Guest Article - Resistance in Denmark

Sofia Warfield

Much is known about the actions of the major powers in World War II, yet some of the
most effective events took place on a smaller scale by smaller countries. Denmark was such a
country, playing a significant role against Germany despite its size. When WWII broke out in
September 1939, Denmark declared its neutrality, hoping to spare the country from yet another
fatal war as it was still recovering from the devastating effects of World War I (WW I) (Ziemke
1960, 50).

Acknowledging their inability to engage in traditional warfare against the Germans,
Denmark entered into a treaty of non-aggression with Germany to ensure they would not be
swept up into war (National Archives, 1944). It was particularly important for Denmark to remain
neutral as King Christian shared an uneasy relationship with the Germans due to their differing
political views: where the Danes believed in democracy, the Germans supported a totalitarian

Germany broke the treaty of non-aggression within a year, needing to establish and
preserve the military supply line running through Denmark from Norway to Germany. The
Germans feared that the British were making significant diplomatic in-roads with Denmark, thus
threatening those supply lines. After having invaded Norway only hours earlier, Nazi soldiers
swarmed into Denmark on April 9, 1940 (Ziemke 1960, 61-63).
German ships invaded docks while German planes dropped “OPROP” leaflets, a form of
Nazi propaganda meaning “proclamation” in broken Danish (“Opraab” is the correct spelling).
The leaflets implored Danes not to resist the German forces because they had come to protect
their neutrality from Britain and France (Search Engine). Despite their claims, German forces
faced resistance from the Royal Guard in Copenhagen and soldiers from South Jutland. While
the Danish soldiers fought hard, it did little to curb the German invasion as they were
outnumbered and poorly equipped. Within hours, the Danish government surrendered (Schlüter,

During the first two years of occupation, the Danes did little to resist the Germans due to
the Germans’ leniency to allow the Danish democratic government to remain in power so long
as their factories continued to feed the German war machine. However, to remind them of their
dominance, the Germans placed a curfew from 9pm - 6am and arrested any who did not follow
accordingly. Additionally, as stated by Alan Milward, an economist at Berkeley, Denmark sent
more food to Germany than either Italy or France, making Germany less dependent on
domestic agriculture and enabling them to send more soldiers to the front line (Milward 1979,
259). With the Jewish population at risk, Danes were willing to collaborate with the Nazis, thus
sending meat, dairy, and other foods to Germany (Lois Lowry, 1989). Hermann Goering, a
German military leader, said, “if anyone has to go hungry, it shall not be the Germans but other
peoples.” (Collingham 2012, 156)

Resistance up to 1942 mostly consisted of the printing and spreading of the illegal
underground Newspaper, “ De Frie Danske” , meaning “The Free Dane”, detailing the Nazi
occupation and acts of Danish sabotage (Lois Lowry, 1989). Despite this, their resistance was
minimal, which did not go unnoticed by the Allies, prompting Winston Churchill to nickname
them, “Hitler’s Pet Canary”, highlighting Denmark’s preference to avoid confrontation and
aggression (Schlüter, 2007).

Meanwhile, in June of 1940, the UK established a new volunteer force called Special
Operations Executive (SOE) to “fan smoldering local resentment against the Germans into
flames of active resistance.” (Scov 2003, 591). SOE was founded to encourage resistance in
other occupied countries by parachuting weapons and explosives to occupied countries. SOE
was determined to pressure the Danes into more violent methods of resistance as the Germans
depended on the Danish armory factories for weapons (Schlüter, 2007). From 1942-1945,
several groups successfully contacted SOE requesting airdrops of supplies (Schlüter, 2007).
In 1942, resistance in Denmark began to increase as news spread of German cruelties
in other occupied countries. Danes damaged industrial railroad lines transporting German goods
and exploded factories that produced war supplies. As the war progressed, Danish sabotage
weakened the Germans’ ability to successfully combat the allied forces (Schlüter, 2007). By
autumn of 1942, the increasing amount of sabotage and resistance caused Germany to declare
Denmark as “enemy territory.” As punishment, Danish stores were burnt down as well as a part
of the Tivoli gardens, a site of fireworks and treats (Schlüter, 2007). Despite the threat of further
destruction, these events only strengthened the Danish resolve to free Denmark from the
Germans’ grasp.

By 1943, Danish resistance and sabotage had climaxed. Having been inspired by the
battle of Stalingrad as a show of resistance against the Germans, as well as having been
heavily pressured by SOE, the Danes eventually implemented organized resistance programs.
They continued their acts of sabotage, including sinking their own navy in the Copenhagen
harbor to prevent the Germans from abducting them for their own use, demonstrating their
willingness to undermine the Germans even at their own expense (Lois Lowry 1989). In
September of 1943, the “Danish Freedom Council” was founded as a way of unifying the
various independent Danish resistance organizations. The movement gained over 20,000

