Occupation of Denmark

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Copenhagen Headquarters of the Schalburgerkorps, a Danish SS unit, after 1943

Germany's occupation of Denmark was commenced by Operation Weserübung April 9, 1940, and lasted until the German forces were withdrawn at the end of World War II following their surrender to Allied forces. The occupation ended on May 5, 1945. Contrary to the situation in other countries under German occupations during the war, most Danish institutions continued to function relatively unaffected until 1943. The Danish government remained in the country in an uneasy relationship between a democratic and a totalitarian system until German authorities dissolved the government following a wave of strikes.



The occupation of Denmark was never an important objective for the German government. The decision to occupy their small northern neighbour was made to facilitate the invasion of the strategically more important Norway; and as a mean against the awaited British campaign in Norway. As late as February 1940, the decision to occupy Denmark had not been made.

Although the Danish territory of South Jutland was home to a significant German minority, and the province had been regained from Germany after a plebiscite as part of the hated Versailles Treaty, there was no apparent urgency to reclaim it on the part of the Nazis. In a vaguer and much more long term way some Nazis hoped to incorporate Denmark into a greater "Nordic Union" at some stage, but there was no serious plan of that sort.

On April 9, 1940, German forces moved into neutral Denmark. Sixteen Danish soldiers died defending Denmark, but after only two hours of military resistance the Danish government surrendered hoping to work out an advantageous agreement with Germany. Jutland's small flat territory, immediately adjacent to Germany, was a perfect area for the German army to operate in. Their armed forces were technologically sophisticated and large; the Danish armed forces were tiny in comparison and using obsolete equipment, partially due to a pre-war policy of trying to avoid antagonizing Germany. Even stiff resistance from the Danes would not have lasted long.

The occupation was so quick, that many Danes waking up that morning did not realize what had happened before the occupation was a fact. To the rest of the world it seemed perplexingly almost as if Denmark's Social Democrat government had sided with Germany. However, the German incursion was widely unpopular, though the people were divided about the best policy toward Germany.

Danish Government 1940-43

Erik Scavenius, Danish PM from 1942 with Werner Best, the first German plenipotentiary in Denmark.
Erik Scavenius, Danish PM from 1942 with Werner Best, the first German plenipotentiary in Denmark.

As a result of the cooperative attitude of the Danish authorities, German officials claimed that they would "respect Danish sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as neutrality." The German authorities were inclined to lenient terms with Denmark for several reasons:

  • They had no particular strategic or ideological interests in the country, so they were happy to be free of the responsibilities and burdens of administration.
  • Their only strong interest in Denmark, i.e. surplus agricultural products, would likely be supplied anyway by the Danes – out of economic necessity.
  • They also hoped to score propaganda points by making Denmark, in Hitler's words, "a model protectorate." It would show to the world what a future Nazi controlled Europe could be.
  • On top of these more practical goals, Nazi race ideology held that Danes were "fellow Nordic" Aryans, and could therefore to some extent be trusted to handle their own domestic affairs.

These factors combined to allow Denmark a very favourable relationship with Nazi Germany. The government remained intact and the parliament continued to function more or less as it had before. They were able to maintain much of their former control over domestic policy. The police and judicial system remained in Danish hands and King Christian X remained in the country. Danish public opinion generally backed the new government, particularly after the fall of France in June 1940. There was a general feeling that the unpleasant reality of German occupation must be confronted in the most realistic way possible, given the international situation. Politicians realized that they would have to try hard to maintain Denmark's privileged position by presenting a united front to the German authorities, so all of the mainstream democratic parties formed a new government together. Parliament and the government agreed to work closely together. Though the effect of this was close to the creation of a one party state, it remained a representative government.

