Journée européenne des Justes : Le souvenir du Bien est essentiel (How the hooker got her heart of gold)

The Harlot of Jericho and the Two Spies (James Tissot, 1902)L’Éternel, du haut des cieux, regarde les fils de l’homme, pour voir s’il y a quelqu’un qui soit intelligent, qui cherche Dieu.Tous sont égarés, tous sont pervertis; il n’en est aucun qui fasse le bien, pas même un seul. Psaumes 14: 2-3
Josué, fils de Nun, fit partir secrètement de Sittim deux espions, en leur disant: Allez, examinez le pays, et en particulier Jéricho. Ils partirent, et ils arrivèrent dans la maison d’une prostituée, qui se nommait Rahab, et ils y couchèrent. … La femme prit les deux hommes, et les cacha … Josué laissa la vie à Rahab la prostituée, à la maison de son père, et à tous ceux qui lui appartenaient; elle a habité au milieu d’Israël jusqu’à ce jour, parce qu’elle avait caché les messagers que Josué avait envoyés pour explorer Jéricho. Josué 2: 1-4 – 6: 25
Aux eunuques qui garderont mes sabbats, qui choisiront ce qui m’est agréable, et qui persévéreront dans mon alliance, je donnerai dans ma maison et dans mes murs une place et un nom préférables à des fils et à des filles; je leur donnerai un nom éternel, qui ne périra pas. Esaïe 56: 4-5
Il dit encore cette parabole, en vue de certaines personnes se persuadant qu’elles étaient justes, et ne faisant aucun cas des autres: Deux hommes montèrent au temple pour prier; l’un était pharisien, et l’autre publicain.Le pharisien, debout, priait ainsi en lui-même: O Dieu, je te rends grâces de ce que je ne suis pas comme le reste des hommes, qui sont ravisseurs, injustes, adultères, ou même comme ce publicain. je jeûne deux fois la semaine, je donne la dîme de tous mes revenus.Le publicain, se tenant à distance, n’osait même pas lever les yeux au ciel; mais il se frappait la poitrine, en disant: O Dieu, sois apaisé envers moi, qui suis un pécheur.Je vous le dis, celui-ci descendit dans sa maison justifié, plutôt que l’autre. Car quiconque s’élève sera abaissé, et celui qui s’abaisse sera élevé. Luc 18: 9-14
La vertu même devient vice, étant mal appliquée, et le vice est parfois ennobli par l’action. Shakespeare
The difference between virtue and vice is far less radical than we would like to believe. Sometimes the most effective kind of goodness–I mean the practical kind, the kind that can actually save lives and not merely alleviate the conscience of the protagonists–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. Hence a strange and frustrating contradiction: that absolute goodness is often surprisingly ineffective, while compromised, splintered and ambiguous goodness, one that is touched and stained by evil, is the only kind that may set limits to mass murder. And while absolute evil is indeed defined by its consistent one-dimensionality, this more mundane sort of wickedness, the most prevalent sort, contains within itself also seeds of goodness that may be stimulated and encouraged by the example of the few dwellers of these nether regions who may have come to recognize their own moral potential. Omer Bartov
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
Un des grands problèmes de la Russie – et plus encore de la Chine – est que, contrairement aux camps de concentration hitlériens, les leurs n’ont jamais été libérés et qu’il n’y a eu aucun tribunal de Nuremberg pour juger les crimes commis. Thérèse Delpech
Pour le nouveau président de la Commission, ce n’était pas nécessaire de s’être comporté comme un héros pour obtenir l’honneur. Le grand nombre des cas signalés à Yad Vashem èroved qu’il y avait eu une réelle implication de nombreuses personnes, gens du commun, dans la tentative d’arracher les Juifs à l’extermination. Faire connaitre leurs histoires signifiait réfuter le mythe selon lequel l’opposition contre le nazisme était un acte impossible, que ce n’était pas une possibilité concrète d’aider les persécutés sans courir de risques extrêmes. Plusieurs fois, une petite intervention avait suffi pour empêcher une grande tragédie. C’est pourquoi il est important de valoriser publiquement chaque geste d’opposition qui a été fait en faveur des Juifs dans l’Europe occupée par les Nazis. (…) Mais comment juger qui a sauvé un juif et tué un autre homme après la guerre ? Ou la femme qui a caché les persécutés, alors qu’elle se prostituait avec les fonctionnaires nazis ? Ou ceux qui ont sauvé des dizaines de Juifs en Pologne sans nullement abandonner leurs opinions antisémites ? Ou également ceux qui ont aidé en échange d’argent ? Wikipedia
Le Parlement européen … rappelant l’importance morale que revêt le Jardin des Justes du mémorial de Yad Vashem à Jérusalem, fondé par le regretté Moshe Beisky afin de rendre hommage aux personnes qui avaient apporté leur aide à des Juifs pendant la Shoah; à la mémoire de toutes les institutions qui ont rendu hommage aux personnes ayant sauvé des vies lors de tous les génocides ou massacres (comme en Arménie, en Bosnie, au Cambodge et au Rwanda) et crimes contre l’humanité, perpétrés au cours des 20e et 21e siècles; à la mémoire tous ceux qui ont préservé la dignité humaine sous le nazisme et le totalitarisme communiste; considérant que le souvenir du Bien est essentiel au processus d’intégration européenne, car il apprend aux jeunes générations que chacun peut toujours, quoi qu’il arrive, prendre le parti d’aider autrui et de défendre la dignité humaine, et leur rappelle qu’il est du devoir des pouvoirs publics de valoriser le comportement exemplaire de tous ceux qui ont su protéger leurs semblables lorsqu’ils étaient poursuivis par pure haine; soutient l’appel lancé par d’éminents citoyens en faveur de l’institution, le 6 mars de chaque année, d’une Journée européenne à la mémoire des Justes pour rendre hommage à ceux qui se sont opposés, à titre individuel, au totalitarisme et aux crimes contre l’humanité … Déclaration du Parlement européen (du 10 mai 2012 sur le soutien à l’instauration d’une Journée européenne à la mémoire des Justes)
C’est un grand succès, car c’est la première fois qu’une proposition de ce genre qui englobe les génocides d’une manière universelle est approuvée, sans aucune limitation d’ordre idéologique. Nous avons eu à vaincre les résistances de ceux qui gardent une vision indulgente du passé de l’Union Soviétique et qui refusent de comparer le Goulag à la Shoah, ou qui craignent la banalisation de la Shoah au milieu des autres génocides du vingtième siècle ou qui veulent maintenir un profil bas sur le génocide arménien pour ne pas heurter les Turcs. … En honorant tous ceux qui se sont opposés au totalitarisme, on défend une valeur fondamentale de la civilisation européenne: la responsabilité individuelle. Dans une époque marquée par la désorientation spirituelle, cette référence est essentielle. Gabriele Nissim

