Early on the morning of April 9, 1940, the Danish people were awakened by a squadron of low-flying bombers dropping leaflets stating that Germany was occupying Denmark in order to protect it from an Allied invasion. They warned that any resistance would be crushed by military force. Simultaneously, German war ships were docking at various points in Copenhagen harbor and the disembarking soldiers were marching on Danish military headquarters and on the Royal Palace of Amalienborg.

Denmark is  small, flat and rural with no mountains or forests in which to hide. Possessing only minimal defenses, the government and King Christian X saw no choice, and capitulated to the occupying forces within a matter of hours. The brief struggle cost the lives of thirteen Danes.

Hitler needed Denmark as a route to Norway Hitlerand as a source of food and supplies for his armies. In exchange for a policy of cooperation, he allowed Denmark to keep its constitution, its King, and even its small army and navy. The Danish government, realizing its precarious position, adopted a policy of conciliation and negotiation, urging its citizens not to make trouble.

Danish NazisFewer than 1% of the adult population joined the Nazis as members of the Danish National Socialist Party. A slightly larger amount became active resisters. The average citizen had conflicting emotions about the Occupation. Some felt ashamed that they hadn’t fought back as the Norwegians had, others felt helpless under such a powerful oppressor; but the vast majority chose to adopt as attitude of passive resistance.

Young Danes who had studied at German universities knew first hand the realities that lay behind Nazi propaganda, and those who chose to actively resist the Nazis felt it a moral obligation to do so.

The burgeoning cells of resistance were often headed by individuals who had given serious thought as to what ideals they were willing to die for. Among these ideals was a belief in individual responsibility, a passion for democracy, and a strong sense of shame that others would fight and die for their freedom. As Frode Jakobsen says in the film: “You can perhaps delegate your political opinion, but you cannot delegate your conscience.”

For those who wished to join active resistance groups, it was not easy to know whom to trust, where to find weapons and how to plan sabotage. Gradually, the Danish resistance became an organized force with contacts in Stockholm and with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), who actively supported sabotage and dropped men into Denmark on a regular basis. Although the resistance was small, their acts of sabotage told the world of Denmark’s opposition to German occupation.fire

By August of 1943, the inability of the Occupying Forces to put an end to sabotage in Denmark so infuriated Hitler, that he summoned Dr. Werner Best, the Reich's Plenipotentiary in Denmark, to Germany to explain his inability to control the Danes. Best returned to Denmark with orders for the Wermacht General, Hermann von Hanneken, to declare a state of emergency, impose military rule and place King Christian under house arrest. Germany also demanded that the Danish government execute its own saboteurs. The government refused and resigned, and the Danish Navy scuttled its fleet in Copenhagen harbor. The Danish Jews were now without protection.

On September 8, Best cabled the Foreign Office in Berlin that the time was now ripe to arrest the Jews. He also asked for added S.S. police because he know that the Danes would never allow the Jews to be deported without protest.

Werner Best is one of the most puzzling figures in the story of the Danish Resistance. He was a loyal member of the Nazi regime with close friendships with Reinhard Heydrich and Heinrich Himmler, and he had organized the deportation of Jews from France. His cable to the Foreign Office planted the seeds for the deportation of the Jews. Yet three weeks later, Best leaked the word that the deportation was scheduled for October 1st to George Duckwitz, a German shipping attache known to be sympathetic to the Danes. Duckwitz in turn passed on the information about the deportation to Danish government officials.

The first days in October 1943 marked a turning point in the Danish psyche. The threatened deportation of the Jews prompted thousands of Danes who belonged to no network of resistance to rise as individuals in protection of their fellow citizens. Between September 29th and October 1st, 7,200 Jews were hidden in hospitals and disappeared into the attics and haylofts of their neighbors, with the eventual goal of smuggling them across the Øresund into neutral Sweden.

Ordinary citizens joined together with the underground to find hiding places, raise money, and persuade local fisherman to smuggle the human cargo across the Øresund. The rescue became a virtual flotilla of small boats crossing back and forth for a matter of weeks. boatThe Danish police, who had until then been strict enforcers of law and order, became key allies in the rescue because they knew the schedules of the German patrols. There was even help from German soldiers. Although it was the Gestapo that had made house arrests, it was the German Army that controlled the harbors and coastal routes. Resisters and refuges alike cite case after case in which the German Army had to have known what was going on and yet chose to look the other way. By the end of the war, over 13,000 people had been rescued,  including the Jews, Danish resisters and saboteurs, British and American paratroopers, refugees from Eastern Europe, and even deserting German soldiers.

The “October Rescue” was not entirely successful. The Gestapo sweep of Jewish homes yielded under 500 arrests. Some refugees were refused passage to Sweden and were left stranded on unprotected beaches. Some were informed on. A group of 80 Jews took refuge in the attic of a church in the coastal town of Gilleleje where they were compromised and arrested. The inmates of a Jewish old people’s home in Copenhagen were beaten and arrested, and the Gestapo defiled the Great Synagogue. Hitler and Himmler were enraged by the small number of Jews that were captured. The Gestapo and the military became much more aggressive in their pursuit of the underground.

There were arrests, torture, deportation to concentration camps, and executions. In 1944, the entire Danish police force was placed under arrest and 2,000 of them were sent to Buchenwald. Sabotage increased, however, and armaments factories and Nazi headquarters were successfully bombed with minimal loss of life. Red Cross packages

After the Danish Jews were deported to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, Danish citizens, civil servants, and members of the Red Cross mounted a campaign to send food and clothing to Theresienstadt as well as to the other camps where the police and political prisoners were held. Those who were imprisoned state that they would have died had it not been for the food parcels and the vitamin pills which were secretly sewn into the hems and linings of clothing. Many of them cite the enormous psychological value of knowing that they were not forgotten.

Home front support of the prisoners is also credited with the creation of the “White Buses.” Folke Bernadotte of the Swedish Red Cross negotiated with Himmler to bring thousands of concentration camp prisoners to the safety of neutral Sweden during the last months of the war. In April of 1945, a convoy of White Buses drove through the bombing of Dresden and Berlin to bring the Danish Jews home from Theresienstadt. white bus

Anger over the persecution of the Jews had mobilized the Danes and turned them into a cohesive force. Sabotage and illegal newspapers rose sharply. The intelligence services of the Resistance were so well organized that Field Marshall Montgomery at British military headquarters received daily reports on German troop activity in Danish waters and in the Baltic. At the war's end he described the Danish Resistance as "second to none." But the real and moral victory lay in the help that the Danish people spontaneously offered to save their countrymen who were in danger.

Unlike any other Occupied country, Denmark’s Jewish population returned to find their homes and possessions had been kept safe for them.