The Danish government was dominated by Social Democrats, such as the pre-war Prime Minister, Thorvald Stauning, who were revolted by the Nazi party. Stauning himself was deeply depressed by the prospects for Europe under Nazism. None the less, his party pursued a strategy of cooperation, hoping to maintain democracy and Danish control in Denmark for as long as possible. There were many issues that they had to work out with Germany in the months after the occupation. In an effort to keep the Germans happy they compromised Danish democracy in several important ways:

  • News paper articles and news reports "which might jeopardize German-Danish relations" were outlawed.
  • Normal relations with Allied governments were cut off.
  • Industrial production and trade was, partly due to geo-political and economic necessity, redirected toward Germany. Denmark had traditionally been a major trading partner of both Britain and Germany. Many government officials saw expanded trade with Germany as vital to maintaining social order in Denmark. Increased unemployment and poverty was feared to lead to more of open revolt within the country, since Danes tended to blame all negative developments on the Germans. And revolt was feared to lead to a crack down by German authorities.

Erik Scavenius was Prime Minister for most of the war as head of a coalition cabinet. He was a diplomat, not an elected politician, and had an elitist approach to government. He was very afraid that emotional public opinion would destabilize his attempts to build a compromise between Danish sovereignty and the realities of German occupation. Scavenius felt strongly that he was Denmark's most ardent defender. After the war there was much recrimination of his stance, particularly from members of the active resistance who felt that he had hindered the cause of resistance and threatened Denmark's national honour. He felt that these people were vain, seeking to build their own reputations or political careers through emotionalism.

The Danish authorities were able to use their more cooperative stance to win important concessions for the country. They continually refused to enter a customs and currency union with Germany. Danes were concerned both about the negative economic effects of the German proposals, as well as the political ones. German officials did not want to risk their special relationship with Denmark by forcing an agreement on them as they had in other countries. The Danish government was also able to stall negotiations over the return of North Slesvig to Germany, ban "closed rank uniformed marches" that would have made nationalist German or Danish Nazi agitation more possible, keep National Socialists out of the government, and hold a relatively free election with decidedly anti-Nazi results in the middle of the war. Danish military officials also had access to sensitive German information which they delivered to the Allies under government cover. The economic consequences of the occupation were also mitigated by German-Danish cooperation. The influx of German investment in industry, agriculture, and most notably defensive installations and troop deployments caused serious inflation in the first year of the war. The Danish government was able to renegotiate the arbitrary exchange rate between the Mark and Krone to deal with this problem. The success most often alluded to in regard to the Danish policy toward Germany is the protection of the Jewish minority in Denmark.

Throughout the years of its hold on power the government consistently refused to accept German demands regarding the Jews. The authorities would not enact special laws concerning Jews and their civil rights remained equal with the rest of the population. German authorities became increasingly exasperated with this position but concluded that any attempt to remove or mistreat Jews would be "politically unacceptable." Even the Gestapo officer, Dr. Werner Best, plenipotentiary in Denmark from November 1942 believed that any attempt to remove the Jews would be enormously disruptive to the relationship between the two governments and recommended against any action concerning the Jews of Denmark.

King Christian X remained in Denmark throughout the war, a symbol of courage much appreciated by his subjects, though the story claiming that he would wear the star of David if Jews were forced to is apocryphal.

Increasing Hostility

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Barricades erected during a general strike, Nørrebro, Copenhagen, July 1944

As the years dragged on the population became increasingly hostile to the Germans. Soldiers stationed in Denmark had found most of the population cold and removed from the beginning of the occupation, but their willingness to cooperate had made the relationship cordial. The government had attempted to discourage sabotage and violent resistance to the occupation, but by the autumn of 1942 the numbers of violent acts of resistance were increasing steadily to the point that Germany declared Denmark "enemy territory" for the first time. After the battles of Stalingrad and El-Alamein the incidents of resistance, violent and symbolic, increased exponentially. In March 1943 the Germans allowed an election that embarrassed them by giving good results to anti-Nazi parties. The election, discontent, and a growing feeling of optimism that Germany would be defeated led to wide spread strikes and civil disturbances in the summer of 1943. The Danish government refused to deal with the situation in a way that would satisfy the Germans, so on August 29, 1943 the Germans officially dissolved the Danish government and instituted martial law.

