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Countrymen

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

October 11, 2013

Countrymen, by Bo Lidegaard, Knopf Doubleday, 416 pages

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Reviewed by Peter Lewis for The Barnes & Noble Review

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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.

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.

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