Why Did Denmark Jews Survive While Dutch Jews Died in the Holocaust?

Roundup: Talking About History

Simon Kuper, in the London Financial Times Weekend Magazine (1-22-05):

[Two responses to the Nazis.]

... Tens of thousands of Danes - politicians, pastors, fishermen, ambulance drivers - helped smuggle 7,300 of the country's 7,800 Jews into Sweden. Many more helped by not betraying the operation. Only 116 Danish Jews, or 1.5 per cent of the total, died in the Holocaust.

The other extreme in western Europe was the Netherlands. More than 100,000 Dutch Jews - three-quarters of the total - were massacred. This was nearly twice the proportion killed in Belgium, where Jews had far more chance of finding hiding places, and three times as high as in France. Only in Poland were proportionately more Jews murdered. The Dutch had a reputation for wartime heroism, even - until recently - among themselves. But they owe it chiefly to the hiding of Anne Frank....

In the spring of 1940, Denmark and the Netherlands looked alike: two small democracies, with negligible armies, both overrun almost instantly by the German army. Neither had much history of anti- Semitism. Both were quiet places: it had been decades since people in either country had shot at humans. Both nations initially sought to keep the peace under the Nazis. Hitler praised Denmark as a "model protectorate". In both countries, most gentiles experienced a relatively placid war. Yet, on the Jewish question, the Danes and Dutch took opposing positions from the start of their occupations.

The Danish historian Therkel Straede writes that the German occupation of Denmark "passed off more mildly than in any other country". Germany had recognised it as a "sovereign state". Until 1943 the Danes ran their own domestic affairs, even holding elections. Every day, King Christian X rode his horse through Copenhagen, greeting his subjects as he went, living proof that the Danish establishment continued. Furthermore, the Danes were more homogeneous than the Dutch. You could see it in their paucity of surnames: Hansen, Petersen, Jensen and a few others covered most of the population. The German immigrants who had arrived the previous century, and the few Jews, had integrated to the point of invisibility. Nor did Denmark have great regional divides.

The crucial shared heritage, though, was that almost everyone belonged to the Danish Lutheran church. Not only were there just 7,800 Jews in Denmark, there were hardly any Catholics either, nor many non-Lutheran Protestants. In 1940, although the percentage of churchgoers was perhaps the lowest in Europe, most Danes still used the church for baptisms, weddings and funerals. Pastors remained moral authorities, each year inspecting their local schools....

In the autumn of 1940, the pipe-smoking theologian Hal Koch gave a series of lectures on Grundtvig to packed halls around Denmark. Koch's audiences understood that he was not simply talking about theology. He emphasised "the need for the entire nation to combine politicisation, individual and collective responsibility, knowledge of all facts, and negotiations with the Nazi, as long as that was possible". Danes must act as a group, Koch said. A year later, he moderated a public debate on the "Jewish question", itself an astonishing fact, in which he called on Danes to reject any suggestion of discrimination. Other churchmen took a similar line.

Though the Danes collaborated with Hitler on most matters, they always refused to take any measures against Jews. The myth that King Christian X wore a Jewish star to show his solidarity is false, because the star was never imposed in Denmark....

In August 1943, after a wave of Danish strikes and acts of sabotage, the Germans declared martial law. In September, Germany's Reich plenipotentiary, Werner Best, decided to deport the Danish Jews. His plans were leaked to Danish politicians. It is now believed that Best himself instigated the leak, probably because he thought that deportation would make his rule in Denmark untenable. On the morning of September 29, the day before the Jewish New Year, Denmark's chief rabbi, Marcus Melchior, alerted his congregation: "You must leave immediately, warn all your friends and relatives and go into hiding."

On the night of October 1, when German special police units (the Danish police refused to help) knocked on Jewish doors, they found almost nobody home....

The Danes protected the Jews because they considered them part of the homogeneous Danish collective. Bent Melchior, son of the wartime chief rabbi, told me: "This was the result of a development of over 200 years. We had become part of forming this society." Or as Uffe Ostergard, director of Denmark's Holocaust and Genocide Studies Centre, says: "The Jews were rescued not because they were Jews but because they were not seen as Jews."

