The genocide of the Jews was not a plan that ran amok but a decisive effort by the Nazi leadership. It was a project that was considered vital for Germany’s survival and essential for the Third Reich’s victory. Therefore it was central both politically and administratively. It was a goal that Hitler and his closest allies did not think they could afford to lose sight of – a goal they pursued with even greater zeal in step with the growing problems at the fronts, and with even greater vigor as the more or less voluntary allies of the Third Reich became less and less enthusiastic about their role in this barbarous endeavor.
In 1996, Daniel Goldhagen published an extensive study of the general public’s knowledge of and involvement in the implementation of the Holocaust. Hitler’s Willing Executioners is a disturbing account because Goldhagen shows how many Germans were implicated in the nefarious project. But it is especially disturbing because it reveals chauvinism’s roots in Germany, and how appallingly widespread the thinking was that led to the mass extermination of fellow citizens. It shows how deeply the problem was rooted in the general population, who allowed themselves to put so much credence in the systematic description of the Jews as a threatening foreign body that they lost their basic compassion and empathy – the starting points for all peaceful coexistence.
Goldhagen makes little mention of the few exceptions where the Holocaust failed – such as Bulgaria and Denmark. His focus is on the general picture and the underlying driving forces, and he concludes: “the destruction of the Jews, once it had become achievable, took priority even over safeguarding Nazism’s very existence.” The extermination continued to the bitter end, long after it was clear that the Third Reich would be defeated.
The German historian Peter Longerich has a somewhat different interpretation. He agrees with many of Goldhagen’s observations, but gives different answers when it comes to what the German population knew – or avoided knowing. In Longerich’s interpretation the Jewish extermination was an open secret. All the elements were commonly known, and anyone had the opportunity to recognize mass murder as the objective, and to know about the scope of the genocide. But that still does not mean that most Germans knew what was going on. Longerich believes that most closed their eyes and ears and shied away from seeing the scale of the criminality, and many protected themselves against the sense that insight entailed responsibility. It was clear that something was going on, and that everyone suspected the worse. But Longerich’s point is that the majority wanted anything but the transformation of their fears into certain knowledge: “Between knowledge and ignorance, there was a broad gray area marked by rumors and half –truths, fantasy, forced and self-imposed limitations in communication. It lies between not wanting to know and not being able to understand.”
In one crucial point, the Nazi action in Denmark distinguishes itself clearly from all previous raids and actions against Jews initiated elsewhere; in Denmark it took place under the eyes of an immensely indignant and protective society, while the Swedish press delivered live coverage. This is exactly why the Nazis apparatus failed in the case of Denmark.
What ultimately stopped the extermination of Jews on Danish soil was the expressed and entrenched Danish opposition to the project. The many protests from high and low, from church and business, from politicians and state secretaries, confirmed what local Nazi administrators had long known and told Berlin: there was a deeply rooted aversion in the Danish population to the idea of introducing special laws and measures against the Jews. Since 1933 the Danish government had forcefully rejected any attempt to create a divide between Danes based on descent. Rather, those who attacked democracy had been excluded from the national “us,” while the leading politicians succeeded in equating the nation with the values its social order rested upon. This adherence to humanism became a bulwark its social order rested upon. Even cooperation with the occupying power had not undermined the Danish government’s attitude toward the concrete requirements of humanity and love thy neighbor. An unarmed people rebelled against a power with all kinds of tricks, with adventurous artifice and disguise and courage – but first and foremost with solidarity of deep indignation. By completely rejecting the ideas that excluded the Jews from the national “us”, Denmark deprived the Nazis of the fig leaf they needed to justify discrimination and legitimize the deed.
Hannah Arendt, in her 1964 book on the trial of Adolf Eichmann wrote: “politically and psychologically, the most interesting aspect of this incident is perhaps the role played by the German authorities in Denmark, their obvious sabotage of orders from Berlin. It is the only case we know of in which the Nazi met with open native resistance, and the result seems to have been that those exposed to it changed their minds. They themselves apparently no longer looked upon the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course. They had met resistance based on principle, and their ‘toughness” had melted like butter in the sun, they had even been able to show a few timid beginnings of genuine courage.”
Today, Hannah Arendt’s observations can be taken even further, as it is clear that the orders from Berlin were also softened in relation to the Jews in Denmark. It turns out that even leading Nazis in Berlin and Copenhagen needed the local understanding and support that would give the crime an aura of necessity and justice. Without this even the most hardened Nazis shrank back. Public participation was therefore not only a practical condition for the implementation of the project; its support was also a prerequisite for leading Nazis’ daring to set atrocities in motion. Even these experienced Nazis with blood on their hands ( e.g. Eichmann, Himmler, Ribbentrop) could not or would not go all the way alone. Even they depended on the understanding and support of the project, which was absolutely missing in Denmark. Without it they faltered, and extermination of the Jews came to appear as a goal; that had to be weighed against other, more practical considerations.
The leading Nazis’s complicity in making the flight of Denmark’s Jews to Sweden possible suggests they were led by practical considerations. In the Danish context, continued cooperation with the ‘model protectorate’ and maintaining the flow or agricultural and mineral supplies weighed more heavily than the desire to annihilate the Jews.
Senior Nazis involvement was not driven by personal necessity. Hatred of the different was not some primordial force that was unleashed. Rather, it was a political convenience that could be used as needed and in most occupied territories the Nazis followed their interest in pursuing this with disastrous consequences. But without a sounding board- chauvinism and the refusal to transform fears into certain knowledge- the strategy did not work. It could be countered by simple means – even by a country that was defenseless and occupied- by a persistent national rejection assumption that there was a “Jewish problem” and politicians who refuse to use suspicion of ‘the other’ as their political tool.
The escape of the Danish Jews happened because they acted on their own initiative when warned of the impending threat against them. The hesitation of the Nazi leadership in Berlin and their officials in Denmark was caused primarily by the expectation of the Danish reaction and its negative ramifications for both the ‘model protectorate’ and the continued shipment of Danish provisions to Germany. But what made this possible, before anything else, was the fact that Danish society as a whole had so quickly, so consistently, and with such determination turned against the very idea underpinning the persecution of their fellow countrymen, and mobilized with utmost unity of purpose to facilitate their rescue. Their attitude and capacity to overcome their fears was anchored in the preceding ten years of anti-totalitarian Danish politics. The miraculous escape of the Danish Jews cannot be fully understood outside that political context.