As the tide of the war began to visibly turn in 1944, previously-forgotten Denmark was the subject of a short propaganda film designed to raise the spirits and morale of those cut off from the frontline battles against Nazism.
The 10 minute film focused on the Danish people and their resistance to their Nazi occupiers, bringing a significant story of the war against Nazism to those watching in Britain.
This film also marked a turn in attitude by Allied governments and the British War Office towards the Danes. They had begun the war with little faith in or commitment to Denmark. Early pleas from the Danish underground for assistance had been ignored.
In fact, Denmark had one of the smallest deployments of Nazi troops throughout the war. Indeed, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is reported to have described Denmark as “Hitler’s tame canary.”
The Danes had initially resisted life under Nazi occupation by acts of ‘cold politeness’ and civil disobedience. By the time the Reich was in freefall and its citizens the victims of Nazi terror, the Danish underground had proved themselves a brutally effective force – and suffered for it, too.
A group of Danish soldiers on the morning of the German invasion, 9 April 1940.
Denmark had been invaded on the same day as its neighbour, Norway, on 9 April 1940. This was one month before Belgium and France were occupied. Even before the signing of a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany less than a year before, antifascist forces had already begun to gather and organise in Denmark, under the guise of the Danish Communist Party.
Denmark did have collaborators, of course. They ranged across civil, political and military forces. A degree of anti-Communist sentiment in the country was underpinned by the Soviet Union’s invasion of Finland in 1939.
For many, resistance seemed pointless.
When German tanks and planes rolled into Denmark and Norway the act of occupation was ostensibly portrayed as a strategic land-grab to counter a potential Soviet invasion or Soviet troop and naval movements into Europe via the North Sea.
Germany made no declaration of war. It easily overpowered Denmark’s small army of just 8,000 men in two hours. The entire invasion took just six hours in total. Berlin described the invasion and occupation of Denmark (and Norway) as “model protectorate” rather than conquest.
For many, resistance seemed pointless and although the Communist Party would be banned, the Nazis’ occupation of countries it considered Aryan and not racially inferior, it was hoped, would be less fraught than elsewhere which had been industrially brutal and murderous. The Danish police and judicial system were left intact as part of the “model protectorate” idea, and this in turn hampered people’s desire to engage in militant resistance to the Nazis.
However, the longer the occupation continued the more tense Danish-German relations became. Despite considering them “Aryans”, the Nazis struggled to “Germanise” Danish society. This both bemused and outraged the Nazi regime. Civil disobedience and mumbles and grumbles had been expected and anticipated, but only for the short term.
Danish Resistance Blooms
Alongside increasing attacks on German military targets from 1942 onwards, many Danes persisted with Danish life under duress, by performing “cold politeness”. In February 1943 the Nazis suffered their enormous and debilitating defeat to the Soviet Red Army at Stalingrad. In May 1943, perhaps by unthinkable error or a hint at a change of tact, or simply ill-placed good faith, Danes were allowed to go to the polls. The first election results were startling. An 89% turnout overwhelmingly backed Social Democratic Party candidates: in effect an antifascist coalition.
The election results were met with rage and indignation in the Reich. The Nazis had hoped to appoint a Danish collaborator, Frits Clausen of the National Socialist Workers Party of Denmark, as a puppet leader. But after such a disastrous election result the Nazi authorities decided to persevere with persuading the country to accept and respect its benevolence.
With the election results Denmark’s early reticence at fighting Nazism began to shift, swelling the ranks of the otherwise patient and methodical resistance. The slogan, in English, “Do it well and do it now” began to appear on public buildings, as did the flying of British and American flags.
“Do it well and do it now”
Wildcat strikes and violence spread, in particular against Danish Nazi collaborators. Attacks increased as well, aided in part by shipments of arms and ammunition from organisations like the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). It is estimated Danish resistance forces killed some 400 collaborators during the occupation. In turn, the wider resistance movement would suffer 850 losses in action, retribution or court martials.
The Nazis responded to the upsurge in resistance attacks with desperate brutality. Danish soldiers were murdered in their barracks and Danish civilians and strikers were mown down in the streets, while Government ministers and even the Royal family were arrested. Danish collaborators under the guise of the Danish SS and the Vanschulburg Corps – Danish collaborators in Nazi uniform – led the way in meting out these arrests and punishments.
Church leaders that had preached non-violent disobedience were also taken from their churches and shot. By August 1943 Nazi Germany was at war with, and in, Denmark. After installing martial law, the Nazis took over the day-to-day administration of the country. The establishment of the Danish Freedom Council in September 1943 not only established an underground government but bought into line a number of resistance groups that had previously been the main responsibility of the Communist Party.
These groups would later morph into and come under the direction of the umbrella Borgerlige Partisaner, or civilian partisans. Until this time, Danish military intelligence had mainly worked in exile in Sweden where it could communicate with Allied governments. The prevailing thinking among the Allies until that time was that the Norwegian resistance was a better bet to equip and support.
Danish SS soldiers disarmed by resistance fighters in Copenhagen, 1945. Photo: National Museum of Denmark
Resistance Ends In Liberation
The Danish resistance made its name and reputation by sabotage and sacrifice. Despite their small numbers, resistance groups in Denmark made heroic efforts to cripple German defences after D-Day, blowing up bridges and roads and in effect keeping their occupiers in the country as the Nazis were attempting to reach France.
By the end of the war, armed resistance fighters were a common sight on the streets of the capital Copenhagen where they disarmed and arrested Nazi collaborators – and shot them.