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Germany, Denmark and the Holocaust: Different Histories, Different Lessons

Solveig Eggerz
Summer 1999

In recent years, interest in the Holocaust has dramatically  
increased in the American society, among men and women of all religious faiths  
and backgrounds.

In his recent book, The Holocaust In American Life,  
Professor Peter Novick, a University of Chicago historian, notes that for two  
full decades after World War II, the Holocaust was ignored in America by Jews  
and non-Jews alike. Today, however, it has become a pervasive presence, filling  
book shelves and movie and t.v. screens, even mandated by law as a subject for  
study in public schools.


Dr. Novick argues that in recent decades the Holocaust  
"has moved from the margins to the center of how American Jews understand  
themselves and how they represent themselves to others."


There are many individuals and groups who seek to learn  
"lessons" from the Holocaust. Dr. Novick is critical of those who  
abuse the Holocaust for their own narrow purposes. He laments the fact that  
many American Jews have learned to embrace and perhaps even to exploit their  
historical persecution.


Importance of Holocaust


Among the findings in the American Jewish Committee’s  
1999 survey of American Jewish opinion, it was discovered that 98 percent of  
respondents said "remembering the Holocaust" was "important"  
to their identity, while only 15 percent said the same of religious observance.  


Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, humanities professor at New York  
University, said that he "deplored" the survey results. Pamela Nadell,  
director of the Jewish Studies Program at American University, said of the stress  
on the Holocaust that, "I don’t think it’s healthy. Jews can’t  
hang their identity on that forever."


One "lesson" which seems to have been learned  
from the Holocaust is that anti-Semitism is endemic to the Western world and  
that, as a result, Jews need a country of their own. This, of course, is the  
essential insight of Zionism and goes back to a period even before the Holocaust.  


In 1894, Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism,  
was a journalist based in Paris representing a liberal Vienna newspaper. He  
had little interest in religion and associated himself with the literary and  
cultural groups of his time. He was far more concerned with general than Jewish  


Dreyfus Case


Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an Alsatian Jew attached to the  
French general staff, was arrested when it was discovered that military secrets  
were being sold to the German government. Accused of the crime, Dreyfus was  
condemned by a court martial for high treason and sentenced to life imprisonment.  
The proceedings were obviously prejudiced and anti-Semitism was a key element.  
Herzl felt the matter keenly and came to the conclusion that if France, one  
of the most advanced nations of the modern world, could do this to a Jew, the  
Jew was not at home anywhere but in his own land. He felt that there was no  
hope for Jews in the modern world, that anti-Semitism was inevitable and growing  
and that the only salvation was a Jewish homeland. He dedicated the rest of  
his life to this Zionist ideal.


Yet the Dreyfus case was far more complex than Herzl’s  
emotional response could encompass. In his book, Not By Power, Rabbi  
Allan Tarshish draws a far different conclusion: "An impartial investigation  
revealed that the culprit was really a Major Esterhazy, part of the clique of  
the French officer group which wanted to keep the stigma away from their group.  
This clique was also opposed to the French Republic, favoring a monarchy, and  
was anxious to fasten guilt on someone identified with the Republic, a Jew who  
had been granted equal rights by the French Revolution. And so it was Capt.  
Dreyfus who was singled out...Clemenceau, Anatole France, Emile Zola and other  
great leaders of France attacked the conviction of Dreyfus and sought a new  
trial. The whole matter became a ‘cause celebre’ of France and the  
entire modern world of the time."


In the end, Dreyfus was pardoned by the President of  
France and a year later the Court of Cassation quashed the verdict and pronounced  
him innocent. Dreyfus remained a fervent French patriot to his death. Rabbi  
Tarshish notes that, "Herzl could have come to an opposite conclusion from  
the same facts as others did, including Captain Dreyfus himself. It was of course  
true that Dreyfus was wrongly condemned, but it was also true that he was released  
and acquitted by the united forces of progress and decency....So the Dreyfus  
case was in reality a victory for the forces of democracy and enlightenment  
for Dreyfus was finally vindicated."


