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Protecting Democracy: Danish Defence Debate in Times of Nationalism


Kjeld Hald Galster, M.A.

Militærhistoriske forskere fra det meste af verden mødes en gang årligt for at fremlægge deres forskningsresultater, debattere dem og lade sig gensidigt inspirere. Dette års konference fandt sted i Potsdam, og jeg havde her lejlighed til at give et oplæg under delemnet The Age of the World Wars: Nationalism, Class Struggle, and Totalitarianism. Den tilgangsvinkel, som jeg valgte, har sit udspring i min igangværende forskning i den demokratiske debats indflydelse på den førte forsvarspolitik, og jeg fandt det hensigtsmæssigt at tage udgangspunkt i det strategiske dilemma, som det amputerede danske kongerige befandt sig i perioden mellem nederlaget i 1864 og begyndelsen af Første Verdenskrig: Tyskland var den åbenlyse trussel, men den danske forsvarspolitik måtte favne bredt for at neutraliteten kunne opfattes som troværdig. Den vigtige pointe, som trækker tråden op til den Kolde Krigs tid et århundrede senere, er at denne troværdighed ikke opnås ved ureflekteret militær ydmyghed, med gennem etablering af væbnede styrker til støtte for landets udenrigs‐ og forsvarspolitik, der uden at besidde overdreven eller overflødig kapacitet kan siges at være en så ressourcekrævende hindring for fremmed militær ambition, at en potentiel modstander, der er engageret i en større europæisk konflikt, må anse agression for så kostbar, at han afstår. Som det vil ses af det efterfølgende, er min konklusion, at trods mange års parlamentarisk strid om forsvarets berettigelse, formåede de skiftende regeringer i det tyvende århundredes begyndelse at finde denne balance. Og de gjorde det i et for den tid bemærkelsesværdigt demokratisk samspil mellem politikere, de militære professionelle og den brede offentlighed.


National poetry has Denmark as a great power with dependencies in Britain, Norway, Iceland, Northern Germany and, of course, to the east of the Sound. As over the centuries she shed these valued possessions due to clumsy political and military endeavours, Denmark acquired a succession of foes. From time immemorial they were the Swedes, then from 1807 the British, and during the period of which I shall speak today: the Germans. I apologise in advance for casting them in this rather inauspicious rôle. As Denmark fought her last wars for greater geopolitical interests in 1848‐ 50 and 1864, the country’s strategic situation was that established by the Vienna Congress of 1815. Then, Denmark was an absolute monarchy, she united various nationalities – Danish, Icelandic, German – she possessed colonies in the West Indies and Greenland, and she had a considerable fleet. The German Confederation was the southern neighbour including even the Duchies of Holstein and Lauenburg, of which the Danish King was the Duke. Not so a few years hence. The Germanic duchies had gone and so had Schleswig. South of the border now lay the military and industrial great power of Germany – das Wilhelminische Zweites Reich, the second German Empire. Thus, in Denmark change was due, strategically as well as politically. This happened in the heyday of nationalism, and in the course of little more than fifty years a metamorphosis from a self‐contained cosmopolitan and absolute monarchy to a nation‐state and a mature mono‐national democracy saw the light of day. Patriotic fervour soared and the will to defend what little was left of the country was pervasive during the last decades of the eighteenth century. However, Denmark was now an insignificant player at the international stage and heavily dependent on support from greater powers – or at least their benevolent neutral co‐habitation of the same region. While, habitually defence policy logic is perceived as being found at the interface between armed defence and the foreign policy, the object for examination in this address is the crossing points of state policy and democratic debate in times of swelling nationalism. The classical logic includes threats, resources, and interests. While the democratic debate comprises these elements, too, simultaneously it encompasses components like class struggle, prejudices and idealism.


This contribution aims at illustrating the debate on Danish defence policy characterised by nationalism and by the change from absolute monarchy to parliamentary democracy. The adaptation to the newly acquired status as a small and rather insignificant power with modest leeway for bargaining remains an important parameter. For the purpose of this address, defence policy is defined as strategy aiming at adapting national defensive measures to concurrent interpretations of the international milieu, domestic political endeavours and available resources.