Journée européenne des quoi ?

A l’heure où près d’un quart de siècle après sa chute dans sa patrie d’origine, l’on attend toujours le Nuremberg du communisme tant soviétique que chinois …

Et où l’on en voit encore les résultats du côté de l’Ukraine ou de la Chine et de la Corée du nord

Qui sait que le 6 mars est censé être la Journée européenne des Justes ?

Qui se souvient …

De cette initiative de députés principalement italiens et polonais ou tchèques il y a deux ans pour étendre le titre de Justes du génocide juif …

A l’ensemble de ceux qui ont sauvé des vies face aux totalitarisme soviétique et aux génocides arménien, cambodgien et rwandais ?

Ou de Moshe Bejski, ce rescapé des camps de la mort et membre de la fameuse liste de Schindler qui à la tête de la Commission des Justes de Yad Vashem réhabilita tant de justes européens dont Oscar Schindler lui-même qui l’avait sauvé …

Ou à l’instar de la tradition biblique qui avait reconnu Rahab la première prostituée au grand coeur (et ancêtre non-juive de Jésus) …

De tous ces criminels, prostituées, antisémites ou individus véreux qui n’avaient pas hésiter à faire le geste qui sauve …

Mais qui rappelle aussi …

En ces temps où l’on se garagarise si facilement de belles paroles et de droits de l’homme …

La fondamentale et troublante ambiguité de la vertu qui n’est pas pas toujours, sur le plan pratique qui compte et sauve des vies, du côté où l’on croit …

Comme l’a confirmé l’histoire compliquée des pays qui à l’instar de la France collabo ou même du Danemark aryen, sauvèrent le plus de juifs ?

L’Europe institue une Journée des Justes du Monde pour le 6 Mars

Il Corriere della Sera

10 mai 2012

La Journée Européenne des Justes du Monde sera célébrée chaque année le 6 Mars. 382 Députés Européens soit la majorité absolue requise ont approuvé cette commémoration en honneur de tous ceux qui ont sauvé des vies ou qui ont défendu la dignité humaine face aux totalitarismes et aux génocides du vingtième siècle, tels la Shoah, le Goulag soviétique, le génocide arménien et les tragiques massacres au Cambodge et au Rwanda.

Cette initiative digne de louanges fut mise en œuvre par l’Association Milanaise « Gariwo, le Jardin des Justes du Monde » dirigée par Gabriele Nissim. Le sigle Gariwo signifie « Gardens of the Righteous Worldwide ». Elle reçut immédiatement le soutien de cinq députés européens dont trois italiens, Gabriele Albertini (Pdl) David Maria Sassoli (Pd) et Nicolo Rinaldi (Idv) ainsi que de la polonaise Lena Kolarska-Bobinska et du roumain Ioan Mircea Pascu.

