Category Archives: Scandinavia

16 JANUARY, 1916: Peace and Quiet?

As world wars go, this one was pretty quiet at the start of 1917.  The Western Front had reverted to its particular version of inactivity, the patchwork violence of trench raids and minor attacks defined by the very British concept of ‘permanent offensive’, and on the Eastern Front – inevitably quiet during Eastern Europe’s ferocious midwinter – the last rites of the Central Powers’ attack into Romania were the only substantial military activity.

Elsewhere, the Italian, Caucasian and Salonika fronts were quiet, and an uneasy standoff existed in East Africa, with German forces confined to the south of the colony and the British still busy replacing European and Indian troops with as many African soldiers as they could mobilise. The slow, steady preparation for British operations in Palestine, from forward defence of the Suez Canal to invasion, was approaching completion, and a limited British offensive was taking place in Mesopotamia.  The latter was making fast progress towards Baghdad, but we’ve been to Mesopotamia lately and we’ll be back there soon, so I’ll give the preliminary battles their due then.

This relative lack of carnage, which had encouraged talk of a compromise peace during December, encourages me to talk about peaceful things – like Denmark.

On 16 January 1917, US president Woodrow Wilson ratified the purchase from Denmark of what had been the Danish West Indies and subsequently became the US Virgin Islands. This was a rare moment in the headlines for wartime Denmark, and most Danes tend to see the First World War as little more than a passing nuisance, not central to the country’s twentieth-century development. With all due respect to anyone Danish, this is only half true.

A constitutional monarchy since the mid-19th century, Denmark had lost its southern provinces and 150,000 of its people to Germany after the Second Schleswig-Holstein War of 1864, and was one of Europe’s smallest states in 1914, with a population of less than three million. Though its industrial and urban development had kept pace with the most advanced European countries, it retained a predominantly agricultural economy that had made a highly successful switch from grain to pork and dairy production since the 1870s, and that sustained Europe’s most prosperous farmers.

Agricultural products accounted for 90 percent of Denmark’s exports and, underpinned by a thriving merchant navy, much of the nation’s wealth.  This was reflected in the country’s political development, which embraced contemporary socialism (especially in modern, industrialised Copenhagen) but centred on liberal and social democratic attempts to curb the power of major landowners by opening up the country’s narrow electoral franchise.

Since the country was also dependent on imports for food, energy and manufacturing raw materials, international trade was obviously very important to Denmark, and its two main trading partners in 1914 were Germany and Great Britain.  When war broke out between them, Denmark could only choose neutrality, but the fact that it shared a long, scary frontier with Germany, and couldn’t hope to defend it, soon forced the Danish government to play favourites.

Denmark’s only strategic importance to the belligerent powers lay in a geographical position that controlled access to the Baltic Sea, and in August 1914, at Berlin’s request and in spite of a promise to Britain, the Danish Navy began laying minefields across the narrow straits separating Denmark from Sweden. The Navy spent the rest of the War tending the minefields, while the 58,000-strong Danish Army remained clustered around Copenhagen, the only part of the country considered defensible if the Germans decided to march in and take over.

Danish naval squadrons spent four years protecting the minefields that guarded the Baltic.

Invasion from the south remained a possibility throughout the War. It seemed most likely at the start of the conflict, when collective insecurity triggered a run on gold deposits in Danish banks. With the country’s political parties committed to a cooperative truce for the duration, a coalition government responded by suspending convertibility of the national currency, the Krøne, into gold, and followed up with a raft of emergency laws that gave it control over prices, food supplies and exports.  These measures were primarily designed to ensure fair distribution of resources in the face of inevitable shortages, but control of exports also added to the government’s bargaining power with warring powers desperate for supplies.

With wartime inflation running close to 20%, subsequent measures provided (and later increased) welfare provision for poorer citizens, introduced government subsidies to keep down prices of fuel and essential foodstuffs, and responded to housing shortages by regulating rents and offering tax exemptions to housing developers. Progressive taxation was also introduced to counter both the strain on public finances – partly caused by keeping the armed forces mobilised throughout the conflict – and excessive profiteering.