The debate

Scrutinising the debate on Danish defence during the last few decades prior to the outbreak of the Great War one realises that the issues differ a great deal. Parliamentary practice had been observed since 1849, but until 1901 the government was responsible to the King alone – not to Parliament. Over the years, and along with the political transformation towards government responsibility to Parliament, political priorities changed, and the wish emerged amongst opposition parties to use whatever tool available to speed up that development. Thus, although a sincere will to defend was extant, politicians on the left took to obstructing bills on the armed services, to force the government to agree to political concessions. This went on more or less continuously from the 1870s until 1901, and the conclusion amongst the political parties of a viable defence accord did not materialise until 1908. The ensuing defence legislation of 1909 delineated the starting position for Danish neutrality during World War I. To comprehend fully the arguments which span the continuum from nationalistic patriotism to somewhat defeatist realism, it is necessary to have a notion of the political constellations in Denmark throughout these years. Early in this period, four distinct groups dominated Parliament. ‘Right’ was the party of the great landowners holding the majority in the upper Chamber; the National Liberals were, primarily, members of the bourgeoisie; the Liberals were supported by farmers, some clerics, civil servants, and people employed in the country and held the majority of seats in the Commons from the 1870s onwards. Finally, there was the Middle Party consisting of people of basically the same views as the National Liberals, but of more egalitarian inclination. At the turn of the century the political landscape had developed into four big political parties: Right (later, following amalgamation with other parties, renamed ‘the Conservatives’), the Liberals, the Social Liberals and the Social Democrats (Labour).1

The past

In 1864, Denmark had to come to terms with the new reality of a shrunken mono‐national kingdom – fewer tax‐payers and dwindling resources, but more ends to meet. Reorganisation of Navy and Army and reconstruction of infrastructure were tasks demanding immediate attention.2 Although, by the Peace Accord of Vienna of 30 October 1864 Denmark had ceded the three duchies Schleswig, Holstein and Lauenburg, the Emperor Napoléon III, champion par excellence of the principle of national self‐determination, ascertained that a clause was added to the Peace Agreement of Prague of 23 August 1866, which committed Prussia and Austria‐Hungary to allow those parts of Schleswig, which – by plebiscite – might so decide, in due course to rejoin the Kingdom of Denmark. Thus, nationalism and democratic aspirations were swelling, and it seemed reasonable to hope for a future reunification. However, the general mood in Denmark seemed to be one of disregard for the fact that, linguistically and culturally, Holstein, Lauenburg and half of Schleswig were German. Nationalism fitted hand in glove with vain hopes for retribution coupled with hazy dreams of French armed support and a somewhat blind confidence in Denmark’s own army and navy. Although such views were divorced from the world of realpolitik they were pervasive with large segments of society. The chauvinist fervour manifested itself on occasions like that of the Prusso‐ Austrian encounter in 1866, when the Danish Government actually enquired in Paris whether to choose sides in the conflict hoping to get some of Schleswig back in return. Moreover, in 1870, when the Franco‐German animosity began to ferment, there was a popular inclination towards joining forces with the French.3 Following the Prusso‐German military successes and the geographical expansion of the New German Empire it was obvious to those in government office – though not necessarily to the man in the street – that any further dreams of retribution through Denmark’s own armed forces were unrealistic. However, it was no uncommon belief that Britain and France might develop contingency plans for the event of a major confrontation on the continent. The Danish Liberal politician J.C. Christensen, PM 1905‐9, believed that a two‐ pronged Franco‐British attack wielding one thrust across the Rhine while, simultaneously, launching an amphibious enterprise against Southern Jutland or through the Baltic Approaches was a possible option.4 According to German newspapers and journals, this was a prospect being considered in Berlin as well.5 Being a realist, Christensen recognised that a military and national disaster would be the most likely outcome of armed clashes with Germany, which was in a position at short notice to deploy considerable forces quickly across the border with Denmark. While, on the one hand, German aggression might materialise ‘out of the blue’, on the other, geographical circumstances and colossal logistic difficulties made western intervention less likely. Christensen, therefore, thought that if only Denmark would arm herself sufficiently to convince Germany that she would be in a position to forestall Anglo‐French occupation, Danish neutrality might be respected by both parties during a possible European conflict. Thus, Germany might be dissuaded from making a pre‐emptive strike.

