Discussion Papers Series
Remembering the Holocaust:
The Legacy of the Danish Rescue
What can we learn from the Danish example about the relation between Holocaust history and Holocaust education?
By Cecilie Felicia Stokholm Banke, Senior Researcher, Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS)
With this paper, I will share some of my thoughts on the relationship between Holocaust education and Holocaust memory in Europe. I will do this by presenting the experience gained in Denmark over the past decade and by giving a general overview of Holocaust memory as it emerged in Europe from the mid-1990s.
One cannot understand the situation in Denmark without considering the general European context. Of course, there was the uniquely Danish phenomenon of the rescue of 95 % of its Jewish population which during early October 1943 fled to Sweden with the help of the local population, the resistance movement, Danish authorities and members of civil society (Bak 2010). In international perspective, this rescue operation is considered unique, and the ‘Danish Rescue’ stands as a light in the generally very dark history of the Holocaust. This “Danish exceptionalism” has had the, perhaps unintentional result that little attention had until recently been paid in Denmark to the history of the Holocaust.
However, in 2003, Denmark joined other European nations in marking Holocaust Remembrance Day, which commemorates the victims of the Holocaust and other genocides. This day is observed on the 27th of January, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In observance of this day, several educational activities take place around the country, through which Danish children, 15 years and older, are introduced to the history of the Holocaust. The activities are financed by the Danish government and organized by Danish Institute for International Studies in cooperation with the Ministry of Education.
One may ask why it was decided to mark Holocaust Remembrance day and expose Danish school children to the history of the Holocaust and other genocides? In answering this question, we need to view this development as part of a general European trend that occurred during the 1990s.
Holocaust memory in Europe after 1989
Since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, the issue of the Holocaust – how it is remembered and the influence that that memory exerts on the present -- has played a, perhaps unexpectedly, important role in current European consciousness and politics. Take, for instance, the many official apologies offered by European heads of state during the 1990s -- France and the Netherlands in 1995, and Poland in 2001.
Even Denmark, with its sterling record of rescue, apologized officially in August 2005 for having denied Jewish refugees entry to Denmark, sending them back to an uncertain fate in Germany. Add to these national acts of contrition, the resolution adopted by the European Parliament in 2005 to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, and the Stockholm Declaration, signed by the heads of state and representatives of 40 countries in January 2000. The Stockholm Declaration also established certain basic commitments on the part of its signatories to promote Holocaust education, remembrance, and research. These national and international efforts serve as evidence of a general acknowledgement in Europe, and the rest of the world, that the Holocaust plays a crucial place in European and national memories.
In this context, Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson, together with Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, established the International Task Force on Holocaust Education Remembrance and Research in 1998, culminating 10 years of intensive activity in Europe surrounding the institutionalization of Holocaust memory. Today, the renamed International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance consists of 31 member states with their government representatives and national experts. This institutionalization was intimately linked with an emerging political culture, based on international law and human rights. The lessons of the Holocaust were to be taught and remembered for future generations in order to help prevent future genocides. The Holocaust was recognized in that sense as the paradigmatic genocide (Gerner & Karlsson 2005).
One way of understanding this development is by considering the impact on European consciousness of the wars of succession in Ex-Yugoslavia. What happened in the former Yugoslavia, following the collapse of communism, came as a shock to post-1989 Europe -- a continent full of hope and dreams for a new beginning. New questions arose: What went wrong? How could Europe passively look on while their Serbian neighbors slaughtered 8,000 Muslims? Had Europe not learned from the past? Was Europe about to repeat the same kind of madness -- the killing of innocent civilians on a massive scale -- as happened during the Second World War? Was ethnic nationalism coming back? Or rather, had ethnic nationalism ever really disappeared?
The shock not only led to a debate about Europe’s unconfronted past, but also contributed to an increased interest both within the public, and among politicians, in the Holocaust. One could say, therefore, that the growing interest in the Holocaust was led by an increased focus on international human rights. A development that Nathan Sznaider and Daniel Levy also point to in their book Holocaust and Memory in the Global Age. Although we cannot neglect the national differences in each European country, stemming from different national experiences during the Second World War, we can understand that what happened in Ex-Yugoslavia during the 1990s was, nevertheless, the beginning of a Europeanization of the Holocaust, both as memory and as a moral guidepost. (Banke 2012 & 2011)
It is within this framework that we have to understand why a so-called ‘righteous nation’ like Denmark considered it necessary to establish a Holocaust remembrance day, which is observed each year as a theme-day in schools around the country. On January 27, Danish youngsters learn about the Holocaust and other genocides, and the general public participates in ceremonies held by the municipalities around the country.
