the price to be paid for the [rescue of the Danish Jews]. I would dispute the implied causal connection here. The Danes, in my view, would have come to the aid of their fellow countrymen -- including us Jews -- no matter whether the government chose to cooperate ( or "collaborate" as Deak would have it) or not.

The Danish-German cooperation, reluctantly entered upon following the sudden invasion on 9 April, 1940 was determined in large measure by the David and Goliath odds that the governement and the king perceived. Love of freedom took second place, at least temporarily, to the political pragamatics of saving lives and property--and to maintaining neutrality. But as I have pointed out elsewhere, for the Danes it was an intolerable compromise. >From the very beginning of the occupation, the Danes demonstrated through their solidarity, revival of national and spiritual fellowship with its thousand-year old roots, and their detached, cold-shoulder approach to the Germans that they were emotionally in opposition. By October 1943, with the potential action against the Jews as a major impetus, the resistance movement ( quite ordinary men and women rather than "politicians") was firmly entrenched.

In my view, the Danes more than compensated for their initial stance of "collaboration". Though Istvan Deak fails to mention it, it should be known that the collective shame that readily surfaced in Danish post-war polemics at having "buckled under" on April 9 1940 was widespread and intense. And it is still expressed by many of the old-timers in the resistance movement. If self examination be a national character trait of the Danes--as I believe it is--then it surely speaks for a high level of morality.

Now as for my friend Bent Bludnikow, the Danish archivist best known for his moving account of the plight of the early Jewish immigrants who came to Denmark from Eastern Europe. I well understand and share his ire at Denmark for not having granted some 10.000 Jewish refugees political asylum back in the thrirtees. But, in my view at least, it would be wrong to connect the two events, and allow the official government policy on political refugees in the thirtees (which was as pragmatic and dismal as it was tragic) to diminish the people-powered rescue of October 1943 (which was magnificent and morally inspired). It would indeed be foolish to cheer the Danes for everything they have done in the past. For example, aside from the pre-war policy on political refuges, they did some reprehensible things during the occupation as well.They caved in to the German's demand, in June 194i, that Danish communists be arrested and interned. There were some 20.000 members of the Danish Nazi party, there was aspecial Danish battalion serving on the Eastern front, there were Danish SS-police helping out during the attempted roundup in October, 1943, and yes, some Danish fishermen did charge a pretty penny for us to get across to Sweden--but nevertheless--on the whole the Danish Jews (citizens as well as non-citizens) were treated with decency and helped by the Danes, not only to cross over to Sweden but also while in Theresianstadt (where some 500 who were caught were transported. And finally, they were welcomed back after the war with open arms, their homes and things intact.

As a P.S. I might add that the suggestion, conjectured by some historians, that the Germans (for whatever reasons) might have prefered to see us all escape and thus, by and large, only made half-hearted attempts to pursue us as we were hiding or fleeing, in no way diminishes the magnificence of the Danish response to our plight. All it does (and Steve Paulsson among others are already doing it) is to call for a more thorough examination of Berlin's role in order to properly situate Best and Duckwitz in the context of the failed roundup of the Danish Jews.

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# From: herb@seagopher.com (Herb Effron)

The following presentation by former Washington State Folklorist Jens Lund is available at no charge for community audiences within Washington State. It is also available on videotape ($22.50 + tax/P&H). (See the Inquiring Mind catalog; available on-line in Seattle USA gopher.seattle.wa.us)

King Christian and the Yellow Star: Fact and Fiction about the Rescue of Danish Jews during the Holocaust

In October of 1943, the people of Denmark rescued almost the entire population of Danish Jews from Nazi persecution and extermination. Jens Lund reveals the details of this little-known story, disclosing that the best-known legend about King Christian wearing the yellow star as a protest in fact never happened. He describes the unique cultural, political, and geographic circumstances in Denmark that made the rescue possible, explores the significance of the legend as well as the moral implications of the event, and compares it to incidents of moral heroism in our time.
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# From: tkgierym@k-vector.chem.washington.edu (Tadeusz K. Gierymski)

Mr. Claus Wall <wall@pmb-nbss.med.utoronto.ca>
in his "Moral Leadership" Holocaus, Thu, 5 Jan 1995, writes:

Readers of history will remember that it is not the first
time the Danes have shown moral leadership. King
Christian X wore the yellow star in public to show that
he identified with the plight of all Jews.
How I wish that what Mr. Wall wrote about the Danes and their king were all true, but it is not. The story of his wearing the yellow star not only is not, but could not have been true. It gained credence by repetition, but the evidence for it consists precisely in the repetition. I have not seen it confirmed by a historian; on the contrary, it has been denied, as, e.g. by Jens Lund and by by Bent Bludnikow, an archivist at the National Archives of Denmark.