Just as Herzl saw in the Dreyfus case a reason to lose  
hope in liberal democracy and for the integration of Jews into European society,  
so many found in the Holocaust exactly the same lesson, concluding that a separate  
Jewish state was the only appropriate response.


Posthumous Victory For Hitler


In his book A Partisan History of Judaism, Rabbi  
Elmer Berger expresses the view that many Jews tended to give Hitler a posthumous  
victory by accepting the anti-Semitic idea that it was foolish to believe in  
Emancipation and in all of the liberal ideas for Jews which the 19th century  
Jewish reformers believed in so deeply. He writes: "Germany, they argued,  
‘was one of the most enlightened nations in the world and look what happened  
to Jews there.’ And the shattering impact of the tragedy mounted as Hitler  
paralyzed and stultified other Jews. They did not stop to think that Germany  
was not really such a liberal state; that it had been unable to sustain a democratic  
form of government for anyone—not only Jews—at a time of crisis.  
They did not stop to realize that the terror which Hitler had unleashed has  
engulfed practically the entire world. They did not ask into the antecedents  
of those ‘Jewish’ segregationalists who used the world tragedy to  
advance a political national idea that had existed long before the world ever  
heard of Hitler...Rather they accepted Hitler’s decree of separatism and  
tried to make of it a virtue and to use it as political capital to win a ‘Jewish’  


The Holocaust is, in fact, a far more complex event in  
history. How a totalitarian Nazi regime acted is one part of the story. How  
others acted and reacted is another. Thus, students of the Holocaust have for  
decades asked themselves why some nations turned their Jews over to the Nazis  
while others risked their lives to save them.


This is a difficult question which may best be answered  
only after probing what might be called the national psyche of the nations in  
question. To arrive at any conclusions regarding national psyche, one must probe  
not only how Jews were treated under pressure from the Third Reich but also  
in the centuries that preceded the Nazi takeover of Germany.


Denmark And Germany


Perhaps the most interesting contrast for the study of  
national psyche is that provided by tiny Denmark and powerful Germany regarding  
the treatment accorded by these nations to the Jews living within their borders.  
The Danes have been heralded for their bravery in transporting 8,000 Jews to  
neutral Sweden in October 1943 under the nose of a Nazi occupation force. The  
Germans have been castigated for presenting virtually no resistance to the Nazi  
persecution of the Jews.


The explanation for the difference may lie in the distinctly  
different concepts of nationhood that characterize the neighboring countries.  
The answer may be rooted in the questions: What does it mean to be a Dane? A  


The cumulative effect of centuries of living with and  
responding to a Jewish population can also not be discounted in an investigation  
of national psyche. How a nation responds to its Jewish population is one of  
the means of determining the psychological make-up of a nation.


There are similarities between the Jews of Denmark and  
Germany that make a comparison valid. In both countries the Jewish population  
at the beginning of the Second World War comprised about or slightly less than  
one percent of the total population. While Jews were somewhat prominent in the  
professions and in business in both countries, many Danes and Germans had never  
met a Jew. Danish Jews considered themselves Danish by nationality and Jews  
by religion. Oddly enough, German Jews viewed themselves in exactly the same  
way, as fully German. But there the similarity ends. The history of the Jewish  
community in Denmark has been characterized by minimal anti-Semitism while the  
Jews of Germany have been subjected to persecution since Roman times.



Medieval History


In fact, a clue to the difference between Germany and  
Denmark’s attitude toward the Jews may be found in medieval history. Jews  
lived in German lands since Roman times, but they did not enter Denmark or the  
rest of Scandinavia until the 17th century. In Germany the Jews suffered under  
Church-instigated anti-Semitism beginning with the Crusades. Germans were actively  
taught to despise Jews. Christians were increasingly exposed to a "conception  
of the Jew as a deliberate unbeliever, as a creature of a different (not human)  
nature, inspired and instigated by Satan’s own majesty, to a concretely  
apprehended image in the medieval mind." (Guido Kisch, The Jews in Medieval  
Germany, A Study In Their Legal and Social Status.
) The Crusades marked  
a negative turning point in the history of the Jews in Germany. It was undoubtedly  
a crucial time in the shaping of the German national psyche, for it marked the  
beginning of the German habit of turning against the Jews at times of social  
or economic downturn. ‘The restrictions of that era also froze the Jews  
into the occupations frowned upon by the church—money lending and pawnbroking.  