Denmark had a haven just across the sea, and the Netherlands didn't. However, the Dutch as a group - as opposed to a few thousand isolated individuals and cells - never even tried to protect the Jews. In the Netherlands, some companies sacked their Jews without waiting for the Germans to tell them to. AVRO, a leading radio broadcaster, did so on May 21 1940, six days after the capitulation. Anti-Semitism lacks explanatory force here: before 1940, there had been no discernible Dutch impetus for measures against Jews....

The Dutch for decades propagated a false myth of having saved the Jews. The Danes, who really did save their Jews, rarely talk about it. In part, this is precisely because the Holocaust didn't hit Denmark. Here there was no rupture. This struck me in Bent Melchior's comfortable bourgeois living room. On his walls were photographs of children and grandchildren, Jewish art, and a copy of a letter of support from Christian X to his father. There is no trauma to relive as in the Netherlands.

In the 1990s, when Danish historians finally turned to the rescue of the Jews, they debunked the heroism. For instance, they emphasise the large sums charged by fishermen to ferry Jews, even though most of the rescuers demanded nothing, and others contributed their own money. The historians note that Danes who helped Jews weren't sentenced to death, as happened in the Netherlands, but the rescuers didn't know that in advance. Every Dane I spoke to about the rescue added some caveat apparently intended to diminish it.

I asked Straede, the historian, why this was. He said: "There is a consensus to feel unease about it, because whenever you are confronted with it, it is always because some American Jews bring it forward to you with ridiculous ideas of heroism, a simplified view of history that the good guys are fighting the bad guys, and so on. We know that our motives are more tainted."

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Nicolaj Kristensen - 1/31/2006

"Another aspect of the different German attitude to Denmark was that the Germans kind of looked up to Scandinavians for being "more Aryan" than themselves, while they thought of the Dutch as morons who spoke some stupid "German dialect" "

I have no proof, but as far as I have read and heard elsewhere, the Germans considered both the Dutch and the Danes for semi-Aryan.

"By the way, in Holland the Jews mainly showed up on German orders, they actually thought they would be treated fairly and most of them did not attempt to escape or go into hiding at all. They brought with them suitcases, money food and all."

Then again ... your first statement might be true ;)

Arno Jansen - 1/7/2006

Having lived in Denmark and in Holland for decades, and being intimate with both country's languages and history, I must say that a lot of the reasons' or other explanations which are given in the article for the different treatment of the Jews don't hold up for scrutiny.

It has no thing to do with Holland's less homogeneous society, religion, anti-semitism or whatever.

The article fails to address the fundamental difference of the attitude the Germans had towards both countries.

The invasion of Denmark was in reality a "friendly take over" where only a few symbolic shots were fired.
The Danish army kept its weapons. The Danish cooperation with the Germans was exemplary.

Denmark was in fact a German ally, and resistance only emerged slowly, and was demonized by the Danish government which was kept intact.

The royal family stayed in Denmark and moved about freely, with its own soldiers as bodyguards.

The Danish King even sent Hitler a birthday card.

The Danish government urged people to inform on resistance fighters. Denmark was widely known as Hitler’s canary.

Holland actually made a serious effort to fight back, although hopeless, it was not merely symbolic.

The Dutch flooded large parts of their country to keep the Germans out, but had to give up after five days of (serious) fighting after Rotterdam was bombed and the Germans threatened with more of the same.

The Royal Family fled, and a London based government was formed.

The Dutch army was disarmed and the soldiers were detained as prisoners of war.

The Dutch resistance actually blew up the Amsterdam communal register, where the Germans could learn who was a Jew or a communist.

The Danish police on the other hand helped the Germans without hesitation to arrest communists.

No large scale massacres or revenge killings ever took place in Denmark, whereas the Germans killed all the men in one village (Putten) and lined up and shot random civilians in the streets of Amsterdam and other cities as revenge for resistance activities.
Even captured Danish resistance fighters were treated well, and remained in Denmark for most of the war guarded by Danish police!

