Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Blowing the Whistle in 1943



Being a writer of weekly columns and topical songs, these things are supposed to be at least somewhat temporary in nature. But whether it's a podcast from last summer or a song I wrote a decade ago, change one or two words and it could have been written yesterday. To mention a few subjects I have addressed in recent months that refuse to fade into recent history: child separations at the border are once again in the news for a number of reasons, including corruption charges against the biggest for-profit child detention facility in the US; politicians and pundits continue to find supposedly new reasons to refer to Jeremy Corbyn, Ilhan Omar and the Gilets Jaune as anti-Semitic, despite all the accusations being self-evidently baseless; there has been yet another massacre in Gaza carried out by Israeli snipers, who are now as of this week being charged by the UN for war crimes; there has been a further dramatic escalation in the far right's efforts to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Venezuela; the War on Refugees continues in the form of the 2020 Wall Budget Debate; and Chelsea Manning is back in jail, this time for refusing to testify to what is known as a grand jury.

To refresh our memories, what Private Manning was originally imprisoned for blowing the whistle on were things like the US use of torture and the commission of other war crimes such as a massacre of journalists and children by helicopter gunship. For exposing war crimes, Chelsea was not given an award or a promotion, she was called a traitor and many other things and given a very long prison sentence, eventually commuted by the last president just before he left office. Other people have blown the whistle on other crimes committed by our government and other governments, and for their good work they have been similarly rewarded, and some accidentally-released legal documents indicate that Julian Assange is completely justified in fearing that the US government is seeking his extradition and imprisonment, because they are. If not for the quick actions of Wikileaks and the Russian government back in 2013, Edward Snowden would be facing the same. (The hatred of these heroic whistle-blowers among the ranks of the US Congress has been largely bipartisan, it should be noted.)

Hearing about the re-arrest of Chelsea Manning and other developments that continually reinforce the general feeling that we are in the midst of a rapid descent into full-fledged fascism obviously inspires a lot of historical comparisons, especially among people who are apt to make such comparisons with very little provocation. As it happens, the particular village where I'm heading to at the end of this month invites more of the same comparisons.

For the first week of April and for most of July and August I'll be running a very small cafe in Denmark -- most of that time with my wife, Reiko, and our three kids. (Our toddler, Yuta, is already becoming a very good barista, practicing daily on his favorite toy, our home espresso machine.) I don't know how old the building thirty meters from ├śresund is that houses the cafe, but it has a traditional straw roof, and it was built at a time that the average Dane was a lot shorter than today. Standing up inside this cafe is only possible in certain spots if you're an American male of average height (like I am). If this little building could tell stories, it would have a lot to say.

It directly faces the inlet that separates Denmark from Sweden. Cafe Hellebaek is named after the little fairy tale Danish village of Hellebaek in which it lies, on the line -- and the road and bike path -- separating the forested hills from the sea. For centuries, this part of Denmark was the front line in the Danish crown's unceasing efforts to re-take contested parts of Sweden on the other side of the inlet. It was the longest war in recorded history, according to my friend Kristian Svensson, a Swedish songwriter, playwright and historian. (I learned a lot of other interesting random pieces of information from touring with Kristian.)

It's been quite a while since there has been conflict between Sweden and Denmark. But in more relatively recent times, the little coastal village was witness to drama of the global-historic variety, particularly during a week spanning the end of September and beginning of October, 1943. Hellebaek would be one of three main villages that would be the launching points for the thousands of Danish Jews who would be successfully saved from imminent deportation and given asylum in Sweden, which, unlike Denmark, was not then suddenly under direct administration by Nazi occupiers.

These were not a matter of fake accusations of anti-Semitism back then. This was far, far too real. A phenomenon that had little history within the Muslim world prior to the twentieth century, but has been a major aspect characterizing European Christendom for over a millennia, culminating with the mechanized genocide carried out by the Nazis and their collaborators throughout Europe.

There were other forms of official anti-Semitism as well -- for example, in Roosevelt's America.

In 1943 the official policy of the US towards Jewish or other refugees from Germany or eastern Europe was to deny them visas or send them back. Perhaps not for the same reasons, Sweden was also wary of taking in such refugees. The Swedish policy changed on October 2nd, 1943, and this change was announced on the radio publicly, which was a crucial element of the whole operation actually taking place and working.

The overwhelming success of the operation was a testament to many things -- to the bravery and efficiency of the Danish underground resistance movement; to the solidarity of the Danish people with their fellow Danes, whether they be Jewish or communist; to the fact that most of the German military was busy being defeated at Stalingrad; to the fact that ├śresund is very narrow; and in no small part, to the principled actions of a Nazi Party whistle-blower named Georg Duckwitz.

As with Chelsea Manning, Georg Duckwitz was serving a regime that was actively committing crimes against humanity that differed in detail and in scale but in both cases involved things like invading countries based on false pretexts, overthrowing democracies, supporting and imposing dictatorships, immense corporate profiteering, millions of dead, millions of refugees, with entire countries, entire societies, laid to waste.

As with Chelsea Manning, Georg Duckwitz could no longer bear to be a cog in this machine of genocide, regardless of how direct or indirect his involvement was with the worst of the crimes being committed in the name of his blood and soil. Duckwitz's moment to make a difference came when he learned of plans from Berlin to begin rounding up all the Jews they could find in Denmark. Obviously risking his life and liberty, Georg Duckwitz informed the chief rabbi of Denmark and on false pretenses he flew to Stockholm to inform the Swedish crown and to beseech them to accept Jewish refugees.

The chief rabbi informed the Danish resistance movement, and with a clear plan in place due to the public broadcast from Sweden, the fishermen, innkeepers and other regular Danish people did the rest.

No one informed Duckwitz's Nazi colleagues of what he had done. The diplomat returned to his duties, an unnoticed hero, until long after the end of the war. When the role he played in the rescue of the Danish Jews was realized, he received appropriate recognition and a couple of awards -- not prison time, accusations of treason and presidential death threats.

Unfortunately for Chelsea Manning, this is the USA in 2019, not occupied Denmark in 1943. But it's important to recall more optimistic historical moments than the present one.

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