Histoire de la Résistance: Les Armes de l’esprit (Weapons of the spirit: From Poland and Holland to Denmark and Bulgaria: the most important factor for the treatment of Jews was whether or not a country in Nazi-dominated Europe was able to maintain a certain degree of sovereignty)

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The central ambiguity is that the Germans warned the Jews and let most of them escape. Lidegaard claims this was because the Danes refused to help the Germans, but the causation might also have worked in the other direction. It was when the Danes realized that the Germans were letting some Jews go that they found the courage to help the rest of their Jewish community escape. Countrymen is a fascinating study in the ambiguity of virtue. The Danes knew long before the war that their army could not resist a German invasion. Instead of overtly criticizing Hitler, the Social Democratic governments of the 1930s sought to inoculate their populations against the racist ideology next door. (…) The Danish response to the Nazis illuminates a crucial fact about the Holocaust: the Germans did not always force the issue of extermination where they faced determined resistance from occupied populations. In Bulgaria, as Tzvetan Todorov has shown in his aptly titled book The Fragility of Goodness, the Jews were saved because the king of Bulgaria, the Orthodox Church, and a few key Bulgarian politicians refused to assist the German occupiers. Why did a similar civic sense of solidarity not take root in other countries? In Holland, why did 80 percent of Dutch Jews perish? And what about France: why did liberty, equality, and fraternity not apply to the citizens driven from their homes by French police and sent to deportation and death? These questions become harder to answer in the light of the Danish and Bulgarian counterexamples. One possible explanation is that the German occupation’s presence in Denmark was lighter than in either France or Holland. The Danes, like the Bulgarians, kept their king and maintained their own government throughout the occupation. Self-government gave them a capacity to defend Jews that was never possible in the occupied zones of France or Holland. Both the Danish king and the Danish government decided that their best hope of maintaining Denmark’s sovereignty lay in cooperating but not collaborating with the German occupiers. This “cooperation” profited some Danes but shamed many others. The Danish population harbored ancestral hostility to the Germans, and the occupation reinforced these feelings. The Germans, for their part, put up with this frigid relationship: they needed Danish food, and Danish cooperation freed up German military resources for battle on the Eastern Front, and the Nazis wanted to be liked. They wanted their “cooperative” relationship with Denmark to serve as a model for a future European community under Hitler’s domination. From very early on in this ambiguous relationship, the Danes, from the king on down, made it clear that harming the Jews would bring cooperation to an end and force the Germans to occupy the country altogether. The king famously told his prime minister, in private, that if the Germans forced the Danish Jews to wear a yellow star, then he would wear one too. Word of the royal position went public and even led to a myth that the king had actually ridden through the streets of Copenhagen on horseback wearing a yellow star on his uniform. The king never did wear a star. He didn’t have to wear one, because, thanks to his opposition, the Germans never imposed such a regulation in Denmark. When, in late summer in 1943, the order came down from Eichmann to the local German authorities in Copenhagen that they had to rid the city of its Jews, these authorities faced a dilemma. They knew that the Danish politicians, police, and media—that Danish society as a whole—would resist and that, once the cooperation of the Danes had been lost, the Germans would have to run the country themselves. The Germans in Copenhagen were also beginning to have second thoughts about the war itself. By then the German armies had been defeated at Stalingrad. While the Gestapo in Poland and Eastern Europe faced the prospect of defeat by accelerating the infernal rhythm of extermination in the death camps, the Gestapo in Denmark began to look for a way out. The local Gauleiter, a conniving opportunist named Werner Best, did launch the roundup of the Jews, but only after letting the Jewish community find out in advance what was coming, giving them time to escape. He did get his hands on some people in an old-age home and dispatch them to Theresienstadt, but all but 1 percent of the Jewish community escaped his clutches. It is an astonishing number. When Adolf Eichmann came to Copenhagen in 1943 to find out why so many Jews had escaped, he did not cashier the local Gestapo. Instead he backed down and called off the deportations of Danes who were half-Jewish or married to Jews. Lidegaard’s explanation for Eichmann’s volte face is simply that the institutions of Danish society all refused to go along. And without their cooperation, a Final Solution in Denmark became impossible. Totalitarianism, not to mention ethnic cleansing and ethnic extermination, always requires a great deal of collaboration. When they got wind of German plans in September 1943, the Danish government resigned, and no politician agreed to serve in a collaborationist government with the Germans thereafter. After the roundups of Jews were announced, leading Danish politicians of different parties issued a joint statement declaring, “The Danish Jews are an integral part of the people, and therefore all the people are deeply affected by the measures taken, which are seen as a violation of the Danish sense of justice.” This is the political culture of “countrymen” with which Lidegaard explains the extraordinary determination—and success—of the Danes in protecting their Jewish population. Such general support across Danish society seems to have empowered the Jews of Copenhagen. When the Gestapo came to search the Jewish community’s offices in September 1943, the community treasurer, Axel Hertz, did not hesitate to ask the intruders, “By what right do you come here?” The German in charge replied, quite candidly: “By the right of the stronger.” And Hertz retorted: “That is no good right.” Jews in Denmark behaved like rights-bearers, not like victims in search of compassion. And they were not wrong: their feeling of membership in the Danish polity had a basis in its political culture. When the Germans arrived to begin the deportations, Jews had already been warned — in their synagogues — and they simply vanished into the countryside, heading for the coast to seek a crossing to neutral Sweden. There was little or no Jewish communal organization and no Danish underground to help them. What ensued was a chaotic family-by-family flight, made possible simply because ordinary members of Danish society feigned ignorance when Germans questioned them, while sheltering families in seaside villages, hotels, and country cottages. Danish police on the coast warned hiding families when the Gestapo came to call, and signaled all-clear so that boats bearing Danish Jews could slip away to Sweden. The fishermen who took the Danish Jews across the Baltic demanded huge sums for the crossing, but managed to get their frightened fellow citizens to safety. When the Gestapo did seize Jewish families hiding in the church of the small fishing village of Gilleleje, the people were so outraged that they banded together to assist others to flee. One villager even confronted the local Gestapo officer, shining a flashlight in his face and exclaiming: “The poor Jews!” When the German replied, “It is written in the Bible that this shall be their fate,” the villager unforgettably replied: “But it is not written that it has to happen in Gilleleje.” Why did the Danes behave so differently from most other societies and populations in occupied Europe? For a start, they were the only nation where escape to a safe neutral country lay across a narrow strait of water. Moreover, they were not subject to exterminatory pressure themselves. They were not directly occupied, and their leadership structures from the monarch down to the local mayors were not ripped apart. The newspapers in Copenhagen were free enough to report the deportations and thus to assist any Jews still not in the know to flee. The relatively free circulation of information also made it impossible for non-Jewish Danes to claim, as so many Germans did, that “of this we had no knowledge.” Most of all, Denmark was a small, homogeneous society, with a stable democracy, a monarchy that commanded respect, and a shared national hostility to the Germans. Denmark offers some confirmation of Rousseau’s observation that virtue is most easily fostered in small republics. Lidegaard is an excellent guide to this story when he sticks close to Danish realities. When he ventures further and asks bigger questions, he goes astray. At the end of his book he asks: “Are human beings fundamentally good but weak? Or are we brutal by nature, checked and controlled only by civilization?” He wants the Danish story to answer such questions, but it cannot bear such weight. There simply are no general answers to the question of why humans behave as they do in times of extremity. What Lidegaard’s story really demonstrates is that history and context are all. Denmark was Denmark: that is all one can truthfully say. Lidegaard makes the argument, in his conclusion, that had resistance been as strong elsewhere in Europe as it was in Denmark, the Nazis might never have been able to drive the Final Solution to its conclusion. (…) Jews met different fates in each country the Nazis occupied—or at least the rates of destruction and escape varied. But it does not follow that what the Danes did other peoples could have also done. The Germans faced resistance of varying degrees of ferocity in every country that they occupied in Europe. Where they possessed the military and police power to do so, they crushed that resistance with unbridled cruelty. Where, as in Denmark, they attempted a strategy of indirect rule, they had to live with the consequences: a populace that could not be terrorized into doing their bidding, and could therefore be counted on to react when fellow citizens were arrested and carried away. One uncomfortable possibility that Lidegaard does not explore is that the Nazis sought a strategy of indirect rule precisely because they saw the Danes as fellow Aryans, potential allies in an Aryan Europe. This would explain why the Nazis were so comfortable in Copenhagen and so shaken