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Heroism in Danish Culture and Self-Understanding: The Problems with Writing the Rescue

In 2011, Humanity in Action published its first book, Reflections on the Holocaust. The essays collected in this volume were written by Humanity in Action Fellows, Senior Fellows, board members and lecturers who participated in Humanity in Action's educational programs from 1997 to 2010. 

The Danish Rescue of the Jews in 1943 is viewed as an act of indisputable heroism by many nations, among them Israel and the United States. After three years of limited interference with Danish internal politics, Hitler issued an order to make Denmark Judenrein in the fall of 1943. The roundup of the Jews was to take place on Rosh Hashanah, on October 1 and 2, 1943. G.F. Duckwitz leaked this information to Hans Hedtoft and H.C. Hansen, two Danish politicians who subsequently warned the Jewish community of the impending danger prior to the scheduled roundup. During the next month, almost all of the Jews were transported to safety across the sound to Sweden. These transports depended primarily on the unconditional help of Danish civilians, who were often complete strangers.

Literature often reflects upon historical events and how they shape national consciousness. What is particularly curious about Denmark is that although WWII and the resistance frequently appear in novels, the rescue of the Jews is virtually absent from creative literature. Not a single contemporary Danish novel is set against the events of the rescue. Perhaps the lack of creative response to the rescue of the Danish Jews in 1943 is symptomatic of Danish mentality, and of the unease with which Danes are faced when discussing what the rest of the world would call heroism.        

Although historical accounts of the rescue exist in both America and in Denmark, it is primarily in the US that the rescue is used as a point of departure for fictional works, including children's literature. This dichotomy not only illustrates differences in evaluating the rescue, but also sheds light on diverging cultural conceptions of heroism.

The Rescue as an Event

One hypothesis as to why the rescue has yielded little creative literature lies in the fact that the Danes do not consider the rescue as an outstanding or particularly heroic event in their history. Using the rescue as raw material for fiction would force the author to bring out both positive and negative aspects of Denmark's WWII record, which is far from glorious.

Ulf Haxen, the Orientalia and Judaica librarian, commented on the lack of creative literature pertaining to the Danish Rescue: "Danish shyness of exposing themselves. A Danish trait that they don't want to expose themselves." A simple question yielded an anthropological answer. Perhaps unknowingly, Haxen's answer provided a short analysis of Danish mentality. The question we are pursuing-why no fiction has been written-will lead us to a discussion of Danish mentality at large through an analysis of contemporary Danish views on heroism.

When the German forces marched into Denmark on April 9, 1940, they were met with minimal resistance, and managed to occupy their northern neighbor within few hours. The official policy advocated resigning and simply hoping for the best by letting the Germans peacefully occupy Denmark. Arguably, this decision saved many lives, but nevertheless, Denmark's honor was tarnished on an international scale. From this point in time, Denmark's position in international eyes was ambiguous: since Denmark never actively opposed or rebelled against the Germans prior to 1943, their governmental policies were perceived as collaborative. Until August 29, 1943 Denmark never clearly deined its stance to the international community.   At the outset of the war, the Danish population was hardly touched by the war; other than rations on certain commodities such as cigarettes and coffee, little changed in day-to-day life. According to Axel Ljungquist, a member of the Danish Holger Danske resistance group, before August 29, 1943, the resistance could not rely on help from the general public. Moreover, many Danes were quite happy about the German occupation because they were able to profit from the rising wartime agricultural prices, while things were still peaceful: "A large part of the population didn't care about the occupation, since they were making money at first, the workers were even against the saboteurs." This collaborative tendency made the popularity of a resistance movement nearly impossible in the early years of the occupation, where no decisive actions were undertaken.

Seen in this light, the summer of 1943 marked a major breakthrough in Danish attitudes towards the occupying forces. The Germans began imposing and dictating policies, including capital punishment, which resulted in the resignation of the Danish government. This instilled a feeling of wanting to combat the rising terror all over Europe, and above all, in the words of Ljungquist, of "wanting to fight against the Germans." Finally, the prosecution of the Jews was the last straw for the Danes and ushered in a popular movement to do their utmost to help the Jews. By helping them, not only were the Danes saving their fellow citizens, but they were also, in a sense, helping their enemy's enemy: this created a double bond between the Danish Jews and the Danish rescuers.

However, Danes have a hard time perceiving the rescue as a heroic act because the occupying Germans might have closed their eyes, or at least momentarily shifted their gaze, from the rescue operation. It does seem unbelievable that boats could have departed from the Copenhagen harbor without being stopped, with German guards ever so close. More incredible still is the fact that the Germans docked all of their patrol boats just a few days prior to the scheduled roundup. Not only did the Germans close an eye, but some fishermen transporting Jews across the sound to Sweden charged exorbitant sums of money for the rescue operation.

