Psychologist looks at Danish Conspiracy of Decency

Looking back on the horrors of World War II, many observers lament that so many Europeans stood idly by, doing nothing to help their Jewish neighbors.

Berkeley author Emmy Werner is quick to point out one heroic exception.

At mortal risk to themselves, the people of Denmark slyly and surreptitiously rescued nearly 8,000 Danish Jews from deportation to the death camps.

Werner's new book, "Conspiracy of Decency," chronicles the remarkable story a nation mobilized to defy the genocidal will of its Nazi occupiers.

A developmental psychologist and professor at U.C. Davis, Werner is a non-Jewish native of France. Though her primary work pertains to childhood trauma, her interest in the Danish Jews grew over time, starting with her half-Danish husband.

"My husband has relatives there," Werner says during a recent interview. "And my work with children at risk had been welcomed in the Scandinavia."

Because of U.C. Davis' joint programs with various Danish institutions, Werner had no trouble accessing Danish archives. "I was in Copenhagen for an extended time," she says. "I went back and forth a lot."

In her research, Werner discovered a broad-based Danish effort to thwart Germany's "final solution" in the tiny country.

The "conspiracy of decency" was a top-down affair, including everyone from ordinary citizens to Danish King Christian X to unlikely hero Georg Duckwitz, a Copenhagen-based German military attaché who flouted the orders of his Nazi commanders at every turn.

One of the first questions Werner sought to answer was: Why Denmark? What was it about these descendants of the Vikings that led to such heroism?

It turns out, unlike much of Europe, Denmark had been an independent nation for nearly 1,000 years, avoiding any of the bloody infighting seen elsewhere on the continent.

"There was a strong sense of identity there," says Werner. "It was a close-knit community that treasured its human rights. As far back as the Middle Ages, the parliament decreed that there would never be any ghettos in Denmark. A ghetto would be so very un-Danish."

Moreover, Denmark was in a uniquely advantageous position during the war vis-à-vis Germany.

"The Germans needed Denmark," notes Werner. "Supplies were drying up; they were overextended in Russia and North Africa. For Danish butter and ham and use of shipyards, Germany couldn't afford to roll in and destroy everybody."

Factor in that most German officers stationed in Denmark were grizzled, worldly-wise Navy men who had made of Denmark a second home, and the stage was set for a quiet insurrection.

It didn't start out that way.

Denmark and Germany were traditional allies, and in fact more Danes ultimately died fighting alongside Germans than fighting against them.

But because of Denmark's leverage, King Christian cut a deal with the Nazis: No Danish Jew had to wear the hateful yellow star, and synagogues were permitted to remain open much later than in the rest of Nazi-occupied Europe.

Werner hates to throw a wet blanket on a cherished myth, but contrary to popular belief, King Christian never wore a yellow Star of David as a sign of protest.

"It was invented by a British newspaper," she says. "The king had made a statement during occupation that he would support his Jewish countrymen. That was transformed into the anticipated act of wearing a star."

As the war progressed, the Nazis put the squeeze on Denmark, ordering local authorities to round up every Jew in the country.

In response, countless Danes hid Jews in their homes and barns. Hospitals admitted Jews under false diagnoses, usually inventing phony Danish-sounding surnames.

"They would give them a diagnosis like German measles," says Werner. "That's classic dry Danish humor."

Even riskier, Danes ferried hundreds of Jews across a narrow sound to neutral Sweden (about the distance from Berkeley to San Francisco).

But that wouldn't have been possible without the assistance of the German harbormasters and Georg Duckwitz, a soft-spoken shipping administrator.

"When Duckwitz learned of the imminent round-up, he informed leading Danish politicians," notes Werner. "Around Rosh Hashanah 1943, people had two days to inform as many Jews as possible to get them into hiding."

Knowing full well that Jews were escaping to Sweden, the German harbormasters, unwilling to go along with Hitler's genocide, "informed" Berlin that Nazi coast guard vessels were in dry dock for repairs.

In another instance, one harbormaster knew of a ship set to deport Danish Jews to Germany. He personally oversaw the sabotage of that ship, which never sailed anywhere with a single Jewish prisoner.

Most remarkably, no one ever gave away any of the conspirators. Today, Denmark is the only country to hold a place of honor at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, as a righteous nation.

Werner was happy to shed light on this under-celebrated tale of heroism. "It's good to know that people under these conditions can make a difference," she says. "It's like the great Jewish saying: if you save one life it's as if you have saved the whole world."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.