The Nazi Who Saved Jews
Karl Rudolf Werner Best was your average run-of-the-mill Nazi, until he wasn’t. A curious footnote to history, Best both ordered and subsequently sabotaged the deportation of Denmark’s Jews, rendering him an enduring mystery.
Born in Darmstadt on July 10, 1903, Best was an early and staunch German nationalist who founded the first local group of the German National Youth League. He studied to become a lawyer, and served briefly as a judge before he was forced to resign for being part of a plot by National Socialists to seize power.
In the 1930s, Best joined the Nazi Party and then the SS, quickly rising in the ranks. He became the chief ideological training officer of the Gestapo, creating the party’s legal rationale for the ethnic cleansing of the Jews. To make his point, Best favored the biological metaphor, according to “The Holocaust: An Encyclopedia and Document Collection,” describing the Gestapo as doctors fighting a national disease (communists, Freemasons and churches were its symptoms, and Jews its cause).
In 1940, Best lost a power struggle among high-ranking Nazis and was sent to France and then Denmark, where he was appointed plenipotentiary in 1942. Denmark was in an interesting position at that time, under something of a peaceful occupation by the Nazis, with Denmark’s political institutions and its king remaining relatively sovereign. But the Danes were becoming increasingly hostile to the German presence, and in August 1943 the Germans instituted martial law.
Following this, on September 8, 1943, Best sent a telegram to Hitler in which he proposed the deportation of the Danish Jews. Hitler approved the proposal but refused Best’s multiple requests for additional SS battalions to help carry out the plan.
So instead of carrying out the Final Solution, Best sabotaged it. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, which fell on October 2, 1943, police units arrived from Germany for a door-to-door search of Jews. At the last minute, as Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1963 book “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” Best told them they were not allowed to break into apartments. They could seize only those Jews who opened their doors voluntarily. And when the police started knocking on doors, they were in for an even bigger surprise: Of 8,000 Danish Jews, they found just 477 at home.
That’s because Best had tipped them off. Through a confidant — a German attaché named Georg Duckwitz — Best revealed the whole plan to Danish officials. They immediately informed the heads of the Jewish community, who informed their congregants of the news in synagogue at Rosh Hashanah services, Arendt wrote.
The Jews had just enough time to leave their apartments and go into hiding. Their Danish neighbors took them in, and over the next two months Danish fishermen ferried the entire Danish Jewish population across the narrow channel into neutral Sweden, where they survived the war.
As for “the curious Dr. Best,” as Arendt calls him, he declared the entire event a victory for Reich, on the grounds that “the objective of the operation was not to seize a great number of Jews but to clean Denmark of Jews,” an objective that had been achieved.
Arendt was fascinated by the curious case of Best. “It is the only case we know of in which the Nazis met with open native resistance, and the result seems to have been that those exposed to it changed their minds,” she wrote. “They themselves apparently no longer looked upon the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course.”
It was a total coup for civil disobedience, Arendt wrote, required reading for “all students who wish to learn something about the enormous power potential inherent in nonviolent action and in resistance to an opponent possessing vastly superior means of violence.”
But not everyone agrees with her. Leo Goldberger, a professor of psychology at New York University, is the author of the 1987 “The Rescue of the Danish Jews: Moral Courage Under Stress.” He is also a survivor of what has come to be known as “The Miracle Rescue” of the Danish Jews.
In 1943, Goldberger and his family lived in Copenhagen, quite close to the Gestapo headquarters. Throughout the war, Goldberger continued to attend a Jewish parochial school, and even had his bar mitzvah in the main synagogue in June 1943, just four months before that fateful Rosh Hashanah night when he and his family were spirited away to Sweden, hidden in the bow of a smelly fishing boat.
Goldberger sees in Arendt’s analysis an instance of romantic wishful thinking. The resistance of the Danes was actually quite minuscule, Goldberger told me. The government was not brave, it was cowardly, for its August resignation meant that the Jews could no longer rely on their officials for protection (notwithstanding King Christian’s pronouncement that if the Jews were forced to wear the Star of David, “Well, I guess, then we will all have to wear it as well”). Furthermore, it was hardly the Danish people en masse who were involved in the rescue of the Jews, as Arendt would have it, but rather a few thousand in all, including fishermen who charged exorbitant prices to ferry the Jews to safety in Sweden.
Goldberger calls the Danish help an instance of “the banality of goodness”; fed up with the Germans, and sure that the Allies would win the war, the Danes offered help that was not very difficult, seeing as Sweden was a short distance away. Though he is “personally ever so grateful to the Danes who helped us in our dire moment of need,” Goldberger also believes that things might have turned out very different had Best sent his telegram in November 1942.
As for the curious Best, for Goldberger, his character and motive remain a mystery. Goldberger believes Best was trying to curry favor with Hitler by demonstrating his ability to manage Denmark as a “model protectorate.” With this in mind, his major concern was to maintain peace. A failed roundup of Jews in which a large number of Danes came to their protection would have been disastrous, undermining Best most of all. “He was by all accounts very ambitious, opportunistic and pragmatic — if not also somewhat psychopathic,” Goldberger explained.
I like Arendt’s take better, though I know Goldberger’s is probably more accurate. The tale of Werner Best captures my imagination for the possibility it presents — that a person may allow herself to become convinced by those around her to be better. Arendt’s Best was pliable at a crucial moment, and in her telling, an entire community was saved as a result.
Of course, this version is a fantasy. Originally, after the war, a Danish court sentenced Best to death, though his sentence was reduced to five years in prison. Indeed, it was at first believed that it was Duckwitz who warned the Jews, though now historians believe that this was done on Best’s orders.
But Best did warn at least one Jew personally. Alexander Bodin Saphir is a playwright living in London. His grandfather, Raphael “Folle” Bodin, and Bodin’s brother, Nathan Bodin, worked as tailors in Copenhagen in 1943 in Folle Bodin’s father-in-law’s shop, which was called Golman.
One day, a high-ranking German officer came into Golman and ordered a suit. When he came to pick it up, he told Nathan Bodin that he and his family should get out of Copenhagen as soon as possible.
They listened, and were among the Jews who escaped on Rosh Hashanah of 1943. Decades later, Saphir’s cousin Margit was going through the old bureau at Golman and found a card from 1943. It was labeled Dr. Karl Rudolph Werner Best.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is the Forward’s opinion editor.