By the summer of 1943, in the midst of World War II, Denmark has been occupied by German forces for more than three years. Resistance to the invaders has been sporadic, mainly limited to displays of Danish cultural identity or scattered acts of sabotage. But now, provoked by German brutality, the Danes act more boldly to resist the Nazi war machine. Mass nonviolent direct action begins first with labor strikes. Then when SS troops arrive to round up Danish Jews for deportation to the death camps, the Danes rescue their fellow citizens, ferrying most to safety in Sweden. The effort galvanizes many Danes, and soon general strikes challenge German control, and the Danish underground emphasizes nonviolent operations. Although Denmark is not liberated until the end of the war, nonviolent resistance has stymied German plans for extracting value from the occupation.

Denmark Overview

In 1940, during the earliest stages of World War II, Adolf Hitler's army of darkness tightens its grip over most of continental Europe, including Germany's northern neighbor, Denmark. The Nazis, who seek to exploit other countries' agriculture and industry for the broader war effort, occupy Denmark in a swift and surgical operation. Peter Munch, the minister of foreign affairs, is handed an ultimatum: cooperate with the Third Reich or else. He does.

Under a unified government, Munch initiates a "negotiation under protest" strategy with the Germans that is designed to protect Danish lives and salvage cultural identity. Munch reasons that because Denmark has not fought Germany, it cannot therefore be classified as a "conquered" nation. Operating under the assumption that the war will be short, the Dane's goal is to buy time with the Germans while projecting the appearance of cooperation.

The challenge lies in creating inventive ways to undermine German objectives without provoking direct confrontation. Subtle tactics such as work slowdowns, for example, hinder the German effort to extract resources. To contest German dominion over Danish life, the country engages in a sudden renaissance of Danish culture and a swelling of national pride, manifesting itself in public songfests and a festival commemorating King Christian's birthday.

Not all the resistance is exclusively nonviolent. Sabotage by an aggressive Danish underground invites harsh reprisals from the Germans. In the spring of 1943, however, Danish workers strike for higher wages, and in August, strikes against German countermeasures take place in 33 Danish cities and towns. This form of resistance outstretches Germany's ability to control the country.

When the Danish government refuses direct orders to prohibit public meetings or impose curfews or press censorship on its own people, Germany puts it out of business and quickly places troops at railroad stations, power plants, factories, and other key facilities.

In September, word leaks out that the Nazis are about to round up Danish Jews for exportation. This galvanizes Danish citizens into active and potentially life-threatening resistance. To evade their pursuers, most Jews are funneled to neutral Sweden by Danish resisters. In a testament to human determination, only 472 out of roughly 8,000 Danish Jews are lost to Hitler's "final solution."

In 1944, a watershed year for the resistance, more than 11 million copies of underground newspapers are published. That June, following a declared state of emergency, the entire city of Copenhagen goes on strike. Infuriated, Germany floods the city with troops, cuts off water and electricity, and establishes a blockade. By July 2, 23 Danes have been killed and more than 203 are wounded. But the dauntless Danes persevere. Exasperated, the Germans abandon these punitive measures by July.

Later that fall, when the Germans try to deport Danish police officials whom they believe are turning a blind eye to sabotage and disorder, Copenhagen goes on strike again, joined this time by 58 other cities and towns. Unintimidated by Gestapo arrests, civilians flock to the resistance movement; enrollment exceeds 45,000 at its highest point. In May 1945, war-ravaged Berlin succumbs to advancing Allied forces, prompting Germany to abandon Denmark altogether. Thanks to civic unity and non-cooperation, the Danes have denied the Germans much of the value of occupation and emerge largely unscathed from the war.

Denmark Timeline

April 9, 1940
Germany invades Denmark.

Early 1942
Anti-German sabotage within occupied Denmark begins.

July 1943
Anti-German strikes begin in Odense and spread across Denmark.

August 28, 1943
The Danish government rejects the German ultimatum to crack down on resistance; Danish ministers resign in protest.

