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Denmark - 1940-1945 - The Occupation

German troops occupied Denmark within a few hours on the morning of 9 April 1940. The attack was accompanied by an ultimatum that no resistance was to be offered. Germany would, in exchange, respect the country’s political independence; the King and the government gave in. Thus began a ‘peaceful occupation’ during which Denmark tried to maintain the illusion of independence. With a few exceptions, the Foreign Ministries handled all communication between the two countries.

England reacted by occupying the Faeroe Islands on 12 April, and attempted to seize Denmark’s merchant navy; 2/3 of the ships ended up in allied service. E. Reventlow, the Danish envoy in London, maintained his diplomatic status. H. Kauffmann in Washington, however, reserved his position and in April 1941, he signed an agreement with the USA which gave the States the right to set up military bases in Greenland, which had been under the protection of the States since the outbreak of war.

On principle, the German military required all cases in which it was involved to be tried by its own military courts. The Danes, however, claimed that Danish citizens in the sovereign state of Denmark should always be tried by the Danish courts. As the sabotage activities increased in 1942, a solution had to be found. The resulting system of dual jurisdiction became a millstone for the policy of collaboration.

The policy of collaboration with Germany was matched internally by co-operation between the parties. Representatives from the Conservative People’s Party and the Liberals joined the Social Democratic government as ministers without portfolios. In July 1940, a new coalition government was formed, with a few ministers who were not affiliated to any particular party, including Erik Scavenius who became Foreign Minister. The close co-operation at Christiansborg had the support of the whole population and a wave of Danish national feeling and patriotism swept across the country. The King became the nation’s father figure and a symbol of unity.

The Danish government feared that the Germans would let the Danish Nazi Party come to power. Their fear was unfounded, however, as the Danish Nazis were merely used as a bugbear by the occupying forces. This was not known, however, by the government or the ‘revival’ circles which were attempting to set up an alternative government consisting of professionals and experts.

Sugar and coffee were already rationed before the occupation; bread, oats and butter were also soon affected. The stamps were not supposed to be traded, but black market dealing was rife. Exports had to be diverted to Germany, who was prepared to pay high prices for agricultural products in return for goods such as coal. The price increases which were experienced at the outbreak of war were countered by an automatic index-linked regulation of wages and salaries, but a pay freeze was soon introduced in line with German policy.

The Germans did not want laborers in the occupied countries to have a better standard of living than their own workers. As a result, the farmers prospered whilst the real income in towns fell by around 20% in 1940, and the unemployment rate increased. By the end of the occupation, the trade with Germany had produced an export surplus of approximately 3 billion kroner, boosting purchasing power in the Danish society. The German military’s construction projects, such as landing strips and the fortifications built on the west coast of Jutland, cost approximately 5 billion kroner and were financed by outlays from Nationalbanken, Denmark’s central bank.

The main drawback of the policy of collaboration was the dependence on Germany. The government had to limit the freedom of the press and other demands had to be complied with, and ‘agitators’ like the Conservative Christmas Møller and the Social Democrat Hans Hedtoft had to be removed from the political arena. The actions of the Danish Nazis had to be tolerated despite the restrictions on public gatherings. The policy of collaboration did have certain advantages, however, in that unlike the other occupied countries, Danish society escaped Nazification.

The army, the navy and the police were still in the hands of the Danish State. Democracy still functioned at a central and local level, and there was no interference in the education sector. The trade organisations went unchallenged, as did all other associations.

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, it demanded that the leading members of the Danish Communist Party be interned. The German orders were complied with much more thoroughly than was demanded and the Danish Communist Party (DKP) was banned, despite the fact that both these actions went against the constitution.

All Communists were ousted from the unions. The party went underground and continued its activities, which was the start of the Resistance movement in Denmark. The government also accepted German demands to create a military corps, known as Frikorps Danmark, which was to fight with the Germans against Bolshevism and to sign the Anti-Comintern Pact.

