Countrymen

The Final Solution loomed over Denmark's Jews in 1943, but their nation was not prepared to give them up.

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    Countrymen,
    by Bo Lidegaard,
    Knopf Doubleday,
    416 pages
    View Caption

Reviewed by Peter Lewis for The Barnes & Noble Review

It came late, but the Final Solution was finally visited upon Denmark's Jewish citizens in 1943. That wasn't due to a lack of murderous determination in the German high command. Denmark had an unusual relationship with the occupiers through much of the Second World War – the kind of tacit submission entered into when your arm is being twisted off by an outsized bully – and the Jewish population carried on with their lives.

Though Denmark was geographically occupied by German troops, it was not fully occupied politically. The Danish government was responsible for the country's internal affairs. The center-left coalition steered an unprovocative course, the dangerous ground where pragmatism can willy-nilly slip on the slope of collaboration. But one element of Danish national pride was unwavering. Where Nazism claimed legitimacy through the bellicose recovery of German "honor," Denmark's patriotism was synonymous with democracy and anti-totalitarian humanism. Danes were Danes. German propaganda couldn't exploit a Jewish "issue" in Denmark quite simply because, as the Danes noted, there was no "issue." Pick a fight with one Dane and you pick a fight with a whole bunch of them.

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Sounds awfully rosy, but that is the case Bo Lidegaard persuasively makes in Countrymen, the story of two weeks in Danish history when the country acted in concert to foil a great inhumanity – the attempted roundup and deportation of the Jewish population. Lidegaard, a former diplomat and now one of Denmark's leading journalists, is proud of his countrymen's stalwartness, though he peddles it softly. Danes rallied to their Jewish neighbors because it would have been barbaric to do otherwise. It would have been un-Danish.

The Germans gave Denmark a length of rope for a number of reasons, writes Lidegaard  – largely diplomatic, though Berlin rarely worried about diplomacy by that point. The spoils went to the strongest, yet why squander military resources when they were needed elsewhere? Why roil the natives when you could use their foodstuffs and industrial goods, especially now that you were their only trading partner? Why not showcase them as a "model protectorate," with its measure of autonomy and predominantly "Aryan" population, as a model of what was to come once the "Thousand-Year Reich" had stabilized things?

For the Danes, with their minuscule military, survival practically dictated accommodation and a careful strategy of using time to their advantage while wrestling with a humanistic dilemma: limited cooperation with evil to avoid certain death versus the necessity for heroic, if suicidal, resistance. The artful dodger or the romantic? Denmark chose to live to fight another day through its underground organizations, which spanned the political spectrum, engaging in sabotage, strikes, and secret operations. And there the rope ended: The German security apparatus was happy to lay the gathering acts of resistance at the Jewish doorstep as a pretext to set deportation in motion.

The Nazi roundup of Danish Jews was scheduled to start late one night at the beginning of October 1943. Lidegaard does a masterful job setting the stage and following the action, drawing on diaries, letters, and contemporary reports to describe what was going through the minds of various segments of the Jewish population (working class, middle class, and upper crust); elaborating the predicament that any mass departure posed, as it would bring the Germans down on the heads of those who stayed behind, Jewish and non-Jewish alike; explaining the urge of Danish citizens to demand respect under the rule of law; and detailing the specifics of the escape, which are breathtaking in their presence and urgency.

Lidegaard captures the helplessness of the Danish caretaker bureaucracy – to call it a government, after Germany implemented martial law and dissolved the administration of Erik Scavenius would be overstepping – which at one point, as a gesture of appeasement, offered to take charge of Jewish internment. Fortunately, the officials came to their senses upon considering that the Germans would do whatever they wanted with the internees. Lidegaard also wends his way through the sinuosities of Danish politics and the struggles between the Social Democrats and the Communists who led many of the underground groups.

And there are the Germans and their quislings, from the military commander to the SS plenipotentiary, from the soldier on the street to the sad business of Denmark's homegrown Gestapo. They are a difficult, fluid group, both predictable and hypocritical, riddled with conflicting interests. Perhaps not so surprisingly, there are snakes in the German grass, self-serving to be sure but the kind of snakes with which one might be glad to share the grass, as they were willing to part with crucial, confidential information, some of it even true. The overarching problem for the Nazis, Lidegaard drums home time and again, is that their ideology fell on indignant ears and roused popular revulsion: the Nazis needed "understanding and support that would give the crime an aura of necessity and justice.... Public participation was therefore not only a practical condition for implementation [of the roundup and deportation]; its support was also a prerequisite for the leading Nazis' daring to set the atrocities in motion." The Danes begged to differ, then actively took a stand. In response, the Nazis took a step back – not a giant step, but consequential enough to save lives.

The Jewish exodus from Denmark – nearly  8,000 souls on the move – was only what one would imagine: chaotic, full of uncertainties, disappointments, and dread. There are many cheering instances of sanctuary and open arms for the refugees: The butcher gave safe harbor, and so did the fishmonger, professor, stable owner, farmer, grocer, and widow, in haylofts and belfries and front parlors. It has been said that the Germans occupiers may have been looking the other way, that it was time to start covering their butts as the tide of war turned, especially the Wehrmacht and the civilian police, who had every reason to distance themselves from the shuddering abominations of the security and political police. Not all of the occupiers worried about the reckoning, however. That would have been too tidy. People died during the evacuations, some from despair, some from German bullets. Some would die later, after capture and deportation to camps. Not as many as might have been. The Danes kept track of those sent to camps and hectored the Germans to provide care and, on rare occasions, release. Most of the Danes sent to camps survived.

At the end, Lidegaard works a grim brilliance on the nightly embarkations from Danish ports to refuge in Sweden. Wednesday, September 29th, after the Gestapo left the port of Gilleleje to the dark: "The once so peaceful seaside resort, now sitting there quietly in autumn, with almost empty streets, was suddenly full of life. In a moment all the house doors sprang open  and Jews flowed out of almost every house. In an instant the whole main street was full of people, women and men, from the youngest toddlers to gray-haired old men, poor and rich – all on the run." Then to Sweden, and how life can turn on a dime: "Solid ground under the feet, friendly soldiers," wrote one refugee. Friendly soldiers! A miracle, if it hadn't required so much luck and work.

Did every Dane do the right thing? No. Some doors were bolted. A ship captain would gouge a refugee. The interim bureaucracy truckled. There were turncoats and collaborators. Lidegaard doesn't duck these disgraces. But step back and let the greater moment become the theme, and marvel at its bracing display of defiance and community in the midst of nightmare.

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