The Nazi sympathiser turned Jewish lifesaver

Georg Duckwitz Bremen, Germany 1904 - 1973

Adolf Hitler’s pursuit of the ‘Final Solution’ was horrifying and relentless, and it reached into all corners of Europe, including countries with which Germany had an otherwise temperate relationship. But in one such country, Denmark, one man’s daring act of heroism ensured that thousands of Jews escaped the Nazi regime unharmed.

Georg Duckwitz was born in Germany. He, like many other German citizens, was captivated by Adolf Hiitler’s mesmerising, impassioned speeches, where he promised to address the issues of the German people, and vowed to build them an empire of which they could be proud. Duckwitz subsequently joined the Nazi Party’s Office of Foreign Affairs in July 1933, bringing with him a wealth of Scandinavian knowledge, having worked and lived in Copenhagen for several years.

But over the course of his tenure he became increasingly disillusioned by Nazi politics, writing in a letter to his Foreign Office superior that his time with the party “made me realise that I am so fundamentally deceived in the nature and purpose of the National Socialist movement that I am no longer able to work within this movement as an honest person”. He resigned from his post, but was recruited back in 1939, when the Third Reich assigned him to the German embassy in Copenhagen as a maritime attaché.

In this role, Duckwitz worked alongside Nazi Reich representative Werner Best, who was responsible for Germany’s secret police, the Gestapo. This allowed Duckwitz to get fresh information about the intentions of the Nazi party, and it was through this connection he learned about the appalling plans Hitler had made for Denmark’s Jewish community. As Germany and Denmark’s once neutral relationship became increasingly tense, September 1943 saw Hitler decide to implement his Final Solution in the Scandinavian country: all of Denmark’s 8,000 Jews were to be deported to death camps around Europe.

Duckwitz was horrified. He first went to Berlin, where he protested the damning decision through official channels, but his pleas were ignored. With few other options – and in a move that could have cost him his life – Duckwitz undertook a clandestine journey to Sweden, where he met with Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson. Would Sweden be willing to take in Denmark’s Jewish refugees, he asked. This was a considerable request to make, since Sweden was at the time something of an ally to Germany, and provided the Nazis with a variety of raw materials necessary for their war effort. But after two days, Hansson gave Duckwitz an answer. Yes, Sweden would give Denmark’s Jews a favourable reception.

But time was of the essence – the Nazis were to begin rounding up Jews in a matter of days. Duckwitz alerted some of Denmark’s higher-up officials, and word was spread to the Jewish community. Escape would be made by boat across the narrow body of water between Denmark and Sweden, the Oresund.

Thousands of Danes helped to shelter, protect and smuggle their Jewish friends and neighbours to the waterside in Copenhagen – many evading capture by a matter of hours, if not minutes. They crammed together in tiny and foul-smelling, but unassuming, fishing boats and sailed to Sweden, where they were guaranteed safety.

More than 700 trips were made back and forth over the course of two weeks, and when Nazi soldiers broke down the doors of Denmark’s Jewish residences, they found them empty. More than 7,000 Danish Jews – some 95% of the country’s Jewish population – had been saved. Duckwitz’s story is an object lesson in how just one person has the potential to affect thousands of lives – were it not for his actions, the Jewish refugees would have surely perished.

Duckwitz remained in German Foreign Service after the war and played an integral role in negotiating the Treaty of Warsaw with the Polish Government in 1970. In 1971, the Israeli government named him Righteous Among the Nations, and included him in the Yad Vashem memorial. He died two years later, aged 68.

We will remember them

Georg Duckwitz Bremen, Germany 1904 - 1973
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