Last year, Denmark and Israel commemorated the 70th anniversary of the rescue of Denmark’s Jews in October 1943, when Danes helped 7,000 Jews in their Nazi-occupied country escape to Sweden and thereby avoid deportation to concentration camps.
This seminal event – which resulted in 99 percent of Danish Jews surviving World War II – was commemorated in a series of events both in Denmark, with the participation of Denmark’s queen and the prime minister, and in Israel, which Danish Crown Prince Frederik visited in October.
In addition, at the end of this month, Denmark and its Jewish community will mark the 200th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation of March 29, 1814, under which Jews became regular citizens of the Danish state. The main event will take place on Sunday, March 30, in the Copenhagen Synagogue, with the participation of the country’s deputy prime minister and the head of the Jewish community.
The two anniversaries may appear, at first glance, to be unrelated. But they are not.
Moreover, both contribute to explaining why anti-Semitism is anathema to Danish society in general and why such incidents, though always regrettable when they occur, are few and far between in Denmark.
From the time the first Jews arrived in Denmark in the 17th century until the beginning of the 19th century, they constituted what is sometimes called a “state within the state.” They were governed by their own institutions, and in many respects set apart from the rest of Danish society. But through a series of reforms at the beginning of the 19th century, of which the Royal Proclamation constituted the climax, they became regular citizens.
King Frederik VI himself led these efforts.
The context was not benign. Due to ill-fated alliances, Denmark lost its great pride, its navy, in 1807, and the economy subsequently fell to pieces. Anti-Semitism reared its ugly head, and the royal family went on a counteroffensive, taking steps to prepare a decree proclaiming Jewish citizenship. And when Mendel Levin Nathanson – a prominent Danish Jewish businessman, economist and, later, newspaper editor – established a school for poor Jewish girls in 1810, Frederik VI’s daughter, Princess Caroline, became its patroness. The Caroline School still exists – now as a key institution for the Jewish community as a whole.
The Royal Proclamation of 1814 represents a watershed in the history of Danish Jews. It brought new rights, but also new obligations as Danish citizens, and from 1814 onward, Jews became an integral part of Danish society.
Integration gradually replaced isolation.
Initially there were occasional bursts of anti-Semitism. But as integration proceeded, these became fewer. Indeed, Andrew Buckser, in his 2003 work After the Rescue: Jewish Identity and Community in Contemporary Denmark, upon which I have drawn for the historical exposé above, even claims that “with the exception of some youths throwing stones at a Jewish building in 1830, there would be no more anti-Jewish violence in Denmark until World War II.”
Instead, Danish Jews gained increasing visibility in the country’s public life. Some acquired widespread acclaim in the arts and sciences. Others climbed to some of the highest public offices, like Herman Trier, who served in the prestigious position of speaker of the parliament’s Lower Chamber from 1901 – a mere six years after Alfred Dreyfus was deported to Devil’s Island as a result of the anti-Semitism that haunted much of Europe at the time.
When Nazi Germany occupied Denmark in World War II, Jews had become an inseparable part of Danish society, enjoying full rights but also firmly committed to respecting their obligations as citizens and the fundamental rules of society. As renowned historian Bo Lidegaard puts it in his recent book – aptly entitled Countrymen – on the 1943 rescue, “The escape of the Danish Jews was due to the penetration deep into the population of the idea that everyone who declared themselves part of democracy belonged to the national community. Because of this a great majority of Danes knew that the intimidation of one individual is a threat to the entire society. In October 1943 they acted upon that insight.”
After World War II, most of the Danish Jews who had escaped to Sweden returned to Denmark and continued their lives there.
The successful integration (not to be confused with assimilation) of Jews into Danish society – for which the Royal Proclamation was a both symbolic and practical starting point – is probably one reason there is no anti-Semitism in Denmark. Yes, there may occasionally be the odd anti-Semite who puts his bigotry on public display or victimizes fellow countrymen. But fundamentally there is no anti-Semitism in Denmark. Danes are proud of that, and consequently also very sensitive to insulting accusations leveled at their country in ignorance of the happy and successful history of its Jews – something that is due in no small measure to the process embarked on 200 years ago this week.
The writer is Denmark’s ambassador to Israel.