October 1943
Germans begin the round-up of Jews in Denmark; helped by other Danes, almost all the Jews escape to Sweden.

September 16, 1943
The Freedom Council is established.

June 26, 1944
Copenhagen workers start leaving work early; a general strike begins.

July 3, 1944
German officials give in to the strikers' demands.

May 4, 1945
Germany capitulates to Allies.

Denmark People

HERBERT PUNDIK was 12 years old in 1940 when the Germans entered Copenhagen. He joined the Danish resistance at the age of 15, but participated only briefly for fear of endangering his family. Like many other Danish Jews, Pundik and his family briefly went into hiding, before being smuggled to safety in Sweden. Mr. Pundik has written extensively about the Holocaust, including a book titled, In Denmark It Could Not Happen: The Flight of the Jews to Sweden in 1943.

In 1942, at the age of 18, AXEL LUNDJQUIST joined the Studenternens Skytte Foreing, an outlawed student sport club. Led by officers from the Danish Army, members of the club transformed themselves into a resistance group. Lunjquist also helped to hide Jews and transport them to safety. In 1944, he joined the armed resistance group Holger Danske.

BORGE HOFF was 24 in 1940 and was working at Burmeister and Wains shipyard at the measuring and protecting attic. He joined the communists in early 1942. While at the shipyard, Hoff participated in an organized sabotage over the presence of Nazi guards in the shipyard, as well as a worker walkout. He joined a resistance group and assisted in a food relief campaign to victims of the war.

Ten Commandments for Danes

Arne Sejr was seventeen when the Germans invaded. On the first day of the occupation, he noticed that people in his small town were friendly to the German soldiers, and he was outraged. He went home and typed up twenty-five copies of a list of "commandments" to his fellow Danes:

1. You must not go to work in Germany and Norway.

2. You shall do a bad job for the Germans.

3. You shall work slowly for the Germans.

4. You shall destroy important machines and tools.

5. You shall destroy everything that may be of benefit to the Germans.

6. You shall delay all transport.

7. You shall boycott German and Italian films and papers.

8. You must not shop at Nazis' stores.

9. You shall treat traitors for what they are worth.

10. You shall protect anyone chased by the Germans.

Join the Struggle for the freedom of Denmark!

Sejr then stuffed his list into the mailboxes of the most prominent people in his town. The commandments were later recopied and passed from hand to hand to people all over the country.

Nonviolent National Defense

Most stories of nonviolent action have been about movements to win rights or overthrow authoritarian regimes. In Denmark the challenge was different. The Danes used nonviolent action as a form of national defense against an invader. The resistance was not strong enough to defeat the German war machine – that was left to the military of the allied countries – but it protected Danish society and culture and frustrated Germany's efforts to exploit Danish resources.

The first stirrings of resistance were expressions of Danes' national identity. For example, students refused to speak German in language classes. "Songfests" brought people together to sing traditional Danish songs. In all these ways Danes asserted their autonomy.

Strikes effectively challenged German control. In the summer of 1943 workers went on strike in dozens of cities in Denmark to protest curfews, the posting of troops inside factories and shipyards and the killings of civilians by soldiers. A year later a new curfew triggered a general strike in Copenhagen. Despite a military crackdown, the strikers held out until the Germans agreed to lift the curfew. The Germans learned that occupation carried a price in the form of civil disruption and lost production.

The most spectacular act of self-defense came in the fall of 1943. Werner Best, the top German official in Denmark, ordered the arrest of all Danish Jews for Friday, October 1. At Rosh Hashanah services the Jewish community learned of the impending raids, and people immediately scattered into hiding. All kinds of Danish organizations sheltered Jewish families – in private homes, in hospitals – and shuttled them to the coast, where fishing boats carried them across a narrow channel to neutral Sweden. In the end only 472 out of over 7,200 Danish Jews were captured by the Germans. The Danes could not physically expel the German forces, but they did rescue a large majority of the most threatened of their citizens from the jaws of the Holocaust.