In Denmark the Germans didn't bother about the Jews at all, probably also having to do with the German commander Werner Best not being very interested in the Jewish problem. The Jews were finally "rescued" but only with help from the Germans who tipped off the Danes on what was to happen.

Nothing would have been easier than checking a few fishing boats in the small and easily monitored Öresund, but the Germans just didn't, because they didn't give a shit.

In Denmark the Danish government sent people to Germany to work if they weren’t unemployed, but they were not forced to.

In Holland every able man of a certain age was forced to join the "Arbeits Einzats" by the Germans, and had to go into hiding if they didn't want to.
The German went on house to hous search parties to round them up.

Another aspect of the different German attitude to Denmark was that the Germans kind of looked up to Scandinavians for being "more Aryan" than themselves, while they thought of the Dutch as morons who spoke some stupid "German dialect" (actually untrue; Dutch is older and closer to the original Germanic language from which both languages developed than German.)

In Holland people suffered from shortages big way, finally resulting in famine, the victims actually look exactly as the skeletons which met the liberators of the concentration

Thousands died of famine for almost the same reasons people died in concentration camps, even though they were not fenced in. The reason being that the Germans plundered the country, even confiscating bicycles. In Denmark there were no food shortages, no bikes were touched everybody had plenty to eat and life went pretty much on as normal.

By the way, in Holland the Jews mainly showed up on German orders, they actually thought they would be treated fairly and most of them did not attempt to escape or go into hiding at all. They brought with them suitcases, money food and all.

About the Dutch "Nazi Party" The NSB:

Little it is known, that the NSB before the war started had many Jewish supporters, many of them rich Jews who had fled Germany.

This (financial support) lead to the party gaining more and more power, until the Dutch government (the other parties being envious) decided that parties no longer could accept funds from non Dutch citizens (the German Jews).

After that the party went into decline because of lack of funds. Well I just mentioned it because hardly anybody seems to know, and also this fact does not play very well for those who'd like an easy distinction between the "bad guys" and the "good guys".

Well I know the above is not structured and are hap hazard comments.

On the other hand I could go on and find lots of other examples and explanations which support my argument:

The Dutch Jews "not being rescued" and the Danish Jews "being rescued" has not so much to do with the attitude or bravery of the population in Denmark or lack of the same in Holland, but was caused by the attitude of the occupying German forces in each country.

Where it finally does have something to do with the atitude of the population, we are left with one country cooperating very nice with the Germans, and one country showing more resistance.

It is clear that the first mentioned would have had easier to make deals with the Germans or negotiate favors or policies, and the Germans not wanting to provoke the good relationship.

Let me end saying that although the Jews have been burrying the Danes with (more or less deserved) praise for decades (last year PN Anders Fogh Rasmussen even received yet another prize for saving the Jews) the Jews were bold enough (or ungrateful?) to demand that 'Denmark' take 'responsibility' for the death of a few (ca. 20) Jews who were not allowed to flee to Denmark before the war (2005) and supposedly died in camps.

It's pretty sick though, in my opinion, that the 'blame game' is still going strong or even stronger after all these years.


nederland 1940-1945 - 8/10/2005


When Simon Kuper wrote that proportionately many more Jews survived in Denmark than in the Netherlands during the last war, he was right ("Delivered from Evil", FT Magazine, January 22). The differences are striking. As the German occupiers of Denmark prepared to round them up and deport them, the Jews were first hidden and then ferried over the Sound to Sweden in a fleet of small boats. Almost all of Denmark's 7,500 Jews thereby escaped the Holocaust. By contrast, in the Netherlands - despite the safe, assimilated lives, with relatively little anti-Semitism, that Dutch Jews had led before the war - nearly 75 per cent were transported and killed.