by Danish resistance. The Poles they could dismiss as Untermenschen, and the French as ancient enemies; but to be resisted by supposed Aryans was perversely disarming. Why else would a ferocious bureaucrat such as Eichmann melt before Danish objections to the arrest of Jews married to Danes? One paradoxical possibility is that the Nazis bowed to Danish protests because their delusional racial anthropology led them to view the Danes as members of their own family. To their eternal credit, the Danes exploited this imagined family resemblance to defy an act of infamy. Countrymen is a story about a little country that did the right thing for complicated reasons, and got away with it for equally complicated reasons. It is a story that reinforces an old truth: solidarity and decency depend on a dense tissue of connection among people, on long-formed habits of the heart, on resilient cultures of common citizenship, and on leaders who marshal these virtues by their example. In Denmark, this dense tissue bound human beings together and indirect rule made it impossible for the Germans to rip it apart. Elsewhere in Europe, by contrast, it was destroyed in stages, first by ghettoizing and isolating the Jewish people and then by insulating bystanders from the full horror of Nazi intentions. Once Jews had been stripped of citizenship, property, rights, and social existence—once they could appeal only to the common humanity of persecutors and bystanders alike—it was too late. There is a sobering message in Lidegaard’s tale for the human rights era that came after these abominations. If a people come to rely for their protection on human rights alone, on the mutual recognition of common humanity, they are already in serious danger. The Danish story seems to tell us that it is not the universal human chain that binds peoples together in extremity, but more local and granular ties: the particular consciousness of time, place, and heritage that led a Danish villager to stand up to the Gestapo and say no, it will not happen here, not in our village. This extraordinary story of one small country has resonance beyond its Danish context. Countrymen should be read by anyone seeking to understand what precise set of shared social and political understandings can make possible, in times of terrible darkness, acts of civil courage and uncommon decency. Michael Ignatieff
Where both state and church refused to sanction discrimination—as in Denmark—internal resistance was highest. Where the state or native administrative bureaucracy began to cooperate, church resistance was critical in inhibiting obedience to authority, legitimating subversion, and/or checking collaboration directly. Church protest proved to be the single element present in every instance in which state collaboration was arrested—as in Bulgaria, France, and Romania…. The majority of Jews evaded deportation in every state occupied by or allied with Germany in which the head of the dominant church spoke out publicly against deportation before or as soon as it began. Unfortunately, the Netherlands (which I discuss extensively) did not react as would be predicted from the level of pre-war anti-Semitism. There was little leadership from the Queen and government in exile (nor from political leaders in the Netherlands) to the civil service bureaucracy which executed German orders. This led to high state cooperation in registering Jews. « The more efficient, and almost foolproof, method of Jewish identification was devised not in the Reich, but in the Netherlands, by a pre-war Dutch civil servant who traveled to Berlin with his superior’s permission to display his innovation to the Gestapo: ‘The Gestapo had pronounced his identity card even more difficult to reproduce than its German counterpart.' » Although there was early church protest in the dominant Protestant church, it was not a public nor vocal protest. Church leaders failed to inform their congregants of this as they did not read publicly their protest against the deportation of the Jews, deferring to a German request not to read it from the pulpit. Lacking leadership for resistance, the Dutch did not form a defense movement for people in hiding until the spring of 1943 when Dutchmen were threatened with deportation and forced labor in Germany. It was too late to help the Dutch Jews—by then less than half of them were left. Deák is correct that only about 20 percent of Dutch Jews were saved but he is wrong about the Bulgarian toll. About 20 percent of Jews under Bulgarian rule became victims, including the Jews in territories formerly in Greece and Yugoslavia occupied by the Bulgarian state, as he explains later in his review. Dr. Helen Fein
Helen Fein (…) rightly argues that pre-war anti-Semitism had significant influence on the fate of Jews under German occupation but, as she herself states, there were also many other factors, for instance the behavior of local church leaders, the attitude of the exile governments, and whether or not the country in question had an efficient bureaucracy. The latter, unfortunately, was the case in the Netherlands. Still, at least in my opinion, the most important factor for the treatment of Jews was whether or not a country in Nazi-dominated Europe was able to maintain a certain degree of sovereignty. In Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Finland, Vichy France, and Denmark, the governments used the Jews in bargaining with the Nazis and then with the Allies. The lives of Jews were sacrificed or spared depending on which of the two external forces the government wanted to please. In the utterly defeated countries such as Norway and the Netherlands, which were without a government and without any sovereignty, local bureaucrats and policemen did just what the Nazis wanted them to do in carrying out the elimination of the Jews. In other countries, parts of the native population assisted the Germans in killing or rounding up Jews, as happened in Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic countries. As a result, the largest percentages of Jews survived in countries that were allied with Germany during the war. In Bulgaria, following a great deal of initial brutality and proclaimed anti-Semitic intentions, the pro-German government decided to spare the lives of Bulgarian Jews. The Germans were powerless to prevent this. As a result, so far as we know, not one of the 50,000-odd Bulgarian Jews was handed over to the Germans or killed at home, although many suffered badly in local forced labor camps. Helen Fein writes about Jews under Bulgarian rule; I wrote about the Bulgarian Jews. The 11,143 Jews that the Bulgarian regime handed over to Eichmann in 1943 lived in those parts of Greece and Yugoslavia that were occupied by the Bulgarian army; they were Yugoslav and Greek citizens and did not speak Bulgarian. The actions of leading Bulgarian officials toward the Nazis and the Jews remain a subject of intense controversy. Among them were Prime Minister Filov, Minister of Interior Gabrovski, Parliamentary Deputy Dimitur Peshev, and, most powerful and controversial of all, King Boris III. (…) We know less about Bulgaria during and just after the war than about most other European countries. Yasharoff, for instance, argues that his father, in defending Peshev, emphasized Peshev’s role as a savior of Jews and that this softened the verdict of his Communist judges. Tzvetan Todorov, the author of The Fragility of Goodness, the book I discussed in my review, believes otherwise. Yasharoff is convinced that Peshev personally ordered the local authorities to stop preparations for the deportation of the Bulgarian Jews in 1943; yet it is hard to believe that the vice-chairman of the National Assembly would have had such an authority, particularly in a country that Yasharoff calls a fascist state. But was Bulgaria truly a fascist country during the war? Yes, if we judge it by some of the actions of its police; no, if we consider that it had a functioning parliament with opposition parties, whose deputies often strongly opposed the government. However, because the government could take no major action in Bulgaria without the King’s consent, Boris III must bear responsibility both for the deportation of the Thracian and Macedonian Jews and for saving their Bulgarian counterparts. As a savior of some Jews and as the man responsible for the killing of others, Boris did not really differ greatly from such contemporary heads of state as France’s Marshal Pétain and Hungary’s Admiral Horthy. (…) The lesson of the Bulgarian story is best explained by Omer Bartov in The New Republic (August 13, 2001) when he writes: “The difference between virtue and vice is far less radical than we would like to believe. Sometimes the most effective goodness…is carried out by those who have already compromised themselves with evil, those who are members of the very organization that set the ball rolling toward the abyss.” Dimitur Peshev, who was a member of the ruling political party in Bulgaria and who voted for the original anti-Semitic laws, was such a person. István Deák
Des pressions païennes formidables vont s’exercer sur nous-mêmes et sur nos familles pour tenter de nous entraîner à une soumission passive à l’idéologie totalitaire. Si l’on ne parvient pas tout de suite à soumettre nos âmes, on voudra soumettre tout au moins nos corps. Le devoir des chrétiens est d’opposer à la violence exercée sur leur conscience les armes de l’Esprit. Pasteur André Trocmé (1940)
Between 1943 and 1944, the Mufti [of Jerusalem] concentrated his activities on the Jews of the Balkans, in Eastern Europe. He prevented the rescue of Jews from Hungary, from Romania, from Bulgaria, from Croatia; and he thwarted the immigration of Jewish orphans to Palestine. He protested to the Nazis that not enough resources were being devoted to preventing the escape of Jewish refugees from the Balkans. This has been widely testified to. Here is one example. Wilhelm Melchers, a Nazi official who testified at the Nuremburg Trials on 6 August 1947, said: « The Mufti was making protests everywhere – in the offices of the Foreign Minister, the Secretary of State and in other SS Headquarters ». These protests had an immediate effect, as a rule. Far example, on 15 May 1943, the Mufti personally delivered to Ribbentrop a letter protesting against the plan to arrange the emigration of 4,000 Jewish children from Bulgaria. Ribbentrop succumbed to the Mufti’s pressure. He quickly arranged for a telegram to be sent to the German Ambassador in Sofia, by which he prevented the emigration from taking place. The tragic result, of course, was that 4,000 Jewish children were condemned to death. (Rapport de l’ONU, 5/12/1985)