Denmark Analysis

The occupation of a country subjects both the people and the invaders to a strange game of mutual suspicion: The occupier acts like a new owner and wants the tenants to behave and pay the rent on time, but those invaded feel violated – they know the country, by right, belongs to them, and while they cannot physically throw the occupiers out, they may well want to resist the invader's terms. Perhaps, if the invader finds the game is not worth the effort, he will leave. Or perhaps he will start killing uncooperative tenants. But the game gives one major advantage to those occupied: They will define the extent to which they are going to cooperate. And the offender, ironically, will have to defend his ill-gotten gains.

The Danish resisters took the offensive against German occupying forces. Through symbolic and cultural protests, they asserted their right to govern their own lives, and that strengthened public morale – which inspired bolder resistance. Through strikes, defiance at work sites, and damage to physical property, nonviolent resisters attacked the economic interests of the invaders. Through underground publishing, an alternate network of communication was established, to subvert the lies of the occupiers' propaganda. By involving so many civilians in strikes, demonstrations, and other forms of opposition, Danish resisters forced the Germans to stop violent reprisals and suspend curfews. They denied the Nazis their prime goal, on which other objectives depended: making the fact of occupation normal.

By definition, a successful military invasion gives the occupier superiority on the ground and in the air, in the ability to use physical force and violence. Despite that, when a military invader loses control of what the people read and believe, of when and if they work, of how they spend their money – when the occupiers are constantly on the defensive, as they try to maintain their position – their ability to command events is detached from their ability to use violence.

War contorts the history of the nations it touches, but it also exhibits the greatness of their peoples. The Danes challenged the most barbaric regime of the modern period and did so not with troops or tanks but with singing, striking, going home to garden, and standing in public squares. Yet the power they brought to bear in resisting the Nazis did not come only from these things. It came first from the essential decision that tens of thousands of them made, to refuse the terms they were offered by their tormentors – and it came from the underground movement they built and the strategy they used, to fling that decision in the face of their enemy and constrict his ability to fight.

Thanks to the civic solidarity that had nourished the resistance, Denmark emerged from the war in good condition. Allied authorities found that Denmark could not only feed itself but had surplus food to export to the rest of Europe. The Danes had withstood German occupation without undergoing many of the rigors experienced by other Europeans held down by the Nazis – a dividend of having resisted without violently tearing their society apart in the process. Some Danes were disappointed that more of their countrymen did not, like many Norwegians, Greeks, or Serbs, pick up guns and fight their occupiers at every depot, pier, and airfield, but the watery lowlands of Denmark were not ideal maneuvering ground for armed partisans, and by the time the Germans were pressed on all fronts in Europe, the Danish resistance had imposed a different but discernible cost on Nazi capabilities.

The Danes proved that however dreadful the opponent faced by those using nonviolent action, if resistance is resilient and imaginative, military sanctions are not enough to stamp out a popular movement – and violent reprisals may only harden the opposition. Knowing the Germans wanted normalcy in Denmark, the Danish resistance worked to deny them that, and it refrained from magnifying any disruption to the point of prompting overwhelming repression or endangering the lives of many civilians. If the Nazis, the cruelest killing machine in the century's history, could be kept off balance by Danish schoolboys, amateur saboteurs, and underground clergymen, what other regime should ever be thought invulnerable to nonviolent resistance?

from "A Force More Powerful," by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, published by St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Denmark Resources

Danstrup, John. A History of Denmark. Copenhagen, Wivel: Copenhagen, 1947.

Haestrup, Jorgen. Secret Alliance. Odense: Odense University Press, 1976.

Petrow, Richard. The Bitter Years; The Invasion and Occupation of Denmark and Norway. New York: Morrow, 1974.

Semelin, Jacques. Unarmed Against Hitler: Civilian Resistance in Europe, 1939-1943. Westport: Praeger, 1993.

Thomas, John Orem. The Giant Killers: The Story of the Danish Resistance Movement. New York: Taplinger, 1975.


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