Relics and monuments from Denmark’s illustrious past abound pretty much wherever you happen to be: Stone Age dolmens litter the islands south of Zealand, amazingly preserved Bronze Age bog bodies lie at rest in Jutland while ancient churches and magnificent Renaissance castles are almost commonplace on Funen and Zealand.
A mere speck on the globe, tiny Demark might seem an afterthought of a nation at Europe’s continental margins but it has been a major player in the shaping of the region, with influences on and contributions to the progress of European culture far in excess of its size.
Humans first trod the earth and dug the region’s flint tens of thousands of years ago during the interglacial period, settling permanently in about 12,000 BC, when the glacial ice retreated enough to support the lichen and mosses of the low-lying tundra, which in turn attracted herds of reindeer.
Stone Age culture relied primarily on hunting, but as the climate gradually warmed and the tundra gave way to forest, the reindeer migrated further north. Eventually hunters resettled near the sea and subsisted on fish, sea birds and seals.
Villages developed around the fields and the villagers began to bury their dead in dolmen, a type of grave monument comprising upright stones and topped by a large capstone; you can still find a number of these ancient dolmen in Denmark’s meadows.
Around 1800 BC the first artisans began fashioning weapons, tools, jewellery and finely crafted works of art in the new metal bronze, traded from as far away as Crete and Mycenae.
The arrival of locally-available iron, was the tough raw material for a ground breaking advance: superior ploughs, permitting larger-scale agricultural communities. Present-day Denmark’s linguistic and cultural roots date to the late Iron Age and the arrival of the Danes, a tribe thought to have migrated south from Sweden about AD 500.
At the dawn of the 9th century, the territory of present-day Denmark was on the perimeter of Europe, but Charlemagne (r 768–814) extended the power of the Franks northward to present-day northern Germany. Hoping to ward off a Frankish invasion, Godfred, king of Jutland, reinforced an impressive earthen rampart called the Danevirke. However, the raiding Franks breached the rampart, bringing Christianity to Denmark at sword point.
Although unrecorded raids had probably been occurring for decades, the start of the Viking Age is generally dated from AD 793, when Nordic Vikings ransacked Lindisfarne Monastery, off the coast of Northumbria in northeastern England. Survivors of the attack described the Vikings’ sleek square-rigged vessels as ‘dragons flying in the air’ and the raiders as ‘terrifying heathens’.
Early Viking raiders often targeted churches and monasteries, not for their religious significance but for their rich repositories of gold and jewels. Because the churches also served as centres of learning, many irreplaceable documents, books and other cultural artefacts went up in flames during the raids.
The Vikings were, by and large, adventurous opportunists who took advantage of the turmoil and unstable political conditions that prevailed elsewhere in Europe. In time their campaigns evolved from the mere forays of pirates into organised expeditions that established far-flung colonies overseas.
Different Viking groups came from the territories that now make up Denmark, Norway and Sweden, and each group had its own dominant sphere. The Swedes colonised the Baltic countries, which became the bases for expeditions deep into present-day Russia. The Norwegian domain included Scotland, Ireland and the Shetland, Orkney and Hebrides island groups. It was a Norwegian explorer, Erik the Red, who colonised Iceland and Greenland; his son, Leif Eriksson, went on to explore the coast of North America.
Danish Vikings primarily visited the coast of Western Europe and northeastern England, with the first documented raid by Danish Vikings occurring in 835. England was particularly vulnerable because it comprised a number of warring kingdoms.
By 850, Danish Vikings had established a settlement in Kent, and soon sizable groups of Danish colonists came to control northwestern England (a region that became known as the Danelaw). But the Anglo-Saxon king Alfred the Great (r 871–99) successfully repelled the Danes and forced them to accept a boundary that recognised his reign over the kingdom of Wessex.
By the early 9th century Jutland (and parts of southern Norway) were more or less united under a single king. In the late 9th century a move towards unification of the territories that make up modern day Denmark occurred when warriors led by the Norwegian chieftain Hardegon conquered the Jutland peninsula; Hardegon then began to extend his power base across the rest of Denmark’s territory.
The current Danish monarchy traces its roots back to Gorm the Old, Hardegon’s son, who established his reign in the early 10th century, ruling from Jelling in central Jutland. His son, Harald Bluetooth, who ruled for 35 years, completed the conquest of Denmark, converting the Danes to Christianity, partly to appease his powerful Frankish neighbours to the south who, a century earlier, had sent the missionary Ansgar to build churches in the Danish towns of Ribe and Hedeby.
