- introduction
- ultimatum
- unconquered
- protesting
- crackdown
- rescuing the Jews
- the spiral of violence
- departure and return


- further reading

Denmark's underground press actively opposed German authorities and collaborators


It wasn't Adolf Hitler's intention to force a war with Denmark or take over its management. He wanted to become its overlord, so that he could use its strategic position, its agricultural produce and its profitable industries to support his war elsewhere in Europe. Before dawn on April 9, some German troops crossed Denmark's southern border, others landed on selected islands to the east. At the same time the Danish Foreign Minister received a visit from a leading German diplomat. He was told: co-operate and keep political independence, resist and lose everything - 'the bombers are even now on their way'. At 7.20am the Danish government agreed to accept German military occupation.

As a leading Danish pacifist said: 'The government had the good sense to give instructions not to mobilise our army. We can't thank them enough for the courage they showed in this.' Something else was mobilised instead: the Danish people's resistance to any denial of their Danish character. They weren't a conquered people, they said: they still had their national integrity.

They quickly found ways to show what they felt about the German occupation. With German troops and police their behaviour was deliberately stand-offish and frosty: the Danish 'cold shoulder' became famous. The even more famous 'V' for Victory (scrawled everywhere in their own countries by the occupied Dutch and Belgians) was also taken up by the Danes - for whom V stood for VINDE, meaning 'WIN'. The symbolic V was painted on walls and trees, scratched on coins, written in the dust on German vehicles, and printed in newspapers and advertisements. People caught in the act were imprisoned - but very few were caught.

Sustained by a new surge of popular enthusiasm for traditional Danish customs, music and events, the Danes managed to tolerate the 'policy of negotiation' with their unwelcome guests. Each side had reasons to keep the other in a good frame of mind. The Germans wanted no interruption to the flow of Danish meat and dairy foods - exports of which began to increase; the Danes wanted life to go on as normally as possible, untouched by war. But as time passed the unpleasant pressures of living in an occupied country began to be felt.

First, the freedom of the press was restricted: nothing remotely hostile to the Occupation could be printed. New laws were imposed to punish anti-German demonstrations and actions. In November 1941, Denmark was ordered to sign a pact against the Soviet Union (which German troops had begun to invade in June): 'if not,' the instruction continued, 'Germany will cancel the agreement of April 9 1940 and Denmark will be regarded as an enemy country - and must face the inevitable consequences'. Denmark's treasured neutrality was being compromised. There were angry objections, and students led thousands in street protests. The Danes' dislike of their uninvited overlord began to surface; determination to resist grew stronger.

The media quickly developed a campaign of passive resistance. They found subtle ways to criticise the occupiers. For example, newspapers printed Danish news and German official reports side by side without comment: readers could recognise the tricks of German propaganda for themselves. Radio announcers broadcast German items using scornful or incredulous tones of voice. One paper printed an entire article with double-spacing - so that people would 'read between the lines'. Illegal underground papers began to spread: by 1945 there were 538 of them with a total of 24 million copies issued. The monthly paper published by the Danish pacifist organisation Aldrig Mere Krig (No More War) continued to appear openly throughout the war.

By 1942 a small underground army, formed by a militant minority, was growing restive. But the Danish army and navy (who had patiently endured criticism from militants when the Occupation began) maintained their stance: no fighting. All the same, Adolf Hitler became convinced that the Danish people were about to embark on open resistance. He appointed a German Nazi overseer, Werner Best, telling him that Denmark must now be 'ruled with an iron hand', not as a friendly co-operative country but as a hostile province. (The Danish army was also to be run by a tough German: 'there's no room for democracy in "New Order" Europe,' Hitler told the newly-appointed Nazi General as he left Berlin for the Danish capital Copenhagen.)

As it turned out, 'Reichskommissar' Werner Best was an intelligent man: he saw that harsh treatment would produce the very revolt that his boss wished to avoid. He set up good working relationships with Danish officials, and even managed to persuade the Berlin government that this was the right line to take. To prove it, he showed that industrial and agricultural production was increasing. As he said: 'Without the farmers' good will, which can't be enforced, food supplies in Germany would suffer.'

But a decisive event occurred in January 1943: British bombers attacked a Copenhagen shipyard to destroy a plant making German U-boat engines, and some civilian workers were killed. As a result, the Danish underground made a decision: if they didn't step up sabotage, the RAF would; better to do it themselves and risk German reprisals than endure more bombing casualties. Acts of sabotage against buildings and transport went up from 16 in January to 220 in August. There were subtle go-slows in factories and offices; machinery unaccountably broke down; repairs were inexplicably delayed. Strikes against unfair treatment and curfews spread throughout the country. Factories closed; workers rioted. At the end of August, Werner Best was called to Berlin for a humiliating dressing-down. He came back with a 3-pronged punishment: fines and other penalties for strike towns; bans on all strikes and public gatherings, with early evening total curfews; the death penalty for saboteurs. The Danes refused to accept any of it.

Early on August 29 1943, German troops occupied train stations, power installations and other services. Meanwhile, Gestapo squads arrested influential academics, politicians, civil servants and businessmen. Troop units attacked Danish army garrisons and depots and the Danish navy's main base; the officers and men were imprisoned. True to their orders not to fight, the Danish servicemen didn't resist arrest (indeed, officers on leave at the time came home and, smartly uniformed, turned themselves in, together with baggage ready-packed with prison necessities). The navy had also had its instructions: ships that couldn't escape to Sweden were scuttled by their own crews.

Within the first moments of crackdown the entire Danish government resigned. Now the country was governed by German military. Martial law had been imposed - but without carnage (despite some highly exaggerated reports of it in the Western press). A few weeks later one of the most remarkable nonviolent events of the Occupation took place: the rescue of Denmark's Jews.








 Fri, May 10, 2002


  P E A C E  P L E D G E  U N I O N  41b Brecknock Road, London N7 0BT, Britain.
  phone  +44 020 7424 9444  fax: +44 020 7482 6390     CONTACT US