Rescue and Cultural Context during the Holocaust: Grundtvigian Nationalism and the Rescue of the Danish Jews

By Buckser, Andrew | Shofar, January 31, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Rescue and Cultural Context during the Holocaust: Grundtvigian Nationalism and the Rescue of the Danish Jews


Buckser, Andrew, Shofar


Rescue and Cultural Context During the Holocaust: Grundtvigian Nationalism and the Rescue of the Danish Jews

The dramatic rescue of the Danish Jews from Nazi roundups in 1943 contrasts strikingly with the nation's cautious and cooperative response to most features of the German occupation. This paper argues that a full explanation of the rescue must therefore focus not only on Danish humanitarianism or resistance, but also on the specific symbolic significance of Jews in the country during the Second World War. Much of Danish nationalism during the occupation was heavily influenced by Grundtvigianism, a Danish theological movement which stressed the importance of folk culture and spirit. This system implied strong parallels between Jews and the Danes under occupation, which made the Jews an appropriate symbolic proxy for Danish independence. The paper argues that rescue activities, in Denmark and elsewhere, can be most clearly understood by considering not only universal values of tolerance and equality, but also the cultural meanings of Jews and rescue in specific national contexts.

I rode my bicycle through Skindergade and drove right into a big commotion. There was a German truck visible, and almost directly behind it a Danish police truck. I walked over to a young officer: "What's going on?" I asked, and he answered, white with anger: "It's the Schalburgfolk [Danish Nazis], who are after a Jewish shoemaker, who's been betrayed by some pig or another -- and so the neighbor called the police -- but what can we do? The devils! You know, I've never liked Jews, but we damned well can't be part of this!"

-Ina Rohde, Da Jeg Blev Jfde i Danmark

The rescue of the Danish Jews in October of 1943 presents a paradox for social scientists. The rescue, in which all but a handful of Denmark's Jews were hidden from a Nazi roundup and smuggled to safety, in Sweden, constitutes a dramatic and exhilarating exception to the grim history of the Holocaust. Scholars and philosophers have hailed it as a triumph for the spirit of humanity, and they have celebrated the Danes as archetypes of tolerance and humanity. Only a few years earlier, however, their tolerance had been far less evident. Before the German invasion in 1940, Denmark's policies toward Jewish immigrants differed little from those elsewhere in Europe; entrance visas were strictly limited, and some German Jewish refugees were stopped at the border and sent home to their deaths. Antisemitism was milder in Denmark than in most places, but it certainly existed, both in popular stereotypes and in occasional conspiracy theories. And for all the real valor the Danes showed in defense of the Jews, they had shown little opposition to other aspects of the Nazi occupation before the rescue. They had allowed the Germans to invade while firing barely a shot, and they had submitted to repeated German abuses of Danish human rights and political processes. In most respects, Danish behavior before 1943 was not a model of moral courage but of political prudence, balancing a concern for the protection of its citizens with an awareness of its military and political weakness. In the years of the occupation, however, and on the subject of the Jews, Denmark drew a clear line and defended it steadfastly. Why did the nation which Churchill had derided as "Hitler's canary" show such fortitude in the defense of a tiny and even somewhat disliked minority?

Studies of the rescue of Danish Jewry have tended to depict it in epic terms, as a battle of tolerance and democratic values against prejudice and inhumanity. This accords with a general tendency in the social sciences to cast Holocaust rescue in universal terms, and to depict its heroes as exemplars of universal values. Rescue is cited as proof of the human capacity to resist intolerance, to behave altruistically, to think independently, and more. This paper argues that a full understanding of rescue must also incorporate the particular cultural and historical circumstances under which rescue actions occurred.

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Rescue and Cultural Context during the Holocaust: Grundtvigian Nationalism and the Rescue of the Danish Jews
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