Historisk Tidsskrift
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Inter Arma Caritas
The Red Cross and the Administration of the German Refugees in Denmark 1945-1949

(102:1, 124-125)

The Red Cross has, for over a hundred years, been synonymous with providing help to the victims of armed conflicts. In the last months of World War II, 250.000 civilian refugees from the eastern provinces of Germany ended up in Denmark. Three different organizations under the Red Cross, namely the International Committee of the Red Cross, the German Red Cross and the Danish Red Cross were involved in assisting the refugees in Denmark. The Geneva Conventions are the international legislation which obliged the states to follow specific rules for the treatment of the victims of war. In 1945 the Geneva Conventions did not include civilians, but, since the first Geneva Conventions from 1864, medical personnel of the armies have been included and specific rules for their treatment described.

The German Red Cross was ordered by the Danish authorities and the British Military Mission in Denmark to continue its supervision of the German refugee camps after the surrender of Germany. But in the summer of 1945 the German Red Cross had considerable problems with both the resistance movement and the German emigrants who had arrived in Denmark in the 1930s. The leaders of the German Red Cross were repeatedly arrested by the resistance movement and the British Military Mission, and finally in October 1945 the leader of the Danish Refugee Administration, Johannes Kjærbøl, decided to close down the German Red Cross, realizing that it was not possible for a German organization to function in Denmark at that time. But the sanitary personnel from the German Red Cross whom the Germans had ordered to go to Denmark in March-April 1945, after the Danish health system had refused to treat the German refugees, were retained in Denmark against their will by the Danish authorities until the last refugees left Denmark in 1949. German military doctors and other army sanitary personnel were also forced to stay in Denmark, in clear contradiction of their rights according to the Geneva Conventions.

Before the German surrender the Danish Red Cross refused to assist the refugees. Their excuse was, that they thought it impossible to persuade Danish volunteers to help Germans. After the capitulation the Danish Red Cross was prepared to care for the refugees, but the Danish authorities handed the job over to another organization. The Danish Red Cross did not show much interest in the treatment of the German refugees and believed without any objections everything the Danish authorities told them about the conditions in the refugee camps. It supported the Danish authorities in their attempt to exclude the International Committee of the Red Cross from supervising the refugee camps. On the other hand the Danish Red Cross was without prejudice delivering food aid to the Germans in Germany, and defending and upholding this program, despite the fact that public opinion in Denmark opposed it, contributed to the dismissal of the president of the Danish Red Cross in 1950.

The International Committee of the Red Cross was, at first, not aware of any problems in caring for the German refugees in Denmark. However from October 1945 to the summer of 1947 there was a permanent delegate attached to Denmark, committed to supervising the German refugee camps. The International Committee of the Red Cross acknowledged the burden put upon Den-

[p. 125]

mark in providing for such a large population of German refugees, but it also pointed out to the Danish authorities the intolerable conditions in some of the camps, and it forced the Danish Government to acknowledge that the German military sanitary personnel were protected by the Geneva Conventions. The delegate was not welcome in Denmark, but the International Committee could not be turned down and it managed to improve the conditions for the sanitary personnel.

The role of the Red Cross in the administration of the German refugees in Denmark is a good example of the conditions faced by a foreign Red Cross society in a hostile country and the naivety of a national Red Cross society in believing blindly what the national authorities tell it. However it also shows the strength of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which had no power to force the Government to follow humanitarian principles and the Geneva Conventions but nevertheless had so much moral authority, that it was able to put pressure on the Government to improve the conditions for the refugees.