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In Search of Humanity in Action

What does it mean to act in defense of human rights and humanitarian ideals? How are we to know when and how to take action? In order to answer these questions, we can look to the experiences and words of Jørgen Kieler, a saboteur in the Danish resistance during the German occupation. Once, he was apprehended by a Danish police officer. Normally, he was to be handed over to the German authorities, who would most likely sentence him to death, or deport him to a concentration camp. But this officer engaged Jørgen Kieler in an argument about the ethics of sabotage and resistance. The debate culminated with Jørgen Kieler's impassioned words: "If you turn me over to the Germans, then you will be personally responsible for my death." The policeman let him go. 

For Jørgen Kieler, the options were clear: either stand with the Germans, or against them, and the strength of his moral vision was enough to convince the officer who apprehended him. The situation was easy for him to interpret, and he saw no way to disown responsibility. Jørgen Kieler took decisive, radical action out of his strong moral convictions, and can be regarded as humanity in action exemplified.

But his actions have not gone unchallenged, especially from others who faced the same situations and decisions as he did. Others acted differently, in ways that often opposed Jørgen Kieler's interpretation of his ethical and moral responsibilities. This problem is the driving force of this essay, which will investigate the meaning of 'humanity in action'. We will focus our discussion around the history of the Danish occupation during World War II, which has provided a central theme for our program. Yet we emerge with no single picture of how human rights could have been defended in that context, and indeed face several competing portrayals of  'humanity in action'. For example, the policy followed by the Danish government in many ways placed it in opposition to Jørgen Kieler's actions. We hope to explore the choices people and institutions made in these circumstances, and draw lessons for our own activism as individuals engaged in the task of determining how we can best defend human rights.

First, a disclaimer. Our purpose in writing this essay is not to pass judgment in an easy and morally unproblematic way. The complexity of the circumstances defies such easy answers. But the choices we make as engaged students interested in human rights, interested in 'humanity in action,' echo the choices made by people such as Jørgen Kieler, and institutions such as the Danish government. We hope to use our discussion of history to explore the problems and contradictions inherent in taking action in defense of ideals and principles.

Jørgen Kieler was a university student when occupation began in April of 1940. In younger years, he had traveled extensively, including a prolonged stay in Germany, where he witnessed the developments that led to the rise of the National Socialist Party. He disdained Hitler's overly simplistic arguments and the shallowness of his rhetoric, but he saw the power the dictator exerted over his audiences, and how enthusiastically they responded. He grasped the significance of Hitler's rise to power, and when Germany occupied Denmark, knew that he could not stand by without taking decisive action. "When you see your old wife being beaten on the street, you must do something about it," he stated, emphasizing that passive nonaction was a complicity of its own. The positions were clear, either stand against the Nazis, or stand with them, and he refused to remain on the sidelines.

Nonetheless, Jørgen Kieler had to make choices regarding his course of action: "At the beginning of the German occupation people were confused and in despair. We all thought that the Germans were going to win the war and we were asking ourselves what can we do? How can we remain Danish in a German, fascist state? How could we maintain as much of Danish democracy and identity as a future part of Germany?" Jørgen Kieler and his siblings were among those who were considering their roles, arguing out the merits of various forms of action. His first involvement in resistance work came through an underground newspaper run out of his apartment. His brother and older sister were involved in the same work, and they distributed propaganda materials, trying to keep the public informed while pushing them toward active resistance.

From this beginning, Jørgen Kieler developed a sense that more extreme actions would be necessary. The turning point came when this underground newspaper began encouraging workers to perform acts of sabotage if they had the opportunity. In many ways, it was more logical for workers to carry out sabotage because of their knowledge and expertise, but Jørgen Kieler felt morally uneasy with urging others to risk their security while he kept his distance. The picture only became starker after the 29th of August, 1943, when the Danish government resigned from power over several contentious issues with their German overseers. On that date, sabotage became an almost foregone path to execution. Despite the grimness of the situation, this event actually made the decision easier for Jørgen Kieler. He could not ask others to die for the resistance while remaining unwilling to risk his own life and he became an active saboteur.

