How was Danish civil society able to save most Jews in Denmark from deportation?


Only around 120 Danish Jews of a pre-war population of about 6,000, died during the Second World War. This was due to three factors: firstly, the refusal of Danish officials and civilians to cooperate with the Nazi order to identify and round up the Jewish population; secondly, the large degree of autonomy granted to Danish authorities under the German occupation; thirdly, the political context at the time of a proposed mass deportation, which gave rise to German doubts about the operation. All of these were facilitated by the small size and homogeneity of the Danish population, which was able to coordinate a nationwide effort to move a highly localised Jewish population to safety, first into hiding and then to neutral Sweden.

The Germans invaded Denmark in April 1940. The total number of Jews was about 7,500: a domestic population of about 6,000 swelled by refugees from Germany and Eastern Europe. Denmark was allowed, as an “Aryan” nation, to retain almost total autonomy in its domestic affairs, and the government refused to implement discriminatory legislation against Jews or their property.

After the Danish government resigned rather than implement German decrees against resisters and saboteurs, Germany declared martial law in Denmark, in August 1943. In September 1943, Hitler agreed to a request from SS General Werner Best asking for the deportation of Denmark’s Jews. Best, however, began to doubt whether the action was politically advisable and warned non-Jewish Danes. A network of Danish officials, Jewish community leaders and Danish civilians moved the Jews into hiding, mostly in coastal regions. Over the next month or so, fishermen ferried the Jews to neutral Sweden. As a result of this collective action, very few Jewish people were found during the attempted roundup on 1 October., The roundup was hampered further by the refusal of Danish police to cooperate: Only some 470 Jews were found and deported to Theresienstadt. Virtually all of the Jews who were smuggled out in 1943 returned to Denmark in 1945.

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