La Journée choisie pour honorer les Justes du monde entier est le 6 Mars qui est la date anniversaire du décès de Moshe Bejski, le Juge israélien qui fut pendant vingt ans Président de la Commission des Justes de Yad Vashem. Yad Vashem est le centre monumental dédié au souvenir de la Shoah et à ceux qui ont sauvé des victimes juives des persécutions nazies. La proposition fut présentée au parlement européen en Janvier et fut soutenue initialement par les cinq députés mentionnés, puis graduellement d’autres députés, initialement italiens et polonais l’ont soutenue et signée, jusqu’à ce que le nombre de signatures dépasse la majorité requise.

Gabriele Nissim ne cache pas sa satisfaction : « C’est un grand succès, car c’est la première fois qu’une proposition de ce genre qui englobe les génocides d’une manière universelle est approuvée, sans aucune limitation d’ordre idéologique. Nous avons eu à vaincre les résistances de ceux qui gardent une vision indulgente du passé de l’Union Soviétique et qui refusent de comparer le Goulag à la Shoah, ou qui craignent la banalisation de la Shoah au milieu des autres génocides du vingtième siècle ou qui veulent maintenir un profil bas sur le génocide arménien pour ne pas heurter les Turcs ». Nissim ajoute: « A la fin, nous avons réussi car nous avons aussi obtenu le soutien de nombreuses personnalités importantes, comme par exemple la veuve du Président tchèque Vaclav Havel, disparu récemment.

Le Président de Gariwo qui a publié récemment un essai philosophique sur le thème des Justes « La Bonté Insensée » chez Mondadori, souligne que cette célébration doit porter un message positif. Il ajoute « En honorant tous ceux qui se sont opposés au totalitarisme, on défend une valeur fondamentale de la civilisation européenne: la responsabilité individuelle. Dans une époque marquée par la désorientation spirituelle, cette référence est essentielle. Le fait que cette initiative réussie soit italienne est aussi une belle victoire pour notre pays ».

Moshe Bejski est né en 1921 à Dzialoszyce en Pologne. Il survécut la guerre grace à Oskar Schindler et à sa liste. Il émigra en Palestine en 1946 et reçut son doctorat de droit à la Sorbonne en 1950 sur les sources des droits de l’homme dans la Bible. De 1979 à 1991, il fut Juge à la Cour Suprême d’Israel. De 1979 à 1991, il fut Juge à la Cour Suprême d’Israel. Il fut Président de la Commission des Justes à Yad Vashem de 1975 à 1995 et Directeur de l’Institut des Etudes sur l’Holocauste Massuah. Son épouse Erica Bejski, née Eifermann, est née à Czernowitz en Bucovine et survécut les persécutions grâce à la protection du Maire de Czernowitz Trajan Popovici.

Source : Il Corriere della Sera, 10 mai 2012.

Voir aussi:

Bejski as the President of the Righteous Commission

Wikipedia

Moshe Bejski’s role in the activity of the Righteous Commission has been crucial. While Moshe Landau thought of a panel that would deal with a small number of significant cases, Bejski reversed this stance, with the will to award the title to all who expressed the intention to rescue a persecuted Jew, who hadn’t succeeded in saving him, or who had done without running the risk of their lives. For the new President of the Commission, it wasn’t necessary to have behaved like heroes to obtain the honor. The great number of cases reported to Yad Vashem èroved that there had been a real involvement of many people, common people, in the attempt to wrench the Jews from extermination. Making their stories known meant debunking the myth according to which the opposition against Nazism was an impossible deed, that there wasn’t any concrete possibility to help the persecuted without running extreme risks. Many times, a little intervention would suffice to prevent from a big tragedy. This is why it is important to value and publicly feature every opposition gesture that was made in favour of the Jews in Nazi occupied Europe. To obtain this result, Bejski didn’t spare himself: he dedicated the best years of his life to it, giving up much of his private life, remaining at work until late to run the meetings of the Commission after the intense days at the Constitutional Court. His activity, which was entirely volunteer, was able to involve and transmit enthusiasm to the other members, by broadening their competences, creating the subcommissions to be able and deal with more cases, by supporting the internal debate without ever giving up investigating up to the last useful element for a correct and loyal evaluation.

The dilemma he found himself confronted with have been enormous: how to judge who has saved a Jew, but killed another man after the war? Or the woman who hid the persecuted while she prostituted with the Nazi officials? Or those who saved dizaines of Jews in Poland without by any means giving up their anti-Semitic opinions? Or also those who helped by receiving money back? Not only that. The idea of the individual responsibility, of the moral debt of the survivor, of thankfulness towards their saviours brought Bejski to get involved personally with his rescuer, Oskar Schindler. After finding him again at the beginning of the 1960s and wrenching him out of bankruptcy and imprisonment in Germany, he invited him to Israel and he valiantly committed to honoring his action, clashing with Landau until the apotheosis of Spielberg’s film, which made him famous all over the world. Besides Schindler, Bejski committed himself to helping other Righteous people who lived in precarious state in the Eastern European Countries or who needed medical assistance, and he fought hard to obtain the Israeli state’s commitment to help them.

Voir encore:

NOT ON HUMAN RIGHTS ALONE (In a fasciniating study in the ambiguity of virtue, Denmark’s story 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)

 

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.

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