Jørgen Kieler's convictions drove him, and were crucial to sustaining his drive throughout all the acts of sabotage and violence he committed. But he spoke of two times when his conscience was plagued by doubt, when he reconsidered the moral rightness of his actions. Once, he needed a gun and noticed a German soldier wandering around by himself. Jørgen Kieler and a compatriot tailed the man, intending to take him down and steal his weapon, and shoot him if necessary. They eventually lost the soldier in a crowd, but curiously, Jørgen Kieler felt a sense of relief at their failure. The incident forced a feverish examination of his own motives and methods, and he struggled that night, laying awake in bed, working out the possibilities over and over again in his mind. Would it have been a legitimate act of resistance to kill a man simply for the sake of taking his gun? Which goals were worth violence, and how could he make those determinations? As a person engaged in a moral struggle, the possibility of doing injustice terrified him and he had to face these ambiguities.

An attempt to blow-up a factory precipitated another problem of responsibility. The standard procedure for operations of this kind was to throw the incendiary bomb in the building, and give the occupants enough warning to enter the bomb shelters before tossing in the explosives. But during this attempt Jørgen Kieler's resistance cell overlooked a night watchman who happened to be patrolling the area around the same time. The man was killed in the explosion. To this day, Jørgen Kieler regrets taking that life: "I'm convinced I saved many lives, but I'm also co-responsible [sic] for one innocent life, and that's one life too much," he says.

Ultimately, all his questioning only served to strengthen his commitment, but he drew several key conclusions in the course of his probing. The incident with the policeman showed him the dangers inherent in the use of violence, and the necessity for maintaining an ethics of action. Another factor was the matter of risk versus gain. Several times, he mentioned shopkeepers who collaborated with the Germans who were often punished by having their shops destroyed. Now, he looks back on those acts of sabotage in a different light; "Today I regret the small shops we blew up. Not because I'm sorry, but because it wasn't worthwhile to risk your life for that. There has to be a reasonable balance between what you risk and what you gain," he noted. One should not justify taking a life to obtain a gun, or risk personal safety to root out all instances of injustice. Jørgen Kieler had to pick his fights, for both moral and pragmatic reasons.

Jørgen Kieler based his resistance on the strong conviction that inaction equaled complicity, and refused to participate in any way in perpetuating evil. Not only that, but in the midst of struggle, he recognized moral distinctions between certain kinds of action. He can be regarded as an example of humanity in action, as a principled man who he took decisive, radical action to oppose injustice, and considered the moral nature of his actions consistently. 

Jørgen Kieler's story of resistance is a powerfully compelling one that binds our attention and inspires us. Stories of heroism and bravery, and action in the face of peril, inevitably draw our admiration. One cannot but deeply respect the courage and the conviction to stand up and challenge atrocities and injustice when we see it, to make the difficult moral choice to sacrifice life and livelihood when given the opportunity. Jørgen Kieler acknowledged that he was freer than many others to take extreme risks. "It was easier for me to take radical action because I didn't have a wife, children - not even a fiancée," and without such ties, the only life he would be endangering was his own. He was a specific individual acting in an extreme set of circumstances, but given that, can we draw any guidelines for action from his experiences?

As noted by Hakan Wiberg, the director for the Danish Center for Peace and Conflict Research, the terms 'freedom fighter' and 'terrorist' are two sides of the same coin. A simple shift in perspective turns a defender of human rights into a crazed fanatic, and on what basis do we laud the one and denigrate the other? To demonstrate this problem, the perspective of the Danish populace at large regarding the freedom fighters changed radically throughout the course of the war. At first they were regarded as extremists, as potential disasters for Denmark because they were threatening the peaceful relationship with the German occupational force. However, as the war progressed, and an Allied victory became more likely, the resistance movement drew almost unanimous support.

Moreover, taking any extreme action carries inherent moral dilemmas. How is the actor to know whether extremism is truly called for? In some measure, decisive action requires moral clarity, seeing the situation in black and white, as Jørgen Kieler did. But history is filled with the morally righteous who committed great atrocities in the name of their ideals. How are we to praise decisive action when such decisiveness can easily be turned toward unacceptable ends? Jørgen Kieler himself acknowledged this problem, contrasting his role as a resistance saboteur with those of Nazi SS members. On both sides of any struggle, he noted, there are activists, 'true believers' who push toward extreme action. Jørgen Kieler compared the Danish resistance fighters with the SS, since both groups were the idealists and within their respective movements, implicitly recognizing that strong conviction could turn in many different directions.

