It Was a World War II Miracle Foreign Policy Analyst Richard Hurowitz Describes How Danes and a Half-Hearted Nazi Saved Nearly All of Denmark's Jews

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), October 7, 2018 | Go to article overview

It Was a World War II Miracle Foreign Policy Analyst Richard Hurowitz Describes How Danes and a Half-Hearted Nazi Saved Nearly All of Denmark's Jews


Seventy-five years ago, a legendary act of heroism unfolded across the Oresund, the narrow body of water separating Denmark and Sweden. Over a fortnight in October 1943, the Danes defied their Nazi occupiers and smuggled to safety more than 7,200 of their Jewish neighbors, making trip after trip across the waterway.

Almost unknown, however, is the story of Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, a German bureaucrat in Copenhagen who risked his life to warn the Danish Jews of the impending roundup and made crucial arrangements to ensure their escape. Were it not for Duckwitz, who would later become West Germany's ambassador to Denmark, the miracle on the Oresund would not have been possible.

An economist and lawyer from an affluent Bremen family, Duckwitz first came to Denmark as a 25-year-old coffee trader and fell in love with his "chosen fatherland," as he called it. The Nazis tapped his knowledge of Scandinavian shipping, and he was in Copenhagen working for them when German troops crossed the border in April 1940.

To the Nazis, Danes were Aryans, and their nation's location was of such strategic importance that Berlin decided to rule them with a light touch. The Danish government and King Christian X remained in place, and even the military and police were left more or less intact. As a condition of their cooperation, the Danes demanded the Germans leave their small Jewish community, which dated to 1622, unharmed. The well-known story of King Christian wearing a yellow Star of David in solidarity with his subjects is apocryphal because Christian did not permit such persecution to begin with.

Despite Denmark's outward calm, resentment of the Germans simmered. The Danes conducted themselves with cold politeness. This worked for two years, until Christian responded to a long birthday greeting from Adolf Hitler with a terse five words:"My utmost thanks, Christian Rex." The Fuhrer was enraged. In retaliation, he appointed SS Gen. Werner Best, known from his time in France as the Bloodhound of Paris, to take charge in Copenhagen.

The arrival of Best was positive for Duckwitz's standing. Duckwitz was a halfhearted Nazi, but Best needed his knowledge and contacts among the Danes, especially once the local situation deteriorated.

Martial law declared

After Germany's defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943, the Danish resistance grew bolder, engaging in daring acts of sabotage and encouraging mass strikes. In March, in a nearly unanimous vote, an anti-fascist coalition won the Danish parliamentary election. In August, after the bombing of a German barracks, martial law was declared.

Best then moved against the Jews. On Sept. 8, he cabled Berlin: The state of emergency provided an opportunity to apply the Final Solution to Denmark. Duckwitz tried to resign, but Best wouldn't have it. Duckwitz then began a frenzied campaign to try to stop the deportation.

He first flew to Berlin in a fruitless attempt to intercept Best's cable to Hitler. He was back in Copenhagen on Sept. …

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