The Roman Empire had little contact with people as far north as Denmark. Consequently, the written record from that time is patchy and unreliable. The northward movement of the Franks in the eighth and ninth centuries forced the local rulers to resist external aggression and led to the rise of Denmark as a significant power in the region. A successful series of raids on England in the 11th century led to the creation of an Anglo-Danish kingdom. Among its rulers was Canute (Knud), later famous for his confrontation with the sea. Denmark’s power reached its zenith in the early 13th century, by which time Canute’s successors had taken control of Scandinavia, parts of modern-day Germany (Holstein, Pomerania and Mecklenburg) and Estonia. This empire rapidly disintegrated over the next 50 years, although Denmark, Norway and Sweden were reunited in the 14th century through blood ties between the various ruling families.
The Kalmar Union, as it was known (named after a town in southern Sweden) was considered a vital component of Danish strategy, as it guaranteed control of the Baltic. However, the rise of Sweden as a power in its own right, during the mid and late 15th century, forced Denmark to take a more aggressive posture. (Norway was still firmly allied to the Danes.) This enjoyed most success under King Christian IV, considered to be the greatest of Danish monarchs, who ruled between 1588 and 1648 and did much to establish the country as a modern nation and an influential European state. In truth, its relative power was waning, undermined from within by a backward semi-feudal economy and constant friction between the monarchy and the nobility – and from without by the rise of other powers, notably England and France.
Denmark-Norway was allied to France during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which prompted a series of attacks by the English, during the course of which the entire Danish fleet was destroyed or stolen (in the infamous ‘fleet robbery’ of 1807). The fall of Napoleon and renewed pressure on the Danes from Sweden forced Denmark to relinquish control over Norway at the 1814 Treaty of Kiel – although it retained the old Norwegian dependencies of Iceland, the Faroes and Greenland. In 1848, amid political upheaval across Europe, the Danes introduced a new constitution, abolishing absolute monarchy and establishing the country’s first constituent assembly. Full parliamentary democracy, with universal adult suffrage, came into being in 1901. By this time, Denmark had suffered its final territorial defeat, when the province of Schleswig-Holstein was recovered by Germany at the 1864 Treaty of Vienna (although part of Schleswig was later awarded to Denmark by the 1918 Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I).
Denmark was occupied by Nazi Germany during most of World War II. In the post-war era, Denmark joined NATO, while at home a new constitution, introduced in 1953, imposed a system of proportional representation, which has made coalition administrations a standard feature of Danish politics. Center-left government led by the Social Democrats – invariably the country’s largest party – dominated from the 1950s until the 1980s, when, in line with the rise of the center-right throughout Europe, the Conservatives were able to form a series of governments led by Poul Schulter – the most prominent Conservative leader of his generation. The Social Democrats, however, recovered their position at the 1993 election, under the leadership of Poul Nyrup Rasmussen and retained control at the 1998 poll, by forging an alliance with the small Social Liberal Party.
The dominant issue in Danish politics during the 1990s was relations with the European Union, which Denmark joined in 1973. Along with the UK, Denmark is the most ‘Eurosceptic’ nation, as became apparent when a 1992 referendum rejected Danish acceptance of the Maastricht Treaty on the future development of the EU. (A repeat plebiscite the following year secured a narrow victory.) Since then, Denmark has decided to stay out of the first wave of countries joining the single European currency. The Government, which generally favors membership, made another attempt to persuade the public prior to a referendum held in September 2000. Once again, however, they failed.
Despite that critical defeat, the Social Democrat government continued to enjoy broad popular support on most issues. In November 2001, it decided – unwisely, as it transpired – to try and exploit this by calling a snap election. After a closely fought campaign, which was dominated by the issue of immigration policy, the eight-year-old Social Democrat government was supplanted by a Liberal/Conservative coalition led by Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Immigration has become a major political factor in Europe in the last few years and this has fuelled the growing popularity of extreme right-wing parties throughout the continent. Denmark is no exception. Despite lacking a seat in government, the right-wing anti-immigration Danish People’s Party and its leader, Pia Kjaersgaard, have already exercised considerable influence over government policy during the last two years.