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The occupation of Denmark

"This is London... At this moment, it is announced that Montgomery has stated that the German troops in Holland, Northwest Germany and Denmark have surrendered"

Those were the words of BBC's Danish broadcast on 4 May 1945 at half past eight. They meant the end of Germany's five-year occupation of Denmark, and the radio broadcast has since become one of the most important symbols of one of the happiest days in recent Danish history.

Denmark was occupied by Germany on 9 April 1940. Hitler was not particularly interested in Denmark in itself, but he needed to control the country and its air bases to make it easier for the German army to attack Norway. In addition Denmark was to be part of the German defences that would prevent an Allied invasion.

The actual occupation proved no challenge for Germany. After a few hours of fighting the Danish soldiers in southern Jutland surrendered, and the Danish government began negotiations with the German invasion forces.

Due to the Danish will to cooperate and Germany's lack of interest in ruling Denmark with an iron fist, the occupation went relatively peacefully at first. The government stayed in office, parliament continued its work and the control of both domestic politics and the central authorities, including the courts, remained largely in Danish hands. The police were however obliged to cooperate with the German occupiers. Although the population as a whole was clearly against the occupation, there was also a political desire to handle the situation in a pragmatic manner. This period, known as the “politics of cooperation”, continued until 1943. One of the great achievements of the politics of cooperation was that the Danish Jews were not persecuted during this time.

Rising resistance

In March 1943 Denmark held elections and the result was a clear victory for the democratic parties. At that time, the Danish population had become increasingly dissatisfied with the German occupiers, and in the summer of 1943, this led to widespread strikes and civil unrest. In response the Germans sought to impose the death penalty for saboteurs, which the Danish government refused. On 28 August the cooperation between Germany and the Danish government ended and Germany declared Denmark to be in a state of emergency.


Denmark´s liberator, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, in Copenhagen

The new political situation meant that Denmark was now in many ways de facto ruled by orders from the German Foreign Ministry. In October it was decided that all Jews in Denmark should be deported. However, this was prevented by the population and the emerging resistance movement, who managed to get most of the Danish Jews transported to neutral Sweden.

This was the beginning of a growing resistance movement. Danish saboteurs blew up railroads and companies that cooperated with the Germans, the illegal press flourished, and the Allied governments increasingly began to regard Denmark as an ally.

In the summer of 1944 there were again large general strikes all over Denmark which marked the beginning of a rough final part of the occupation. The Danish police were dissolved and nearly 2000 Danish policemen were sent to concentration camps. The Danish sabotage actions were reciprocated by German counter-terror, including the so-called “clearing assassinations” which were more or less random revenge killings. There was a shortage of almost all kinds of goods, and because of the lack of police, crime was rife. However, at this point it was clear to most that it was only a matter of time before Germany would lose the war.

Liberation

When the declaration of freedom was announced on the radio on the evening of 4th May 1945, people flocked into the streets, waving the Danish flag “Dannebro” and burning their blackout curtains. Many people also spontaneously placed lit candles in their windows. This became a custom that is still kept up by many Danes.

Denmark was effectively liberated on 5 May by British forces led by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. However, only four days later the Russian Army occupied the island of Bornholm after intense fighting with the Germans, and not until April 1946 was the island finally liberated, when the Russians voluntarily left the island.

After the liberation there was uncertainty about how the allies would regard Denmark. The first years of occupation had been characterized by cooperation with the Germans. Denmark had deliberately declined, as opposed to for example Norway, to take up the fight. Eventually, however, Denmark was seen as an ally, mainly due to the widespread resistance to the German occupation during the last years of the war.


Two Danish resistance fighters are guarding a shop that is "closed due to happiness" following the liberation of Denmark

Around 850 Danish resistance fighters were killed during the war while a further 900 civilians were killed as a result of bombings, riots or German revenge killings. In addition, 19 Danish soldiers died and 23 were wounded during the actual invasion of Denmark, while about 600 Danes (260 resistance fighters) died in concentration camps. The largest Danish losses occurred, however, in battle; 1,850 Danish sailors lost their lives, of these around 900 fighting on the allied side and around 2,000 Danish soldiers were killed in German service.

The German occupation of Denmark has had a great influence on the public debate in Denmark ever since the war ended. Of particular interest has been the question whether or not Denmark went too far in its cooperation with the German occupiers, and if the advantages gained through this strategy justified the initial lack of resistance.

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