Strategic considerations

Since 1848, the country had been defended by the Navy and a field army based on conscription of about 50% of every class of male youths, but with the loss of the Duchies in 1864 the manpower source had dwindled, and concentration of effort was deemed necessary. As Denmark, like most other European countries had discovered the defensive qualities of ferro‐concrete for the construction of fortifications, renewed interest emerged in buttressing the defence of selected garrisons. Therefore, and for the reason of shortage of funds, the focus was shifted to the preservation of the capital – the nerve centre of the country. Although, in the late 1800s the public debate remained strongly in favour of defending the country tout azimut, at the political level, a comprehensive defence of all sovereign territory, and in particular the protection of the Jutland peninsula bereft of its natural obstacle line was perceived as being beyond the capabilities of affordable naval and military means. Germany was now in possession of the naval base at Kiel, while Denmark was no longer a sea‐power of any significance. Thus, Denmark had to realise that German sea‐borne operations might bypass, with impunity, the land border between the two countries and debouch unexpectedly with considerable forces on key parts of the hinterland. As to fortifications, and in particular to those of the capital, two contrasting trends materialised. Ever since the years immediately subsequent to the 1864 events, the preservation of city fortresses had met with some scepticism if not outright opposition, and like in the twenty‐first century, the defence debate included a certain wish to pay as little as possible. Thus, the desire to preserve was juxtaposed with an inclination for saving money.

Motives behind agendas

The defence agendas leading up to the 1909 defence laws, which lent credibility to Danish World War I neutrality, were primarily to be found on a continuum ranging from the right wing, nationalistic, parties’, who strongly believed in the value of armed assertion of sovereignty, to the Social Democrats, initially being dismissive of the usefulness of national defence arrangements. Apart from their obvious wish to spend limited funds on social development rather than ordnance, one motive behind the Social Democrats’ policy on defence was their wish for an egalitarian society. Among other things they wanted to improve the conditions and status of the non‐commissioned officers and to dissolve the social barriers between them and those holding a King’s Commission.7 The Social Democrat agenda was based on the desire for a democratic society defended by just and classless armed forces, and for this purpose conscription was not bad means at all.

In 1905, the radical ‘anti‐militarist’ wing of the Liberals formed their own parliamentary group and party organisation later to be christened ‘the Social Liberals’. This was vehemently opposed to the military in general and to the Copenhagen forts in particular. They were less nationalistic and had a broader cosmopolitan outlook than most other political parties and they realised the futility of revenge.8 Unlike most responsible politicians, Peter Munch, a Social Liberal and later Secretary for Defence, saw no legal obligation for Denmark to defend her neutrality militarily: The theories promoted by the military enthusiast groups of the ‘Defence Commission’ in support of their views hold no inkling of basis for assessing the right and obligation of neutral states as laid out in the Conventions. According to these, each individual state is free to choose how much or how little military they want to have. On the other hand, obviously state reason demanded certain foreign policy considerations of those in power, and in the official Danish interpretation, the Hague Conventions set out that Every state, which claims neutrality, must be ready to defend it with armed forces . . . . The neutral state’s military tasks, thus include peace time preparations of mobile defence and construction of the necessary fixed fortifications; and, if war breaks out, full or partial mobilisation of the state’s military and naval forces . . . it is Denmark's duty to defend her neutrality; Denmark will not be able to obtain recognition as a neutral power unless she possesses a military power commensurate with the national abilities and circumstances . . . . For all practical purposes, such armed forces will be enough to prevent surprise attacks and to demand aggressive power on a scale, which will be prohibitive for most hostile endeavours. Only in the case that overwhelming forces debouched on Denmark would a mere protest in lieu of armed resistance be enough to convince the world of the sincerity of Danish neutrality. However, the costs of fort construction, and in particular if a comprehensive fortification of the capital was required, would be enormous, and throughout the period the Liberals and the Social Democrats demanded that funds for such an enterprise be raised by levying taxes on income and capital. The resultant change of taxation systems from an indirect to a direct and partially progressive one happened in 1903.9 One might assert that the parliamentarian inclination towards compromise solutions always sought the lowest common denominator: the popular will to contribute the least possible and to avoid tiresome obligations to national defence. Thus, two options featured prominently in the debate, viz.: full disarmament – in which case Denmark would have to either seek affiliation with or protectorate under the German or the British Empires – or armed forces commensurate with her geographical, national, economic, and man power conditions. In 1909, eventually a compromise was struck allowing realistic modernisation of the services and preservation and enlargement of the Copenhagen forts system to an extent sufficient to make the Danish neutrality a credible one. One may suggest that political reality and public will as demonstrated through the topical debate on defence had eventually fused, which seems to be the essence of representative democracy.


