Denmark - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Denmark: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Denmark, nation in northwestern Europe. Denmark’s official name in Danish is Kongeriget Danmark (Kingdom of Denmark). The Vikings founded the Danish kingdom more than 1,100 years ago, making it one of Europe’s oldest continuous kingdoms. The national flag, the Dannebrog, has been in use since 1219, when it is said to have fallen from heaven to inspire battle-weary troops to victory. Copenhagen (København in Danish) is Denmark’s capital and largest city.

Historically and culturally, Denmark is part of Scandinavia. In centuries past, the Danish monarch at times ruled all or parts of both Norway and Sweden, as well as the island nation of Iceland. Geographically, Denmark remains a bridge between continental Europe and the more northerly Scandinavian countries.

Today, Denmark is a small country that occupies most of the Jutland Peninsula (Jylland in Danish), as well as the hundreds of islands of the Danish archipelago. The southern border of Jutland touches Germany, Denmark’s only land boundary with the European mainland. The boundary measures just 68 km (42 mi) long. Denmark’s principal islands lie to the east, between Jutland and Sweden. The largest and most important island is Sjælland (also called Zealand). The greater part of Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital for 600 years, covers the eastern shore of Sjælland.

The Kingdom of Denmark also includes the Faroe Islands, a collection of 18 islands that lie northwest of Scotland; and Greenland, far to the northwest across the North Atlantic Ocean, near North America. Politically, both Greenland and the Faroe Islands are part of Denmark, but they are self-governing in all matters except defense and foreign affairs.

Despite its northerly location, Denmark’s climate is relatively mild. The climate is moderated by the warm waters of the North Atlantic Drift, a part of the Gulf Stream, which sweeps north along Denmark’s west coast. Denmark is a low-lying country of rolling hills, tidy farms, and green moorlands. The sea is never more than 64 km (40 mi) away, giving the country a seacoast atmosphere. Rain, fog, and gray skies are common.

Denmark is a wealthy and thoroughly modern country, and its citizens enjoy one of the highest standards of living in Europe. Through skill and imagination, the Danes have made very effective use of limited natural resources. Denmark maintains one of Europe’s oldest and most extensive welfare states. Denmark’s contributions to the arts are numerous, especially in fashion, industrial design, cinema, and literature. Denmark’s best-known writers include Hans Christian Andersen, whose fairy tales are famous throughout the world, and the religious philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.


Excluding the Faroe Islands and Greenland, Denmark has an area of 43,098 sq km (16,640 sq mi), making it about twice the size of the state of Massachusetts. The Jutland Peninsula, or Danish mainland, accounts for about three-quarters of Denmark’s total land area.

Apart from the border with Germany to the south, the Danish mainland is bounded on all other sides by water. The North Sea lies to the west of Jutland and the Baltic Sea to the east. The Skagerrak and Kattegat, two straits that link the two seas, separate Denmark from Norway and Sweden respectively. To the east, a narrow strait called the Øresund (Öresund in Swedish; The Sound in English), separates the island of Sjælland from the Danish mainland.

Islands in Denmark

Of the approximately 500 islands in the Danish archipelago, only a few are large and fewer than 100 are inhabited. Apart from Sjælland, the principal islands are Fyn, Lolland, Falster, Langeland, and Møn. Bornholm, a small island in the Baltic Sea, lying about 145 km (90 mi) east of Sjælland Island, is also a part of Denmark. Bridges connect many of the islands.

Surface Features in Denmark

Denmark is a lowland area. The average elevation is just 30 m (about 100 ft) above sea level. A ridge of low, rounded hills extends the length of central Jutland. They include Yding Skovhøj (173 m/568 ft), the highest point in Denmark.

The western coast of the mainland is low and rimmed by dunes and sandbars, which shelter the land from North Sea storms. The eastern coast, which is slightly higher in elevation, is deeply indented by a series of fjords. The Limfjorden, the most northerly of these indentations, extends in a generally east to west direction and cuts across the entire breadth of the peninsula from the Kattegat strait to the North Sea.

Denmark has no large lakes or long rivers. However, the land is dotted with small lakes and bogs and threaded with short streams. For centuries, farmers have drained sensitive, low-lying wetlands to create arable land. As a result, few of Denmark’s original meandering streams remain intact; most have been artificially straightened. The longest river is the 158-km (98-mi) Guden River in eastern Jutland, which flows into Randers Fjord and is navigable as it nears the sea.