According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, "Henceforth  
the mob came to regard physical attacks on Jews as permissible, especially in  
periods of social or religious ferment. The city guilds forced the Jews out  
of the trades and the regular channels of commerce; this coincided with the  
stricter appliance of the church ban on usury in the 12th to 13th centuries.  
The combination of circumstances made money lending and pawnbroking the main  
occupation in Germany."


In the post-Crusade period severe restrictions were imposed  
on the Jews, demonstrating their lower status within society. Merchant guilds  
expelled their Jewish members. In 1237 the Holy Roman Empire adopted the doctrine  
of servitus Judeorum, according to which Jews were serfs as punishment  
for their allegedly anti-Christian acts and beliefs. In 1342, a poll tax was  
levied on Jews.


Luther’s Views


In 1542 Martin Luther imprinted upon the Germans his  
anti-Jewish views in a widely circulated pamphlet: "In truth, the Jews  
being foreigners, should possess nothing, and what they do possess should be  
ours...They...have become our masters in our own country...No one wants them...They  
are a heavy burden on us, a scourge, a pestilence and misfortune for our country...They  
steal and pillage every day."


The denunciations of the Jews of Germany, delivered with  
full moral authority of the Catholic Church and later the budding Protestant  
Church had a lasting impact upon the German temperament. Evidence of this is  
the recurrence of Church-instigated invective against the Jews in centuries  
to come, during the 18th and 19th century battles for Jewish emancipation and  
ultimately in the Nazi era.


Because Denmark was outside the mainstream of events,  
the Danes did not undergo the rabid teachings of anti-Semitism that characterized  
the middle ages. The first Jews who arrived in Denmark in 1622, at the invitation  
of King Christian IV, did not enter a society permeated with six hundred years  
of carefully taught prejudice. In 1620 the king had founded the city-fortress  
of Gluckstadt in Holstein. He invited the Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam and Hamburg  
to settle in the newly founded city, to give it a financial boost so that it  
might challenge Hamburg in commerce and industry. He had invited the Sephardic  
Jews at the suggestion of his Jewish mintmaster, Albertus Denis. It was the  
beginning of cordial relations between the Jews and the Danes. It was also the  
beginning of a long history of Danish officials welcoming Jewish capital into  
Denmark. This tendency never soured into the anti-Semitic association between  
big capitalists and Jews that flourished later in Germany.


In a decree of August 1, 1641, Christian IV permitted  
the Jews a synagogue and the right to various religious rituals. "Throughout  
the reign of Christian IV a spirit of liberalism and understanding towards the  
Jews began to prevail," notes Ib Nathan Bamberger in The Viking Jews:  
A History Of the Jews in Denmark.


Jews In Copenhagen


Under the reign of Frederick III, Sephardic Jews were  
permitted to settle throughout the land, while the poorer Ashkenazic Jews were  
kept out. Gradually Jews began to settle in Copenhagen and by 1694 there were  
12 Jewish families living there. While the Jews in Germany had been forced into  
the occupations of money lending and pawnbroking, the Jews in Denmark engaged  
in the desirable occupation of trading.


The 19th century was a period of economic and social  
progress for Jews in both Germany and Denmark. But only Germany was plagued  
by periodic setbacks for the Jews. Germany was characterized by a suspicion  
of emancipation, not only for Jews, but in general terms. Denmark, on the other  
hand, moved steadily toward liberalization.