Mr. Lund writes in "King Christian and the Yellow Star: Fact and Fiction about the Rescue of Danish Jews during the Holocaust.":

That night the underground radio transmitted a message
to all Danes. `From Amalienborg 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 first Star of David and he expects
that every loyal Dane will do the same.' The next
day in Copenhagen, almost the entire population wore
armbands showing a Star of David. The following day
the Germans rescinded the order.
Mr. Lund continues:

This account, a fictionalization contrived by Leon Uris in
his 1958 novel, Exodus, describes a well-known event from
the dark days of Nazi hegemony in Europe. It is familiar to
the many persons who heard of the heroic deed during the
war or who have heard or read about it afterwards.
Unfortunately, however, the event never took place. Not
only did the citizens of Copenhagen and the King of
Denmark never wear the Jewish badge, but neither did
any Danish Jews, except for the few hundred who were
ultimately deported to concentration camps, and even they
only wore it after their arrival. Furthermore,the Nazi
authorities never decreed the use of the badge in Denmark
and King Christian X never, as is also often believed,
threatened to wear it himself, if it were instituted.
There is more to be said.

Bent Bludnikow, an archivist at the National Archives of Denmark, gives three muted cheers for the Danes in his article in The Jerusalem Post International Edition for the week ending October 16, 1993.

He too states that although the king demonstrated sympathy for the Jews, he did not wear the star. Moreover, the September rescue is not an accurate reflection of the way Denmark responded to the moral challenge of the 1930s and the '40s.

The Danes helped only the Danish Jews and showed no mercy to the non- Danish Jews, and probably none to the Gypsies as well. From 1933 on many Jews tried to escape to Denmark from Germany and other countries. They were either turned back at the border or given temporary residence permits for three to six months and deported after their permits expired.

K.K. Steincke, the Danish Social Democratic Minister of Justice, argued that the German anti-Jewish laws were legitimate and so, the Jews were not entitled to asylum in Denmark. The parliament agreed and only a tiny minority of the population protested.

This cynical policy prevailed throughout the war. Even under occupation Jews were turned back, deported, and the German Jews were threatened with deportation to Germany unless they left Denmark as quickly as possible. Many Jews seeking refuge there after Kristallnacht in 1938 had to seek it elsewhere in Central Europe. They were later picked up by the Germans and sent to concentration camps. Denmark in fact was one of the most restrictive countries and yet "it portrayed itself as a democracy that passed the test when the Nazi threat demanded special moral courage."

Bludnikow concedes that Denmark could not absorb all the refugees from Germany and Poland, but blames it for not attempting to live up to the moral challenge of the times in any other way. It did nothing on the diplomatic front; in fact the Danish ambassador in Berlin assured the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that he was doing nothing to help German Jews.

We know from the accounts of the surviving Theresienstad prisoners that the Red Cross delegation inspecting the concentration camp refused to listen to the prisoners' surreptitious attempts to tell the true story of the camp. Bludnikow does not spare the Danish delegates who in 1944 went there to inspect the condition of the Danish Jews, "had no interest whatsoever in non-Danish Jews", were fooled by the show the Germans put on for them, and, once back in Denmark, wrote reports praising the conditions in Theresienstadt camp. They said not a word about the fate of non-Danish Jews. "It was one of the few German propaganda victories in the last part of the war" writes Bludnikow.

Bludnikow concludes thus:

There are good reasons for celebrating the Danish rescue
activities. But if in all the cheering we forget the victims,
if we forget that every nation contains elements of both
good and evil, of moral engagement and moral indiffer-
ence, we shall be guilty of a distortion of history
Unfortunately, such obviously sane advice is not heeded and fiction continues to masquerade as history - providing that it's about the right people.

Tadeusz K. Gierymski

    Indiana Folklore 8 (1975) pp. 1-37.