Climate in Denmark

Denmark has a temperate maritime climate, with cool summers and generally mild winters. The winds are strong for much of the year and have a prevailing direction from the west. The mean temperature in summer is about 16°C (about 61°F); in winter, about 0°C (about 32°F), with slightly cooler average temperatures in the eastern part of the country. Average annual rainfall is about 610 mm (about 24 in). The wettest months are typically July through October.

Natural Resources of Denmark

Some 53 percent of the total land area of Denmark is cultivated—a relatively large percentage for an industrialized nation. Much of Denmark’s energy needs are met by petroleum and natural gas reserves located in Denmark’s sector of the North Sea. Other minerals are limited. The most common include the clays, peat, and other deposits common to boggy country.

The gray soils of Denmark are only moderately fertile. Because the soil is acidic and tends to quickly drain minerals, it must be heavily fertilized to permit intensive cultivation.

Plants and Animals in Denmark

In ancient times Denmark was heavily forested. Relatively little wild vegetation remains in Denmark because so much of the land is urbanized or under cultivation. The forests, which cover just 11.6 percent of the country, include conifers (mainly fir, spruce, larch, and pine), beech, oak, birch, and ash. Several varieties of ferns and mosses common to the northern European mainland are also found. Wild animals are scarce. Natural animal life is limited to deer and small animals such as foxes, squirrels, hares, wild ducks, pheasants, and partridges. Numerous species of freshwater fish live in Denmark’s streams and lakes.

Environmental Issues in Denmark

Considered highly advanced in environmental planning and world environmental activism, Denmark is a leader in pollution control and was the first industrialized country to establish a ministry of the environment. Denmark recognizes most of its protected areas as special zones rather than setting them aside as parks and reserves. Commercial activity is strictly regulated to preserve natural and historical value of the landscape. About one-third of the country falls into these protected zones.

Virtually all of the nation’s sewage is treated, and sulfur dioxide emissions—a source of acid rain—were significantly reduced during the 1990s. Nevertheless, challenging problems remain to be solved. Agricultural runoff, which contains high levels of fertilizers, has caused harmful algal blooms (see algae) in the North Sea and increasingly contaminates drinking water supplies.

Denmark has ratified an international convention on wetlands and protects many designated sites. There is an immense tundra reserve in northeastern Greenland, a Danish dependency. Other international environmental agreements ratified include those pertaining to air pollution, biodiversity, climate change, endangered species, hazardous wastes, marine dumping, marine life, the ozone layer, ship pollution, tropical timber, and whaling. Regionally, Denmark is party to agreements to protect terrestrial and marine habitats.


Ethnically, the majority of Danes are of Scandinavian descent. The Scandinavians are a Germanic people who have occupied Norway, Sweden, and Denmark since pre-Viking times. The languages of the three countries are closely related. A small German-speaking minority lives in southern Jutland near the border with Germany. A largely Inuit population inhabits the Danish territory of Greenland, and the Faroe Islands have a Nordic population, the descendents of Viking colonizers. About 6 percent of Denmark’s people are classified as immigrants.

Population Characteristics of Denmark

Denmark is heavily urbanized, with 86 percent of the Danish population living in urban areas. The population of Denmark proper is 5,500,510 (2009 estimate), giving the country an overall population density of 130 persons per sq km (336 per sq mi).

Principal Cities of Denmark

Copenhagen is the capital and by far the largest city in Denmark, with a population of 501,158 (2006 estimate). About one-quarter of all Danes live in Copenhagen and its surrounding suburbs. Copenhagen is Denmark’s major port and is the leading commercial, social, and cultural center. Most of Copenhagen spreads out on the eastern coast of Sjælland Island. A smaller section of the city lies on Amager, an island east of Sjælland; bridges connect sections of the city. The city was founded in the 12th century and has served as Denmark’s capital since 1443.

Århus, Denmark’s second largest city, had a population of 222,559 in 2003. Århus is a seaport and commercial center on the east coast of Jutland. Home to Århus University, the city is the cultural center of Jutland and is noted for its lively music scene and nightlife. Odense, on the island of Fyn, is a port and industrial city with a population of 145,374 (2003 estimate). It dates from the 10th century and is famed as the birthplace of the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen. Ålborg, a port on the Limfjorden, is the commercial center of northern Denmark, with a population of 121,100 (2003 estimate).