In Germany, the great enlightened thinker Wilhelm von  
Humboldt urged the government in vain to end discriminatory attitudes toward  
Jews: "It is not that the State ought to teach respect for the Jews. What  
it ought to do is to eradicate the inhumane and prejudiced mentality that judges  
a human being not by his specific qualities but by his descent and religion,  
and treats him not as an individual but as a member of a race with which he  
is considered to share certain characteristics of necessity. This the state  
can only do by saying loud and clear that it no longer recognizes any difference  
between Jews and Christians."


The German rulers, however, seemed impervious to declarations  
of universal principles of freedom and pluralism. But when Napoleon crushed  
the Prussians at Jena on October 14, 1806 the Holy Roman Empire came to an end  
and emancipation of certain groups was forced upon the German occupied territories.  
This short-lived emancipation came at enormous cost, for the Napoleonic defeat  
of Germany engendered a pathological hatred of all movements toward civil rights.  
The Jews were emancipated in the German occupied territories, but these rights  
were rescinded after the defeat of Napoleon.


Germans Define Themselves


Out of this emerged a very negative concept of what it  
meant to be German. What was a German? Someone who was not French or English,  
the despised proponents of parliamentary democracy. The Germans defined themselves  
in contrast to the French. The liberal ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity  
were French ideas. They were ideas associated with Jews, who had so long pushed  
for emancipation. Therefore, these ideas, along with the Jews, had to be rejected  
as unGerman. It was an easy step to the next conclusion. To be German was to  
be not Jewish. The Jews were no longer ostracized solely because of their religion.  
They were now considered a nation, a nation within the German nation. As a foreign  
element, they had to be uprooted.


After the German states had rescinded the Jewish rights  
given in 1813, there were violent pogroms against the Jews. The most violent  
of these was the hep hep movement that occurred in Wurzburg in 1819 where the  
people vented their fury on Jewish businesses. The special brand of German nationalism  
came into its own here, as the Jews for the first time were branded as the foreigner,  
the internal enemy, Historian Lucy Dawidowicz writes: "German nationalism  
arose out of the ashes of defeat in the Napoleonic wars, fragmented, without  
nationhood, without political definition, lacking military power and economic  
vitality, the Germans searched for a shared identity that would restore their  
self esteem...They turned inward for self-definition, in search of psychic and  
metaphysical values, qualities of feeling and spirit. And they turned backward—to  
a remote past of glory and mastery, to a past deep in the womb of historic time,  
where they had once been secure....From 1789 to 1815 the quarter century between  
the French Revolution and the Congress of Vienna, the ethos of modern Germany  
took shape. The doctrines of the revolution were anathema to the princely, priestly  
and knightly rulers of the German states and principalities."


Out of all of this emerged the German concept of nationhood,  
the answer to the question, What does it mean to be a German."


Jewish Persecution


The failure of the German states to accord their citizens  
civil rights had further negative ramifications for the Jews. As in the middle  
ages they were persecuted as a balm for the oppressed in a perpetually disappointed  
society. The failed revolution of 1848 created a great deal of frustration within  
the feebly striving German middle class. In December 1848, the German parliament  
at Frankfurt adopted a declaration of "fundamental rights of the German  
people." According to Article V, "The enjoyment of civil and political  
rights is neither dependent nor restricted by religious creed." Thus the  
Jews were beneficiaries of rights granted to all.


Anti-Semitism was a morass out of which German society  
did not seem able to escape. Every step toward emancipation of the Jews seemed  
to engender an anti-Semitic reaction creating an environment more anti-Jewish  
than had prevailed before the suggested reform.


When the revolution was defeated in 1849 the German states,  
in rapid succession, rescinded the granted rights. Not only the Jews were oppressed  
by the state governments’ oppressive rule. But now the medieval tendency,  
which became characteristic for the German national psyche, came to the fore  
again. Instead of banding together and demanding civil rights, other elements  
of the middle class vented their frustration on the Jews.


