Invasion and cooperation
The Kingdom of Denmark, fast asleep in unprepared denial, was invaded by Germany on the 9th of April 1940 in a combined land, sea and air operation that also targeted Norway. In Norway the fighting continued for two months, vainly aided by a British counter invasion, but Denmark fell within hours. The government chose the lesser of two evils and cooperated under protest.
Censorship was established, but by and large daily life continued as usual. Denmark had become a model pro-tectorate in the new European order, referred to by Churchill as the gang-ster’s canary bird
. Many Danes, espe-cially the young, felt betrayed by their government. At first the resistance was sporadic and uncoordinated. Here and there telephone lines were cut or Ger-man military vehicles were vandalized.
In the outside world the war continued. Holland, Belgium and France fell. Then on the 22nd of June 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union over a broad front. That same day German officials demanded the interment of leading Danish Communist party members and former Spanish Civil War volunteers, chosen from lists that had been made available to them the year before. The government acceded and over the next week Danish police, in clear breach of the constitution, arrested five times the number demanded, including three members of parliament.
Danish Communists had been few and unpopular. Although strongly antifascist they had remained passive because of the German-Soviet non-aggression pact. Now they went underground, arranging strikes and protests.
Later that year the Danish government, under increasing pressure, signed the Anti-Comintern Pact
against world Communism. This initiated the first mass protests by students demanding the end of the cooperation policy, preferring actual military occupation ("Norwegian conditions"
) to the constant humiliating concessions.
On the other hand, many Danes rallied to the Nazi crusade against Bolshevism, a good deal joining the government sanctioned volunteer Frikorps Danmark
unit to fight with the Waffen SS in Russia. Some of these men had previously been volunteers for the 1939 Winter War - Finland’s defensive war against the Soviet Union - and saw in this their chance for revenge against the Russians.Resistance
By now the first coordinated Danish resistance was taking shape in the BOPA group, with a core of underground Com-munists and Spanish Civil War volunteers. The unlikely na-me, an acronym for bourgeois partisans
, was probably a fruitless feint to gain access to British war material. During the summer of 1942 vehicles and buildings were set on fire, railroads and ships in harbour were damaged.
The organized sabotage began at roughly the same time as the first operations on Danish soil by agents of the British SOE (Special Operations Executive). Danish volunteers trained in England were parachuted home with orders to set up an intelligence network and prepare and aid a resistance movement friendly to the Allies.
The Germans reacted to this mounting threat by tightening their grip on the cooperating Danish government; reinforcing the police, introducing factory and railroad guards, and in August 1942 demanding the introduction of the death penalty for sabotage.
Although a good many people regularly listened to the banned BBC broadcasts, initially very few were involved in actual resistance work. The entire Danish saboteur corps at this time numbered perhaps no more than a few hundred young men, mostly recruited from the political extremes: Besides the Communists and the Spanish Civil War volunteers, many non-fascist nationalists and other right wing patriots were beginning to join in the struggle. Some of these also were former Winter War volunteers.
In addition to this militant core, some were involved in the illegal press, spreading propaganda leaflets with news from the free world in violation of the censorship laws. Others were involved by hiding and transporting weapons, or simply by helping and housing fugitives.
The mood was shifting. When the Frikorps Danmark
returned on leave from the eastern front their nights on the town erupted into violent street fights.The August Rebellion
By 1943 Fascist Italy had collapsed and the Germans were losing ground in every theatre of war – their navies scattered or confined to port, their armies beaten back from Africa and retreating from Russia. A mood of aggressive optimism surged through occupied Europe.
In Denmark the resistance movement was gaining ground, their ranks swelling. With every increase in sabotage the German occupation force countered by introducing harsher measures. Tensions mounted. During that summer the spontaneous street fights became daily occurrences. Popular outrage reached a boiling point in what was to become known as the August rebellion
It began as a wharf strike, a reaction to the introduction of armed sabotage guards. When a curfew was introduced the strike spread to other factories. Even though the Germans conceded to some of the strikers’ demands a state of open rebellion quickly ensued. There were demonstrations and public meetings in violation of curfew. German property and Nazi friendly shops were smashed up, known collaborators and field mattresses
(girlfriends of German soldiers) were brutalized.
Even as the Germans sent in more police to check the situation it escalated beyond control. In the strikes and meetings following a young saboteur’s funeral push finally came to shove as the Germans opened fire into the crowd killing a number of people. Neither side would back down. The situation was out of hand.Norwegian conditions
This was the collapse of the cooperation policy. On the 29th of August 1943 The Germans declared martial law, unseated the government and disarmed the small Danish army. There was spread fighting at garrisons and some loss of life on both sides. The navy, acting on its own initiative, refused orders from the government and the military high command to surrender. Ships that could not be taken to neutral Sweden were scuttled or blown up in port.
Many officers went underground and joined the resistance. Others went to Sweden where they formed the cadres of the Danish Brigade
, an armed force loyal to the old establishment. There they would keep out of harms way for the rest of the war, ready to secure that there was no communist coup on the eve of liberation.
