Bo Lidegaard is the editor in chief of the leading Danish newspaper Politiken and the author of several books on modern history. He served as a diplomat in the Danish Foreign Service before joining the Office of the Danish Prime Minister as Ambassador and Permanent Undersecretary of State tasked with responsibilities corresponding to those of National Security Advisor. He later led the team preparing the 2009 United Nations conference on climate change in Copenhagen. He is one of the most respected and widely read Danish historians, and his work has focused on U.S.-Danish relations in the twentieth century, as well as on the modern Danish welfare state. He lives in Copenhagen.
The following exchange will focus on his critically acclaimed book Countrymen (Knof, 2013), which tells the story of how the Jews of Denmark escaped the Nazis during World War 2. (Parts 1 and 2 of this exchange can be found here and here.)
Dear Dr. Lidegaard,
First of all, thank you for your detailed (and interesting) second round answer. My last question will be a shorter one –
As we have seen in the previous rounds, your book certainly provides us with some great examples of people who remained faithful to humanistic ideals in some very difficult times. But besides these examples of individual courage and decency, what do you think current day leaders and thinkers could take away from this book at the macro-level, as far as democracy, society, and education are concerned? The events described are obviously the product of some very extreme and very particular historical circumstances; but what are, in your opinion, the main lessons the modern democratic state could learn from WW2 Denmark?
Thank you again for the book and for this exchange.
In my view, the role of society is the main lesson to take away from the outstanding response of the Danish people to the Nazi attempt to deport the Danish Jews. Fundamentally, society is about sharing a set of values and being willing to stand up for them, also in cases when you may not be personally affected. This commitment to each other in times of crisis reveals the strength of a social contract including all citizens in society. The amazing thing was that individuals reacted because they felt that by going after the Jews, the Nazis were undermining the very foundation of Danish society which was built on the rule of law. Individuals simply realized that this was something they ought not to let pass, and they felt obliged to react, even at the risk of getting into trouble.
In the sequence of events that made the rescue possible, three aspects have particular relevance for us today:
First, the deliberate efforts of leading politicians to go up against the small stereotypes of “the other” and insist that in democratic society no one should be singled out, let alone framed, based on religion, ethnicity or race.
Second, negotiating with those who do not recognize basic democratic values entails a degree of complicity. This becomes acute in dealing with the evil that is more powerful than us. There is no easy way out of this moral dilemma: Was it right for Danish politicians and officials to fraternize and cooperate with the Nazi representatives of the occupying forces? In principle, no. But undeniably, this cooperation was instrumental in protecting Danish society and in saving the Danish Jews.
Finally, the Danish exception shows that the outright rejection by Danish society at large of the very rationale underlying the Nazi assaults on the Jews, made the Nazi leadership hesitate. It took local support to pursue the crime. Without such support, the persecution became untenable. Thus, the attitude of ordinary Danes mattered. Today too, we are all parts of societies that will – or will not – accept the marginalization of minorities.
“Countrymen” seeks to set out the perspective of those who lived through these events. Their history will not repeat itself. But we owe it to them to study their history and to learn from it as we engage in present day society.