After the fall of the government Denmark was exposed to the full extent of Nazi power. In October they decided to remove all Jews from Denmark, but thanks to information leaks and swift action on the part of the population at large almost all of the Jews were transported safely to neutral Sweden. Sabotage, unencumbered by government opposition grew greatly in number and severity, though it was rarely of very serious concern to the Germans. There were some successes such as on D-Day when the train network in Denmark was disrupted for days, delaying the arrival of reinforcements in Normandy. An underground government was established and the illegal press flourished. Allied governments who had been sceptical about the commitment to fight Germany in Denmark began recognizing it as a full ally.


There were extremely serious economic problems in Denmark during the war. The Danish economy was fundamentally hurt by the rising cost of raw material imports such as coal and oil. The blockade against Germany affected Denmark too with unfortunate results. Since the country has virtually no natural resources of its own it was very vulnerable to these price shocks and shortages. The government had foreseen the possibility of coal and oil shortages and had stockpiled some before the war, which, combined with rationing, prevented some of the worst potential problems from coming to the country. The disruptions to the European trading network were also damaging to the economy, but all things considered, Denmark did quite well compared to other countries during the war.

The country, at least certain sections of it, did so well that it has been open to the accusation of profiteering from the war. After the war there was some effort to find and punish profiteers, but the consequences and scope of these trials were far less severe than in many other countries, largely a reflection of the general acceptance of the realistic need for cooperation with Germany. On the whole, though the country fared relatively well, this is only a relative measure. Phil Giltner has worked out that Germany had a "debt" of roughly 6.9 billion Kroner to Denmark as a whole. This means that they had taken far more out of the Danish economy than they had put in, aside from the negative side effects of the war on trade.

This German debt means that the occupation of Denmark was overall an economic benefit to their war effort. This represents an unhappy reality for Danes who would like to think that they contributed to the downfall of Nazi Germany.

Hardship and the end of the War

Denmark was liberated from German rule in May of 1945 by the famous General Bernard Montgomery, although the easternmost island Bornholm was briefly held by Soviet forces.

Although Denmark was spared many of the difficulties other areas of Europe suffered from, there were still some hardships for the population, particularly after the Germans took over. Yet, on the whole, Denmark can be said to have suffered the least of all the European combatants from the war. Many were killed and imprisoned because of their work resisting the German authorities. There were small bombing raids on select targets in the country, but nothing comparable to that suffered by, for instance, neighbouring Norway or The Netherlands. One area that was badly damaged was the island of Bornholm, largely due to Soviet bombardment of the German garrison there.

Just over 850 resistance members were killed during the war. Roughly 900 Danish civilians were killed through various causes, either caught in air raids, killed during civil disturbances, or in reprisal killings. 39 Danish soldiers were killed during the invasion, and 4 were killed on August 29, 1943 when the Germans dissolved the Danish government. About 360 Danes died in concentration camps. The largest groups of fatalities was amongst Danish sailors who continued to operate throughout the war, most falling victim to submarines. 1850 sailors died. Just over 100 soldiers died as part of Allied forces.

After the war 40,000 people were arrested on suspicion of collaboration. Of these 13,500 were punished in some way. 78 were death sentences, although only 46 were carried out. Most received prison sentences of under 4 years. Many people criticized the process for victimizing "small" people disproportionately, while many politicians and businesses were left untouched. Another difficult issues was what to do with collaborators who were essentially "following orders" that their own government had given them, such as business executives who had been encouraged to work with the Germans.

Although some members of the resistance tried to organize new political parties after the war to reshape the political order in Denmark, they were unable to do so. The only strong impact the resistance had on the elections in October 1945 was that the communists, widely credited with much of the resistance work had a large surge in support, receiving 1/8 of the popular vote.

See also


  • Lundbak, Henrik. Besættelsestid og frihedskamp 1940-45. København: Frihedsmuseet, 1996. ISBN 87-89384-40-7
  • Flender, Harold. Rescue in Denmark. New York: Holocaust Library, 1963.
  • Dethlefsen, Henrik. "Denmark and the German Occupation: Cooperation, Negotiation, or Collaboration," Scandinavian Journal of History. 15:3 (1990), pp. 193-206.
  • Giltner, Phil. "The Success of Collaboration: Denmark's Self-Assessment of its Economic Position after Five Years of Nazi Occupation," Journal of Contemporary History 36:3 (2001) pp. 483-506.da:Besættelsen

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