Prior to 1943, the Danish government had successfully placated Nazi attempts to deport
Jews by collaborating; however, due to Danish sabotage, the “Jewish Question” resurfaced.
Germans shut down all Jewish-owned stores while SS-General Werner Best began his plans for
the imprisonment and deportation of Jews (Schlüter, 2007). On September 8th, 1943 Best sent
a telegram to Berlin relaying, “The time has come to turn our attention to the solution of the
Jewish question." On September 28th, final orders were given to gather all the Jews in Denmark
over the next two days (Schlüter, 2007). Hours later, the Germans stole a list containing the
names and addresses of each and every Jew in Denmark with the intention of ambushing them
in their homes later that night and placing them on trains headed for concentration camps. The
Germans may have succeeded if it weren’t for the German official, G.F Duckwitz, who not only
disagreed with Jewish deportations but took action against it by tipping off the Danish
government about the raid who, in turn, warned the Rabbis (Lois Lowry 1989).
On the day of the Jewish New Year, Jews were advised by their Rabbis to leave
immediately and seek shelter. News of the Germans’ plans spread rapidly and soon Danes from
all over the country offered their Jewish neighbors refuge. Jews were cared for and hidden well
by medics in hospitals, neighbors, friends, and even strangers on the street who offered them
shelter in their homes, so much so that when the Nazis searched for them throughout the next
two nights, only 284 Jews were found out of the 8,000 in Denmark (Schlüter, 2007).
The following day, Sweden announced that they would accept Jewish refugees from
Denmark. The Danish Freedom Council organized a nationwide effort to transport the Jews to
Sweden. Denmark was unique in that its government, having been independent until August 29,
1943, had refused to implement antisemitic measures such as marking the Jews (Holocaust
Encyclopedia, 2019), demonstrating the Danish government’s disdain towards German
influence as well as their refusal to place Danes in jeopardy. In less than three weeks, 7,000
Jews were smuggled to Sweden, and of the 500 Jews that were caught and deported to
Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia, 449 were later rescued and released on April 15,
1945 by the Swedish Red Cross (holocaust encyclopedia, 2019).

Denmark used its limited ability to disrupt the Germans wisely, and on D-Day, one of the
most important days of the war, Danes attacked German soldiers. Reinforcements were being
sent from Denmark to Normandy, France, but the Danes derailed the trains, preventing supplies
from reaching Nazi forces. This solidified Denmark as an ally to the Allied forces. It also
disrupted the Nazi’s ability to defend themselves (Voorhis 1972, 174).
By 1945, Denmark became less willing to collaborate with Germany once the vast
majority of Jews had escaped to Sweden, causing regulations to become stricter. The curfew
requiring citizens to be at home by nine dropped to eight. As it was part of their culture to take
walks in the evening, many Danes defied orders and were shot and killed on the streets.
Furious, Danes went on a strike and remained home. These spontaneous strikes were
extremely effective, again weakening the German war machine. Without anyone manning the
weapon factories, the Germans would not have supplies for war (National Archives, 1944).
The Germans increased troop patrols and cut off water and electricity to lure the Danes
out from their homes. However, the Danish Freedom Council encouraged the strikes and issued
a proclamation demanding that the German withdraw immediately. When the Germans refused,
the strikes continued. To keep sustained, Danes created a strict, self-imposed rationing system
of food and water. Additionally, at the risk of their own lives, several volunteers gathered water
from the Copenhagen harbor and delivered it to the medics working tirelessly in hospitals
attending to victims of German brutality (National Archives, 1944).
In the final months of WWII, Germany was especially vulnerable as the Allies began
closing in on Berlin. At this time, they were most in need of supplies and reinforcement.
Germany depended on Denmark to provide them with many resources and to link the supply
line from Norway to Germany. When the Danes went on strike, this caused the resources for
Berlin to drop, further complicating Germany’s ability to defend themselves. Denmark was
starving them of military supplies just when they needed them the most, contributing to the fall
of Berlin. Five days later, the Germans withdrew from Denmark as the Allied forces advanced
onto Berlin. (National Archives, 1944).

The Danish resistance against the Nazi, Germany was unorthodox and clever. Danes
acknowledged their inability to overpower the Germans head-on by force as their numbers were
small in comparison. Instead, they turned to alternative tactics to weaken the German forces,
primarily acts of sabotage and strikes. By destroying and striking against the very factories that
fed the very German war machine, Denmark was partly responsible for weakening the Germans
enough to allow the Allies forces to gain the upper hand. It should be recognized that the Danes
strikes against the factories at the risk of their own lives, preferring to face punishment for their
inaction rather than to continue aiding the Nazis. The Danes’ bloodless ways even inspired
SOE, an organization that had called for violence over many years, to implement peaceful
transfers of power through strikes rather than violent uprisings that caused more problems than
it solved.

It is a great feat that the unarmed Danes were not only able to prevail against massive
Germany, but successfully undermined their efforts as well. When the Germans called for the
“relocation” of Jews, Danes resisted and disrupted their plans of deportations by sheltering and
smuggling Jews to safety, so much so that as a result of their courage, the vast majority of
Danish Jews survived the war. Denmark’s love, loyalty, and compassion for their neighbor
supersede that of other countries who sat passively during the holocaust as Jewish
communities were targeted and subjected to inhumane treatments. While the major Allies were
the ones to ultimately defeat Nazi, Germany, Denmark should also be remembered and
admired for their unorthodox style of resistance and their unwavering courage.The Danes used
the power of solidarity over violence to outmaneuver the Germans, demonstrating that not all
battles are fought through bloodshed and, with enough time, even a small country like Denmark
can win against a massive and destructive enemy like Germany.

Sofia Warfield

Copyright: Sofia Warfield and Holocaust Historical Society -July 2020