A naval history footnote to the deportation of the Danish Jews in 1943
by Thomas Harder
This article is based on work by the author and Lene Ewald Hesel on their book En sten for Eva – Bogense 1855-Theresienstadt 1943 (due for publication by Gads Forlag, autumn 2022). A Danish version of the article is available here.
The Germans took far longer to deport the Jewish population from Denmark than they did in other countries occupied during World War Two. They probably wanted to avoid friction with the Danish government, not to mention protests and unrest that might have forced them into unpopular and costly emergency measures. However, when the Danish government resigned on 29 August 1943, the Germans imposed martial law and the Reich Commissioner, Werner Best, decided that it was time to act. On 8 September, he sent a telegram to the Foreign Ministry in Berlin recommending that the state of emergency be exploited to solve the “Jewish question”. The ministry replied on 17 September that it approved mass deportation in principle and awaited his detailed plans. The following day, Best informed Berlin that there were 1,673 Jewish families in Greater Copenhagen and 33 in the rest of the country, a further 1,208 who had emigrated from Germany and 110 families who were no longer registered as part of the Jewish community. Best requested “a ship capable of accommodating at least 5,000 people” for transport from Greater Copenhagen and the rest of Zealand. Trains were to be used for the deportations from Funen and Jutland.
Werner Best (middle) at a meeting of the Danish-German Association. The German military commander in Denmark, General Hermann von Hanneken, is on the right. Best is wearing his Foreign Service uniform; the four stars on the sleeve indicate his rank as Ministerialdirektor (equivalent to a Consul General 1st Class). (Photo: Museum of Danish Resistance).
By the time the Germans struck on the evening of 1 October 1943, most of the Jewish Community had gone underground, and some had already fled to Sweden. They were responding to the increasingly persistent rumours of impending action that had been circulating since the government resigned and to warnings of what lay ahead by G.F. Duckwitz, Maritime Attaché at the German Embassy, to his Danish and Swedish contacts. Duckwitz probably acted in concert with Best who wanted to limit the impact of the deportations and inflict as little damage on relations with the Danish authorities as possible.