Harald Bluetooth’s son Sweyn Forkbeard (r 987–1014) and grandsons Harald II (r 1014–18) and Canute the Great (r 1019–35), conquered England establishing a short-lived Anglo-Danish kingdom over much of the British Isles. Canute the Great was the first true Danish king to sit on the throne of England, reigning in much the same manner as an English king except that he employed Scandinavian soldiers to maintain his command.
When Canute’s son Hardecanute died the balance of power shifted to the English heirs of Alfred the Great, although many of the Danes who had settled in England elected to stay on to live under English rule.
Unsuccessful attempts by the Danes to reclaim England followed and the defeat of the Norwegian Vikings by Harold II of England at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 marked the end of the Viking era.
Internal strife, plots, counter plots and assassinations involving rival nobles, wealthy landowners and corrupt church leaders blighted the early medieval era – just look at the blood-soaked timeline from 1086–1157.
King Valdemar I eventually united a war-weary country and enacted Denmark’s first written laws, known as the Jyske Lov (Jutland Code). His successors enacted other laws that were quite progressive for their time: no imprisonment without just cause, an annual assembly of the hof (national council), and the first supreme court.
Margrethe who had assumed de facto control of the Crown after her young son Oluf died in 1387, became the official head of state and Denmark’s first ruling queen. The next year Swedish nobles sought Margrethe’s assistance in a rebellion against their unpopular German-born king. The Swedes hailed Margrethe as their regent, and in turn she sent Danish troops to Sweden, securing victory over the king’s forces.
A decade later Margrethe established a formal alliance between Denmark, Norway and Sweden known as the Kalmar Union, to counter the powerful German-based Hanseatic League that had come to dominate regional trade.
In 1410 King Erik of Pomerania, Margrethe’s grandson, staged an unsuccessful attack on the Hanseatic League, which sapped the Kalmar Union’s vitality. This, together with Erik’s penchant for appointing Danes to public office in Sweden and Norway, soured relations with aristocrats in those countries. In 1438 the Swedish council withdrew from the union, whereupon the Danish nobility deposed Erik.
Erik’s successor, King Christopher III, made amends by pledging to keep the administrations of the three countries separate. However, the union continued to be a rocky one, and in 1523 the Swedes elected their own king, Gustav Vasa. The Kalmar Union was permanently dissolved, but Norway would remain under Danish rule for another three centuries.
The monarchy and Catholic Church played out a pivotal power struggle during the Danish Reformation. Caught in the middle of this religious and political foment was King Frederik I who over some 10 years went from promising to fight heresy against Catholicism to inviting Lutheran preachers to Denmark. When Frederik died, the lack of a clear successor left the country in civil war.
The following year (1534) Hanseatic mercenaries from Lübeck (now Germany) invaded southern Jutland and Zealand. By and large the Lübeckers were welcomed as liberators by peasants and members of the middle class, who were in revolt against the nobility.
Alarmed by the revolt, a coalition of aristocrats and Catholic bishops crowned the Lutheran Christian III as king. Still, the rebellion raged on. In Jutland, manor houses were set ablaze and the peasants made advances against the armies of the aristocracy.
Christian’s general, Rantzau, took control cutting Lübeck off from the sea and marching northward through Jutland, brutally smashing peasant bands. Rantzau’s troops besieged Copenhagen, where merchants supported the uprising and welcomed the prospect of becoming a Hanseatic stronghold. Cut off from the outside world, Copenhagen’s citizens suffered starvation and epidemics before surrendering after a year in 1536, marking the end of the civil war.
Christian III quickly consolidated his power, offering leniency to the merchants and Copenhagen burghers who had revolted in exchange for their allegiance. Catholic bishops, on the other hand, were arrested and monasteries, churches and other ecclesiastical estates became the property of the Crown.
Thus the Danish Lutheran Church became the only state-sanctioned denomination and was placed under the direct control of the king. Buoyed by a treasury enriched by confiscated Church properties, the monarchy emerged from the civil war stronger than ever.
After a period of peace Christian IV embarked on what became the ruinous Thirty Years’ War, its aim to neutralise Swedish expansion, its outcome for Denmark morale and coffer-sapping losses.
Seeing a chance for revenge against Sweden, following its troubled occupation of Poland, Christian IV’s successor, Frederik III, once again declared war in 1657. For the Danish government, ill-prepared for battle, it was a tremendous miscalculation.