What lessons can be learned from a country, where Holocaust education was only recently introduced and which has a unique status in the history of the Holocaust because of the unprecedented rescue of its Jews in October 1943?
First we must conclude that, although the annual Auschwitz Day is a popular activity among most Danish high schools, we do not know very much about how effective it is as a vehicle for Holocaust education. From a study conducted by a group of Danish and German scholars, we know that, for a Danish student, the Holocaust represents the strongest lesson to be learned from the Second World War (Bjerg 2011), a fact confirmed by a recent poll conducted by the Danish daily Berlingske Tidende. Danish youngsters tend to refer to the history of the Second World War not as the history of the German occupation of Denmark, but as the history of the Holocaust (Berlingske, 30.09.2013) suggesting a transition from a national narrative to a global one. (Bjerg, Lenz & Bjerregaard, 2007).
Second, during the past one to two decades, research has provided us with more knowledge about the local aspects of Holocaust history. The Holocaust has become more nuanced and multifaceted, which, in my view, requires that we reevaluate how to teach the subject today. Allow me to emphasize my point. As mentioned, Auschwitz Day was marked for the first time in Denmark in January 2003. Every year since then, on January 27, victims are commemorated at ceremonies around the country, and students learn about the Holocaust and other genocides during specifically organized workshops and seminars. As such, Auschwitz Day works “to improve the awareness of the Holocaust among Danish students” and the principle that one should “never forget what the past can teach the future”.
Thus, Auschwitz Day is dedicated to commemorate the victims and support the survivors, to promote education and public awareness about the Holocaust and other genocides in schools, high schools and universities and in the public at large. Or, as stated officially: “Denmark believes that keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust through education, research and commemorative activities is an important way to teach future generations about fundamental human rights, and the necessity to protect them elsewhere”. (10 Years ITF-folder, 2008)
However, though we have learned that political will can be activated and can lead to institutions like the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and the Swedish Forum for Living History, to mention a few examples, we are not certain about the impact of these institutions. We do not know whether teaching the history of the Holocaust and other genocides actually helps to create more tolerant and non-discriminating people. We do not know whether this teaching actually keeps alive the memory of the Holocaust. And we do not know whether teaching the Holocaust may have an unintended negative impact leading to Holocaust fatigue and denial. Thus, after a decade of intense activity, it may be time to evaluate our efforts and, based on gained experience and new research, readdress how to teach and learn about the Holocaust in a way that makes sense for the next generation as well.
Additionally, during the past ten years, newly developed research has taught us more about local perpetrators particularly in Eastern European countries. Naturally, Holocaust historians knew about the local perpetrators and the mass shootings that took place on the Eastern front at the beginning of the war. But the increased activity that followed the Stockholm International Forum in January 2000 led to an increased interest and, therefore an expanded knowledge, in the general public about the different aspects and phases of the murder of European Jews.
As such, the Holocaust has, for the past decade, become more than Auschwitz and the gas chambers. The public knows more about the intimate killings that occurred in places like Ukraine and Belarus, which I think also the debate following Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands illustrates. And today we know much more about the local perpetrators. We know more about Jewish life before the Holocaust and about Jewish life during the Holocaust.
This development also includes the case of Denmark, where, for many decades, the rescue of the Danish Jews overshadowed the other, and less heroic, aspects of Danish Holocaust history. Today, thanks, in part, to the Stockholm Declaration and the globalization of Holocaust memory, we know more about Jews who fled Nazi Germany only to be denied entry to Denmark (Banke 2005; Kirchhoff 2005; Rünitz 2005; Kirchhoff & Rünitz 2007). And we know about those Jews in Denmark who were not rescued in October 1943, but were deported to Theresienstadt (Levin 2001; Lundtofte 2004; Sode-Madsen 1995 & 2003).
Also, thanks to a new generation of historians, we know that Danish industries and the Danish agricultural sector among other things collaborated with the Germans during the war (Lund 2005; Andersen 2003). A recent study has also provided us with more knowledge about the Danish Waffen SS and the young men who left for Germany to volunteer as soldiers on the Eastern Front (Bundgaard, Poulsen & Smith 1998).