Religion in Denmark

The Evangelical Lutheran Church, a Protestant denomination, is Denmark’s national church. Nearly 90 percent of Danes are affiliated with the church. Due to accelerating immigration in the late 20th century, Islam is now the second largest religion in Denmark. The nation is also home to a small Roman Catholic minority. By law toleration is extended to all religions.

Languages spoken in Denmark

Danish is the official language. See Danish Language. Many Danes also speak a second language, especially English, which is a required school subject.

Education in Denmark

Organized institutional education in Denmark had its beginnings in the latter part of the 11th century, with the founding of cathedral schools under church auspices and grammar schools. The University of Copenhagen was founded in 1479. Throughout the early modern period the educational system was administered in conjunction with the established church. Religious instruction was required in all the state schools. In 1739, under the influence of teacher and dramatist Ludvig Holberg, the Danish language replaced Latin as the language of instruction. An important experiment at Sorø by German educational reformer Johann Bernhard Basedow introduced nature study and handicrafts into the school curriculum.

In the mid-19th century, the first program of adult education was initiated in Denmark at the Folk High School in Rødding, Jutland. Under the leadership of Bishop Nicolai Frederick Severin Grundtvig and Kristen Kold, the school became a model for similar institutions in Europe and the United States. Franz Nachtegall founded the Danish system of gymnastics, which was considered useful for military training, and in 1804 he was appointed the first director of Denmark’s influential Military Gymnastic Institute. The International People’s College, founded in 1921 at Helsingør, also had a far-reaching influence. The college introduced programs of study for people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds as a way to promote better understanding among the world’s nations. Recent trends in Danish education have included the extension of higher education and the raising of the level of teacher training.

Elementary education has been compulsory since 1814. All children must attend school from age 7 to 16. Students may attend either private schools or free public schools. Primary education consists of a nine-year comprehensive school. All students may continue school through a tenth year of studies, and talented students are encouraged to continue their education beyond that point. Denmark’s adult literacy rate is 99 percent.

Specialized Schools in Denmark

Denmark is home to hundreds of folk high schools, agricultural schools, and vocational schools. The well-regarded folk high schools are a distinctive Danish contribution to education. They are designed primarily for people over the age of 18 and offer many opportunities for further education through lectures and seminar discussions. No exams or degrees are given. Many of the schools are private, but the state contributes to their support regardless of their religious, political, or ethnic orientations.

Universities and Colleges in Denmark

Among the universities in Denmark are Ålborg University (1974), Århus University (1928), the University of Copenhagen, the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University (1856), and the Technical University of Denmark (1829), all in Copenhagen; Odense University (1964); and Roskilde University (1972). Other institutions include the Århus School of Architecture (1965), the Copenhagen Business School (1917), and the Royal Danish Conservatory of Music (1867) and Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts (1754).

Libraries and Museums in Denmark

All major cities and most towns have public libraries, with some 50 million volumes on the shelves. The Royal Library in Copenhagen, founded in 1673, serves as the national library of Denmark. It contains collections of music, manuscripts, maps, and pictures. Among the collections are 5,000 incunabula, books printed before the year 1501.

Denmark is home to more than two dozen major museums, many within or near Copenhagen. Among the most important is the Museum of National History at Frederiksborg Castle, in Hillerød. Built in the early 17th century on an artificial island north of Copenhagen, it boasts finely manicured gardens and contains some 10,000 exhibits. The Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen, also a 17th-century building, holds a collection of weapons, apparel, and furniture, as well as the crown jewels. The Thorvaldsens Museum in Copenhagen contains the works of famous 19th-century Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen.

The National Museum in Copenhagen displays Denmark’s archaeological treasures, including the famous Gundestrup Cauldron, in an excellent collection of prehistoric and Viking-age artifacts (see Viking Art); important satellite museums include the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde and the open-air museum in Århus, in which visitors can tour a reconstructed provincial town. The Louisiana Museum north of Copenhagen holds a collection of modern art, as does the North Jutland Art Museum in Ålborg. The Silkeborg Museum in central Jutland displays the famous Tollund man, a 2000-year-old natural mummy found in a bog.

