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Denmark’s Costly Revolt

ISSUE:  Winter 1944

Denmark’s spirited but short-lived revolt against Nazi domination, in late August, was both sublime and tragically futile. It was one of the bravest and most inspiring deeds of which men are capable: an act of desperation and honor, performed on the spur of the moment against manifest odds, without regard for the consequences.

Unfortunately, it came at the wrong moment. A few months hence, the sacrificial uprising of the handful of Danish soldiers and sailors might have been an inestimable contribution to the cause of the United Nations. At the time it occurred, the revolt was premature, unorganized, and has in fact redounded to the enemy’s advantage. Once again, the Germans have been able to strike first, and have won the round.

Why did the Danes do it? Why couldn’t they, who had patiently waited and suffered for nearly three and a half years, hold their fire just a little while longer and come into the fight with at least a sporting chance of success?

There is no simple and ready-made answer to this question. Apparently, many diverse factors and circumstances combined in the event, causing the popular temper to boil over. Fighting broke out spontaneously, without any kind of prearranged plan, without central direction, flaring up here and there in hopeless local engagements with the powerful German war machine. It was the exact opposite of the well-organized, methodical as well as elusive, guerrilla warfare which has been perfected into such a formidable weapon by the Partisans of Russia and Yugoslavia.

While many circumstances contributed to precipitate the uprising, the determining factor, I believe, must be sought in the field of psychology. The gallant Danish soldiers who, in widely scattered parts of the country, spontaneously arose and, armed with nothing better than rifles, hand grenades, and a few machine guns, for hours stood off German armored cars and tanks, acted under the urge of a troubled conscience.

They had labored for years under a strong inferiority complex. They were ashamed and profoundly unhappy because on April 9, 1940, they had not been permitted to fight the invaders. At the most tragic moment in their country’s history, the Danish soldiers and sailors had been refused a chance to show the world that they were as good as the Norwegians, that they, too, knew how to die for their country and for freedom. This sentiment deepened and rankled when, in the following months and years, every other nation attacked by the Nazis—the Dutch, the Belgians, the Yugoslavs, the Greeks, the Russians—rose in arms and fought bravely to the limit of their power.

It is true that some light and sporadic fighting occurred, and a few casualties resulted, on that fateful April morning when the Nazi panzers rolled over the undefended Danish-German border and sea-borne Nazi troops swarmed ashore in Copenhagen and other Danish ports. But those valiant few who fought and fell on that day did so on their own initiative and actually against orders. For, only a few hours after the start of the invasion, orders went out from Copenhagen to cease all resistance. The weak political leaders, who deliberately and systematically had neglected Denmark’s defenses under the motto “Hvad kan det nytte?” (“What’s the use of it?”), threw in the sponge at the first shots fired. The army and navy obeyed orders, but they could never forget it. Shame rankling in their hearts, they longed for an opportunity to set the record right.

The frustrated Danish soldiers did not feel any better when they saw their country placed by the conquerors in a class by itself, with special privileges for good behavior. Instead of subjecting Denmark to the harsh rule of a Gauleiter, as they did in Poland, Norway, and elsewhere, the Nazis treated Denmark “humanely,” in a deliberate attempt to make further converts to the doctrine of non-resistance. Denmark was to be Hitler’s first—and last—experiment in moderation and kindness. It was to be the model protectorate, a showpiece for the neutrals, and an example for other nations on the invasion list.

In the first year of occupation, the Germans limited their intervention in Danish affairs almost wholly to military matters. There was surprisingly little interference with the country’s laws and institutions. The King, the democratic government, the freely elected Rigsdag (parliament), the courts continued to function virtually unchanged and unmolested. Aside from the military control, the two main consequences of the invasion for the Danes were a strict press censorship and a ruthless exploitation of the country’s great agricultural wealth for the sole benefit of Germany.

The great experiment, however, did not work. For one thing, the other “invariable” nations did not feel that slavery and spoliation applied without the use of shells and bombs was worth the cost; in honor, self-respect, and international prestige. For another thing, the Danes themselves eventually realized that they had made an extremely poor bargain and that their submission to Nazi control might seriously jeopardize their future position. This feeling grew stronger and stronger as the years went by and it became increasingly clear that Germany was headed not for world domination but for inevitable defeat.