Of the 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands at the start of the occupation, 102,000 were murdered, a larger proportion than in any other west European parliamentary democracy.
But Denmark is exceptional. Until the early autumn of 1943, no measures were taken against the Jews there. That was due to the nature of the Danish occupation regime until the late summer of 1943. In April 1940, the Danish government capitulated to the invading German forces almost without a fight. Germany sent merely a plenipotentiary diplomatic envoy (Reichsbevollmachtigte) who reported to its foreign ministry. The King of Denmark and his government could remain in office. There was occasional friction, but the country was spared anti-Jewish measures. That is until the late summer of 1943, when pent-up tensions erupted and the Germans decided to take complete control. The plan to round up Denmark's Jews was part of that development.

At that stage of the war, there was a strong upsurge in anti-German sentiment in western Europe and a willingness to actively resist the occupation. Furthermore, Sweden, which had at first been unwilling to take in Jewish refugees from other parts of Scandinavia, had changed its mind in late 1942. The relatively small Jewish population in Denmark, numbering only thousands, made it possible to carry out a concentrated evacuation to Sweden, whose proximity was another stroke of luck. Two other important factors were that the leaders of Denmark (and through them the country's Jews) had been informed about Germany's plans, and that the German navy did not respond with a great deal of force when all the boats bearing the refugees crossed the Sound.

In the Netherlands, the sheer size of the Jewish population made a comparable operation - evacuation of the entire group - unthinkable. The occupiers began working towards the extermination of the Jews actively and early on. Dutch society did little to fight back, though it is interesting to note an incident, unique in Europe, that took place in February 1941. This was Amsterdam's well-known February Strike, a more or less spontaneous outbreak of mass protests by non-Jews in response to overt violence against Jews. But, paradoxically, instead of leading to effective protection of the Jews, it played an indirect role in delaying the development of a resistance movement. The Germans sent 400 Jews that they had rounded up to the Mauthausen camp in Austria and cracked down on the demonstration forcefully. Word soon followed of the death of the Jews sent to the camp.

The analysis of the great, early success of the perpetrators in the Netherlands has revealed a number of factors. First, in the early years, both the Dutch authorities and the population at large were co-operative and compliant with the occupying power. This applied even to the Jews, precisely because they were so well integrated. Second, the presence of a perfect register of the population was a great boon for the occupiers. The combination of those factors, along with the enthusiasm of the perpetrators, resulted in a well- oiled deportation machine.

In short, before anti-Semitic measures even began in Denmark, the Netherlands was practically judenrein (free of Jews), as one German official wrote. If they were not dead, or in the Westerbork transit camp, or in a camp in Germany or Poland, they had fled or gone into hiding. In these attempts to flee, or to hide, Dutch individuals and organisations aided Jews in many ways. According to recent estimates, there were approximately 28,000 Jews in hiding, more than 16,000 of whom survived. In the spring of 1943, willingness to take part in the resistance grew in the Netherlands, as it did elsewhere, but by then it was too late for the country's Jews. In other words, the contrasting fates of the Jews in Denmark and the Netherlands do not, as Kuper unconvincingly argues, reflect general differences in mentality or social cohesion.

Hans Blom is the director of the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation and a professor of Dutch history at the University of Amsterdam.

bai ren - 3/1/2005

The Danes saved their fellow Jewish citizens, but they more than made up for that saving of life by callously allowing refugees from Germany to die.


As the war drew to its close, between 200 and 250 thousand German refugees fled to Denmark from the advancing Red Army.

Six months after the war ended, Dr. Kirsten Lylloff became curious as to the great number of children's
graves in a cemetery at Aalborg where she used to live and practice.

The refugees, mostly women and children, were at first housed in schools and local halls until later in 1945 around 142 camps were set up for them.

Danish civilians were forbidden to have any contact whatsoever with the refugees. Dr. Lylloff discovered that by the end of 1945, 13,492 refugees had died in the camps. This included around 7,000 children under the age of five.

Most had died from malnutrition, dehydration and curable illnesses such as scarlet fever. Medical assistance was consistently denied the refugees by the Danish medical authorities and the Red Cross."