The picture is further complicated by the example of Jørgen Kieler's sister, Elsebeth. She was a decided pacifist, who in the early stages of occupation could not countenance the taking of human life to achieve certain goals, no matter how moral those goals were. Even though she eventually accepted that killing was justifiable in some circumstances, the strength of her moral challenge remains. She and her brother disagreed vehemently on this issue, and we cannot dismiss the former as a weak coward, or the latter as unthinking extremist. Both were obviously motivated by conviction, but their interpretation of right method clashed with each other. 

The contrasts become even more extreme when we examine the Danish government's policy of neutrality during occupation. As noted earlier, Jørgen Kieler acted on his own, as an individual with few ties of responsibility binding his choices. He was freer to act because of the greater simplicity of his circumstances, and also because of the black-and-white way he viewed the moral universe. While he recognized that there were various ways of participating in the resistance, and that not necessarily everyone should have become a saboteur, he was adamant in his distinction that one had to stand either against the Germans or with them. 

The government of Denmark faced its own decisions, but with the burden of four million lives on its hands. Unsurprisingly, this burden led to a far more complex series of choices. Surrender to the Germans happened very quickly, since the relatively miniscule Danish army had no chance of succeeding against the invaders. With that in mind, the government made the protection of civil society its primary goal in the hopes of keeping some shred of democracy alive even in the midst of crisis. The government made maintaining a legitimate government its first priority, in order to place some kind of shield between the German occupiers and the Danish population. For this policy to work, the government regarded neutrality as critical. To side with the Germans was unthinkable, but to side with the Allies under German occupation would mean disaster. So, it abdicated choosing for or against, and instead navigated a tortuous road in order to prevent the country from dissolving into war. 

Danish Ambassadorial attaché to France Bo Lidegaard interprets the Danish government's actions during occupation as a concerted defense of human rights and democratic values. While the government offered no resistance to the Germans, it never fully committed to the German cause. No Danish soldiers were ever sent to fight against the Allied powers, or were killed defending Nazism in Europe. However, there were Danes, including officers, who received the “approval” of the Danish government when they volunteered for service on the Eastern front with the Vaffen SS. Despite this submission to German pressure, Lidegaard still regards the basic Danish policy towards Germany as a victory on the part of the Danish government, which protected Denmark's government and society while keeping the nation clean of bloodshed in support of the German army. He states that "the essence of democratic values" remained whole, because even in the midst of occupation, the government retained some sense of legitimacy, keeping the citizenry and the democracy alive. 

One wonders how a government can claim to follow a policy of neutrality or protect democratic values with a hostile occupying power sitting on top of its territory and controlling the nation militarily. The ambiguity and tenuousness of those justifications disturbs us, but there is more to Lidegaard's statements than mere apologetics for the Danish government during wartime. Today the words 'Nazi Germany' are strongly associated with unthinkable evil, the perpetration of the Holocaust, the bringers of genocide. We have already described some of the problems associated with Jørgen Kieler's radical action, yet we still admire him because he stood against the Nazi regime. We can feel justified and secure that he did the right thing, that he stood on the side of the righteous. The security of his moral universe, and the strong conviction of his actions, are seductive to us, appealing for their simplicity and surety.

But Bo Lidegaard does not believe that Eric Scavenius, the Danish foreign minister and the architect of Denmark's policy of neutrality, was any less justified in his actions than Jørgen Kieler. Accepting the Danish government's position as moral raises the possibility that one can act in defense of human rights even while negotiating with the horror represented by Nazi Germany. It is hard to cheer on the government's awkward straddling and its technical definition of neutrality, but can we so easily dismiss it as doublespeak, a shoddy attempt to justify the government's actions during occupation? If we accept the possibility that the Danish government's actions were equally as moral as Jørgen Kieler's, the moral universe becomes much less clear, and the seemingly clear line between complicity and resistance dissolves into a messy spectrum of gray.

Jørgen Kieler saw occupation unfolding all around him, and came to the conclusion that radical, decisive, and even violent action was necessary to drive the Germans out of power. From his standpoint, neutrality was illusory, impossible. The Danish government, however, interpreted its goals and mission from another vantage point, and decided that the integrity of its population and institutions was paramount. Its policy offered as little resistance as possible. Comparing the situations and decisions of an individual with those of an institution may be difficult, but both are presented to us as defenders of human rights and humanitarian ideals. We are left to determine which position we sympathize with more.