Among the central elements of the defence debate 1880‐1909 were the pervasive resolve to defend the little that was left of the old Kingdom, the provision of funds, the discussion on where to concentrate defensive efforts, technological modernisation, and the extent to which conscription of all able bodied young men was needed. Throughout the period leading up to the 1909 compromise legislation, there had been disagreement on the need for concentration of efforts around Copenhagen. However, the general view was that there was no other reason for war or pressure against Denmark than great power desire to get hold of the Danish Straits. In public debate, proponents of defensive efforts propagated the belief that the country was sufficiently strong to withstand great power pressure long enough to allow ‘friendly forces’ to arrive to her rescue.

Moreover, the preservation of the ‘Nation’ should remain above individual egotism and party politics. While the Social Liberals were sceptical of the usefulness of any kind of armed defence, the main issues for the Social Democrats was their desire of creating a just and egalitarian military, which might serve as a school of democracy. Conscription comprising all male youth would help democratise the services, and a reasonable and universal conscription system attracted pervasive approval. Further, since Denmark would need to fight an intellectual battle, it would make sense to the Social Liberals and the Social Democrats to invest some of the millions foreseen for military procurements in education of the citizenry rank and file. The Danish defence debate in the early 20th century had indeed become a democratic, a diverse and a nationalistic one, thus requiring political skill and proclivity for compromise. This materialised with the defence laws of 1909, which laid the ground for credible Danish neutrality throughout the Great War.


1 Prominent personalities were among others: Liberals: J.A. Hansen, Lars Bjørnbak, Chresten Berg, Frede Bojsen, Viggo Hørup. Right: Fonnesbech, Neergaard, Bahnson. Social Liberals: Zahle, Munch. Social Democrats: Stauning.

2 Rigsraadstidende, Forhandlinger paa Landsthinget, 3die Overordentlig Samling 1865, Columns 5‐8.

3 John Danstrup and Hal Koch, Eds., Danmarks Historie: Folkestyrets Fødsel, Vol 11 (Copenhagen: Politikens Forlag 1978), pp. 493 and 506‐16.

4 J.C. Christensen, 1856‐1930, Danish politician, (Reform) Liberal, prime minister 1905‐08.

5 John Danstrup and Hal Koch, Eds., Danmarks Historie: De ny Klasser, Vol 12 (Copenhagen: Politikens Forlag 1978), pp. 460‐61.

6 John Danstrup and Hal Koch, Eds., Danmarks Historie: De ny Klasser, Vol 12 (Copenhagen: Politikens Forlag 1978), pp. 460‐61.

7 Forsvarskommissionen af 1902, Betænkning afgivet af Forsvarskommissionen af 1902 til Regering og Rigsdag (Copenhagen: Parliament, 1908) p. 16.

8 Viggo Lauritz Bentheim Hørup, 1841‐1902; journalist, politician, Liberal (reform, European, Social), anti‐militarist. Sigurd Berg, 1868‐  , editor, politician, Liberal.

9 Denmark, Parliament, Rigsdagstidende, Forhandlinger paa Folkethinget, Ordentlig Samling 1874‐75 Columns 2858‐66.