According to the historian Martin Gilbert almost 8 out of 10 Jews in Nazi occupied Europe perished during World War II. This makes the survival of the Jews of Denmark all the more remarkable.
This is not to say the Nazis didn’t try to kill them. In 1943, Eichmann ordered that the Jews of Copenhagen be deported to extermination camps. However, active and passive resistance from both the Danish government and population made this impossible to carry out:
When the Germans arrived to begin the deportations, Jews had already been warned—in their synagogues—and they simply vanished into the countryside, heading for the coast to seek a crossing to neutral Sweden. There was little or no Jewish communal organization and no Danish underground to help them. What ensued was a chaotic family-by-family flight, made possible simply because ordinary members of Danish society feigned ignorance when Germans questioned them, while sheltering families in seaside villages, hotels, and country cottages. Danish police on the coast warned hiding families when the Gestapo came to call, and signaled all-clear so that boats bearing Danish Jews could slip away to Sweden. The fishermen who took the Danish Jews across the Baltic demanded huge sums for the crossing, but managed to get their frightened fellow citizens to safety. When the Gestapo did seize Jewish families hiding in the church of the small fishing village of Gilleleje, the people were so outraged that they banded together to assist others to flee. One villager even confronted the local Gestapo officer, shining a flashlight in his face and exclaiming: “The poor Jews!” When the German replied, “It is written in the Bible that this shall be their fate,” the villager unforgettably replied: “But it is not written that it has to happen in Gilleleje.”
Not every Jew was able to flee – those in old people’s homes were captured. And the Gestapo found some runaways. However, these victims amounted to less than 1% of Danish Jews.
Such resistance to the Holocaust was almost unprecedented in Europe and requires an explanation:
Why did the Danes behave so differently from most other societies and populations in occupied Europe? For a start, they were the only nation where escape to a safe neutral country lay across a narrow strait of water. Moreover, they were not subject to exterminatory pressure themselves. They were not directly occupied, and their leadership structures from the monarch down to the local mayors were not ripped apart. The newspapers in Copenhagen were free enough to report the deportations and thus to assist any Jews still not in the know to flee. The relatively free circulation of information also made it impossible for non-Jewish Danes to claim, as so many Germans did, that “of this we had no knowledge.” Most of all, Denmark was a small, homogeneous society, with a stable democracy, a monarchy that commanded respect, and a shared national hostility to the Germans. Denmark offers some confirmation of Rousseau’s observation that virtue is most easily fostered in small republics.
One could draw a simple moral from this story. By resisting the Nazis, the Danes saved thousands of Jewish lives and had other Europeans done the same many more could have been saved. But actually it contains a tragic dilemma.Denmark was able to resist the Holocaust because it co-operated with the Reich in pursuit of it’s strategic interests. That headed off a German occupation and allowed the Danes to keep a democratic government that was prepared to protect its Jewish population. It raises the disturbing question of whether dealing with a a regime as abhorrent as Nazi Germany might actually sometimes be justified.
Source: One Country Saved Its Jews. Were They Just Better People? The surprising truth about Denmark in the Holocaust by Michael Ignatieff