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The Legend of King Christian: An Exchange

In response to:

The Incomprehensible Holocaust: An Exchange from the December 21, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

Holocaust-scholar Istvan Deak, commenting on the legend that King Christian X of Denmark wore a yellow Star of David during the Nazi occupation [“The Incomprehensible Holocaust: An Exchange,” NYR, December 21, 1989], said, “It would indeed be worth investigating how this heartwarming legend has come into being, and why it looms so large in American folklore.”

While pursuing graduate folklore studies at Indiana University in the 1970s, I conducted such an investigation, which was later published, as “The Legend of the King and the Star,” in the journal Indiana Folklore 8: 1–2 (1975): 1-37. It is not surprising that Dr. Deak has not seen the article in that rather obscure journal. The volume is still available and can be ordered from the Folklore Institute, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405.

Here is a summary of its findings. There are actually three legends: One, that King Christian threatened to wear the Star, were it ever enforced in Denmark; two, that he actually did so; and three, that he inspired thousands of his countrymen to do likewise and that the Nazis thus did not know whom to arrest and deport. None of the legends are true. Some data suggest that a political cartoon in the Gothenburg, Sweden anti-Nazi newspaper, Göteborg Handels- och Sjöfartstidning, around 1941 or 1942 depicted the king and the Star. I have never found any solid evidence for this.

King Christian was very friendly to the Jewish community in Denmark and offered moral support both when anti-Semitism became a political issue in the 1930s, and during the occupation itself. The king was also given to dramatic gestures, such as riding unescorted on horseback daily through the streets of Copenhagen during the early years of the occupation, and telegraphing a veiled snub to Hitler, when the dictator congratulated him on his birthday.

In October 1943, during a political crisis between Danish and German authorities, a German official warned Danish politicians that the arrest and deportation of Danish Jews was imminent, and he flew to Sweden, at great personal risk, to arrange to have the Swedish government receive Danish Jews as refugees. The Jewish community was warned and most went into hiding with gentile friends and neighbors, so that when the arrests started, on Rosh Hashanah, 1943, most of them had disappeared. Later, most were smuggled out to Sweden on private fishing boats. Very few Danish Jews were deported, other than those caught in the act of trying to escape to Sweden, and those who were deported, were kept alive by food parcels sent from Denmark. No Danish Jews were exterminated in the notorious extermination camps. Count Folke Benadotte of the International Red Cross later arranged to have the few hundred who were deported released to Swedish custody. The story of how this happened is very complicated and involves collaboration between Danes, Swedes, and “good” Germans. It is much easier to encode Danish liberality and disgust towards anti-Semitism in a simple legend. Remember Washington and the cherry tree? The best account of these events is Leni Yahil’s The Rescue of Danish Jewry: Test of a Democracy (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1969).

As Dr. Deak pointed out, Denmark was technically an ally of Germany, after they, under pressure, signed the Anti-Comintern Pact. For that reason, it was essential for the Resistance authorities, the Freedom Council within Denmark, and the Danish Council in exile in the U.S. and U.K., to generate propaganda emphasizing Danish opposition to Nazism. They did so with a vengeance, and the legend of the king and the Star was one of their prime pieces. One Danish Jew, who had been interred in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, told me that he first heard the legend there, upon his arrival in 1943! Danish/Jewish pianist/ comedian Victor Borge worked for the Office of War Information, Bing Crosby’s “Kraft Music Hall,” and the MGM daily radio program “The Lion’s Roar” in the U.S. during the war, and he told the tale many times. Denmark’s wartime ambassador to the U.S., Henrik de Kauffmann, who acted independently of the Danish government during the war, told it many times. The London Evening Standard printed the story, at least once.

After the war, the legend appeared in numerous books and articles about the war, about Denmark, about the Resistance, and about the Holocaust. Many American Jewish children were taught the legend as history in Hebrew School. It appeared in Leon Uris’ Exodus (although not in the Danish-language edition), Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, and Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy. In world folklore, the legend is germane to “good king” legends, in which a monarch makes a grand gesture that saves humble subjects from a bad fate. Ahasuerus’ deed celebrated at Purim is such a legend, although it is probably true.

The third variant of the legend, in which lots of people wore the Star, is germane to a scene in H.C. Andersen’s fairy-tale, “The Tinder Box,” where the soldier marks everybody’s door with an “x,” after seeing his own door so marked, thereby eluding arrest. There were documented cases of non-Jews wearing yellow stars to protest Nazi anti-Semitism in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Poland, and even Germany itself, but not in Denmark, where the Yellow Star was never instituted for fear of raising too much anti-German feeling. Danes did, however, wear many badges, trinkets, and distinctive articles of clothing to spite the occupiers. One of many examples was a red-white-and-blue striped knit cap identical to the RAF roundel. When the Germans realized what it meant, they prohibited it.