Friedrich Hecker, a revolutionary leader in south Germany,  
attempted in 1846 to explain this psychological phenomenon: "In states  
where no true liberty reigns, where we feel crushed every day by the burden  
of the police state, it makes a man feel good to see someone he may despise  
and bully and mistreat, thereby gaining some slight relief from the daily oppression  
and stifling atmosphere of the police state. It is because of the lack of freedom  
in our states, because of the pressure and bitterness that we did not want to  
emancipate the Jews. By bullying the Jews, we fancied ourselves more free and  
higher up.


Withdrawal Of Rights


In Germany every step forward that the Jews took was  
characterized by anti-Semitic reaction borne of anger over any social or economic  
rise by the Jews. The fall of Napoleon and the victory of the Holy Alliance  
led everywhere, to the withdrawal of equal rights that the Jews had been accorded.  


But there was an even more reactionary reason for this  
backtracking. The fall of Napoleon gave rise to a new conservatism in Germany  
which rejected the ideals of equality of the French Revolution and looked backwards  
toward the past in search of a Christian-Teutonic spiritual and cultural renewal.  


Poets and philosophers provided ideas for what it meant  
to be truly German. Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), the father of German  
nationalism, has also been called the father of modern German anti-Semitism.  
He praised "Germanness" and criticized the Jews. In 1793 he fought  
Jewish emancipation, characterizing the Jews as a state within a state that  
would undermine the German nation.


Friedrich Lugwig Jahn (1778-1852) developed the particular  
concept of German nationalism associated with the word Volk. This signifies  
not simply a people united by common traditions but the union of a group of  
people with a transcendental essence, never specified, sometimes called nature,  
cosmos, mythos.


Volk Concept


In the Volk concept of German nationality, the Germans  
drew up a definition of themselves that was per se negative. It was based on  
who they were not. To be a German was to be not a Jew. Because this form of  
nationalism originated from the inferior sense of defeat, it could not be inclusive.  
It was narrow and xenophobic.


The Germans upheld throughout the 19th century the habit  
of blaming the Jews for everything that went awry in their society. When, in  
1873, the stock market crashed, the deep economic depression that followed stimulated  
a spate of anti-Semitic writings which blames the crash on a Jewish conspiracy.  
In 1879 Heinrich Treitschke, a respected professor of history at the University  
of Berlin, attacked the Jews as "unser Ungluck" (our misfortune),  
a line that was to recur during the Nazi period. During the Second Reich (1870-1918)  
anti-Semitism increased and in 1892 the Conservative Party adopted an anti-Semitic  
plank in its platform, a harbinger of what was to come.


The obsession with the concept of Jews as aliens within  
the German nation, as internal enemies, continued to beset the German mind.  
Historian Jonah Goidhagen describes an underlying German cultural model of the  
Jew which consisted of three notions: "that the Jew was different from  
the German, that he was a binary opposite of the German, and that he was not  
just benignly different but malevolent and corrosive. Whether conceived of as  
a religion, nation, political group, or race, the Jew was always a Fremdkorper,  
an alien body within Germany. The centrality and power of this conception of  
Jews was such that anti-Semites came to see everything that was awry in society,  
from social organization, to political movements, to economic problems as being  
linked to, if not derived from, the Jews...These, it must be emphasized, were  
not merely the views of prominent anti-Semitic polemicists, but also the views  
that were dominant throughout German society."


Evolution In Denmark


What did Denmark look like at the same time?


Denmark was not always a bastion of liberal democracy.  
After the thirty years war and a war with Sweden which cost Denmark its wealthiest  
territories, Denmark was in a state of economic, military and political chaos.  
In 1660 the king seized control over the country and imposed an absolute monarchy  
which was to last until 1848. Long after most monarchs in Western Europe had  
their power curbed by parliaments, the Danish king ruled under the Regal Law  
(Kongeloven) which forbade any amendments. Liberty in Denmark was extremely  
curtailed at that time as to even suggest a change in the Regal Law was considered  


The monarchy looked favorably upon the immigration of  
wealthy Jews because the king needed capital to shore up his country. The religious  
ban that existed on forbidden religious denominations, Calvinists, Roman Catholics,  
and Jews,was dropped and the oldest Jewish settlement was established in the  
new fortress town of Fredericia. By 1780 Jews were permitted to join guilds  
in Copenhagen, and in 1798 Jews were given permission to study at the university  
and other schools of higher learning.