Sweden’s King Gustave led his troops back from Poland through Germany and into Jutland, plundering his way north. During 1657–58 – the most severe winter in Danish history – King Gustave marched his soldiers across the frozen seas of the Lille Bælt between Fredericia and the island of Funen. King Gustave’s uncanny success unnerved the Danes and he proceeded without serious resistance across the Store Bælt to Lolland and then on to Falster.
The Swedish king had barely made it across the frozen waters of the Storstrømmen to Zealand when the thawing ice broke away behind him, precariously separating him and his advance detachment from the rest of his forces. However, the Danes failed to recognise their sudden advantage; instead of capturing the Swedish king, they sued for peace and agreed to yet another disastrous treaty.
In February 1658 Denmark signed the humiliating Treaty of Roskilde, ceding a third of its territory, including the island of Bornholm and all territories on the Swedish mainland. Only Bornholm, which eventually staged a bloody revolt against the Swedes, would again fly the Danish flag.
Absolute monarchy returned in 1660, when King Frederik III cunningly convened a gathering of nobles, placed them under siege, and forced them to nullify their powers of council. Then Frederik conferred upon himself the right of absolute rule enshrining the new system in an absolutist constitution called the Kongeloven (Royal Act), which essentially delcared the king the highest head on earth, above all human laws and inferior to God alone. So concentrated were royal powers that Frederik’s successor had to place the crown upon his own head during the church service – nobody else was deemed worthy.
In the following decades the now all powerful monarchy rebuilt the military and continued to pick fruitless fights with Sweden. Peace of a sort eventually descended and for much of the 18th century, the Danes and Swedes managed to coexist without serious hostilities.
By the turn of the 19th century, Denmark’s trading prowess was worrying Britain, by now the world’s pre-eminent sea power. When Denmark signed a pact of armed neutrality with Sweden, Prussia and Russia, Britain sent a naval expedition to attack Copenhagen in 1801, inflicting heavy damage on the Danish fleet and forcing Denmark to withdraw from the pact.
Denmark managed to avoid further conflicts and actually profited from the war trade until 1807, when a new treaty between France and Russia once again drew the Danes closer to the conflict. However, the British, wary of Napoleon’s growing influence in the Baltic, feared that Denmark might support France.
Despite Denmark’s neutrality, the British fleet unleashed a devastating surprise bombardment on Copenhagen, setting much of the city ablaze, destroying its naval yards and confiscating the entire Danish fleet: nearly 170 vessels.
Although the unprovoked attack was unpopular enough back home to have been roundly criticised by the British parliament, Britain nonetheless kept the Danish fleet. The British then offered the Danes an alliance – who unsurprisingly refused the offer and instead joined the continental alliance against Britain, which retaliated by blockading both Danish and Norwegian waters, causing poverty in Denmark and famine in Norway. When Napoleon fell in 1814, the Swedes, then allied with Britain, successfully demanded that Denmark cede Norway to them.
Despite the disastrous early years of the 19th century, by the 1830s Denmark was flourishing again, economically and culturally. Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, theologian Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig and writer Hans Christian Andersen emerged as prominent figures. Sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen bestowed his grand neoclassical statues on Copenhagen, and Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg introduced the Danish school of art.
Political innovation, meanwhile, was just around the corner. When revolution swept Europe in the spring of 1848, Denmark’s new political parties, which had arisen from the debating chambers of the new provincial assemblies, were poised to replace the waning power of the monarchy. The new Danish king, Frederik VII, under pressure from the new liberal party, convened a national assembly to abolish the absolute monarchy and draw up a democratic constitution, establishing a parliament with two chambers, Folketing and Landsting, whose members were elected by popular vote.
Although the king retained a limited voice, parliament took control of legislative powers. The constitution also established an independent judiciary and guaranteed the rights of free speech, religion and assembly. Denmark had changed overnight from a virtual dictatorship to one of the most democratic countries in Europe.
When Denmark’s new constitution threatened to incorporate the border duchy of Schleswig, linguistically and culturally German, as an integral part of Denmark, the German population in the duchy allied with neighbouring Holstein, sparking years of unrest.
In 1864 the Prussian prime minister, Otto von Bismarck, declared war on a militarily weak Denmark and captured Schleswig. This further erosion of Denmark’s sovereignty raised doubts about Denmark’s survival as a nation.