However, despite these critical analyses some indisputably extraordinary events did transpire. Besides 7200 saved Jewish lives, the particularly outstanding aspect of the rescue lies in the way the Jews were welcomed back to Denmark. Norway had confiscated all Jewish property and auctioned away Jewish possessions. Denmark chose to keep businesses and bank accounts intact, maintain property and return almost everything to the Jews upon their arrival in 1945. As former chief rabbi Bent Melchior states, the Copenhagen municipality "even paid the rent in full for the temporarily exiled Jews."

These elements, unique in Europe during WWII, are what constitute a heroic portrait of Denmark in American eyes. In Denmark however, those directly implicated in the events, and those reflecting upon them from a contemporary vantage point, tend to speak of decency rather than heroism. Per Nytrup, a senior lecturer in history, simply believes that the Danes were "helping people who were in trouble", in other words, helping their fellow Danes.

Danish Values and Mentality

The international community has chosen to label the events of October 1943 as heroic, whereas Danes themselves use more moderate language to describe rescue. From an American standpoint, Danes seem self-critical and tend to downplay the significance of their actions during the rescue. However, a Danish perspective reveals that their inability to acknowledge outstanding or heroic events is based on internal mechanisms such as language, the laws of Jante and the welfare state's ideology of equality.      

When faced with the term "heroism," the Danish language itself presents an obstacle. Language has an effect on one's perception of the world, and offers an indispensable commentary on the people who speak it. Journalist Bjorn Bredal believes that the Danish language treats pathos ironically and sees a "kind of understatement in Danish ways of expressing themselves.it has to do with culture, history and language." Danish is a language firmly rooted in the concrete, the practical, and uses abstractions and superlatives sparingly. Describing the rescue events of 1943 as "small acts of decency" rather than "heroic" or "extraordinary" presents less of a cultural dilemma for Danes. When Americans refer to the rescue as "heroic," the Danes merely shrug and say that it just "needed to be done."  

History has taught the Danes to downplay heroism, since, according to Bredal, "[Danish] history is the story of being once important, and now being very small." Denmark has now chosen to make an ideal of its small size, in which heroism - as a linguistic or cultural concept - has no place. Ulf Haxen draws a link between this historical background and the development of what he coins a "merchant mentality", which focuses primarily on what benefits Denmark in a pragmatic sense. In other words, Danish mentality urges them to avoid extremes at all costs in favor of a safer middle ground. Haxen's opinion recalls Grundtvig's Danish maxim, "Ved jorden at blive, det tjener os bedst" (remaining on the ground will do us best] as well as the Jante Law.  

Danish distaste for "heroism" is partially rooted in the Jante Law - a code of conduct specific to Denmark. Though the Jante law does not explain Danish mentality at large, it nevertheless elucidates various patterns of behavior. The Jante law was first introduced in Aksel Sandemose's 1933 novel A Fugitive Crosses his Tracks. Composed of commandments, the irst one states: "Don't think that you are anything" and the rest follow in the same vein. Of course, the law does not exist as such, but once internalized, it fosters an additional sense of equality among Danes in all spheres of society, in the sense that no one should stand out. Although the application of the Jante law strives to consider all people as equals, the law inadvertently ends up leveling the people. This pattern can be detected in various societal institutions, including education.

Bredal pushed the discussion of leveling even further by referring to Danish culture as "the culture of consensus" since "Danes don't like conflicts." Such thinking extends to the realm of democracy. Contrary to the American vision of democracy as a way of disagreeing, Danes see it as a means of agreeing, and furthermore, a way of adopting the same views. "If they [the Danes] are not convinced at the end, then something is wrong with them," says Bredal of Danish debate strategy. A look at the Danish education system reveals how ideals of equality and similarity among students foster an atmosphere in which outstanding behavior and heroism have little place.

When Equality and the Jante Law Enter the Classroom

How do Danish children develop into adults with a deep-seeded respect for equality and an equally deep aversion to heroism? By focusing on equality, heroism is inherently left out, partly because it would breed a certain hierarchy, which the education system deliberately strives to combat. "In the educational system one has a deep day-to-day aversion to hierarchy, to displaying differences. It all has to be ligheds-hyggeligt, [equality-coziness]," says social anthropologist Anne Knudsen in a Politiken interview (June 24, 1997]. She continues: "Teachers want to create equality by not drawing attention to differences between students." By erasing differences one is neither aware of the best nor of the worst aspects of Danish society. Instead, nothing in Danish society is clear-cut and, as Bredal says, "everything happens in a vague way," ultimately in order to avoid conflicts.

One of the central problems in Danish schools today, according to Per Nytrup, is that they are geared towards helping the weaker students and end up focusing on the lowest common denominator. This admirable desire to help the weak at all costs is now becoming a problem since it inhibits the more intelligent students from developing further skills. As a result of the infamous Jante law "Don't think you are anything," Nytrup feels that Danish students "always have to lower down expectations of themselves." The Jante law also breeds a dangerous blurring of the distinctions between equality and similarity. Although the Danish welfare state proclaims the equality of its individuals, it also assumes homogeneity among its equal individuals. How could heroism ever have a place in a culture where all strive to be not only equal, but also similar?

