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Posted on Jun 14, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

The Danes Resist

By Sterling Rock Johnson

On the morning of April 9, 1940, most Danes rose for breakfast not knowing they were now living in a German protectorate.  Since 4 o’clock that morning, 40,000 German troops had been rolling through their land.  Their King Christian X had directed his nation’s surrender, knowing that to send his tiny 15,000-man army against the might of the Wehrmacht was suicidal.  Thus, the entire country was overrun in one day’s time, ending 900 years of independence.

Most Danes were too stunned to react belligerently toward the conquerors.  A German officer expressed his amazement this way: "In Prague, they spat at us; in Warsaw, they shot at us. Here, we are gaped at like a traveling circus."

The easy acceptance of the Germans by the 3.85 million Danes and their willingness to allow the occupation of their homeland inspired Hitler to refer to Denmark as a Musterprotektorat, or Model Protectorate.  Churchill called Denmark "the sadistic murderer’s canary", and indeed, the Germans at first regarded the small country almost as one would a loving pet.


Hitler considered the Danes pure Nordics.  The Kimbric Peninsula, Jutland, was the birthplace of the Teutons, and the Danes were blood brothers to the Germans, according to the latest National Socialist philosophy.

But blood brothers as they might be, the Germans wasted no time in letting the Danes know that they were a captive people.  They set up checkpoints at key locations to control civilian traffic, and routinely stopped pedestrians for questioning.  Danish military personnel were interrogated, some interned.  Newspapers were subject to severe censorship, with one outspoken journalist being arrested and sent to a Gestapo center in Hamburg.

Still, the Danish government remained in office; the king remained head of state.  Shops did business without interference; teachers taught classes unimpeded.  Most foreign observers believed that Denmark had become Germany’s willing pawn, but they–and the Germans–soon discovered otherwise.

What seemed to some the correct behavior was, in fact, a cold Scandinavian hostility.  The Times of London wrote:  "The Danes have invented a new order, the DKS for Den Kolde Skkulder, or Order of the Cold Shoulder, and it expresses the feelings toward the Germans of about 90 per cent of the people."

It wasn’t long before the Danes began to demonstrate their contempt in ways not so subtle.  Young girls sported knit caps in the image of the RAF bulls-eye emblem.  Crowds along the streets would pointedly turn their backs when German troops marched by.  When attending propaganda films, theatergoers would shout "Who’s that man?" when the Fuhrer appeared on screen.  University students in Copenhagen published a twice-weekly newspaper with an underground circulation of 50,000, and dedicated to stimulating resistance against the occupation; just one of many hand-lettered, mimeographed, or professionally printed publications that began to appear.

Erik Scavenius, Danish PM 1942-43 with Werner Best,
the German plenipotentiary in Denmark.

But the resistance remained essentially a nuisance to the occupiers until the summer of 1943, when several dramatic occurrences lit the spark of smoldering resentment.  Suddenly, there wasn’t enough food.  What started as an export boom for the Danes was now becoming a strain on the economy.  The Germans were draining the country dry.  Also, it became clear that Germany was losing the war–they suffered catastrophic defeats at Stalingrad and El Alamein.

But the overwhelming impetus for a truly active rebellion was the ‘Jewish question.’  The 8,000 Danish Jews had gone virtually unmolested because there was not the native anti-Semitism in Denmark that had existed in Poland, Russia, or France long before the war, to say nothing of in Germany itself.

In fact, the national outrage that was stirred by German anti-Semitism did more to fuel the resistance in Denmark than in any other country in the occupied West.  The Germans had tried to burn a Copenhagen synagogue in 1941, but were stopped by Danish policemen.  An anti-Semitic newspaper had to stop publication because it couldn’t find subscribers.  Anti-Jewish films played to empty theaters.

As Germany hardened its stance in regard to the Jews, Danish resistance continued to grow.  In February, 1943, there had been 34 reported acts of sabotage.  The number rose to 70 in March, and to 78 in April.  Encouraged by reports of these attacks, England’s MI6 began delivering arms and ammunition to the Danes, and stepped up BBC broadcasts urging them to resist.  The Special Operations Executive (SOE) also worked closely with Danish resistance leaders.  By August, 220 incidents of sabotage had taken place, and Hitler had had enough of his unruly Nordic brethren.  On August 29, martial law was declared.

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