Napoleon’s lunge for power affected Denmark, but  
in a different manner from Germany. Denmark held to a strict policy of neutrality  
while Napoleon conquered most of Europe. But when Denmark joined Russia in a  
coalition of neutrality in 1800, England responded angrily. In 1807 England  
bombarded Copenhagen and captured Denmark’s fleet. The monarchy was forced  
into an alliance with the French which ended in national bankruptcy in 1814.  
The monarchy was aware of the French emancipation of the Jews and, unlike the  
Germans, considered a wealthy, loyal Jewish community an asset.


Greater Protection For Jews


One of the few outbursts of anti-Semitism in Denmark  
occurred in 1813. The poet Thomas Thaarup translated and published a pamphlet  
Moses and Jesus by the German writer Friedrich Buchholz. The pamphlet  
presented a series of anti-Semitic allegations to which Thaarup called for refutations.  
Prominent writers, Christians and Jews, joined the dispute on both sides. The  
Jews were accused of exporting money out of the country and causing a financial  
crisis. Unlike analogous situations in Germany, where anti-Semitic petitions  
and articles often led to more restrictions on Jews, this literary attack caused  
the government to take the position that it needed to provide greater protection  
and security for its Jewish citizens.


Unlike what occurred repeatedly in Germany, in Denmark  
there was no concurrence of economic crisis and anti-Jewish government measures.  
The literary attack does not seem to have any causal relationship to other events.  
In fact, during this period of deep financial crisis, 1814-1830, the Danish  
monarchy took a giant step toward giving the rights of citizenship to the Jews.  
On March 29, 1814 it issued a royal decree which stated: "Those of the  
Jewish faith who were born in the kingdom of Denmark, or have received permission  
to settle within its borders, should have equal opportunity with the rest of  
the citizens to earn a living and support themselves according to the established  
laws." This decree basically ratified and confirmed the position of Jews  
as it had evolved for a number of years.


This move must not only be compared with the repeated  
retractions of such legislation in Germany after the fall of Napoleon but also  
with the situation in Norway. After the Napoleonic wars Norway declared its  
independence from Denmark, established a parliament and wrote a constitution  
that was considered the most democratic in Europe at that time. Yet paragraph  
two of the constitution banned Jews from living in or entering Norway. It was  
not voted down until 1851.


Despite the absolutist monarchy, Denmark was liberalizing  
its society. In 1814 a revolutionary Educational Act brought compulsory schooling  
for all children between six and fourteen. This act, by educating for the first  
time the children of the peasantry, which formed the overwhelming majority of  
the population, was to have great social, economic and political consequences.  


End Of Royal Absolutism


Royal absolutism came to an end in May 1849 when the  
new Danish Constitution was ratified. It was a government based on equal suffrage  
and thus the Jews achieved full civic equality. Once suffrage was given, there  
was no backtracking.


The second half of the 19th century was a period of prosperity  
for all Danes. This was also the Golden Age of Danish literature and the Jews  
participated in this flowering of the arts. As if to celebrate their new found  
freedom and prosperity, the Jews erected in 1833 a splendid new synagogue in  
Copenhagen. Some Jews became very prominent in the cultural world such as Mendel  
Levin Nathanson (1780-1868) who was editor of Denmark’s oldest newspaper,  
Berlingske Tidende. Edvard Brandes (1847-1931) founded the other Danish  
daily, Politiken.


Evidence of how comfortable Jews were in Denmark is the  
career of journalist and author Meir Aron Goldschmidt. When he was only twenty  
years old, Goldschmidt became editor of a weekly tabloid Corsaren, which  
he filled with typically Jewish humor and satire. He engaged in a literary feud  
with the celebrated philosopher Soren Kierkegaard which made Corsaren  
a very popular publication.


A later Jewish writer who familiarized Christians with  
Jewish themes was Henri Nathansen (1868-1944) whose play Indenfor Murerne  
(Inside the Walls) about a Jewish family, is always part of the theater repertoire  
in Copenhagen.