When Prime Minister Stauning died in May 1942, he was succeeded by his party colleague Vilhelm Buhl. The economic situation gradually settled down, prices stabilised, unemployment fell (partly because of the need for labour in connection with the German construction work), and the krone was revalued by approximately 8% in relation to the German Reichsmark.

The illegal activities which began in 1942 put a great deal of pressure on the policy of collaboration. Following Germany’s breach of the German-Soviet non-aggression pact, the Communists steadily developed their illegal activities. Together with members of the Conservative People’s Party, they published the underground paper known as Frit Danmark (Free Denmark), and in April 1942, they launched an active campaign of sabotage. Christmas Møller’s escape to England at the beginning of May 1942, and his subsequent radio broadcasts to Denmark, created a great sensation. From the turn of the year 1941-1942, the British Special Operations Executive began to drop parachutists in Denmark with help from the party Dansk Samling (the Danish Unity Party). At this time, there was still very little public support for the Resistance movement.

By the autumn of 1942, the Germans were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the situation in Denmark, partly because of riots when Frikorps Danmark was home on leave, but also because the German army needed to strengthen its anti-invasion defence.

A diplomatic crisis erupted following a rather curt telegram from the King thanking Hitler for his birthday greetings. The Telegram Crisis resulted in direct intervention from Hitler in the affairs of the country. The plenipotentiary Renthe-Fink was replaced by Werner Best and a new commander-in-chief, General von Hanneken, was sent to Denmark in November. The occupiers also demanded that the Foreign Minister, Scavenius, be made Prime Minister and that strong action be taken against the Resistance movement; moreover, von Hanneken ordered all Danish military personnel out of Jutland.

Werner Best continued the German policy in close co-operation with Scavenius, realising that co-operation had several advantages. On the one hand, the Germans could take advantage of Denmark’s production – agricultural exports corresponded to around one month’s consumption in Germany – and on the other they could maintain law and order with the minimum use of German resources. Best managed to bring about that the German authorities allowed a general election to be held on 23 March 1943.

The election turned into a trial of strength between the coalition parties and the activists. A record 89.5% turnout gave the coalition parties 93.4% of the votes; 2.1% voted in favour of the Danish Unity Party and 3.3% voted for the Nazis, etc. The Danish Communist Party (DKP) had been banned, but took part indirectly alongside Free Denmark with a campaign urging voters to return a blank ballot paper, as indeed 1.2% of them did.

The mood gradually began to change during the spring and summer of 1943, partly because of general ‘occupation fatigue’, partly because of the German defeats at the fronts from the end of 1942. The number of strikes began to rise, as did the number of sabotage actions. In spring 1943, the Resistance movement began to acquire explosives from England. Despite all this, the ‘August Uprising’ still came as a surprise. The August Uprising in 1943 centred on Esbjerg (9-11 August), Odense (18-23 August), Aalborg (23-29 August) and Århus (26-29 August).

Strikes were organised by the communists in 17 towns across the country, factories, offices and shops closed down and huge riots broke out; Copenhagen had no strikes but there were wide-spread disturbances. The political and union authorities did their best to stop the unrest and the German troops showed moderation in the strike-bound towns, but the Germans wanted the Danish military to be disarmed. Even though Werner Best played down the scale of the disturbances in his reports to Berlin, Hitler demanded that the Danish government declare a state of emergency and introduce the death penalty for sabotage. The Danes refused.

On 29 August, the government presented the King with its resignation. The Germans immediately began to disarm and intern the Danish army and navy, though the latter sank itself, and von Hanneken declared the whole country under martial law. On 29 August 1943, Vice-Admiral A.H. Vedel gave orders that the entire fleet should be sunk. A total of 29 ships were sunk in Copenhagen, including the armoured vessel Peder Skram.

