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Denmark’s Geography And History


Denmark may be a small country in physical size, but its role in the development of Scandinavia has been greater than any other force. It has been the pivotal country from which so much of Scandinavian history has arisen. And even today, its major city of Copenhagen is the international crossroads for all of Scandinavia.

Denmark occupies the Jutland Peninsula between the North Sea to the west and the Baltic Sea to the east. And much of the country consists of a mix of small and medium size islands that sit in the entrance to the Baltic Sea, giving the country a strategic location that is partly what helped it grow into an early regional power. Denmark only encompasses 42,915 square kilometers, or 16,562 square miles of total land. And its population is 5,627,000, making it the second most populous of the Scandinavian nations. Denmark is also the parent country of Greenland, its major colonial holding, and Greenland is the world’s largest island with 2,166,086 square kilometers, or 836,330 square miles. But of course Greenland is primarily covered in glacial ice and has less than 60,000 people, most of whom are native, living along its margins. In addition, the Faroe Islands in the North Sea are also a self-governing Danish colony, but they are relatively small in total land and population.

The natural landscape of Denmark is one of glacial deposition, as the last ice advance was retreating. Thus the country is low in elevation, at best gently rolling, but primarily relatively flat. The land is especially fertile, as it composed of fine glacial till mixed with some glacial rubble. The land is also covered in natural mixed broadleaf and coniferous woodland, but interspersed with small lakes and marshes. However, being so small and yet well settled, most of Denmark is utilized for farming, small villages, towns and industries, as the Danish people are highly productive and utilize their land with great care.

A map showing Denmark relative to the rest of Europe (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Flying over the western edge of Jutland on approach to Copenhagen

There are many fertile areas, and the country is known for its fine dairy herds, sugar beets, barley and wheat crops, presenting a rather idyllic landscape, especially with its neat and tidy villages, each dominated over by a church steeple. There is an almost fairy tale quality to the Danish countryside. Fishing is also an important part of the Danish economy, as the Danes have always looked to sea for its bounty. The country is highly industrialized, producing fine quality manufactured goods, especially furniture, but having to import most of its raw material needs.

Although a tiny country, the history of Denmark is intimately bound up with the history of much of Europe. The Danish Royal House married its children into more royal families across Europe than any other. It is often said that no European royal is without Danish blood, thus it makes looking at this minuscule nation’s history a must if we are to best appreciate Copenhagen.

The Danish tribes are of Viking origin just as are the Norwegian and Swedish. There is evidence of their presence in Denmark as far back as 500 BC. From Denmark the Vikings raided and established colonies as far away as England and the Normandy Coast of France. By 950 AD, there was a Viking kingdom in Denmark, and its rule extended into what is now southern Sweden. The Danish Vikings set out across the Atlantic, settling Iceland in the 10th century, and from their the illustrious Leif Erickson set out to colonize Greenland, and for a brief time the northern coast of Newfoundland, long before Columbus was even born. An interesting side note to the story is that when the Vikings settled Iceland, they sent word home of how cold it was to keep more of their brethren from coming, but when they settled the rugged shores of Greenland, the name was intended to entice more colonists. Thus in today’s reality Iceland should be Greenland and Greenland should be Iceland. That name switch would be appropriate. On westbound flights from northern Europe to the American or Canadian northeast, there is a chance to see the frozen wasteland that is Greenland, and it is quite a spectacle.

During the early 11th century the famous King Canute actually united Denmark and England for a period of nearly 30 years. In 1397, the Kalmar Union united Denmark and Sweden and Norway, but in 1814, after the Napoleonic Wars, Denmark left the union, giving over Norway to Sweden, which it held until 1905. This was the result of the Congress of Vienna punishing the Danes for having supported Napoleon during his attempt to conquer Europe.

At one time Iceland and Greenland were united under the Danish Crown. But Iceland gained full independence in 1944. Greenland today essentially has home rule, but it is still supported in great measure by Denmark and its citizens are Danish subjects.

For the next hundred years, not much is heard from Denmark, as the nation keeps essentially to itself. However in 1849, the country followed the British example and became a constitutional monarchy. During the Victorian Era in England, King Christian IX of Denmark married most of his children into the royal houses of Europe, making him the father-in-law of European royalty. The two best-known examples are his two daughters, one of whom married the future Tsar of Russia, Alexander II and the other the future King of the United Kingdom, Edward VII. And the King’s younger son became the King of Norway when that country had no heir to its throne. The list of descendants of King Christian IX is long and extends into every major royal house on the continent.

High above the great Greenland ice cap on a flight from Copenhagen to Toronto

During World War II, Nazi Germany invaded Denmark, using it as a stepping-stone into Norway and also to have better control over the Baltic Sea for their navy. There is a story that has circulated saying that when the Nazi captors ordered all Danish Jews to wear yellow armbands, that many Danish citizens including the King also did the same. In the Copenhagen suburb of Fredericksburg there is a statue of the King wearing the Star of David armband. British forces liberated the country in 1945, and Denmark became one of the original signatory members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Denmark has a parliamentary government, similar in nature to that of Norway and Sweden. The monarchy, one Europe’s most prestigious, still exists, but in constitutional form with Her Majesty Queen Margrethe II having only limited powers. Unlike the United Kingdom, the Queen and her family are often seen in public without the benefit of pomp and ceremony, making Her Majesty more accessible to ordinary people, again similar to what is seen in Norway and Sweden.

Throughout historic times, Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia were separated by a three waterways, necessitating ferryboat crossings to Sweden or Norway The transit between the North Sea and the Baltic necessitates rounding the Jutland Peninsula, entering a broad body of water called the Skagerrak that separates Jutland from Norway. The Skagerrak narrows into the Kattegat, which separates Jutland from Sweden. Finally the waterway narrows to just a few kilometers in width, here giving both Denmark and Sweden vital control of the entry to the Baltic Sea in the days when sovereignty was based upon one’s ability to enforce local control. This critical waterway is called the Ø, and for centuries it was a buffer between Denmark and Sweden. But into the 20th century, it also became a bottleneck; as road and rail traffic had to be carried by ferry boats for the 12 kilometers across the straits. Since the summer of 2000, Copenhagen and Malmö, Sweden have been linked by a combined bridge and tunnel that allows for both rail and road crossing. What once took two-hours, now takes minutes, as people can cross between nations. This has given Copenhagen a greater hinterland for the purposes of trade, making it truly an international city. The name Copenhagen means merchant’s city, reflecting the fact that this has always been a city devoted to trade. However, since neither Denmark nor Sweden use the Euro, two currencies are still necessary when people interact across this border. But with both being European Union countries, there are no border formalities.

There was a very ceremonious opening of the bridge and tunnel, as the young heirs to the Danish and Swedish thrones did the ribbon cutting, and of course they are distantly related as cousins given the role of King Christian IX. Today it is possible to travel from London via the Chunnel to mainland Europe, and then one can continue on through Copenhagen directly into Scandinavia. These two links have given a greater sense of unity to the nations of Europe.

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