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Origins

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Danes/Christopher S. Hale

Danes in Canada trace their origins to the nation-state of Denmark, a constitutional monarchy in north-central Europe. Denmark is a peninsula surrounded by four water bodies, the North Sea to the west, the Kattegat to the northwest, the Skagerak to the northeast, and the Baltic Sea to the east. It has a common border with Germany to the south. Denmark’s total area, exclusive of the Faroe Islands and Greenland, which are self-governing communities under the jurisdiction of the Danish Crown, is approximately 43,000 square kilometres. Denmark’s population is slightly over five million. Danish, the country’s official language, is a Germanic language that is mutually intelligible to educated speakers of Norwegian and Swedish.

Denmark came into being during the Viking Period (c. 800–1050). By the eleventh century the Danish king Canute the Great had ruled for a number of years over an empire encompassing most of the lands around the North Sea and including Norway and parts of England and Sweden. During the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Denmark became the dominant power in the Kalmar Union to which all the Scandinavian kingdoms belonged. Christianized in the late tenth century, Denmark was Roman Catholic until the reign of Christian III (1534–59), who converted the country to Lutheranism. (Lutheranism has remained the state church to this day.) It was also in the sixteenth century that Sweden exited the Kalmar Union, leaving Norway, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands under the Danish Crown. Denmark continued to occupy a position of political supremacy in Scandinavia until suffering a series of disastrous defeats during the Thirty Years’ War (1618– 48), shortly after which it lost territories in the east, which now comprise part of Sweden. Later wars during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries further weakened the country politically and economically. Denmark’s alliance with France during the Napoleonic Wars (1799–1815), which resulted in total defeat and the loss of Norway, marked an especially low point in Danish history.

The nineteenth century witnessed important political and economic changes. Denmark’s political system, which had been characterized since 1665 by absolutism, was altered in 1848 with the introduction of a two-chamber parliament (Rigsdag) chosen by the more wealthy strata of society. The economy, which initially stagnated in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, began to turn around after 1830. The economic upswing was enhanced by a series of reforms during the 1850s that reduced the amount of tax-exempt property owned by large landowners and abolished labour dues owed to landlords by small-scale farmers. Trade was also made freer with the end of monopolies by towns and guilds and the development of the telegraph and railways. Following its loss in a war with Prussia, Denmark was obliged in 1864 to give up its southern provinces of Schleswig (Danish: Slesvig) and Holstein. In part to make up for its territorial losses to Prussia, the Danish government initiated, during the last decades of the nineteenth century, the reclamation of vast areas of wasteland in western Jutland where it settled the rural poor. At the same time, a greater emphasis was put on dairy farming and cattle breeding, and voluntary farmer cooperatives were encouraged. The country also witnessed the growth of industry, which attracted people from rural areas to settle in towns and cities. This in turn prompted the rise of socialism and a trade union movement and the beginnings of the modern welfare state.

Although Denmark remained neutral during World War I, it did suffer economically during the final months of the conflict and the first post-war years. A new constitution, which came into force in 1918, guaranteed universal suffrage. After a 1920 plebiscite, the northern part of Schleswig was returned to Denmark, at which time the country’s boundaries became fixed where they are situated today. The inter-war years saw the further implementation of social legislation and the development of the welfare state, but the 1930s and the onset of the Great Depression marked a slowdown in its progress as well as hard times.

Denmark hoped to remain neutral during World War II, but on 9 April 1940 it was occupied by the forces of Nazi Germany. At first the parliamentary government was allowed to function without much interference, but as time went on Nazi influence increased. This culminated in the summer of 1943, when the Germans took complete control of the government, partially in retaliation for many acts of sabotage committed by the Danish resistance movement. The country was liberated from Nazi rule when the German army surrendered in May 1945. The immediate post-war years were again marked by an economic recession, but by the 1950s the economy had improved and the state’s welfare programs were increased in scope. In 1953 the country adopted a new constitution which provided for a unicameral legislature (Folketing) chosen by universal suffrage. Denmark also began to draw closer to other European countries, joining the North American Treaty Organization in 1949 and the European Community in 1973.