Sunday 31 August 2003

60th Anniversary of Operation Safari

Amidst the roar and tumult of World War II, a little-known incident occurred on August 29th, 1943. An incident that deserves to be far better known than it is. An incident that even military historians are unlikely to have noted. An incident that was a harbinger for one of the most dramatic humanitarian stories of recent history, and one that should cause us all to reflect on our own personal responsibility to act as "decent human beings" in our own times.

It was "Operation Safari" - the scuttling of the Royal Danish Navy. Doesn't sound like much, does it? But it made the front page of the New York Times, and for good reasons.

A quick recap of history: At 3:30 am April 9, 1940, the Nazis invaded Denmark. There was almost no resistance - unlike in Norway, the Danish government ordered the armed forces to surrender without a fight. Most of the Danish defences had been constructed facing West, against England, and the army had been stripped down to a mere 14,000 soldiers. Only 9 Danes died before receiving the word to give up. At 4:30 am a note was handed to the Danish government by the Third Reich, and the capitulation was signed at 6:00 am, only a few hours after the invasion started.

The Danish Government was allowed by the Nazis to keep most of its independence. There was almost no difference between life before the invasion, and life afterwards. The German soldiers stationed in Denmark acted more like friends and allies than an occupying power. In particular, the rabid anti-semetism that accompanied the Third Reich's dominion was not enforced. Up until mid 1943, it was possible for Danish winemerchants who happened to be Jews to make regular business trips to Palestine, and import wine clearly labelled in Hebrew. This caused some curiousity on the part of the Wehrmacht soldiers who often stopped in to buy a couple of bottles of their favourite plonk, but no animosity.

In January 1943, at a student festival near Gjørslev, the Danish students invited the audience to participate in singing two national anthems of particular significance. The first was, of course, the Danish National Anthem. The many Germans present expected the second to be "Deutschland, Deutschland Über Alles", but was instead "Hatikvah", the Zionist anthem.

The situation was quite different in Norway.
Thanks to Norway's long frontier with Sweden, about 800 of Norway's 1700 Jews were able to escape. Of the remaining 900, only 12 escaped death at the hands of the Germans.
From documents introduced at the Eichmann Trial, T580-T589

So what happened? As Germany began to lose the war, the cosy trade relationship turned into a leaching of Denmark's wealth, in particular food. In August 1943, strikes took place. On August 28th, the Germans issued an Ultimatum... only this time, it was flatly refused. On the morning of August 29th, 1943, the Germans declared a military state of emergency "in accordance with articles 42-56 of the Hague Conventions".

The King declared himself a prisoner-of-war. The Danish government resigned. The Danish armed forces repelled German efforts to seize the Danish Navy, causing and receiving many casualties in the process. The Danish navy, unable to escape, scuttled itself in "Operation Safari". It was the beginning of active Danish non-co-operation with the Nazis.

Using as a pretext the state of Emergency, the Nazi top brass finally put into operation their plans for the extermination of Danish jewry. They'd been deterred from implementing these plans by a succession of local Commissars, some SS who were rabid antii-semites, some profesional Diplomats, who had uniformly reported that to implement the "Final Solution" in Denmark would mean a popular revolt.

The plans were carefully laid: two ships, with capacity for all 8,000 Danish Jews were ready to sail. SS, Gestapo and Wehrmacht forces were all set to go.

But these carefully laid plans were totally ruined by just one man: the German head of shipping operations, one Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz. Days before, on his own initiative, he had journeyed to Sweden to try to get the Swedish Government to offer asylum to Denmark's jews - with no luck. The Swedish telegram of offer to Germany was ignored. 24 hours before the massive raid was to begin, as soon as he found out the exact timetable, he walked into a meeting of the Danish Social Democratic Party, and announced:
"The Disaster is here. Everything is planned in detail. In a few hours, ships will anchor in the port of Copenhagen. Those of your poor Jewish countrymen who get caught will be forcibly be brought on board the ships and be transported to an unknown fate."

As the result of this warning, word-of-mouth spread rapidly. Only a very few Jews, those who couldn't believe what was about to happen, or those too ill or too old to relocate, were caught in the net. Instead of 8,000 Jews, the SS caught... about a hundred. All the rest had been spirited away, hidden in ordinary Dane's houses, barns, attics, in hospitals and in warehouses, in Nurses quarters and in schools. Over coming months, a total of just over 450 Jews were caught before they were able to escape to Sweden. And due to unstinting efforts by the Danish Government, sending food parcels with return receipts that had to be signed by the addressee, only some 52 Danish Jews perished in the Camps.

98.5% of Danish Jews survived.

Because one man, at great personal risk, acted like an ordinary human being.

Because an entire nation, at great personal risk, acted like ordinary human beings.

The Nation of Belgium didn't. The Nation of Holland didn't. The Nation of France didn't. The Nations of Poland, of Hungary, of Rumania, of Bulgaria, of Italy, of Czechoslovakia, of the Ukraine, of Byelorus, of Latvia, of Lithuania, of Norway, and of Estonia didn't.

But the nation of Denmark did. Let us never forget this, and never forget Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz. May we all, if ever called upon to act like decent human beings, regardless of the risk, find the courage to follow his example.

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