After the immediate crisis, when parliament refused to form a new government, it was dissolved. Departmental heads were reluctantly left in charge of the state apparatus.The terror
The Germans now initiated a reign of "counter terror"
enforced by the Gestapo and its Danish collaborators. Any act of sabotage, any assault on the occupying force, was met with bloody reprisals. Promi-nent shops or buildings were blown up as retaliation. Collective punishment became routine. Public figures openly critical to the Nazis were assassinated. Danish SS officers formed militia groups, violent gangs that operated with impunity.
A network of well-paid local informers, one of the most effective in Europe, helped trawl up the underground organizations. Captured saboteurs were tortured to death by the Gestapo, arbitrarily sent to rot in concentration camps or simply gunned down in the street.
The Germans were now also free to target the Danish Jews for extermination. The so-called Jewish Question
was new to Denmark, where the Jewish minority was well incorporated in society and anti-Semitism was marginal. Of the more than 7000 Jews in Denmark, 6000 were Danes and 1000 were refugees. However, on the 1st of October 1943 a series of brutal late night arrests led to the capture of only 480 individuals. These were deported to the Theresienstadt camp in Czechia where 52 of them died. On the 5th of October Denmark was declared Judenrein
. 95% of the Danish Jews had miraculously escaped.
This unparalleled rescue operation was perhaps Denmark’s finest hour. In a spectacular act of collective decency a spontaneous underground network of ordinary Danish families helped the 7000 Jews escape to neutral Sweden. In a period of weeks the groups of fugitives were furnished with money and clothes as they were sent from house to house towards the coast, and finally across the sound to safety. They came to Sweden in rowboats, fishing boats and private yachts. One of them swam. 197 were arrested along the way.The Freedom Council
With the political establish-ment out of the picture the population now looked incre-asingly to the Freedom Coun-cil
, an underground central command established after the August Rebellion. In the Council all wings of the resistance movement and illegal press were represented and worked together in spite of political differences, coordinating sabotage and keeping contact with the British through the SOE. The chief organizations represented in the council were BOPA (Communist), The Ring
(Social Democrats), Free Denmark
(The largest illegal press organization), and Holger Danske
Holger Danske (Ogier the Dane
), named after the mythical hero that sleeps under the earth only to wake up if Denmark is attacked, had been established in 1943. A core of right wing Christian patriots, mostly Danish Unity
party members, had originally founded the organization as an alternative to the rigid Communist BOPA. It had, however, a loose, anti-authoritarian structure that attracted many different types of people.
The Freedom Council recognized early on that in light of the open Danish government cooperation with the invader, the existence of a strong resistance movement was a necessary precondition for Denmark’s ability to be treated as a friendly nation by the Allies. This would be crucial after the war. It also recognized that for such a movement to operate, to even exist, the German network of informers had to be dealt with without mercy.
In December 1943 the Council ordered the first executions of informers. From this time forward to the end of the war approximately 350 informers were liquidated, 200 of these by the Holger Danske organi-zation.
In the summer of 1944 the mass mobilization of the great Popular Strike
eclipsed the events of the August Rebellion the year before. The D-day landings generated a wave of sabotage, strikes and demonstrations at the command of the Freedom Council. The Germans in answer executed prisoners, declared martial law with curfew and encircled the capital. Power and water was cut off, and hundreds were killed and injured in street clashes as the Germans used cannons to clear the barricades. It was now obvious to the Germans and the world that the Council made up the actual Danish leadership.
In September the last remainder of the old power structure was dismantled when the police force was disbanded. By now the Freedom Council had gained acknowledgment by Britain, the USA and the Soviet Union as the de facto
The last winter of the war was a hard one. Rations were small and thousands were homeless. Allied air raids unavoidably caused civilian casualties, as in the accidental bombing of the French School. The sabo-tage and liquidations of collaborators had become a daily occurrence, as had the massive German counter terror. The constant, desperate gunfights between Germans and resistance men made the streets of the capital unsafe day and night.
In the spring of 1945 the Danish resistance organized by the Freedom Council numbered 75.000 people. It was now a large organization involved in all types of resistance activities and regularly supplied from the air by the RAF. While only 2000 were involved in armed sabotage with groups like BOPA and Holger Danske, the majority were organized in the so-called Underground Army
ready to spring to action upon an Allied invasion. Others were involved with the underground escape routes or illegal press activity. 12.000 resistance men had fled to Sweden. 14.000 were in German captivity. 200 had been executed by the Germans. Another 200 had died under torture or in concentration camps.
Approximately 6000 Danes in all were sent to the concen-tration camps. In March of 1945 the Swedish Red Cross were permitted to assemble Danish and Norwegian priso-ners at the Neuengamme camp to transport them home on the White Busses
. In April the surviving Danish Jews were collected from Theresienstadt. The 150 Danish Communists, however, who were held at Stutthofen in Poland, could not be collected. With the other prisoners they were sent on a death march that killed nine of them. 600 Danes in all died in the camps.
On the 4th of May 1945 the BBC broadcast: "Montgomery has announced that the German forces in Holland, northwest Germany and Denmark have surrendered."