Suite à notre dernier billet sur la légende Aubrac comme illustration du mythe qui a entouré la Résistance pendant la dernière guerre en France et l’apparent manque de combativité de la majorité de la population française …

Petit retour sur les travaux de l’historienne américaine Helen Fein, dont l’analyse des différentes réponses nationales des pays européens face au génocide juif (« Accounting for Genocide: National Responses and Jewish Victimization During the Holocaust« , 1979) pourrait être éclairante.

Comparant les destins différents des communautés juives sous le nazisme, elle montre en effet que les pays où celles-ci s’en sont “le moins bien sorties” sont apparemment ceux où il n’y avait pas eu d’institutions (politiques, religieuses) appelant à résister.

Comme par exemple les Pays-Bas ou la Pologne (dont les dirigeants et élites s’étaient exilés en Angleterre et/ou avaient été décimées par les assauts conjoints des Nazis et des Soviétiques) qui ont eu le pire bilan par opposition au Danemark où, « protégé » par son aryanité, un Christian X avait explicitement pris position contre la déportation et dont la population juive (avec l’aide de leurs voisins suédois) a été très largement épargnée.

La France, avec son régime collaborationniste mais une partie de ses élites résistantes, ayant eu une position intermédiaire.

Un peu comme la Bulgarie, dont les autorités religieuses avaient bien résisté mais qui finit par abandonner, suite notamment à l’intervention personnelle du Grand Mufti de Jérusalem et « oncle » d’Arafat – exflitré lui aussi par la France après guerre – , “ses” juifs thraces et macédoniens.

Une France donc où le régime a, en simplifiant, “sauvé” une bonne partie de ses juifs nationaux sur le dos (ie. en les livrant ou les abandonnant aux nazis) de ses juifs réfugiés …

D’où l’intéressant contre-exemple du cas très particulier de ces villages des Cévennes de descendants de huguenots, avec leur longue tradition de “résistance” religieuse (comme Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, révélé au grand public par le documentaire de Pierre Sauvage, qui sauva quelque 5 000 juifs sous l’Occupation, mais il existe, parait-il un tel village de Justes aux Pays-Bas et les Polonais sont, avec les Hollandais, les premiers sur la liste de Yad Vashem – merci madimaxi) …

On a ainsi l’impression qu’avec beaucoup de résistants, notamment au début, qu’ils sont quasiment livrés à eux-mêmes, aucune, sauf exceptions, institution politique, syndicale ou religieuse (hormis l’appel – de l’extérieur, non nécessairement à une résistance intérieure et pendant que le PCF négociait secrètement le maintien de sa presse avec l’ennemi – du 18 juin) n’appelant à résister et qu’ils s’improvisent résistants avec les moyens – très limités – du bord, certains dans les campagnes ou aux frontières, à partir de leurs pratiques locales faisant passer leur résistance comme une sorte de braconnage ou contrebande “glorifiée”.

Ce qui souligne encore plus leur courage mais aussi la faiblesse de leur nombre et donc à nouveau… le “manque de combativité” de la majorité.

Et bien sûr le décalage avec les récits largement idéalisés que, pour les raisons que l’on sait, on en a fait après coup et… le choc quand la vérité sort peu à peu.

Voir aussi la critique du film de Pierre Sauvage sur Le Chambon-sur-Lignon (« Les Armes de l’esprit »):

« Les Armes de l’esprit »
L’Humanité
Le 17 octobre 1990

De Pierre Sauvage au cinéma « Saint-Germain-des-Prés »

Si on avait laissé faire le temps et l’oubli, c’est tout juste si le nom de Chambon-sur-Lignon aurait eu droit à quelques lignes dans les manuels d’histoire de France, chapitre Deuxième Guerre mondiale, sous-chapitre occupation allemande et déportation. Grâce au film documentaire de Pierre Sauvage, les correcteurs de mémoire auront désormais la tâche plus rude.

« Les Armes de l’esprit », c’est l’histoire d’un aller-retour. Le passé éclaire le contexte par le noir et blanc des archives, et la couleur du reportage d’aujourd’hui donne la parole aux acteurs d’une histoire discrète mais glorieuse. De 1940 à 1944 les habitants d’une petite commune de la Haute-Loire défient Pétain, sa police, ses milices, ses lois antisémites, en accueillant, en cachant, en protégeant des familles juives françaises et étrangères. Le faussaire du village, Oscar O. de son vrai nom, Dr Jean-Claude Plunne de son nom de planque, spécialiste de la fabrication de faux-papiers, estime à cinq mille le nombre de Juifs sauvés au Chambon. Le cinéaste franco-américain Pierre Sauvage sera parmi les rescapés.

A l’origine d’une résistance trop méconnue, il y a cette terre cévenole avec derrière elle quelques siècles d’insoumission, ces Huguenots protestants qui ont appris à vaincre les persécutions et la peur, et il y a des hommes, héros ordinaires qui jaillissent à la lumière. Le pasteur du Chambon, André Trocmé, fera de son temple le lieu où apprendre à dire non sera parole d’évangile. Et quand l’une de ces femmes au visage doux qui a échappé aux trains de Nuit et brouillard se souvient, c’est pour dire : « Ce n’était pas au fait que nous étions juifs qu’ils réagissaient, mais au fait que nous étions pauvres. »

 Voir encore:

Heroes and Victims
István Deák
NY Review of Books
May 31, 2001

Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland
Jan T. Gross
Princeton University Press, 261 pp., $19.95
The Fragility of Goodness: Why Bulgaria’s Jews Survived the Holocaust
Tzvetan Todorov, translated from the French by Arthur Denner
Princeton University Press, 190 pp., $26.95. To be published in July 2001.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Nazis: Persecution, Deportation, and Murder, 1933–1945
Michel Reynaud and Sylvie Graffard, translated from the French by James A. Moorhouse, with an introduction by Michael Berenbaum
Cooper Square Press, 304 pp., $27.95

In 1941 Polish townspeople and farmers who had been persecuted by the Soviet occupation forces took their revenge on their innocent Jewish neighbors by torturing them and burning them alive. In 1943 Bulgarian right-wing politicians saved virtually all the Jews in their country and were later rewarded for their efforts by execution or imprisonment under the Communist government. Throughout the war German religious zealots refused to say “Heil Hitler,” preferring to be guillotined by the Nazis to serving in the war.