A national economic crisis occurred in 1864 when Denmark  
was defeated in the war with Prussia and Austria. This marked the loss of Schlesvig  
and Holstein. Unlike the German response to a crisis, the Danes did not blame  
the Jews for their misfortune. In fact, the Jews were credited with helping  
to convert the economy from fish to agricultural products. Jews helped develop  
the country’s financial resources and founded two important banks, Landmandsbanken  
and Privatbanken.


Danish Nationhood


Much like Napoleon’s destruction of the Holy Roman  
Empire shaped the German national psyche along the exclusive lines of a Germanic-Christian  
Volk, so did the military defeat and subsequent economic collapse mold the Danish  
sense of nationhood. But the outcome was very different.


William L. Shirer describes "an intense feeling  
of humiliation and utter despair" that gripped the nation. But unlike the  
Germans, the Danes neither blamed the Jews for their defeat nor did they look  
back to a mystical pre-democratic past. They were saved from drifting toward  
this negative brand of nationalism by the creative genius of one individual,  
Bishop Nikolai Frederick Severin Grundtvig, who at this moment of crisis became  
the spiritual founder of modern Denmark.


Grundtvig, a remarkable proponent of liberalism, was  
inspired by a living Christianity. His sermons and hymns lifted the Danes out  
of their despair. He believed that all the people must be educated so that they  
might participate intelligently in the new democratic society. To this end he  
founded the Danish Folk High Schools which, according to Shirer, "helped  
transform not only Denmark but all the northern countries into one of the most  
literate and enlightened groups of societies on earth."


Compare Grundtvig to the German history professor von  
Treitschke who responded to Germany’s economic crisis by producing a series  
of articles on the "Jewish Question," labeling Jews "our misfortune."  


Nazi Occupation


In the next national crisis to overwhelm the Danes, the  
Nazi occupation of April 9, 1940, it was the rediscovery of Grundtvig’s  
spirit, his love of freedom and democracy, combined with education and culture,  
that inspired the Danes to behave as honorably as they did.


When the Germans occupied Denmark they made an agreement  
with the Danes not to encroach upon the Danish parliamentary form of government.  
Because the Danish Jews were protected under the Danish constitution, any persecution  
of the Danish Jews would be an infringement of Danish democracy.  
Thus, Denmark’s ability to protect its Jews became the barometer for the  
strength of Danish democracy.


Hal Koch, a young theologian and professor of church  
history at the University of Copenhagen, warned against allowing an anti-Jewish  
policy: "Certainly this is a question of right and justice for the Jews,  
but in addition—and this is something fundamental—justice and freedom  
in Danish life are at stake...We should not forget that our country’s fate  
will be decided not by the war in the outside world but by the extent to which  
we are able to maintain truth, justice, and freedom by being ready to pay the  


After 300 years of an absolutist monarchy, followed by  
radical steps toward emancipation of its citizens, the importance of the preservation  
of parliamentary democracy had become an essential element in the Danish national  


Commitment To Democracy


Israeli author Leni Yahil notes that, "What is significant  
here is that for the Danes national consciousness and democratic consciousness  
are one and the same. Only as a free citizen in a lawful and democratic state  
can the Dane uphold his patriotism."


She contrasts this national-humanist Danish conception  
with the concept that characterizes German nationalism: "To the same degree  
as Danish nationalism finds expression in the people’s democratic way of  
life, of which the equal rights of the Jews form an integral part, extreme German  
nationalism required the Jew as a counterweight and an enemy in order to arrive  
at national self-consciousness and realization."