Teaching the rescue presents a problem in Danish schools. Per Nytrup explains: "When I team-taught a history course on the Holocaust with an American teacher, I planned to devote 5-10 minutes to the story of the Danish Rescue. He wanted to discuss it for two hours." This reinforces the hypothesis that to an American, the rescue plays a much greater part than to a Dane. Nytrup's experiences teaching the rescue to future history teachers proves how selective Danish history teaching has become: the teachers-to-be knew absolutely nothing of the rescue. Here we are faced with a problem analogous to the question of creative literature. Whether it is because the Danes downplay WWII along with the problematic questions it raises with regard to honor and collaboration or, on a slightly more positive note, because they are uncomfortable with the notion of heroism, the problem of ignorance of WWII remains. Former chief rabbi Bent Melchior addresses this lack of knowledge by saying that "it is ok for young people not to know of the rescue, although that might seem strange [to the outside world] but what bothers me is that they don't know what Nazism means." Both Axel Ljungquist and Bent Melchior, who visit schools to educate students about the resistance, attribute this staggering ignorance to the way history is taught today. Would the quest for general consensus make it too dificult to present the multiple facets of the Danish involvement in WWII? The easy solution is to simply gloss over it entirely. Unfortunately, in Sweden glossing over Holocaust history has led to frightening statistics where only "66% of 12-18 year olds are convinced that the Holocaust actually took place, the remaining third are in doubt" (Politiken, June 14, 1997].


Although there is no single answer to the initial question of why no creative literature has been written on the rescue, and why Danes today seem to view the rescue with slight indifference, many factors help us make sense of the landscape. Perhaps neither Jews nor rescuers have used the rescue as raw material for creative work because they fear not only dishonoring those who died during the Holocaust, but also the resistance fighters who died. However, this does not explain why the event remains neglected in literature to this day. It is now difficult to write of or teach WWII history because one is faced with Denmark's blurred role, where collaboration went hand in hand with resistance. Due to this ambiguity, the focus on heroism feels almost impossible in Danish eyes. Such a focus would imply acknowledging the darker issues as well, whereas ignoring it and brushing it aside leaves us in a less problematic middle-ground arena.

It remains a mystery why the Danish rescue has offered contemporary novelists little creative inspiration, and we are left only to speculate. Perhaps writing about the rescue would present a challenge to the Danes by forcing them to re-think and re-examine their conception of heroism as well as come to terms with the darker side of Denmark's WWII record. Beyond that, it would also force them to look critically at themselves, and to delve deeper into what lies behind the self-image of which Danes are so proud.  

Once again, we are left with a situation where Denmark has experienced events which, in light of the Holocaust, the rest of the world considers heroic, and which the Danes simply shrug off as decent. Writing of it would imply leaving behind traditionally Danish notions of modesty, and approaching the American notion of heroism. Could the Danes ever be ready for this radical leap? This would doubtfully occur since we are confronted with two different cultural perceptions of heroism, within fundamentally different societal contexts. Where the American one tends more easily towards extremes, the Danish one, to a larger extent, abides by the age old saying "the higher you fly, the farther you fall" and leans toward a safer middle-ground.

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About the Authors

Saskia Hansen is currently the Head of Governance, Management and Policy Team at the University of Strathclyde, Scotland. She was previously the University's Strategy Oficer and also served as Secretary to the European Consortium of Innovative University's (ECIU] from 2001-2008. Saskia holds an MBA from Strathclyde Business School and is a graduate of Social Anthropology, Ethnography and European Studies from the University of Aarhus, Denmark.
Julia Zarankin received her PhD in Comparative Literature from Princeton University. She taught Russian literature and culture at Stanford and the University of Missouri. Julia currently works as a writer, editor and writing coach in Toronto. In addition, she frequently lectures to later life learners about Russian and Soviet culture at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University. She has served on the planning committee of Holocaust Education Week in Toronto.


Hansen, Saskia and Julia Zarankin. "Heroism in Danish Culture and Self-Understanding: The Problems with Writing the Rescue." In Reflections on the Holocaustedited by Julia Zarankin, 96-105. New York: Humanity in Action, Inc. and authors, 2011.



BREDAL, BJ0RN: Editor at Politiken.

HAXEN, ULF: Librarian at the Oriental and Judaica Collection, Royal Library in Copenhagen.

LEHMAN, MARIANNE: Ministry of Education.

LJUNGQUIST, AXEL AND KIRSTEN: Former members of the Holger Danske, Danish resistance group.

MELCHIOR, BENT: Chief Rabbi Emeritus.

METZ, GEORG: Senior Editor of Information.

PER NYTRUP: Senior Lecturer in History and Political Science, College of Education in Aalborg; former employee at the Danish Resistance Museum.

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