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History of Denmark

The earliest mentioning of Denmark (or “Denemearc”), understood as a geographical localised kingdom, is from around the year 890 AD. The name “Denemearc” was mentioned by the Norwegian chieftain Ottar who sailed from Skiringssal (Kaupang) in southern Norway to Hedeby at the border of the southern part of Denmark. Denmark can be translated into “the Field of Danes”. King Gorm the Old is the first historically recognised king of Denmark and we can track the Danish monarchs from him until present day’s Danish royal family. Gorm’s son Harald Bluetooth erected the Jelling Stones, a testimony both to the beginning of the Danish kingdom and to the introduction of Christianity in Denmark. This introduction also ushered in the end of the Viking Era and the beginning of the Middle Ages.

During the Middle Ages the Danish kings had numerous conflicts with the regions south of Denmark in today’s Germany. The Danish kings wanted to control and tax the trade of fish, furs, and others goods going in and out of the Baltic Sea region. The Danish kings also invaded, colonised, and crusaded in some areas of the present day Baltic countries. From 1397 to 1523 the Kalmar Union tied together the kingdoms of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark under one monarch. The union was an attempt to stop the influence coming from the powerful German-speaking areas south of the Baltic Sea and Denmark.

The Kalmar Union eventually disintegrated and collapsed due to differences in interests between the kingdoms. Especially Denmark, with Norway under its rule, and Sweden rivalled each other and both wanted to be the dominant power in the Baltic Sea region. Even though the power and influence of Denmark decreased with the loss of the territories of Skåne, Halland, and Blekinge to Sweden during the 17th and 18th centuries, one of the most renowned kings of Danish history ruled in this period. This was Christian the 4th – the main driving force behind the construction of famous Copenhagen structures, that still stand tall to this day, such as Børsen (the stock exchange), Holmens Kirke (the Church of the Royal Dockyard), Rosenborg Castle, and Rundetårn (the Round Tower). Denmark was on the losing side of the Napoleonic Wars in the beginning of the 19th century, lost supremacy of Norway, and was consequently reduced to being a minor player in European affairs.

The Constitution of Denmark was signed on the 5th of June 1849 by the Danish King Frederick the 7th. The constitution meant that Denmark went through the transition of being an absolutist monarchy to being a constitutional monarchy with a representative parliamentary system. Still the idea of parliamentarism was not well-integrated in the Danish political system until 1901. Until then the Danish conservative party ruled the country with provisional laws not accepting the principle of parliamentarism. In 1901 this changed with the so called “systemskifte”, or change of system, that saw the liberal party win the election, thus establishing parliamentarism as a ruling principle in Danish politics.

Meanwhile in 1864 Denmark lost the war against the unified armies of Prussia and Austria which meant that Denmark had to give up the duchies of Schleswig, Holstein, and Lauenburg. This loss reduced the size of Denmark significantly but since the duchies that were lost were populated by many German speakers the loss also had another effect. It homogenised Danish society in the way that after the loss Denmark was now almost exclusively populated by people who identified with Danish culture and language – something that marked the beginning of Denmark as a modern nation state.

In 1915 a constitutional reform granted women suffrage and eligibility to national elections and in 1920 after World War 1, in which Denmark declared and upheld itself neutral, some areas of Schleswig again came under Danish rule. Thus the map of Denmark in 1920 is basically similar to the map of present day Denmark except for the fact that Iceland, which had been under Danish rule, gained independence in 1944. Greenland and the Faroe Islands remain tied to Denmark to this day but maintain some extent of home rule.

During World War 2 Denmark was occupied by Nazi Germany. Denmark was invaded on the 9th of April 1939 and on May the 5th 1945 it was liberated again. Denmark was to some degree spared the extreme atrocities that the Nazis committed in Central and Eastern Europe, but was nevertheless suffering some Nazi reprisals due to the activities of Danish underground resistance groups who conducted sabotage and smaller armed operations.  After the war Denmark was recognised as having been a member of the Allies partly due to the actions of the Danish underground resistance. Denmark is also known for the fact that in 1943 Danish politicians, resistance fighters, and fishermen were successful in helping almost the entire Jewish community in Denmark (app. 7,000 persons) escape to Sweden by sailing across Oresund. If these actions had not been launched the Jewish people of Denmark would almost certainly have been deported to Nazi concentration camps.

After World War 2 Denmark was one of the twelve countries that in 1949 founded NATO. Denmark continued as a member of NATO throughout the Cold War and the antagonism between West and East. In 1973 Denmark joined the European Community that would later in 1993 be transformed into the European Union. Thus Denmark is at present day a member of both NATO and the EU just like Lithuania is.