As a result, Danish resistance gradually spread and stiffened, although for a long time it was mostly of a passive nature. It found expression in the “cold shoulder” attitude, the go-slow technique, the sit-down strike, and in all sorts of feints and mockery. A Swedish newspaper recently characterized the Danish attitude with this clever comparison: “The Norwegian says No to the invader, and doesn’t do it. The Dane says Yes, and doesn’t do it either.” Toward the middle of 1942, the Danes’ resistance took on a more active and vigorous note. Throughout the country mysterious fires broke out, unaccountable explosions occurred, trains derailed and boats sank for no apparent reason, and hungry German soldiers on the eastern front found grit in their canned preserves from Denmark. Sporadic at first, these incidents in the course of the summer became so numerous that the Germans began to speak of a sabotage wave. They were probably not far wrong in their guess that there was a connection between the outbreak of organized sabotage and the arrival in Britain of John Christmas Moller, the able leader of the Conservative party, who made a dramatic escape to Sweden in May, 1942.

In Berlin, the situation was considered so serious that it called for a drastic change of methods. First the military commander in Denmark, General Kaupisch, and then the German Minister Cecil von Renthe-Fink were recalled and replaced by “men of action.” These were, respectively, General Hermann von Hanneken, who arrived in Copenhagen in October, 1942, and Dr. Werner Best, who followed him in November.

Dr. Best, a high-ranking officer in Heinrich Himmler’s SS or Elite Guard, had a fearful record as a Nazi terrorist and the Danes commented on his arrival with uneasy jokes about the “bestial” future. To everybody’s surprise, however, Best turned out to be just about the gentlest Nazi official Denmark had seen in three years of occupation. He was soft-spoken and well-mannered (as Nazis go), and he repeatedly exercised a moderating influence on General von Hanneken, saving the lives of several condemned saboteurs.

Had the redoubtable Best been miraculously converted by the grace of God? Before long, the Danes found out the truth: Best was one of those highly placed Nazi officials who couldn’t help knowing that the war was lost. He had access to information that made it advisable for him to look around for a convenient exit from the condemned “Fortress.” His mind from then on was set on only one purpose: to save his own skin by procuring an alibi and perhaps a post-war asylum in Denmark through gentle treatment of the inhabitants.

Meanwhile, the sabotage continued without let-up, aided, according to the Germans, by specially trained Danish and British parachutists dropped from RAF planes, along with arms and provisions; their number has been put at more than 200. Day after day, week after week, month after month, factories working for the Germans were dynamited, warehouses went up in flames, German barracks and administration buildings were set afire, and more trains were derailed. There was,’ in the words of Christmas Moller, “growing resistance, with quite exceptionally successful acts of sabotage.”

As the acts of sabotage multiplied and grew ever more devastating, the clashes between Hanneken and Best also became more frequent and violent, the general wanting to go the way of ruthless repression to show the Danes that Germany still was master, the minister holding back for his own selfish reasons.

In the last week of August, 1943, matters reached such a pitch, with mass demonstrations and street fighting in Copenhagen, Aarhus, Odense, and other cities, that Dr. Best was recalled to Berlin for instructions. He was given a few more days to master the situation or hand it over to General von Hanneken.

On his return to Copenhagen on August 28, Best presented the government of Premier Erik Scavenius with an eight-point ultimatum demanding among other things that the government should declare martial law throughout the country and that saboteurs should be executed. After a stormy session, the Danish Cabinet refused to comply and King Christian X let it be known that the era of concessions to Germany was past.

Thereupon, General von Hanneken at 4:10 A. M. on August 29 proclaimed martial law and “dismissed” the Danish government. A strict dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed on the country, strikes and sabotage were made liable to the death penalty, all gatherings of more than five persons were forbidden.

That was the spark that fired the accumulated resentment, shame, and frustration of the Danish soldiers, sailors, and marines, a skeleton force of perhaps 5,000 to 6,000 men all told. In Copenhagen, Svendborg, Korsor, Naestved, Odense, and other places, pitched battles took place between the German and Danish forces. Some of the heaviest fighting occurred around the beautiful Rosenborg Castle in the center of Copenhagen, where three Nazi tanks and eleven armored cars were destroyed, and at the royal summer residence of “Sorgenfri” where Captain Sigurd Snerd-ing with a handful of soldiers attempted to prevent the Germans from arresting the King. Captain Snerding, who lost his life in the ensuing battle, has become Denmark’s new national hero. Exactly how many Danish officers and men were killed in the uprising is not known, but the total must be fairly high since Danish casualties at Svendborg alone were figured at 450 dead or wounded. Of navy personnel 200 were reported lost in the scuttling of 45 ships and in attempts to fight the Germans off from the naval bases and harbor districts.

After the revolt had been bloodily crushed by the German army of occupation, von Hanneken, Best, and the local Gestapo chief, Kannstein, lost no time in taking full advantage of this opportunity to decapitate the Danish movement of resistance. They now no longer felt restrained by legal considerations or by any regard for Danish feelings and traditions. The velvet glove was cast aside and the mailed fist came into its own.