These questions remain very much alive in the present, notably in the area of humanitarian intervention. The classic approach of many humanitarian relief organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross has been to maintain political neutrality in order to maintain access to all those who need relief and assistance. This attitude has led to some murky areas, with relief organizations dealing with obviously repressive regimes and groups in order to provide security for its work in crisis areas. These compromises have come under fire in recent decades from those who regard them as abdications of moral responsibility. The relief organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) was founded in some measure on the repudiation of humanitarian neutrality. The ideals of humanitarianism come into conflict with protecting human rights.

The principles demonstrated by individuals such as Jørgen and Elsebeth Jørgen Kieler, and institutions such as the Danish government, in some measure echo this debate. Author and human rights activist David Rieff strongly criticizes the stance of neutrality, saying that "What is needed is not belated and soft intervention. What is needed is prompt and hard intervention." Rieff advocates the political intervention of states and their armies, to relieve political problems, and believes that clinging to neutrality in order to guarantee access is a dangerous way of avoiding difficult moral and political decisions. While the situation of humanitarian organizations is not completely parallel to the situation the Danish government during occupation, the same themes and ideas seem to recur.

The issues presented by the Danish occupation remain very much with us in the present, but their urgency also exists on another level. The difference between Jørgen Kieler's position and the government's position is not merely one of competing moral goals, a matter of saving lives or resisting injustice. That question is difficult enough, but another issue is that both Jørgen Kieler and the position explicated by Bo Lidegaard are speaking, in the broadest sense, about 'human rights.' Jørgen Kieler and the Danish government stood on opposite ends of the political spectrum, and how can we accept that they were fighting for the same nebulous goal of protecting human rights? Can we reconcile their methods with each other?On top of that, Isi Foighel, Director of the Danish Centre for Human Rights, makes the issue even more complex by removing human rights from the realm of theology and placing it firmly in the context of political deliberations made by nation-states and their citizens. "There is no way to debate the truth" he said, "the truth is either true or it is not." But human rights come into existence through laws, through interpretation, through the conditions of politics. Through that portrayal, Foighel portrayed human rights as less an issue of moral conviction or absolute truth and more a result of developments among and within nations and cultures.

Jørgen Kieler, Lidegaard, and Foighel all spoke of rights and wrongs, of democracy, but were they talking about the same things at all? And how are we to reconcile all their perspectives into something that will guide our future action and engagement? That is the problem we face, for which the authors of this paper have few answers. Humanity In Action "is committed to encouraging the development of active, morally responsive citizens to recognize that citizens have the moral duty to act against institutionalized violations of democratic values and rights." None of the participants in this program would disagree with anything contained in this mission statement, and we are of course convinced of the need to act.

But the greater problem is not being convinced to act, but to choose the path of action. This is the problem we have been discussing throughout this paper: how are we to act? What does 'humanity in action' mean? It is not enough to teach us about 'the need to confront injustice.' The thornier issue is figuring out how to confront injustice, what tactics to employ, what goals to pursue. In the situation of the Danish occupation, individuals and institutions were confronted with difficult choices, and used different means to defend human rights, to achieve moral goals. Often, the methods they employed contradicted each other, yet all these viewpoints are presented in the context of a program that encourages us to stand up for human rights. So, the challenge we face is not being motivated to act, but to determine the right course of action, our own roles and paths.




Phone interview with Erik Baun, Chief Librarian at the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, 23 June 2000

Interview with Jørgen Kieler, 21 June 2000, 111 Rungstedvej

Phone interview with Bo Lidegaard, Danish Ambassadorial attaché to France, 23 and 26 June 2000 

Phone interview with HÂkan Wiberg, Director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution, 23 June 2000


Talk given by Isi Foighel, Director of the Danish Center for Human Rights, to HIA 2000, 19 June 2000, Politikens Hus

Talk given by Bo Lidegaard to HIA 2000, Politikens Hus


Lidegaard, Bo. I Kongns Navn: Henrik Kauffman i Dansk Diplomati: 1919-58 (Kobenhavn: Samleren, 1996)

Rieff, David. "The Humanitarian Illusion", The New Republic (March 16, 1996): 27-32.

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