In November 1934 the Jewish Union held a large public  
meeting with Jewish and Christian speakers from four political parties. Reflecting  
Grundtvig’s philosophy, the leitmotif that ran through the speeches was  
the concept that anti-Semitism and culture are irreconcilable. All the speakers  
emphasized that Jews were an organic part of Denmark. Compare this to the German  
concept of the Jews as an alien people that destroy the unity of the German  


Different from Germany, the churches of Denmark repeatedly  
criticized the persecution of the Jews. In 1936 a group of leading Danish theologians  
issued a public declaration against anti-Semitic literature in general and a  
recently published Danish edition of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion  
in particular. Lutheran priests organized themselves into an underground even  
before the German occupation abolished the Danish parliamentary government in  
August 1943.


Warning Against Hatred


The bishop of Copenhagen, H. Fuglsang-Damgaard, issued  
a public warning against racial hatred in January 1943. When the Germans took  
full control of the Danish government in August 1943, the bishop wrote a letter  
of protest to the German military commissioner in Copenhagen. Copies were sent  
to all the bishops of Denmark and on Sunday, October 3 the protest was read  
aloud from all the pulpits in Denmark.


The decision of the Germans in October 1943 to deport  
the Jews had an enormous catalytic effect on the latent resistance feelings  
in Denmark. Outrage at the deportation plan catapulted the resistance into existence.  
Yet one wonders why certain events in Nazi Germany never resulted in a movement  
of resistance. Why, for example, did the Germans not protest the abolition of  
the Social Democratic Party?


In order for the liberal principle which pervaded Danish  
thinking to gain roots a society must imbibe the ideas of equal citizenship  
rights and the dissolution of the traditional orders of dependence. In its rejection  
of the ideas of the French Revolution and in its hurried industrial revolution  
out of which a true bourgeois class failed to emerge, Germany was not prepared  
for liberal democracy. As a consequence the Germans at the time of the Nazi  
takeover were a nation eager for security and stability rather than freedom.  


For years the Danish government had let the German occupation  
forces know that the Danish Jews were to remain unmolested. It was simply an  
element in leaving the Danish democracy intact. Until October 1943, when things  
started to sour for the Germans in other areas, the occupation force upheld  
the Danish request. While much is made of the daring rescue by boat to Sweden  
of 8,000 Jews in October 1943, it can be said that the Danes began to save the  
Jews at the beginning of the occupation when they made it clear they would not  
accede to German anti-Jewish measures.


A Larger Ideal


The important point to be made here regarding national  
psyche is not that it was part of the Danish mentality to love Jews. The Danes  
did not stand up to the Germans simply for humanitarian reasons. They did so  
because a larger ideal was part of their national psyche. Their democratic system  
had already given Jews civil rights in 1814 and 1849, long before other Western  
countries. Now it was time to protect that constitution.


After the creation of the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion  
called upon Jews throughout the world to show "complete solidarity with  
the State of Israel." Denmark’s Chief Rabbi Marcus Melchior responded:  
"We Danish Jews do not usually air our patriotism. Why on earth should  
we shout ‘hurrah’ more loudly than other Danes? But we take an opportunity  
like this to state that no one, however big he may be or from wherever he may  
come, has the right or is able to change even one jot of what for 150 years  
has been the status of Danish Jews under which there has been established a  
relationship in Denmark of which we are all just as happy on the Christian side  
as on the Jewish side. If Premier Ben-Gurion really claimed that in order to  
be a Jew every minute of one’s life, one has to live in Israel, then according  
to my view, two questions arise. The first is whether to be a Jew every minute  
is of imperative necessity and whether Jewishness and being a general human  
being did not equate each other so completely that one at the same time could  
be Jewish and a human being in other places than in the few square kilometers  
which form the territory of Israel."


Human Rights And Liberty


The lesson which some have drawn from the Holocaust,  
that anti-Semitism is endemic to the Western world and that a philosophy of  
Jewish nationalism is the only appropriate antidote, permits the example of  
Nazi Germany to reign supreme and ignores the example of liberal Western democracies  
such as Denmark. When it came time to physically save the Jews of Denmark, the  
act may appear to some as spontaneous but the fact is that the rescue was the  
natural outcome for a people accustomed to many years of support for human rights  
and liberty. It was the Danish thing to do—and there is certainly a "lesson"  
to be learned from this example as well.


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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.