  2. Leon Uris, Exodus (Garden City, N.Y. 1958), p. 75.
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# From: "Klevan, David G." <dklevan@ushmm.org>
While it would be foolhardy for me to argue the
total infallability of USHMM resources, I also would
like to prevent any unwarranted skepticism about
the accuracy of USHMM materials. It surprised me
to hear that Berenbaum's The World Must Know
repeated the apocryphal King Christian X story.
So I checked on page 158 for the information
cited by Mr. Wall in his previous message. This
is what Berenbaum writes:

"According to popular legend, Kind Christian X
served as a noble example by publicly wearing the
yellow star as a sign that he identified with the
Jews.... But although the king did express
solidarity with the Jews and publicly spoke
against deportation, he never actually donned the
yellow star."

He does NOT repeat the myth.

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# Date:     Sat, 25 Mar 95 16:25:56 +0100
# From: ____Textpert Alert____ <ianf@random.se>
# Subject:  re: Danes and the Holocaust 

Kevin Jernegan <jernegan@gwis2.circ.gwu.edu> posts a great number of inquisitive questions in regard to The Rescue of the Danish Jews. The issue of --roughly speaking-- the miraculous saving of an entire Jewish population of one Nazi-occupied country, the role of the Gentiles in it, and from that following quick assertion that this by all accounts exceptional case carries some universal teaching to us all, and could be generalized to apply to other countries under the Nazi rule --why, for instance, hasn't all of Dutch Jews survived, not to mention the 3.5+ million Polish ones-- resurfaces regularly in all discussion of the Holocaust. Not least in this forum. Regularly.

The starting point usually has the Danes occupying the high moral ground almost by default, and their 1943 collective behaviour vs the Jews, by now mysticized beyond belief and usually, though not here, served in tandem with that urban legend of King Christian's alleged wearing of a yellow star, is employed to construct all kinds of associative --I'd call them 'escalational'-- assertions which then can be used to point out the apparent lack of similar "track record" of other nations (excuse my somehow-colloquial verbiage, but judging from contemporary North American literature everything can --and best be-- explained using terms from baseball and/ or Fortune 500 business).

Since I base my reply to a large degree on an advance copy of Steve Paulsson's paradigm-shattering article on the subject, The 'Bridge Over the Øresund': The Historiography on the Expulsion of the Jews from Nazi-Occupied Denmark [1], soon to appear in the JMH (or the JCH?), I will limit my replies to brief statements, and hope that we can continue this discussion after the article has appeared in print, and then discuss Paulsson's wider and deeper treatment of the issue, rather than this my 'lite' version.

Kevin writes:

>    how does one explain Denmark's performance relative to other
>    occupied countries such as France or the Netherlands?
One doesn't. Each country's situation was unique and largely incomparable to others. No other war-affected country but Denmark has for 3 first years of its occupation enjoyed the degree of freedom and lack of interference from its masters. Basically the Danes were left to govern themselves, with free elections etc. When the threat to their own Jews finally materialized, it was practically immediately followed by an explicit offer of a shelter from the Swedes, proximity of their shores, a visible lack of German motivation to pursue the arrests and other factors. The fact that the entire group under threat numbered less than 7500 people, minute in comparison with Jewish populations in other countries, greatly aided the effecivity of the rescue effort that ensued.
>    By all accounts, Jews were uncommonly well integrated into Danish
>    society at the time, so there was a corresponding willingness on
>    the part of the average Dane to harbor and assist Jews that was
>    absent in some other parts of Europe.  To what extent was that a
>    decisive factor?

True, the Danish Jews were unusually well-integrated, if not largely assimilated, in the Danish society. Their small number also meant that correspondingly few Danes were eventually called upon to extend their support, perhaps some 10000 in all. But I wouldn't try to propagate that into a statement that this was due to some "willingness on the part of the average Dane to harbor and assist Jews'. Let us not forget that The Rescue was a momentanous event, a one-time escape from the Nazis, so any help extended by the Danes was by definition an emphemeral affair. We do not know how well they'd have fared, if the wartime conditions and the persecution of the Danish population --Jews and Gentiles alike-- had been anywhere near those in force throughout the occupied Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

>    An alternate consideration lies in the numerous reports of Germans
>    "turning a blind eye" to escape efforts of which they were
>    undoubtedly aware.  If those reports are accurate, why did German
>    occupation forces pursue so half-heartedly the collection of Jews
>    in Denmark?

These reports are accurate and, indeed, there is more to it than meets the eye [sic!]! Paulsson's theory, with which I am in agreement, is that the entire affair was a rather ingeniously thought up expulsion of the Danish Jews, instigated by the Germans, but executed and paid for by the Danes and the Jews themselves. Though at first difficult to swallow, esp. in the light of Hitler's known pathologic hatred of the Jews, we should not forget that the primary objectives of the Nazi ideology were to make the Reich 'judenrein', and then as cheaply as possible. The expulsion of the Danish Jews (to us known as The Rescue, but never mind the label) accomplished both of these goals gallantly.