Growing up a Danish immigrant among many Jews in Stamford, Connecticut, I heard the legend numerous times, usually when a parent of a Jewish friend found out I was Danish. My father, a painting contractor with many Jewish customers, had the same experience. He also remembers hearing it in Denmark during the occupation. During the 1950s and 1960s, it seemed as though every Jewish person I ever met knew the legend. I’m sure many still do. Joan Baez, the National Council of Churches, various gay rights task-forces (with pink triangles—the Nazis’ anti-gay equivalent of the Yellow Star), the Detroit News, the NBC “Today” show, and the Parade Sunday supplement, are only a few more recent disseminators of the tale. In 1989, the legend became an issue in Israel, when an ill-fated attempt to make Palestinian workers wear identifying badges was thwarted by Israeli Peace Now sympathizers who threatened to start wearing such badges themselves, “just like the king of Denmark did.”

The legend of the king and the Star is a great and heartwarming story. An incident of nonviolent, but dramatic, triumph of good over grossest evil is universally appealing. Jews themselves, so often feeling alone in a hostile world, have also needed to believe that there are those who offer them relief from violence and hatred, even if only symbolically. Too bad the tale is not true. However, the truth, which is the complicated story of Danes, Swedes, and even a few Germans successfully conspiring to rescue almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark is even greater and more heartwarming.

Finally, I take issue with Dr. Deak’s statement that the Germans were allowed to cross the Danish border without firing a shot. In fact there were firefights at the border itself, in the town of Haderslev, and in Copenhagen outside of the Royal Palace. About 100 Danes and a smaller number of Germans lost their lives on April 9. The Danish government did, of course, surrender almost immediately. Additional resistance would have been futile, and they were thus able to preserve, for three years, the Danish constitutional system of government. The occupation was facilitated by two leading collaborators, Denmark’s Minister of Transport and the Director of the Danish State Railways, who helped the Germans secure control of the countryside. Had the Danish military fought on, they would not only have lost, but there would probably have been no opportunity to rescue Danish Jews on such a grand scale.

Jens Lund
Olympia, Washington

Istvan Deak replies:

Jens Lund’s letter fully explains the creation and amazing success of the legend about King Christian and the Yellow Star. Too bad that the legend is not true, but since it is not, one must ask whether it has not done more harm than good. I believe that it has helped to confuse the true story of the non-Jews who opposed the Final Solution. For a king who took real risks to protect his Jewish subjects, one ought to turn to Boris III of Bulgaria, but that king exists in our historical consciousness, if he exists at all, as a malevolent reactionary and an ally of the Germans. Other Righteous Gentiles ranged from a handful of German officers and officials through Italian fascist generals to Hungarian and Romanian conservative nationalist politicians, and included assorted priests, nuns, and ministers, Polish and French peasants, Scandinavian democrats, and Dutch Communists. The fanciful legend of the good Dane obscures the fact that heroism on behalf of the persecuted did not necessarily presuppose a democratic tradition but was a matter of individual choice, the result of often suddenly discovered humane impulses. According to Jens Lund, the survival of Danish Jews was due, at least in part, to the Danish army having surrendered on the very day of the German invasion. The undoubted connection between collaboration and Jewish survival in selected European countries has been amply discussed in the pages of this journal, as has the negative effect of governmental collaboration on the morale of Europeans and on the Allied cause in general. The Danish excuse was invoked by all other collaborationist regimes, such as the French, Italian, Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak, and Croatian. Yet, conditioned as we are by Andersen’s fairy tales and the legend of Good King Christian, we have only really accepted the Danish excuse.

I am grateful to Jens Lund for informing us that, on the day of German invasion, the Danish army lost some one hundred lives. It is certainly a higher number than that found in history books, which, in the customary single sentence devoted to the invasion of Denmark, speak either of “no resistance,” or, with singular consistency, of “only thirteen Danish casualties.” No matter. Mr. Lund will agree with me that many more than one hundred Danish lives were lost in the Viking division and other Scandinavian SS units fighting on the eastern front. It may console him to know that on March 19, 1944, the day the Germans occupied Hungary, resistance consisted of a single pistol shot fired by Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, an anti-Nazi politician who was himself wounded and captured. Several hundred thousand Hungarians died fighting on the German side, but several hundred thousand Hungarian Jews survived the war. No doubt, persons of conscience will always be confronted with the insoluble dilemma of whether to collaborate with an occupying power to save property and lives or to engage in self-destuctive armed resistance so as to help win the war.

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