Such are the major themes of the three books under review. They raise questions that defy clear answers. Why did Poles, who had suffered badly under the Soviet occupiers, choose to kill those even more downtrodden than they were? Do murders committed by semiliterate Polish farmers, craftsmen, and day laborers belong in the same category as murders committed by educated and trained German policemen, as Jan Gross seems to suggest in Neighbors? Does the suffering freely accepted by German Jehovah’s Witnesses belong in the same category as that of the Jews, who were not asked what they thought of the Führer and were not allowed to recant? Why did the Bulgarians succeed in saving Jews while the Dutch, who were also not generally anti-Semitic, failed abysmally, with a nearly 100 percent Jewish survival rate in one country and only about 20 percent in the other?

Before World War II, there were some 50,000 Jews in Bulgaria, making up less than one percent of the population—approximately the same low proportion of Jews as in Germany and Italy, and not at all comparable to the vastly greater Jewish presence in Austria, Hungary, Romania, Poland, and Russia. Is there a direct relationship between the proportion of Jews in a country and the extent of popular anti-Semitism? We might think so when we consider the relatively mild fate of the Jews in wartime Bulgaria and Italy; but the case of Germany obviously suggests otherwise. Other factors must have influenced the extent of popular anti-Semitism. Bulgarian Jews, mostly of Sephardic origin, were tradesmen and artisans, with only relatively few businessmen, landowners, bankers, lawyers, and professors among them. In contrast to France or Poland, for instance, no Jews were to be found in the Bulgarian army officer corps or in the state administration.

Unlike Jews in Hungary or Poland, Bulgarian Jews did not take an important part in the Bulgarian Communist movement. Thus they represented neither a political nor an economic challenge to non-Jews. Also, because there were so few Jewish journalists, artists, moviemakers, theater people, and writers in Bulgaria, right-wing critics of modern culture could not blame the Jews for immorality, secularization, corruption, and criminality. In addition, Bulgarians had more important minorities to worry about, such as the Macedonians, whose secret organizations had long been engaged in bloody terror, and also Turkish-speaking and Bulgarian-speaking Muslims.

With no Jews in important positions, there existed only minuscule anti-Semitic movements in Bulgaria. And yet Jews had much to fear. As Tzvetan Todorov explains in his strongly argued introduction to The Fragility of Goodness—a book that is largely a collection of documents—Bulgaria adopted some of the harshest anti-Jewish legislative measures in Europe. In October 1940, during the authoritarian rule of King Boris III, a Law for the Protection of the Nation severely restricted Jewish activities, and in 1941 many more such measures followed: Jews had to obey a curfew; many of them were expelled from their homes; others were forcibly conscripted into work gangs, and all were required to wear the yellow Star of David.

The worst persecution, however, did not happen in Bulgaria itself. In 1941, Bulgaria joined in Hitler’s Yugoslav and Greek military campaigns and was rewarded with the right to occupy and administer the province of Thrace in northern Greece as well as much of Macedonia and Kosovo in the former Yugoslav state. Even though Bulgaria was not allowed to annex these territories, the government conferred Bulgarian citizenship on their inhabitants, except for the Jews. This was a prelude to the deportation of the 11,384 Jews who, following their mistreatment by Bulgarian gendarmes, were handed over to Adolf Eichmann’s local representative in March 1943. The victims ended up in Auschwitz and Treblinka, where nearly all were killed. The men chiefly responsible for this outrage were King Boris III and Prime Minister Professor Bogdan Filov. The prime minister was friendly to Germany, but Boris, a member of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha family, which had produced many European kings and queens, including the descendants of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, disliked the Nazis. Bulgarians today still argue over the motives for Boris’s behavior toward the Thracian and Macedonian Jews as well as the sudden change of policy in 1943 by which he stopped the deportation to Germany of the Bulgarian Jews. Not for nothing was the King often referred to as “wily Boris.”

In Italy, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania, governments allied with Germany alternately promoted and sabotaged the deportation of Jews, mostly but not always because of the changing war situation. But in these government decisions, the public had at best a very limited part. Not so in Bulgaria, where, in 1940, the anti-Semitic Law for the Protection of the Nation caused a public uproar. The first collective protest came from the country’s leading writers and other intellectuals. It is true that in Hungary writers and artists such as the composers Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály were the first to protest the anti-Jewish laws. But in Bulgaria, strong protests were made to the National Assembly by professional organizations, politicians, and religious leaders. And, instead of petering out as they did in other countries, the protests increased. Government officials, the public, and the Jews themselves all ignored the law ordering the Jews to wear the Star of David. The deportations of Jews began in the spring of 1943, with the arrest of the Thracian and Macedonian Jews as a first step, to be followed by de-portations from Bulgaria itself. Huge street demonstrations erupted in Sofia, led by the heads of the Orthodox state church. Stefan, the metropolitan of Sofia (the equivalent of an archbishop), sent telegrams of protest to the King, and Kyril, the metropolitan of Plovdiv, is said to have warned that he would lie down on the rails in front of the next deportation train. When the authorities arrested the Jews of Kyustendil, a town not far from Sofia, a delegation of its leading residents went to the capital to plead the case of their fellow citizens. Not only were these Bulgarians free of anti-Semitism, they were also brave people and great humanitarians.

Yet, as Todorov explains, the protests would, by themselves, not have prevailed against the determination of Prime Minister Filov and several key members of his cabinet to deport Jews. What counted, Todorov shows, was that the Kyustendil delegation appealed directly to Dimitur Peshev, the vice-chairman of the National Assembly, and that Peshev took up their cause. When Todorov writes about “the fragility of goodness,” he is referring to the decision taken by Peshev, a conservative nationalist politician and a leading member of the party in power, to risk his position and life by politely, diplomatically, and yet resolutely turning against his own government. Carefully avoiding members of the opposition parties, he invited fellow members of the government party to sign a statement arguing that the Jews were no problem for Bulgaria, and that handing over the Jews to the Germans was against the nation’s honor and interest. Forty-two other deputies signed the statement, although about a dozen of them later got cold feet. Still, all this was enough to cause Boris III and the country’s other leaders to hesitate, and they postponed the deportations. Meanwhile, Metropolitan Stefan invited Bulgaria’s chief rabbi to live in his house. It is hard to find a comparable gesture anywhere else in Europe. By the summer of 1943, the King, too, was siding with the opponents of deportation. Even though Peshev was thrown out of his party and the King died under mysterious circumstances in August 1943, there were no deportations. As happened in Denmark and Italy, even the German ambassador in Sofia began to reflect Bulgarian views on the Jewish question in his dispatches. Thousands of Jews were sent to the countryside to do forced labor, but virtually all were alive and unharmed when the Soviet army arrived in September 1944.

The Communists soon took over the country, killing many members of the country’s elite and putting on trial all the deputies from the wartime ruling party. As Todorov shows, of the forty-three deputies who had signed Peshev’s pro-Jewish declaration, the Communists sentenced twenty to death; most of the others were given long prison terms. Peshev himself was sentenced to fifteen years but was freed less than two years later. Among those executed were Deputy Ikonomov, who had been the first to sound the alarm on behalf of the Jews, and Deputy Petrov, who had fought hard in the National Assembly against the Law for the Defense of the Nation. Metropolitan Stefan was forbidden to carry on his pastoral activities.

During the Nazi alliance, not a single one of these brave men had been harmed. Now the Communists wiped them out while some in the Jewish community looked the other way. After two Jewish lawyers refused to represent Peshev at his trial, a third accepted; this courageous decision caused him later to be disbarred. Ironically, as Todorov explains, it was not what Peshev had done to save the Jews that persuaded the Communist court not to sentence him to hanging. What saved him was that earlier, as minister of justice, he had blocked the execution of a left-wing opposition leader. Subsequently, most Bulgarian Jews emigrated, mainly to Israel, which left Bulgaria as judenfrei as all the other East Central European countries are today, except for Hungary and Romania. Under Communist rule, the wartime persecution of the Bulgarian Jews was barely mentioned, and when it was, their survival was attributed to the Communist Party. In history textbooks and in the press, wartime concentration camps were said to have held only political prisoners, while it was said of Auschwitz that “prisoners of all nationalities” had been killed.