Because of its very dimensions, the horrific nature, and the basic irrationality of the Holocaust --perpetuated, as it were, by members of a nation that we've grown to associate with Culture and Progress-- we tend to generalize and demonize all German-Nazi behaviour where administration of the Holocaust is concerned; but we should not forget that it weren't all done with the intention of achieving some maximum splat effect...

>    Does that reflect the priorities of the German military Protektor
>    for Denmark at the time? If the personalities of regional military
>    authorities played a role, what does that say about the attitudes
>    of central authorities in Berlin towards regional commanders
>    pursuing the final solution in, shall we say, their own fashion?

The Final Solution was called final, because other means of making the Reich judenrein --such as emigration which was permitted up to the end of 1941-- were proving ineffective: the Western countries closed its borders to the Jews, so there was nowhere for them to go. But not in the case of Denmark. There because of the proximity to a neutral Sweden, there was always a possibility of "building a bridge over the Oeresund" at the appropriate moment, an expression that surfaces in German Foreign Office's papers as early as 1941.

The question/ assumption that "regional commanders [could be] pursuing the final solution in [..] their own fashion" is naive at best; Paulsson proves beyond doubt that German commanders were following orders from above, which in this case "merely called for 'removal' (Abtransport) of Jews from Denmark". Something that came to be carried out in a very efficient, if for the Nazis somewhat unorthodox, fashion.

>    What kinds of reprisals did [Danes] they face as a result of 
>    resistance actions and how did they react to them?

There were no reprisals, ZERO, zilch, nada; neither against the Danes nor against the --on the face of it inefficient-therefore- incompetent-- German officials, those that have 'allowed the Jews to escape'. Does anyone need a better proof that what we know of as The Rescue must therefore fitted in with the German plans, was in effect a German-instigated operation?

>    And what can be deduced about the Danes? 

Not much. At best it teaches us that Danes behaved just as other people in similar circumstances would have/ have behaved: some were capable of heroic action in the face of potential danger to their lives [which never ensued, but they couldn't know about it in advance]; some were capable of using the situation to pursue their own advancement at the expense of the Jews (by delivering them into German hands now that this was en vogue), and the rest, a vast majority, was either indifferent to the Jewish plight, unaffected by it, or both. A nation composed of all heroes, all jointly occupying the moral high ground from which to serve as a Shining Example of Ethos for other nations to follow is a 100%- Hollywood invention. Bad movie, too.

>    Did reprisals, as in Poland, strengthen local resolve?

Hardly. The fear of reprisals, which in Poland were indeed severe for harboring a Jew [= terminal], was definitely one factor that any Pole considering an offer of a shelter had to take into the account.

>    Did Danish support of the Jews represent an expression of
>    altruistic heroism vis a vis a group in dire need or an act 
>    of defiance towards the Germans?

Methinks definitely more of the latter.

>    If altruism, why were the Danes so accepting of the Jews at
>    a time when anti-Semitism was so widespread in Europe?

This is a complex question which would have warranted an extensive answer had it been relevant in the circumstances. Perhaps it'll be sufficient to say that that official Danish "magnanimity" towards the Jews did not extend beyond Danish citizens, definitely not towards foreign, esp. German, Jews then residing in Denmark [2]. Also on balance there can hardly have been more manifestations of 'heroic altruism' in Denmark than in other countries, all of which were definitely more oppressed and terrorized than wartime Denmark.

>    Is tolerance an inate characteristic in the Danish national
>    character, or did their lack of anti-Semitism simply reflect
>    differing economic conditions at the time?

Both very far-fetched assertions that seem to be based on logic escalation of previous uncorroborated assumptions. But the answer to both is still: neither.


[1] Gunnar S Paulsson The 'Bridge Over the Øresund': The Historiography on the Expulsion of the Jews from Nazi-Occupied Denmark; 20 pages manuscript, to appear in a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Modern History.

[2] Bent Bludnikow Som om de slet ikke eksisterede: Hugo Rothenberg og kampen for de tyske jøder; Samlaren, København 1991 [an account of how Hugo Rothenberg, a Danish-German Jew, and one-time sponsor of an unemployed WWI-Ace-pilot named Goering, attempted to rescue German Jews in Denmark, who were living under threat of being deported back to Nazi Germany]

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