Denmark - 1914-1920 - Neutrality and Conflicts
Although Denmark managed to retain its neutral status during World War I, it largely had to adhere to Germany’s wishes. The Great Belt, for example, was blocked by mines despite an international obligation to keep the strait open. A large defence force was called up and posted largely around Copenhagen. The Danes were not entirely unaffected by the war: 275 of the merchant navy’s ships were sunk, some 700 seamen lost their lives and almost 6,000 people from South Jutland were killed on active service in the German army. Economically, the country kept a balance between the warring parties by entering into separate trade agreements which involved export bans so that the blockades could not be avoided by re-exporting goods from Denmark.
Internally, the political parties entered into a truce which, by and large, lasted until the end of the war. Based on the August Laws of 1914, the government and the Rigsdag constructed an elaborate system of regulations which affected every economic and social area, included price policy, supply policy and rationing systems, and to a certain extent also income distribution policy which meant a widening of state powers.
The territory around the Danish West Indies gained increased strategic importance during the First World War. The United States were concerned by the interest shown in the Danish islands by a number of German companies, and in 1915 they sought to buy the islands from the Danish government. A selling price of 25 million dollars was agreed the following year and the sale went through after a referendum in December. The islands were officially handed over on 1 April 1917.
The political truce broke down immediately after the end of the First World War and the Opposition, which then consisted of the Liberals and the Conservative People’s Party (until 1915 Højre ‘Right’), demanded that the regulations be abolished. The government hesitated, however, because of the delicate social balance and the fear of a post-war crisis. Despite these divisions, a number of land laws were passed in 1919 which changed the system of ownership for the large estates and took over land which was used to set up approximately 6,000 smallholdings.
The Social Democratic Party began to come under strong fire for its moderate policies by those on the left of the political spectrum. The conflict, which was partly inspired by the revolutions in the central and eastern parts of Europe, was intensified by growing social hardships. In 1918-1919, the militant workers succeeded in pushing through the labour market’s demand from 1889 for an eight-hour working day. The 1919 agreement between the Danish Employers’ Federation and the Federation of Trade Unions incorporated both this demand and an improved cost-of-living adjustment system.
Germany’s collapse made it possible to solve the Schleswig issue. It was stipulated in the Treaty of Versailles that the future of the area should be decided by plebiscite, and the first vote was held in North Schleswig on 10 February 1920 when three quarters of the population voted in favour of a union with Denmark. A second vote was held on 14 March the same year in Central Schleswig (which included Flensburg) and produced the opposite result. The plebiscite gave rise to strong feelings of patriotism on both sides.
In 1919, the Dannevirke Movement had called for a border along the Dannevirke; after the second vote the nationalists became determined that Flensburg should be returned despite the result of the referendum. The nationalists’ anger over the border north of Flensburg exploded at the end of March 1920. The border issue, combined with continuing objections towards the system of regulations, finally resulted in a violent attack on the government and pressure on Christian X to dismiss it.
On 29 March the King dismissed Zahle’s government, thereby giving rise to the Easter Crisis. The Folketing was in recess for Easter so no majority was shown to be against the government. The following day, the King appointed a caretaker government which was given the task of calling an election. Christian X’s actions were interpreted by the Social Liberals and the Social Democrats as a coup, and they immediately called for the restoration of parliamentary democracy. Their demand was strongly backed by the labour movement which threatened to declare a general strike.
Large demonstrations were held by the workers who demanded a republic to replace the monarchy. The situation was exacerbated by the threat of a large-scale labour conflict. After intense negotiations, the party leaders finally arrived at an agreement on the morning of Easter Day. A new caretaker government was to be appointed and given the sole task of calling an election. Even though the crisis was one of the most serious in the recent political history of Denmark, its conclusion helped to consolidate the principle of Cabinet responsibility.
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