After considering the claims and counterclaims regarding the survival of the Bulgarian Jews, Todorov rightly concludes that although the King was responsible for the death of nearly 12,000 Jews, he deserves credit for blocking German demands for deportation. This was a remarkable achievement, but the larger credit belongs to Dimitur Peshev and his fellow deputies who, in turn, would have been unable to act without popular support and, especially, without the support of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Compared to the lethargy of Pope Pius XII and of the Catholic prelates in Germany and East Central Europe, the Bulgarian church leaders were models of decency and strength.

But who today remembers these saviors? Peshev, whose brief memoirs appear in the documentary section of Todorov’s book, is one of the thirteen “Righteous” Bulgarians who have been honored by the State of Israel. But he and his heroic colleagues and their tragic fate have been largely ignored by historians of World War II. In reconstructing what happened to such decent men in his native Bulgaria, Todorov, a much respected French philosopher and social critic, is also pursuing his longstanding aim of showing that goodness can thrive under atrocious conditions. In fact, he believes it is under such conditions that goodness is most genuinely present, a view that he persuasively presents in Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps, a masterful comparative study of the Nazi and Soviet camps.

2.

If the Bulgarian story is that of quiet diplomatic maneuvering by clever politicians on behalf of their fellow citizens, the story of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany is that of a direct confrontation between two implacable ideologies, one representing unbending pacifism, the other unbounded ruthlessness. Unlike the Bulgarians, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were not trying to help or defend anybody. As we learn from The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Nazis, their only wish was to do God’s will, a position that brought them into direct confrontation with the Nazi regime. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are members of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, a religious sect founded in the United States in 1872. According to its eschatological doctrine as it was preached in the 1930s, the “end of days” was approaching and would be preceded by war and other great crises. In the eyes of the Witnesses, the Nazis fulfilled all the requirements for a warlike, destructive regime that would hasten the arrival of the Apocalypse. As citizens of Jehovah’s Kingdom, the Witnesses could not possibly swear allegiance to this or any other government or do military service in any form.

In 1933, there were about 20,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany; some of their regional branches at first tried to make an accommodation with the Nazi regime, emphasizing their own anti-Bolshevism and their opposition to the established churches, which the Nazis also detested. They began to be persecuted systematically in 1935; thereafter, thousands were thrown into concentration camps. Not that this was inevitable. The slightest sign of repentance would have sufficed for them to avoid the camps. When the war broke out, those who refused to do military service were singled out for the harshest treatment. According to Michel Reynaud and Sylvie Graffard, the Nazis executed at least two hundred Witnesses, mostly by the guillotine, as befitted Aryan citizens of the Reich. Between 2,500 and 5,000 died in the camps. For the Nazis, the Witnesses posed frustrating problems; they were not criminals, homosexuals, or Communists but hard-working German peasants and artisans. Some of those sentenced to death sang psalms on their way to the guillotine, confident that they would soon meet with their Maker. In the camps the members of the sect kept themselves clean, worked hard, and had no thoughts of escaping. The SS, which at first feared their proselytizing efforts and therefore dispersed the Witnesses in many camps, gradually discovered their value as gardeners, cooks, maids, and even babysitters. In his introduction to The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Nazis, Michael Berenbaum writes: “Witnesses could serve as barbers and shave their oppressors, holding a razor blade to their throat.” The authors of the book, who are not themselves Witnesses but have unconditional respect for them, say very little about this bizarre aspect of the Witnesses’ story. Other survivors occasionally mention the Witnesses in their memoirs as men and women with purple or violet triangular patches who would not participate in any plot to escape, who kept to themselves, and whom the SS fully trusted. Some survivors recall that Witnesses sometimes offered a helping hand to other inmates in the camps. Michel Reynaud and Sylvie Graffard have done admirable research in collecting information about the Witnesses, and in interviewing the few surviving members of the sect who were in the camps. They write that the Witnesses would not even make shoelaces for the soldiers; that, especially in the early years of Nazi rule, Witnesses were whipped and tortured in the camps by guards who ordered, “Raise your arm! Raise your arm!” Yet very few were willing to give the Nazi salute. The authors report that publications by the Witnesses were also banned in Italy, France, and Belgium during the war, and that at Nuremberg the Nazi idealogue Alfred Rosenberg defended the mistreatment of the Witnesses by referring to the US, where, during the war, some Witnesses who were conscientious objectors were held in prison camps. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were indeed badly treated in the US.

Unfortunately, Reynaud and Graffard’s book is repetitious and poorly organized; but it is the most informed account of the persecution of the Witnesses that we have. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were true martyrs in the traditional sense of the word, similar to the early Christians who would rather be devoured by lions than make a modest offering at the altar of a Roman emperor. They were also similar to the Jews of medieval times, who would rather be burned alive than abandon their faith. The history of such fervent willingness to endure persecution suggests how wrong it is to say that Jewish victims of Nazism are martyrs. Whether religious or irreligious, baptized or unbaptized, submissive or defiant, the Jews were under irrevocable sentence of death; they were victims. To call them martyrs, that is, people who were given a chance to choose between life and death, is to deny the absolute evil of the Nazi system.

3.
Jan T. Gross’s horrifying and thoughtful book Neighbors is about Poles and Jews, the two major victims of World War II. In his introduction, the author writes that he wants to show how “one day in July 1941, half of the population of a small East European town murdered the other half—some 1,600 men, women, and children.” According to his account, the members of the Gentile Polish population of Jedwabne, located in the poverty-stricken Bial/ystok province in northeastern Poland, either took part in the most bestial forms of torture and killing or cheered on the killers. With the exception of a single family, no one helped the victims. Although a handful of German gendarmes were present in the region, Gross states, Poles alone committed the crime, with the tacit approval of the Germans but without their participation. No wonder that when Gross published this devastating accusation in Polish and in Poland a year ago, an intense debate took place which, far from being over, seems to be gathering momentum. Fresh evidence and new polemical articles appear in Poland virtually every day.

Jan Gross, who is a professor of politics and European studies at New York University, was born in Poland. He participated in the democratic student movement of the 1960s, for which he was briefly imprisoned. Having witnessed government-inspired anti- Semitism, he left the country in the late 1960s. As an American scholar, he has published fine studies on the Soviet and the German occupation of World War II Poland. Several years ago, while in the Warsaw Jewish archives, he came across a deposition by Szmul Wasersztajn, dated April 1945, which described in detail the horrors inflicted in Jedwabne. Wasersztajn had himself escaped the massacre by hiding. His revelation led Gross to study the records of two court proceedings that took place in 1949 and 1953, respectively, in provincial courts of Communist Poland, against about two dozen Jedwabne defendants charged with carrying out the massacres. During the last few years, other eyewitness accounts by both Jewish and Gentile inhabitants of the town have been found. A memorial book about survivors in Israel was published in 1980 and the Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Arnold conducted interviews in 1998 with those willing to remember what happened in the town on July 10, 1941.