Culture of Denmark

Denmark has won international renown for its many contributions to modern intellectual and cultural life. Danish culture draws inspiration largely from modern European influences and local folk tradition. The influence of Denmark’s folk heritage can be seen in its fine handicrafts, including beautifully designed ceramics and porcelain, silverware, and home furnishings. Copenhagen has a permanent exhibition of arts and crafts where artisans from all over the country may display and sell their work. The European—and increasingly global—influences in Danish culture can be seen in modern trends in music, architecture, cinema, sculpture, and literature.

In many fields of research the Danes have a long tradition of scholarship and discovery. The observations and careful measurements of Tycho Brahe helped open the way for the development of modern astronomy. Danes such as Rasmus Rask and Vilhelm Thomsen made important advances in linguistics and philology. The brilliant Niels Bohr made major discoveries in the field of nuclear physics, and Niels Finsen studied the medical and therapeutic uses of light; both men received Nobel prizes for their pioneering work.

The Visual Arts in Denmark

Numerous Danish architects and designers have achieved worldwide fame. Modern Danish architecture is exemplified by the works of Kay Fisker, Hack Kampmann, Aage Rafn, Arne Jacobsen, and Povl Baumann with their designs for Århus University, the Copenhagen Police Building, many modern apartment houses, and the headquarters of the Danish Broadcasting Company. The Danish architect Jørn Utzon, best known for designing the magnificent Sydney Opera House in Australia, produced numerous influential public works in the modern style. Many Danish designers have worked for specialized industries, especially in ceramics, silver work, and furniture, bringing artistic beauty and functionality to many commercial products.

In recent decades, Danish cinema has won growing international acclaim. Perhaps the most famous Danish film director is Carl Dreyer, who directed such influential masterpieces as La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928). Other well-known Danish film directors include Gabriel Axel, whose film Babette’s Feast (1987) won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film; Bille August, whose Pelle the Conqueror (1988) also won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film; and Lars von Trier, whose Breaking the Waves won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1996. In 2000, von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark captured the Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) award as the best film at the Cannes Film Festival. A strong willingness to experiment with new techniques has pushed Danish filmmakers to the vanguard of modern cinema.

Literature in Denmark

Literature is a vital part of Danish culture, and many of the country’s writers are known worldwide. Ludvig Holberg is often acknowledged as the literary father of Denmark; his poetry and drama pioneered the wide acceptance of the Danish language. Hans Christian Andersen, a 19th-century Danish writer, is best known for his fairy tales, which are considered classics of children’s literature. Another influential 19th-century thinker and writer is Danish religious philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Novelists Henrik Pontoppidan and Johannes V. Jensen were each awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in the first half of the 20th century. Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), Martin A. Hansen, and Peter Høeg are among the more recent Danish writers who have also achieved widespread acclaim. See Danish Literature.

Music and the Performing Arts in Denmark

Modern Danish musicians have been deeply influenced by earlier Danish composers such as Carl August Nielsen, Finn Høffding, Ebbe Hamerik, and Niels Viggo Bentzon. Nielson conducted the Royal Society and the Music Society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He wrote more than 100 operas, symphonies, and music scores for piano, violin, and string quartet. Among the most famous Danish composers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are Hans Abrahamsen and Per Noergaard. The much-beloved Danish pianist and entertainer Victor Borge emigrated to the United States during World War II.

The two major symphony orchestras of Denmark are the Royal Danish Symphony Orchestra and the State Radio Orchestra. Both orchestras are known for their willingness to perform new compositions by younger artists.

Perhaps Denmark’s most famous playwright is the 18th-century satirist Ludvig Holberg. Kaj Munk, a Danish dramatist and clergyman, wrote dramas that were widely popular in the 1930s. He was executed by Germans during World War II for his opposition to the Nazi regime (see National Socialism). The Royal Theater in Copenhagen presents drama, opera, and ballet under the auspices of Denmark’s ministry of cultural affairs. The Royal Theater was founded in 1748, and an annex, the New Stage, was opened in 1931.

The Royal Danish Ballet has had an excellent reputation since the 18th century, perhaps reaching its height in the 19th century under Auguste Bournonville. The Royal Danish Ballet still specializes in Bournonville’s works. Danish ballet dancers also perform regularly in the United States. Perhaps the best-known is Peter Martins, a Danish dancer who heads the New York City Ballet.


