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EXCLUSIVE: ‘Countrymen’ author, Bo Lidegaard, Explores Jewish Survival in World War II Denmark

Lidegaard discusses his fascinating novel, one that is harrowing but ultimately tells of survival, one that has also ruffled some feathers in Denmark.

By: Anthony Marcusa
Published: November 15th, 2013 in Culture » Books » Interviews
Bo LidegaardPic: Les Kaner

The political circumstances and national attitude in Denmark in the Spring of 1943 were unique and selfish – and allowed for the survival of thousands of Jews.

So argues and explores Danish journalist and historian Bo Lidegaard in his new book, Countrymen, released now in Canada and the U.S. by Random House. The historic examination, which has stirred some controversy in Denmark, delves into firsthand accounts of Danes living amid uncertainty during World War II. While unaware of the extremism of the horrors going on in Germany, Danes sought to protect the Jews in the country, and Lidegaard uses primary sources to understand sentiments as they were happening, instead of in reflection.

“I’ve always been very eager to try to understand the actual situation of the individual living as an ordinary citizen in a society, feeling a part of it, being protected by it, and fulfilling the contract that exists between a citizen and her society,” explained Lidegaard while in Toronto promoting the release. “There is a dramatic situation when you realize that despite your keeping that contract, society doesn’t, and you are then not protected and are becoming an outcast. So how do you react to that? What does it take to realize that all your basic instincts - behaving, obeying laws - don’t help you?”

“I try to get close to that moment to find out, when do you actually start to be a criminal, not because you choose to, but because you are forced?”

That moment is unearthed in Countrymen, as Lidegaard presents a variety of individual stories from documents that were only recently unearthed. We follow those seeking refuge and those that were helping, as Jews were protected and smuggled out of the country. Of the 8200 Danish Jews at the time, over 7700 were aided out of Denmark to find safety in neighbouring Sweden.


In April of 1940, as the Germans moved northward with the hopes of instilling the smaller democratic states as protectorates, an option not granted to eastern European counties, Denmark agreed to be controlled by the Third Reich, but hold on to their democratic institutions and beliefs. Thus, the Danish government remained in office and ruled, with democratic elections holding up, and the constitution still in effect.

“The Prime Minster was an old hand, a very experienced Prime Minister,” said Lidegaard. “In internal discussions, he expressed that it was to gain time and avoid full disaster.”

This situation benefitted Danes, boosted by efforts prior to the war to create a sense of national identity. “The origin of it was the realization by Danish politicians that if the war was coming, and if Germany attacked Denmark, there was no military defense that we could raise, so the only survival would be if we were able to maintain the core of our democracy,” continued Lidegaard. “The real threat was the ideas that Nazism and communism represented, and as it took root in Germany, it might also take root in Denmark. So if that happened, we may have lost.”

It was these specific and decided measures – and not just luck or coincidence - that created an environment to allow for Danish Jews to survive. It was the sense that anyone who was Danish, regardless of their religion, should be protected, and so citizens helped fellow citizens.

This fascinating story, one that is harrowing but ultimately tells of survival, has riled some in Denmark, as Lidegaard does not hesitate to examine acts of selfishness.

“This whole attitude of the Danish society was not heroic in any way. It was trying to protect Danish citizens; it deliberately and explicitly closed its eyes on what was going on in Germany,” said Lidegaard, adding, “the Danish government in the lead up to the war actively tried to suppress the Danish press in pointing out the atrocities going on in Germany, so as not to provoke them.”

What’s more, Denmark became very restrictive when it came to refugee policy, turning back Jews seeking safe haven.

“It was not a policy aimed at to save Jews, and not a policy aimed at stopping Nazis,” said Lidegaard. “It was a policy aimed to rescue the Danish society.”

Lidegaard argues a point that compelled him all along, that the circumstances in Denmark that allowed for the survival and safety of Jews were done by an act of society, not an individual. The situation and proceedings at the time are relevant in discussions about society that are going on today in Europe and North America.

“When does society extend its solidarity to its citizens, and who are those to which it does extend it? Who belongs to society, and how long does it take?” Lidegaard ponders these pertinent questions and maintains context while allowing the voices of those who lived through the tumultuous times to be heard.

Related articles: Bo Lidegaard, Jewish, Holocaust, Nazi, World War II, Germany, History, Denmark, Countrymen
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