While all this means that the monstrous events at Jedwabne were not completely unknown in Poland after World War II, no one seems to have been interested in investigating them further. Nor had the public taken notice of them. Such lack of awareness might seem inconceivable; yet until recent stories were published, I wonder how many Americans had ever heard of what happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at the end of May 1921, when the city’s whites, incited by the press and by politicians, massacred several hundred innocent blacks. Although I am a professional historian, I heard of this atrocity only last year, forty-four years after I arrived in the US. The Tulsa massacre, moreover, took place when the United States was at peace, whereas Jedwabne occurred during a terrible war, under alternating cruel occupations, and in the midst of total administrative and political chaos.  According to Wasersztajn and others, the Jewish and non-Jewish inhabitants of Jedwabne lived in relative harmony until the late summer and fall of 1939, when, following the Hitler– Stalin pact of August 23, first the Germans and then the Soviet Red Army occupied the town. There can be no doubt about the horrors of Soviet occupation in the eastern half of Poland, which had immediately been incorporated into two of the Soviet Union’s western republics. In an excellent earlier study, Revolution from Abroad, Gross describes how the Communist authorities brutally deported 1.25 million people from Eastern Poland, mostly Poles, but also Jews and others, to Siberia; many of them died. The principal victims were from the Polish social, political, and military elite. Gross also writes that the Soviet NKVD executed about 100,000 people, nearly a tenth of the total male population. As he writes in Revolution from Abroad, “Very conservative estimates show that [between 1939 and 1941] the Soviets killed or drove to their deaths three or four times as many people as the Nazis from a population half the size of that under German jurisdiction.”

Farmers were hard hit by Soviet confiscations of land as well as by anti-Soviet partisan activity and the even more violent retribution by the Soviet army and police that followed. It is no wonder that, following the German attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, many people in the region—Poles, Ukrainians, and Belorussians—received the Germans as liberators. Similar events took place, one might add, in the Baltic countries and in Bessarabia (today’s independent Moldova), all of which the Soviets had occupied as a result of the Hitler–Stalin Pact.

As Gross explains in Neighbors, no sooner did the Germans arrive in eastern Poland at the end of June 1941 than rumors spread that the new masters of the land had given permission for Polish Gentiles to kill the Jews. By then, the German police had been shooting thousands of Jews in towns not far from Jedwabne. It seemed to many inhabitants of Jedwabne that the time had come to take revenge for what they perceived to have been Jewish-Communist oppression. Besides, there was now the prospect of acquiring Jewish riches. Much of Neighbors is devoted to a detailed discussion of how the pogrom started a day or two after the arrival of the German troops, and how it culminated in an orgy of killing on July 10. Even before then, peasants came from neighboring hamlets driving empty wagons in the hope of taking over some booty from Jews. On July 10, under orders of the self-appointed new mayor, Marian Karolak, the chief culprit in what followed, young men armed with clubs, knives, and axes burst into Jewish homes, beating, kicking, and driving all the Jews they could find to the town square. One man stabbed eighteen Jews; others cut off heads, gouged out eyes, and slashed open the stomachs of their victims. Others forced young Jews to carry and then to bury a large statue of Lenin before killing them. All this was observed, according to Wasersztajn, by laughing spectators. Finally, all the survivors were driven into a peasant’s barn and burned alive. The spectators bludgeoned to death those who tried to escape.

While speculating on the significance of these events, Gross dismisses the argument that the Communist regime in the region included many Jews, or that Communist oppression had a major part in arousing the fury of the villagers. He concludes that they acted both out of sheer greed and because of their age-old hatred for the “killers of Christ” and “the shedders of the blood of Christian children.” It seems hard, however, to square this assessment with the scene described above involving the statue of Lenin, or the extreme savagery of the killing. Gross adds that no priest in the region was willing to lift a finger on behalf of the Jews, even though in Catholic Poland local priests would have had sufficient prestige to have stopped the atrocities.

Gross does not claim that all Poles were similar to the inhabitants of Jedwabne, but he points out that spontaneous atrocities occurred elsewhere, that violent anti-Semitism flared up again after World War II, and that the single family that had harbored Jews in Jedwabne was subjected to such hatred and even physical attacks that, after the war, they decided to leave Poland and now live in Chicago. In a clear allusion to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s famous collective indictment of the German people, Gross uses the term “willing executioners” in reference to the Poles of Jedwabne.

This seems to me an unfortunate choice of words. Not surprisingly, “Hitler’s Willing Executioners.” The statement is untrue when applied to the Polish or even to the German people as a whole; in any case it contradicts Goldhagen’s controversial argument that the German people were a unique breed of killers. The reception of Gross’s book in Poland has been nothing short of astonishing: it seems to have evoked more favorable responses than negative ones. Here we must remind ourselves that, since the eighteenth century, Poles have tended to see themselves as a martyr nation, occupied, humiliated, and oppressed by aggressive imperial powers. Many times in modern history, whether under Russian or other foreign rule, it was a punishable offense for a Pole to refer to his own country as Poland. While imprisoned or executed at home, Polish patriots fought in many parts of the world “For Your Freedom and Ours,” as they liked to put it. During World War II in Europe only Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and Poland never surrendered to the Nazis, even though Poles were simultaneously persecuted by the Soviet Communists. More than a million non-Jewish Poles were killed in German prisons and camps; thousands upon thousands died fighting alongside the British, American, and Soviet armies. During the Warsaw uprising, between August and October 1944, nearly a quarter of a million people perished. At the end of the war, Poland became the subject of a deal in which the Western allies accepted both Soviet domination of Polish territory and the shift of the entire country’s borders from East to West at an immense cost in Polish, German, and Ukrainian lives.

Because of the hospitality extended by the old Polish kingdom, Poland historically harbored more Jews than all the other European countries combined. Although there was a tremendous rise of political anti-Semitism in independent Poland during the interwar years, Jewish political and cultural activity also flourished there. Against this background, Gross’s accusations have been devastating. The recent revelations of collaboration with the Nazis throughout Europe, and of Europe-wide participation in the Holocaust, seem to have made it more possible for many Polish intellectuals, young people, politicians, and clergymen to accept the notion that their countrymen had not been innocent either. Today the president as well as the government of Poland, and even the Catholic primate, Cardinal Glemp, are apologizing for crimes of which nearly all Poles had been unaware until the publication of Jan Gross’s writings. Moreover, not only these people but even most of Gross’s critics praise him for bringing into the open an appalling episode in Polish history.

There are, of course, those who denounce Jan Gross and his book. In their objections one can sometimes detect the old charge of a Jewish “worldwide conspiracy.” But these voices are not the loudest today. With some justification, other critics are asking for moreevidence and confirmation. Asking questions about a crucial historical event does not make one automatically an anti-Semite, yet this is how some of Gross’s Western supporters have chosen to view those raising questions about parts of his work. No book of history should be treated as Holy Writ, especially not a book which is based on a limited number of documents. If the published objections to Jan Gross’s account, one of the most prominent claims is that he pays too little attention in Neighbors to the horrors of the Soviet occupation. In truth, for a more forceful description of why this occupation drove some people to extremes of violence, one must turn to Gross’s own Revolution from Abroad as well as to other sources. When he discusses the most controversial of all questions in Jewish–Polish relations, namely that of Jewish participation in Soviet rule, Gross presents convincing evidence that Jews in Bial/ystok province were only marginally involved in Soviet oppressive measures, and that the Jews of Jedwabne were entirely innocent. However, Gross’s critics in Poland, especially the well-known historian of World War II Polish resistance movements Tomasz Strzembosz, argue that, in eastern Poland as a whole, a disproportionate number of Jews were involved in Communist police actions and police crimes. In Neighbors Gross says somewhat less than he says in his Revolution from Abroad about the joyful reception many of the Jews gave to the Soviet Red Army in September 1939, or about the large number of Jews in the Polish Communist movement. It was quite natural for many Jews to rejoice over the arrival of the Soviet Red Army in September 1939: if nothing else, it saved them from Nazi rule. It was also predictable, in those circumstances, that many Jews would work for the Soviet regime, some of them as militiamen or political policemen. Gross is correct, of course, in stating that the Soviets deported thousands of Jews to Siberia and that, in desperation, thousands of Jews applied for Soviet permission to move to the Nazi-held zone in Poland. But why deny that any Jews participated in Communist crimes? Jews, like everyone else, behave in a variety of ways. Some critics argue that Wasersztajn, who was in hiding, could not have seen all the horrors he claims to have witnessed. Others wonder about evidence from the trials in 1949 and 1953 which, according to Gross himself, were perfunctory affairs. (Marian Karolak, who should have been indicted for the major crime of ordering murder, was arrested by the Germans for theft during the war and disappeared.) The trial in 1949 lasted only two days, and in court the defendants complained of having been severely beaten by the police during their interrogation. The trial in 1953 involved a single defendant. Altogether, only one person was sentenced to death, but he was not executed, and within a few years all the accused were set free. Some historians, among them Tomasz Strzembosz, assert that Gross has misread some of the trial documents regarding the participation of Germans in the mass killing. He claims that there are more sources on Jedwabne in other Polish archives that Gross did not consult, and that Gross did no research in the German archives.

