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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Countrymen’
Question of the Day
By Bo Lidegaard
Knopf, $28.95, 396 pages, illustrated
W.H. Auden nailed the 1930s in his poem "September 1939" as a low, dishonest decade. But the first half of the 1940s brought about horrors on a scale undreamed of in previous warfare: millions of military personnel and civilians killed in battle and in bombed cities, on the sea and in the air, and slaughtered in genocidal death camps. Yet paradoxically, those years also brought us wonders such as Britain's defiant "Finest Hour" and America's "Greatest Generation," which defeated Axis tyranny.
Even in the charnel house the Nazified European continent had become, there were small beacons of light amid the darkness of collaboration and cowardice that generally prevailed in the face of brute force and ruthless tyranny. As Danish journalist, diplomat and historian Bo Lidegaard writes:
"Denmark and Bulgaria are small but significant exceptions to the involvement in the genocide from all parts of society in the occupied countries. These exceptions are important reminders that history does not run in an inevitable pattern. Denmark is a case in point. The Danish exception shows that the mobilization of civil society's humanism and protective engagement is not only a theoretical possibility. It can be done. We know because it happened."
"Countrymen" is one of those books where the author's passion is evident throughout, but it is equally clear that he is still able to look clearly and dispassionately at what happened.
The title highlights the crux of Mr. Lidegaard's book: that Denmark as a whole was absolutely determined to regard Jews not as an alien presence, but as fellow countrymen. This started at the very top early on:
"[King] Christian stated: I considered our own Jews to be Danish citizens, and the Germans could not touch them. The Prime Minister shared my view and added that there could be no question about that."
When it became apparent in 1943 that the Nazis were indeed about to "touch" Danish Jews and, in fact, send them off for extermination, the whole country rallied around and saw to it that nearly all of them were spirited almost overnight to safety in neighboring, neutral Sweden. The story of how this was done is the heart of "Countrymen," which also gives a human face to the rescued by detailing how some individuals escaped.
There is a great deal else in these pages: the helpfulness of Sweden's government and people, the ingenuity of so many Danes, even the surprising tacit cooperation of Nazi officials in Denmark, who were apparently more influenced by Danish decency than Danes were by their foul policies. Mr. Lidegaard quotes no less an authority than Hannah Arendt as calling attention to "the role played by the German authorities in Denmark, their obvious sabotage of orders from Berlin. They had met resistance based on principle."
Berlin's fury at the escape of the bulk of Danish Jewry did not deter their government from having the courage to protect those few unfortunate enough to have been sent to the Reich. Through tough negotiation, they saw to it that they would survive in the relative safety of the model camp Theresienstadt instead of being sent to Auschwitz. Before most of them were returned to Denmark in early 1945, they, alone among their fellow captives, knew that their government was doing its best to protect them.
Naturally, since this is the 21st century, a work like this could not be complete without the seemingly obligatory fashionable attempt to deconstruct — or debunk — a heroic tale. So we have to hear about fishermen who charged exorbitant fees for carrying Jews the few miles to safety in Sweden, although Mr. Lidegaard does have the good grace to point out the risk they were taking if the Germans intercepted them. More seriously, he feels obliged to note censoriously that "Danish cooperation with Nazi Germany was unheroic and humiliating," and he criticizes the Danish authorities' accepting the Nazi racial categories in their vigorous attempts to prevent Danes of mixed Jewish and Lutheran heritage from deportation or actually getting the Germans to return those they had already taken. He realizes, however, that they had no choice and clearly admires the way they combined the principled and the pragmatic throughout in order to achieve their noble objective:
"What made the escape possible 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."
Mr. Lidegaard rightly sees this as a triumph for democracy as well as of decency, and has honored his countrymen for so staunchly standing by their endangered countrymen and resisting absolutely the racial poison the Nazis were trying to foist on them.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.
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