Within a few hours after the proclamation of martial law, hundreds of prominent editors, writers, lawyers, professors, and labor leaders were arrested. In fact, the roster of personalities rounded up in the two weeks from August 29 to September 12 reads like a Who’s Who of Denmark’s intellectual elite. According to information received by Danish circles in this country, the list includes at least fifty members of parliament, among them the well-known Conservatives Ole Bjorn Kraft, Haakon Stangerup, Axel Moller, and the former Minister, Johannes Fibiger; and ten Social-Democrats, headed by the party leader, Alsing Andersen.

Among the prominent authors arrested are Peter Freu-chen, Carl Erik Soya, Kaj Woel, Viggo F. Moller, Kjeld Abell, Kaj Munk, and Arne Sorensen; among the actors, Poul Reumert, Henrik Bentzon, Per Knudsen, Samuel Beskow, Else Skouboe, and Tove Bang. Of university professors, there are on the list: the famous historian, Vilhelm La Cour; the geographer, Niels Nielsen, the philosopher (and former Minister), Jorgen Jorgensen, the physician, Erik Warburg, the Socialist leader, Hartvig Frisch, and many others. Among the leading journalists arrested are the editors-in-chief of Politiken, Niels Hasager, and of Na-tionaltidende, Gunnar Nielsen; Denmark’s best-known foreign affairs commentator, Nikolaj Blaedel, was also taken,

Many of those who were taken into custody have since been released, but the large majority have been interned at the Horserod concentration camp or are still in prison. The total number of persons arrested—exclusive of army and navy personnel, all of whom were interned—exceeds 1,200.

Perhaps the most serious consequence of the abortive uprising was that it afforded the Nazis a long-sought opportunity to lay their hands on the Danish Jews. Although there were only some 5,700 of them (plus an estimated 2,000 refugees from other countries), and although they had never taken a conspicuous part in politics, the Danish Jews were saddled by the Nazis with full responsibility for the outbreaks.

On September 28, the notorious Nazi police general, Kurt Daluege, who became “Protector” of Bohemia-Moravia after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, arrived in Copenhagen to assume command of the 3,000 Gestapo men now stationed there. Daluege’s first action in Denmark was to decree the immediate deportation to Poland of all Jews, whether Danish citizens or not.

The order to arrest the Jews was carried out in the first days of October. But only some 1,600 Jews fell into the Gestapo’s dragnet. Thanks to the spirit of solidarity shown by the entire Danish population and to the secret assistance given them in many instances by Danish police, an exceptionally high number of Jews managed to escape across the narrow Oeresund into Sweden. By October 14, a total of 6,500 Danish refugees had arrived in Sweden, in spite of the Germans’ strict surveillance of all coastal areas; of this total, however, only about 3,500 are Jews, the rest being Danes who for political reasons found it advisable to leave their homeland. Among those who escaped are the famous physicist, Professor Niels Bohr, winner of a 1922 Nobel prize, and Denmark’s greatest living author, Martin Andersen Nexo.

The state of martial law was lifted on October 6, but conditions have by no means returned to normal. The ban on strikes and public meetings is still in force and acts of sabotage are still punishable by death. The curfew in Copenhagen was first lifted, then reimposed; in other cities, too, curfew restrictions continue in force.

As a result of these events, Denmark now is in the same boat as Norway, Holland, Belgium, and all other occupied countries. The former privileges are gone and there is little probability that they will ever be restored. The revolt has been costly to Denmark in lives, in property seized or destroyed, and in the loss of her constitutional rights. But Denmark’s honor and self-respect have been restored and she has gained enormously in international prestige. She now may look with confidence to the future. In this sense the August revolt has not been futile.

While the German military position in Denmark has been strengthened through the elimination of the most active elements of resistance, the Nazis now have a new and embarrassing problem on their hands. Military rule without any co-operation from the civilian administration is bound to remain sterile and unsatisfactory. Already General von Hanneken is casting about anxiously for a Danish politician willing and able to form some sort of a puppet government. But Denmark’s lone 100% Quisling, the Nazi party leader, Dr. Frits Clausen, is no longer available. He “volunteered” for service at the Russian front after the Germans discovered that he had embezzled a large sum of money entrusted to him for political purposes.

Even if the Danish crisis in the next few weeks should be “solved” through the formation of a puppet government, there is not likely to be even a pretense of constitutional procedure. For King Christian thus far has steadfastly refused to accept the new status for his country created by General von Hanneken. The King considers himself a prisoner of war who can neither accept the resignation of the ousted Scavenius government nor appoint a new one. His position now is very much like that of King Leopold of Belgium: he has neither abdicated nor been deposed, but he is virtually a prisoner in his castle.

Under the circumstances, there is hardly any other course left to the Germans than to go the whole way and convert Denmark into a protectorate on the Czech model or into some sort of gauleitership.


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