Then, and later, 29 August was seen as the decisive turning point in the relationship between Denmark and Germany. The policy of collaboration was ended and, in the words of Best: ‘The political parade horse, Denmark, is dead’. In the months that followed until the Liberation, the country was governed by the civil service heads of department through orders approved by the supreme court. Collaboration continued on an administrative level, and Danish society escaped Nazification.

Anti-German sentiments were sharpened when the Germans took action against the Danish Jews on the night of 2 October 1943. The operation failed, due partly to Best’s duplicity. Fewer than 500 Jews were seized and taken to Theresienstadt, where the vast majority of them survived. After the Gestapo action against the Danish Jews in October 1943, more than 7,000 Jews fled to Sweden. Many ordinary people helped with the illegal rescue action.

The Danish Freedom Council was established in the middle of September to lead the fight for the country’s liberation. The Council included representatives from the most important resistance groups: The Communists, Free Denmark, the Danish Unity Party and the Ring, with Børge Houmann, Mogens Fog, Arne Sørensen and Frode Jakobsen as the most important members. Directives from SOE (Special Operations Executive) helped to unite the different groups; in December orders came that military groups were to be organised, ready to attack the German troops in the rear in case of invasion. A single organisation was now set up to head operations.

The military groups were first organised by the Communists and the Danish Unity Party, and then increasingly by members of the Ring, especially because many of the pioneers disappeared: Some went into German prisons and concentration camps, others were interned in Denmark in the Frøslevlejr camp (about 10,000), and about 10,000 escaped to Sweden.

The Resistance movement grew as more and more military groups were set up. There were around 20,000 members by the end of 1944, and this number had risen to around 50,000 by the time of the Liberation. The groups were armed with handguns from England or Sweden. On the other hand, the sabotage groups (in Copenhagen BOPA and Holger Danske, in the provinces e.g. Valthergruppen in Odense) accounted for a very small percentage of the total.

Their actions were mainly directed at the railways (approximately 1,500 attacks) and the industries that worked for the Germans (another 2,800 attacks). Ships and shipyards constituted another important target and created a strong threat which was taken extremely seriously by the Germans.

After the military personnel had been freed in October 1943, the army began to operate alongside the Freedom Council. Officers gathered in special groups in Copenhagen and formed a separate brigade in Sweden known as Danforce. Officers were given leading positions around the country, and from June 1944 the Resistance Movement was secretly financed by the State. The Danish Freedom Council and the ‘old’ politicians were drawn together following the general strike in Copenhagen on 1 July 1944. Together they appealed to the Allies to recognise Denmark as an allied power, but were met by resistance from the Soviets. Negotiations were also held concerning the creation of the first post-war government, and an agreement was finally reached that each side would take half the ministerial posts.

When the liberation announcement was heard over the radio in the evening of 4 May 1945, thousands of Danes tore down their blackout curtains and put candles in the windows. This has since become a firm tradition. Twenty-five years after the liberation, the Post Office issued this stamp, designed by the graphic artist Povl Christensen.

After the events of 29 August 1943, the Gestapo had taken over all investigations concerning the Resistance Movement. At the beginning of 1944, the Germans began their campaign of ‘counter terror’: Counter-sabotage and reprisal murders were carried out in retaliation for sabotage actions and attacks against the German army (Wehrmacht).

German attempts to persuade the Danish police to take part in the prevention of sabotage and maintaining law and order during strikes failed, so the police force was disbanded on 19 September 1944 and policemen subsequently sent to concentration camps. The war and the occupation cost around 7,000 Danes their lives. The last months of the occupation were characterised by increased shortages, poor quality goods, clashes between members of the Resistance and Danes working for the Germans, and a rising crime rate. From February 1945, some 200,000 German refugees from East Prussia arrived in Denmark. Meanwhile, the end of the war was in sight.

All German troops in Denmark surrendered to the English on 5 May 1945, except for those stationed on Bornholm which lay within the Soviet theatre of operations. The island was not liberated until 8 May 1945, and Rønne and Nexø were subjected to Soviet air raids prior to the liberation.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2013 18:53:41 ZULU