The main issue in contention is whether or not there were more than a handful of German soldiers, gendarmes, or Gestapo men on July 10 in Jedwabne. Gross says that there were fewer than a dozen of them and that all they did was take photographs of the massacre (photographs that haven’t been found). In response to the debate over Gross’s sources, the government-sponsored Institute of National Remembrance in Poland sent a historian to look into the relevant German archives; so far, he has found no conclusive evidence confirming or denying the presence of German soldiers in Jedwabne.

The question of German presence leads to another difficult issue, namely why the Jews did not defend themselves. As Gross writes, Jews made up two thirds of Jedwabne’s population. The Poles had no firearms. When some Polish writers raised this question, Jan Gross answered bitterly, arguing that the Jewish heads of families had to look after their wives and children. Yet is it not precisely in defense of their families that people tend to risk their lives? It is well known that, in extremis, some Polish Jews dared to confront even heavily armed SS soldiers; one can ask why the town’s Jewish blacksmiths, for instance, did not grab iron bars to fend off the attackers. They may have been hopelessly outnumbered, but the fact that they did not fight back may also suggest that there were more
than a handful of armed Germans present at that time. In brief, there is good reason for research and debate on the Jedwabne massacre to continue.

Gross is entirely right to point out that many Poles who bravely opposed the Nazis were anti-Semitic, and that many who did so even killed Jews. At least one of the Jedwabne murderers was later sent to Auschwitz. Conversely, the founder of Zegota, the one organization in Poland and in Europe as a whole that had as its sole purpose the saving of Jewish lives, was herself a zealous anti- Semite. She repeatedly expressed her wish that the Jews she was protecting would disappear from Poland after the war. None of this explains the horrifying behavior of the one hundred–odd Jedwabne farmers and artisans who did the killing; nor does it explain the abominable behavior of the onlookers. Gross himself finds no satisfactory explanation for what took place. What is clear is that many, many Eastern Europeans participated in German-initiated killings in those years. Even more Europeans rejoiced over what was happening to the Jews, or at least turned their backs on them. Pogroms similar to that in Jedwabne occurred elsewhere in Poland.

COMPLEMENT:

One Country Saved Its Jews. Were They Just Better People?
The surprising truth about Denmark in the Holocaust
Michael Ignatieff
The New Republic
December 15, 2013

This magnificent book states its central argument in its title. Danish Jews survived Hitler’s rule in World War II, when other European Jews did not, because Danes regarded their Jewish neighbors as countrymen. There was no “us” and “them;” there was just us.

When, in October 1943, the Gestapo came to round up the 7,500 Jews of Copenhagen, the Danish police did not help them to smash down the doors. The churches read letters of protest to their congregations. Neighbors helped families to flee to villages on the Baltic coast, where local people gave them shelter in churches, basements, and holiday houses and local fishermen loaded up their boats and landed them safely in neutral Sweden. Bo Lidegaard, the editor of the leading Danish newspaper Politiken, has retold this story using astonishingly vivid unpublished material from families who escaped, and the testimony of contemporary eyewitnesses, senior Danish leaders (including the king himself), and even the Germans who ordered the roundups. The result is an intensely human account of one episode in the persecution of European Jews that ended in survival.

The story may have ended well, but it is a complex tale. The central ambiguity is that the Germans warned the Jews and let most of them escape. Lidegaard claims this was because the Danes refused to help the Germans, but the causation might also have worked in the other direction. It was when the Danes realized that the Germans were letting some Jews go that they found the courage to help the rest of their Jewish community escape. Countrymen is a fascinating study in the ambiguity of virtue.

The Danes knew long before the war that their army could not resist a German invasion. Instead of overtly criticizing Hitler, the Social Democratic governments of the 1930s sought to inoculate their populations against the racist ideology next door. It was in those ominous years that the shared identity of all Danes as democratic citizens was drummed into the political culture, just in time to render most Danes deeply resistant to the Nazi claim that there existed a “Jewish problem” in Denmark. Lidegaard’s central insight is that human solidarity in crisis depended on the prior consolidation of a decent politics, on the creation of a shared political imagination. Some Danes did harbor anti-Semitic feelings, but even they understood the Jews to be members of a political community, and so any attack on them was an attack on the Danish nation as such.

The nation in question was imagined in civic terms rather than ethnic terms. What mattered was a shared commitment to democracy and law, not a common race or religion. We can see this in the fact that Danish citizens did not defend several hundred communists who were interned and deported by the Danish government for denouncing the Danish monarchy and supporting the Hitler-Stalin pact. The Danes did nothing to defend their own communists, but they did stand up for the Jews.

The Danish response to the Nazis illuminates a crucial fact about the Holocaust: the Germans did not always force the issue of extermination where they faced determined resistance from occupied populations. In Bulgaria, as Tzvetan Todorov has shown in his aptly titled book The Fragility of Goodness, the Jews were saved because the king of Bulgaria, the Orthodox Church, and a few key Bulgarian politicians refused to assist the German occupiers. Why did a similar civic sense of solidarity not take root in other countries? In Holland, why did 80 percent of Dutch Jews perish? And what about France: why did liberty, equality, and fraternity not apply to the citizens driven from their homes by French police and sent to deportation and death? These questions become harder to answer in the light of the Danish and Bulgarian counterexamples. One possible explanation is that the German occupation’s presence in Denmark was lighter than in either France or Holland. The Danes, like the Bulgarians, kept their king and maintained their own government throughout the occupation. Self-government gave them a capacity to defend Jews that was never possible in the occupied zones of France or Holland.

Both the Danish king and the Danish government decided that their best hope of maintaining Denmark’s sovereignty lay in cooperating but not collaborating with the German occupiers. This “cooperation” profited some Danes but shamed many others. The Danish population harbored ancestral hostility to the Germans, and the occupation reinforced these feelings. The Germans, for their part, put up with this frigid relationship: they needed Danish food, and Danish cooperation freed up German military resources for battle on the Eastern Front, and the Nazis wanted to be liked. They wanted their “cooperative” relationship with Denmark to serve as a model for a future European community under Hitler’s domination.

From very early on in this ambiguous relationship, the Danes, from the king on down, made it clear that harming the Jews would bring cooperation to an end and force the Germans to occupy the country altogether. The king famously told his prime minister, in private, that if the Germans forced the Danish Jews to wear a yellow star, then he would wear one too. Word of the royal position went public and even led to a myth that the king had actually ridden through the streets of Copenhagen on horseback wearing a yellow star on his uniform. The king never did wear a star. He didn’t have to wear one, because, thanks to his opposition, the Germans never imposed such a regulation in Denmark.