In the wake of that defeat, a conservative government took power in Denmark – and retained power until the end of the century. The conservatives oversaw a number of economic advances: extending the railway throughout the country and rapid industrialisation that established large-scale shipbuilding, brewing and sugar refining industries.
Denmark declared neutrality at the outbreak of WWII, but Germany, threatened by the growing Allied presence in Norway, coveted coastal bases in northern Jutland. In the early hours of 9 April 1940, Germany staged a lightning fast seizure of key Danish strategic defences and issued an ultimatum: that Copenhagen would be bombed if the Danes resisted.
With only a nominal military at their disposal and German warplanes flying overhead, King Christian X and parliamentary heads hastily met at Amalienborg and, under protest, decided to yield to the Germans, with promises from the Nazis that Denmark would be allowed to retain some degree of internal autonomy. Before nightfall Denmark was an occupied country.
The Danes managed to tread a thin line, running domestic affairs under close Nazi supervision, until August 1943 when the Germans took outright control. A Danish resistance movement quickly mushroomed. In October 1943, as the Nazis were preparing to round up Jewish Danes, the Resistance, smuggled some 7200 Jews – about 90% of those left in Denmark – into neutral Sweden.
Although the island of Bornholm was heavily bombarded by Soviet forces, the rest of Denmark emerged from WWII relatively unscathed.
The Social Democrats led a comprehensive social-welfare state in postwar Denmark and the cradle-to-grave securities that guarantee medical care, education and public assistance were expanded. As the economy grew and the labour market increased, women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers, and household incomes reached new heights.
In the 1960s, a rebellion by young people, disillusioned with growing materialism, the nuclear arms race and an authoritarian educational system, took hold in the larger cities. Student protests broke out on university campuses, and squatters occupied vacant buildings.
The movement came to a head in Copenhagen in 1971, when protesters tore down the fence of an abandoned military base at the east side of Christianshavn and turned the site into a commune, the ‘free state of Christiania’. Thousands of people flocked here, and the government let Christiania stand as a ‘social experiment’ that survives, for now at least.
Denmark’s external relationships were also not without their troubles either. It joined the European Community, the predecessor of the EU, in 1973, but has been rather more hesitant about the subsequent expansion of the EU’s powers. Denmark rejected the 1992 Maastricht Treaty (which set the terms for much greater economic and political cooperation) and, in 2000, also rejected adoption of the euro – the latter decision saw a remarkable 87% voter turnout.
Meanwhile, Denmark maintained its leadership stance for socially liberal policies, including same-sex marriage (instituted in 1989) and aggressive implementation of alternative power sources.
These days, though, Denmark’s long postwar liberal consensus is much less of a sure thing. The government is a coalition of the centre right Venstre party and the Conservative People’s Party, sometimes also calling on the support of the generally nationalist right-wing Dansk Folkeparti.
This new power structure led Denmark to impose some of the toughest immigration laws in Europe in 2002, including restrictions on marriage between Danes and foreigners. It also led to a harder line in foreign policy and attempts to ‘normalise’ the status of Christiania, Copenhagen’s hippie enclave, in part by clearing out its drug dealers.
Denmark may be officially considered the happiest nation on earth, according to a 2006 survey, but it is not without its problems. The last few years have been turbulent ones – by Danish standards anyway – in the social and political realms.
As in other European nations, there’s been a gradual shift to the right in this famously liberal nation. It’s been reflected in a growing concern over immigration – particularly from Muslim countries – and an erosion of traditional values.
The cultural and religious challenge posed by immigration was put into frightening relief in 2006. Denmark found itself in the unfamiliar role of villain in the eyes of many Muslims, and became the focus of violent demonstrations all around the world following the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper. Although not offensive in nature, any pictorial representation of Mohammed is a deep taboo for many muslims. To liberal news editors in Denmark and Europe the right to publish such images was a fundamental issue of freedom of speech.
Perhaps there’s no clearer illustration of this change than the rise of the Danish People’s Party (DPP). Although it was founded only in 1995, it’s already the third-largest party in the Danish parliament with 12% of the seats, which make it an important swing vote. The DPP’s platform supports, among other things, the monarchy, the national church, strong defence, law and order, and the preservation of Danish cultural heritage. Also significantly, the party’s website states ‘Denmark is not an immigrant country and has never been so. We will not accept a transformation to a multiethnic society’.
In practical terms, the DPP’s participation has made the difference in Denmark’s joining the US, UK and other allies in the 2003 Iraq War and Denmark’s ongoing commitment to maintain its role in Afghanistan.