Competing Views of History in Denmark

November 28, 2018 |  Tagged , | Comments Off on Competing Views of History in Denmark

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 As Margaret Macmillan points out in her book Dangerous Game: The Uses and Abuses of History, events of a nation’s past are often interpreted and commemorated selectively by political groups in order to promote a particular agenda. This is particularly true when the historical event in question was particularly traumatic or divisive. Macmillan cites the legacy of World War II as an example of this, and indeed provides many examples of European societies in which the past is both contested and used as a political tool. As the political situation in European countries change, the official narratives of the past offered by politicians and government organizations often change with them. As the author notes, this trend can be seen in Germany, Poland, Austria, and virtually every other country affected by World War II. One interesting case that the author neglected to mention was that of Denmark. As in other nations in postwar Europe, Denmark’s political elites selectively interpreted aspect of their wartime experience that supported their political agenda. Increasingly, new narratives are being promoted by competing political parties to further their own platforms. In all of these cases, interpretations of the past are based less on the research of professional historians and more on the goals of politicians.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Denmark’s wartime experience was a unique one. Denmark had been under German occupation since April 1940; however, Germany, eager for Danish economic assistance in the war effort and reluctant to use much-needed manpower to force its fellow Aryans into submission, struck a deal with Denmark: if the Danish government offered no resistance to occupation and agreed to support the German war effort, Germany would leave Denmark to run its own internal affairs.[1] This agreement led to a political situation unique in the German Reich: until the summer of 1943 most of the institutions of Official Denmark—including its parliament, court system, police force, and army—remained fully functioning, albeit under an immense amount of pressure to act in Germany’s interests.[2] In order to maintain their policy of cooperation with Berlin, the government fervently opposed the small Danish resistance movement and instead urged their citizens to cooperate with the German occupiers.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 After World War II ended, Denmark’s officials went to great lengths to argue that their country was united in opposition against the Nazis, and that they should all be considered heroes. They maintained that some people had followed a path of “active resistance,” while others—including the government and the vast majority of the population—had been engaged in the no less important acts of “passive resistance.” The leading party of the postwar government was the Social Democrats—the same party that led Denmark’s wartime government. After the war, the government emphasized the favorable outcomes of their policy of cooperation, including taking responsibility for the 1943 rescue of Denmark’s Jews. The Danish government’s interpretation became the official narrative of Denmark’s wartime past: the entire population of Denmark, with support from their government, united to take a stand against tyranny and oppression to protect the ideals of democracy and human rights.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 In the decades following the war, some opposition parties promoted a very different interpretation of the past. They labeled the Danish government’s wartime actions not as a “policy of cooperation,” but a “policy of collaboration.” Although they maintained the official narrative about the general population—that the people of Denmark were united in resistance against the German oppressor—they highlighted the more problematic results of the Danish government’s policy, including their hostility towards the Danish resistance movement, the trade agreements with Germany that directly supported the German war effort, and their blatant violation of the constitution when they  caved to German pressures and interned communist leaders. This interpretation of the Social Democrats as Nazi collaborators became more popular at the end of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 In the early 2000s, one of the most contested issues in Denmark was the question of immigration. Some political parties did not want to restrict the increasing waves of immigrants into the country, while others saw the newcomers—especially non-Europeans— as a threat to both their economy and their culture. In the political debates surrounding this issue, the question of Denmark’s wartime past continued to have salience. Politicians who opposed the Social Democrats argued that in the immigration issue, Denmark was facing a replay of its wartime experience. They denounced Denmark’s wartime government (whose legacy they claimed lived on in the current one) as a “political and moral failure,” but in the same breath extolled the virtues of the general Danish population who had the courage to stand up, not just against the Nazi invaders, but against the enemy within—its own traitorous government.[3] Similarly, in their own time, the government was “collaborating” with an external enemy that threatened the country, only this time the “enemy” was not Nazis but foreign immigrants. Seen in the context of the debate over immigration, Denmark’s wartime narrative served as a powerful reminder to the people of their need to reject Danish political parties who willingly cooperate with those who put the nation’s cultural identity at risk.[4]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 In Denmark, as elsewhere, the past is not dead. Denmark’s experiences during World War II—or, more accurately, Denmark’s perceived experiences during World War II—are selectively interpreted by political elites to argue for specific actions in the present. These interpretations have very little to do with what actually happened (indeed, historians on the subject disagree with both “official” narratives), and have far more to do with the needs and goals of the present.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 [1] Sørensen, “Narrating the Second World War in Denmark since 1945,” p. 296.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 [2] Sofie Bak, “Between Tradition and a New Departure: The Dilemmas of Collaboration in Denmark,” in Collaboration with the Nazis: Public Discourse after the Holocaust, ed. Roni Stauber (New York: Routledge, 2011) p. 110.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 [3] Sørensen, “Narrating the Second World War in Denmark,” p.310.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 [4] Sørensen, “Narrating the Second World War in Denmark,” p.309.


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