When, in late summer in 1943, the order came down from Eichmann to the local German authorities in Copenhagen that they had to rid the city of its Jews, these authorities faced a dilemma. They knew that the Danish politicians, police, and media—that Danish society as a whole—would resist and that, once the cooperation of the Danes had been lost, the Germans would have to run the country themselves. The Germans in Copenhagen were also beginning to have second thoughts about the war itself. By then the German armies had been defeated at Stalingrad. While the Gestapo in Poland and Eastern Europe faced the prospect of defeat by accelerating the infernal rhythm of extermination in the death camps, the Gestapo in Denmark began to look for a way out. The local Gauleiter, a conniving opportunist named Werner Best, did launch the roundup of the Jews, but only after letting the Jewish community find out in advance what was coming, giving them time to escape. He did get his hands on some people in an old-age home and dispatch them to Theresienstadt, but all but 1 percent of the Jewish community escaped his clutches. It is an astonishing number.

When Adolf Eichmann came to Copenhagen in 1943 to find out why so many Jews had escaped, he did not cashier the local Gestapo. Instead he backed down and called off the deportations of Danes who were half-Jewish or married to Jews. Lidegaard’s explanation for Eichmann’s volte face is simply that the institutions of Danish society all refused to go along. And without their cooperation, a Final Solution in Denmark became impossible. Totalitarianism, not to mention ethnic cleansing and ethnic extermination, always requires a great deal of collaboration.

When they got wind of German plans in September 1943, the Danish government resigned, and no politician agreed to serve in a collaborationist government with the Germans thereafter. After the roundups of Jews were announced, leading Danish politicians of different parties issued a joint statement declaring, “The Danish Jews are an integral part of the people, and therefore all the people are deeply affected by the measures taken, which are seen as a violation of the Danish sense of justice.” This is the political culture of “countrymen” with which Lidegaard explains the extraordinary determination—and success—of the Danes in protecting their Jewish population.

Such general support across Danish society seems to have empowered the Jews of Copenhagen. When the Gestapo came to search the Jewish community’s offices in September 1943, the community treasurer, Axel Hertz, did not hesitate to ask the intruders, “By what right do you come here?” The German in charge replied, quite candidly: “By the right of the stronger.” And Hertz retorted: “That is no good right.” Jews in Denmark behaved like rights-bearers, not like victims in search of compassion. And they were not wrong: their feeling of membership in the Danish polity had a basis in its political culture.

When the Germans arrived to begin the deportations, Jews had already been warned—in their synagogues—and they simply vanished into the countryside, heading for the coast to seek a crossing to neutral Sweden. There was little or no Jewish communal organization and no Danish underground to help them. What ensued was a chaotic family-by-family flight, made possible simply because ordinary members of Danish society feigned ignorance when Germans questioned them, while sheltering families in seaside villages, hotels, and country cottages. Danish police on the coast warned hiding families when the Gestapo came to call, and signaled all-clear so that boats bearing Danish Jews could slip away to Sweden. The fishermen who took the Danish Jews across the Baltic demanded huge sums for the crossing, but managed to get their frightened fellow citizens to safety. When the Gestapo did seize Jewish families hiding in the church of the small fishing village of Gilleleje, the people were so outraged that they banded together to assist others to flee. One villager even confronted the local Gestapo officer, shining a flashlight in his face and exclaiming: “The poor Jews!” When the German replied, “It is written in the Bible that this shall be their fate,” the villager unforgettably replied: “But it is not written that it has to happen in Gilleleje.”

Why did the Danes behave so differently from most other societies and populations in occupied Europe? For a start, they were the only nation where escape to a safe neutral country lay across a narrow strait of water. Moreover, they were not subject to exterminatory pressure themselves. They were not directly occupied, and their leadership structures from the monarch down to the local mayors were not ripped apart. The newspapers in Copenhagen were free enough to report the deportations and thus to assist any Jews still not in the know to flee. The relatively free circulation of information also made it impossible for non-Jewish Danes to claim, as so many Germans did, that “of this we had no knowledge.”

Most of all, Denmark was a small, homogeneous society, with a stable democracy, a monarchy that commanded respect, and a shared national hostility to the Germans. Denmark offers some confirmation of Rousseau’s observation that virtue is most easily fostered in small republics.

Lidegaard is an excellent guide to this story when he sticks close to Danish realities. When he ventures further and asks bigger questions, he goes astray. At the end of his book he asks: “Are human beings fundamentally good but weak? Or are we brutal by nature, checked and controlled only by civilization?” He wants the Danish story to answer such questions, but it cannot bear such weight. There simply are no general answers to the question of why humans behave as they do in times of extremity. What Lidegaard’s story really demonstrates is that history and context are all. Denmark was Denmark: that is all one can truthfully say.

Lidegaard makes the argument, in his conclusion, that had resistance been as strong elsewhere in Europe as it was in Denmark, the Nazis might never have been able to drive the Final Solution to its conclusion. He writes:

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 interests in pursuing this with disastrous consequences. But without a sounding board the strategy did not work. It could be countered by simple means—even by a country that was defenseless and occupied—by the persistent national rejection of the assumption that there was a “Jewish problem.”

This strikes me as only half-right. Anti-Semitism was indeed not “a primordial force” that the Nazis simply tapped into wherever they conquered. Jews met different fates in each country the Nazis occupied—or at least the rates of destruction and escape varied. But it does not follow that what the Danes did other peoples could have also done. The Germans faced resistance of varying degrees of ferocity in every country that they occupied in Europe. Where they possessed the military and police power to do so, they crushed that resistance with unbridled cruelty. Where, as in Denmark, they attempted a strategy of indirect rule, they had to live with the consequences: a populace that could not be terrorized into doing their bidding, and could therefore be counted on to react when fellow citizens were arrested and carried away.

One uncomfortable possibility that Lidegaard does not explore is that the Nazis sought a strategy of indirect rule precisely because they saw the Danes as fellow Aryans, potential allies in an Aryan Europe. This would explain why the Nazis were so comfortable in Copenhagen and so shaken by Danish resistance. The Poles they could dismiss as Untermenschen, and the French as ancient enemies; but to be resisted by supposed Aryans was perversely disarming. Why else would a ferocious bureaucrat such as Eichmann melt before Danish objections to the arrest of Jews married to Danes? One paradoxical possibility is that the Nazis bowed to Danish protests because their delusional racial anthropology led them to view the Danes as members of their own family. To their eternal credit, the Danes exploited this imagined family resemblance to defy an act of infamy.

Countrymen is a story about a little country that did the right thing for complicated reasons, and got away with it for equally complicated reasons. It is a story that reinforces an old truth: solidarity and decency depend on a dense tissue of connection among people, on long-formed habits of the heart, on resilient cultures of common citizenship, and on leaders who marshal these virtues by their example. In Denmark, this dense tissue bound human beings together and indirect rule made it impossible for the Germans to rip it apart. Elsewhere in Europe, by contrast, it was destroyed in stages, first by ghettoizing and isolating the Jewish people and then by insulating bystanders from the full horror of Nazi intentions. Once Jews had been stripped of citizenship, property, rights, and social existence—once they could appeal only to the common humanity of persecutors and bystanders alike—it was too late.

There is a sobering message in Lidegaard’s tale for the human rights era that came after these abominations. If a people come to rely for their protection on human rights alone, on the mutual recognition of common humanity, they are already in serious danger. The Danish story seems to tell us that it is not the universal human chain that binds peoples together in extremity, but more local and granular ties: the particular consciousness of time, place, and heritage that led a Danish villager to stand up to the Gestapo and say no, it will not happen here, not in our village. This extraordinary story of one small country has resonance beyond its Danish context. Countrymen should be read by anyone seeking to understand what precise set of shared social and political understandings can make possible, in times of terrible darkness, acts of civil courage and uncommon decency.

Michael Ignatieff teaches at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

4 Responses to Histoire de la Résistance: Les Armes de l’esprit (Weapons of the spirit: From Poland and Holland to Denmark and Bulgaria: the most important factor for the treatment of Jews was whether or not a country in Nazi-dominated Europe was able to maintain a certain degree of sovereignty)

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