All this interventionism, new to Denmark and similar in nature to governmental developments in belligerent European states, worked reasonably well, as did the diplomatic balancing act performed by a government that spent its time convincing both sides that trade with an independent, neutral Denmark was to their advantage. Once the uncertainty of the War’s opening phase had passed, Danish society and economy adjusted to its requirements in relative comfort… for a couple of years.

By the summer of 1916, a change at the top in Germany appeared imminent, and the prospect revived fears of an invasion aimed at breaking (or at least stretching) the Allied naval blockade by occupying Norwegian and Danish ports. Nervousness in Denmark was echoed by worsening relations with equally worried Allied countries, and by alarm in the United States, which saw the Danish West Indies (the Caribbean islands of St. John, St. Croix and St. Thomas) as part of the western gateway to the Panama Canal, and was determined to take control of them before Germany could invade.

Here they are…

The Danish government had no good reason to keep the islands, which were economically depressed and expensive to run, and had agreed to sell them to the US twice before, in 1867 and 1902. The US Senate had rejected the first treaty of sale, essentially to spite unpopular Secretary of State Seward, and the Danish upper house had rejected the second, largely because of fears that a US administration would mistreat the islands’ predominantly black population. The same fears were expressed when Danish authorities rejected a fresh offer of purchase in October 1915, but Wilson’s secretary of state, Robert Lansing, kept on asking, eventually making it clear that the US would seize the islands rather than let them fall into German hands. Menaced by Germany and under pressure from Britain, Denmark could ill afford to make an enemy of the US, which was likely to impose selective restrictions on neutral trade from its shores if and when it joined the Allies, and the Danish ambassador signed a preliminary treaty of sale in New York on 4 August 1916.

The treaty did not secure rights of US citizenships for the islands’ residents, nor did it grant them a say in the matter, but by December it had passed through both Danish houses of parliament and a national plebiscite. The US Senate ratified the treaty in September, but Wilson delayed his own signature until 16 January 1917, by which time all hope of imposing peace on the world had faded and US relations with Germany had virtually collapsed. The formal transfer of power took place on 31 March, at which point the US paid Denmark $25 million in gold and the US Navy took administrative control of the islands. Island natives eventually received full citizenship rights in 1932, but that’s another story, as is the considerably less prosperous neutrality endured by the Danes after the US entered the War.

Like it or not, here’s Uncle Sam.

It’s easy to see why the First World War is no big deal in Denmark, where commemoration is largely focused on the 35,000 Danes from German-controlled Schleswig-Holstein who were conscripted to fight for Germany and the 6,000 of them who died, along with the three hundred or so Danish merchant ships sunk during the conflict and some 800 sailors who lost their lives. Otherwise, the post-War return of northern Schleswig to Danish control is recognised as a turning point in the country’s modern history, but much of the state’s wartime legislation was dismantled in the early 1920s and is largely forgotten, while the country’s economy quickly returned to something like its pre-War condition. A new constitution was introduced in 1915, widening the franchise and allowing women to vote for the first time, but it was the product of pre-War political dynamics and not influenced by the course of the conflict.

On the other hand, as they did in so many other developed European countries, wartime organisational needs forced an enormous, lasting growth in the reach and power of Danish unions and employers’ associations. They also spawned a political truce that propelled the country’s emerging social democrats to governmental responsibility and laid the foundations for an alliance with the liberal left that went on to shape Danish society for the next forty-five years. Perhaps most significantly, the country’s geopolitical position was fatefully altered by its years of neutrality, because experience of Allied blockade tactics during the First World War convinced German planners to occupy Denmark during the Second.

Just so you know, Danes serving in the German Army fought and died on the Western Front.

This has been a long, flimsy piece of journalism, and aside from telling another small tale of big people bullying little people, it has only one, small point to make – that the First World War changed the lives of almost every citizen in the developed world, even those that think it passed them by.