As in other countries, these recent developments within the historiography of Denmark during the Holocaust have to be integrated into the teaching about the Holocaust. The history of the Holocaust is, in part, local history with local aspects and local actors. Based on the Danish example we may say that teaching about the Holocaust is also teaching about how one’s nation responded to the persecution of Jews during the Second World War. It’s about rescue and refugees, about collaboration and resistance. All the complexities that the history of the Holocaust contains.
Additionally, a country’s individual experience of past atrocities, human rights abuses, and genocide is also an important element in its definition of Holocaust education. In fact, you may argue, as do Gundare and Batelaan, that “Holocaust education is not, and should not be, the same everywhere” (Batelaan and Gundare, 2003).
But integrating Holocaust history into local history can often be easier said than done, which brings me to my third and final point, namely the relation between teaching the Holocaust as a universal lesson and as part of the human rights curriculum on one hand, and teaching the Holocaust as part of local history, on the other.
If the Holocaust becomes too much a universal history lesson, as indicated by Levy and Sznaider, among others, with their work about global memory, there is a risk that we will lose the local aspects, and, with them, the impact of these important history lessons, as well. Thus, local aspects of the Holocaust and local experience with human atrocities, human rights abuses, and genocide have to be integrated into a country’s definition of Holocaust education. There has to be a relationship between the universal message about “never again,” on the one hand, and the local experiences of genocidal violence, mass atrocities, and racism and discrimination, on the other.
We can observe this phenomenon in the European context by considering the case of the former communist countries, which, after becoming members of the European Union, insisted that their experiences with communism -- the other totalitarian past -- should be acknowledged and remembered in the same way as the history of National Socialism and the Holocaust. As Mälksoo argues, Baltic and Polish memory politics have brought up the controversial and intensely debated comparison between Nazi and Stalinist regimes and their respective crimes, thus contesting the uniqueness of Nazi crimes and questioning the singularity of the Holocaust as the crime against humanity of the 20th century (Mälksoo 2009, p. 656)
One of the challenge that Holocaust education in Europe faces at the moment is thus how to balance the universal legacy of the Holocaust with local history of human rights abuses, genocide and political mass violence. This challenge raises a fundamental question, which we have to consider: How to avoid that the never again-imperative becomes so universalized that the message loses its actual impact? After all, we do want to teach the Holocaust in a way that also makes sense for the next generation.
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Sofie Lene Bak, Nothing to speak of - wartime experiences of the Danish Jews 1943-1945, Copenhagen: Danish Jewish Museum, 2011
Cecilie Felicia Stokholm Banke, “Remembering Europe’s Heart of Darkness: Legacies of the Holocaust in Post-War European Societies”, in Malgozata Pakier & Bo Stråth, A European Memory? Contested Histories and Politics of Remembrance, New York & Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2012 & 2010
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Maria Mälksoo, “The Memory Politics of Becoming European: The East European Subalterns and the Collective Memory of Europe”, European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 15(4): 653-680, 2009
Lone Rünitz, ‘Af hensyn til konsekvenserne’. Danmark og flygtningespørgsmålet 1933-1940, Odense: Syddansk Universitetsforlag, 2005
Hans Sode-Madsen, “Theresienstadt og de danske jøder” in Hans Sode-Madsen (red.), I Hitler-Tysklands skygge. Dramaet om de danske jøder 1933-1945, København: Aschehoug 2003
Hans Sode-Madsen (red.), Dengang i Theresienstadt, Det Mosaiske Troessamfund, 1995
Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research, Ten year anniversary book, Denmark p. 36-38, Westerås: Edita, 2009
- Explain what the author means by “Danish exceptionalism” and how it has impacted the history of the Holocaust in Denmark.
- How has the Holocaust – how it is remembered and the influence of its memory on the present – played a role in European consciousness and politics?
- What can be learned from the Danish experience with Holocaust education?
- What is the relationship between teaching Holocaust on a universal level and as a part of local history?
- Do you think Holocaust education can help change behavior ? Why or why not?
The discussion papers series provides a forum for individual scholars on the Holocaust and the averting of genocide to raise issues for debate and further study. These writers, representing a variety of cultures and backgrounds, have been asked to draft papers based on their own perspective and particular experiences.
The views expressed by the individual scholars do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.