Once dependent on agriculture, Denmark today is a highly industrialized country. The Danes enjoy one of the world’s highest standards of living. Denmark’s prosperity is largely the result of the Danish peoples’ ability to adapt to changing economic conditions. The Danes have concentrated on producing high-quality manufactured goods, including machinery and metals, furniture, and food products, and providing services—especially banking and finance, insurance, transportation, and tourism. Because Denmark’s economy depends heavily on imported raw materials and exports of finished goods, the nation promotes a liberal trade policy. Foreign trade accounts for about two-thirds of Denmark’s gross domestic product (GDP). Denmark’s GDP in 2007 was $311.6 billion.

In 1973 Denmark joined the European Economic Community (EEC), a predecessor of the European Union (EU). Denmark conducts about two-thirds of its trade with other EU member nations. However, Denmark has been a somewhat skeptical member of the EU, viewing membership as a potential threat to aspects of Danish sovereignty. In 1992 Danish voters narrowly rejected the Maastricht Treaty (or Treaty on European Union) in a national referendum but later accepted it with reservations. With its fundamentally strong economy and stable currency, Denmark qualified to participate in the European Monetary Union (EMU) and adopt the EU’s common currency, the euro, when it was introduced in 1999. Danish voters decisively rejected EMU in a 2000 national referendum, however, choosing to retain the national currency, the Danish krone (or crown). Since then, popular support for EMU appears to be growing stronger.

Agriculture of Denmark

Although large areas of western Jutland are unsuited for agriculture, and the soils of the rest of the land are generally of only average fertility, nearly 55 percent of Denmark’s land is under cultivation. Danish farmers have shown extraordinary resourcefulness in adapting the land for crops, through heavy use of fertilizers and intensive scientific farming practices. Most Danish farms are in Jutland. Fewer than 3 percent of Denmark’s population work as farmers.

The principal agricultural activities are hog farming and dairy farming. The Danes have an old saying that “the pig hangs on the cow’s tail.” This means that after the cream has been removed from the cow’s milk and made into dairy products, the remaining skim milk and whey are fed to pigs. Denmark is a major exporter of live pigs and pork products, including bacon and ham, as well as dairy products such as butter and cheese. Throughout the 1990s, demand for organic dairy products significantly expanded; today, nearly one-third of dairy products are produced according to organic principles.

Crops are raised mainly for livestock feed, with limited production of food crops for human consumption. The major crops are wheat, barley, corn, and other grains, and potatoes, beets, and other root crops. Vegetables, including cabbage, peas, carrots, onions, and leeks, are produced mainly for local consumption.

For many years, the Danish government favored small landholdings, and the merger of small holdings to form large estates was discouraged by law. However, legislation passed in 1989 legalized the formation of larger farms. In 1970 the average farm was 22 hectares (54 acres). Today, the average size is 55 hectares (136 acres).

A notable feature of agriculture in Denmark is the influence of the cooperative movement. Cooperative associations dominate the production of dairy and pork products. Much of the nation’s agricultural produce is sold through marketing cooperatives. Most cooperatives are organized in national associations, which are members of the Danish Agricultural Council, the central agency for the cooperatives in dealings with the government and industry and in foreign trade.

Fishing in Denmark

Denmark’s large fishing fleet plays a significant role in the economy. The fleet is modern and efficient. However, since the early 1980s, the catch gradually declined, the result of overfishing and the effects of North Sea pollution. The total catch in 2007 was 0.9 million metric tons, almost all of which were marine fish. The most important fish caught are herring, plaice, and cod.

Mining in Denmark

Denmark heavily exploits its known natural resources, the most valuable of which are the natural gas and petroleum reserves discovered in Denmark’s sector of the North Sea in the mid-1960s; mining of the reserves began in the early 1970s. The output of crude oil was 137 million barrels in 2004. Kaolin is found on the island of Bornholm, but the deposits are not of high quality, and it is used chiefly in the manufacture of coarse earthenware and brick. Other minerals produced commercially include limonite, lignite, limestone, chalk, and marl. By the late 1980s, it was established that sand reserves in Jutland held deposits of titanium, zircon, and yttrium.

Manufacturing in Denmark

Denmark is home to a great variety of manufacturing enterprises, which are widely dispersed across the country. The most important manufacturing industries include food products (especially pork and dairy products); machinery; appliances, such as televisions and refrigerators; iron, steel, and other metals; chemicals and pharmaceuticals; windmills and windmill technology; and furniture, which has been in high demand since the 1920s.

Denmark is well-known for its production of high-quality agricultural machinery, including beet harvesters and milking machines. Among the most famous Danish manufactured products are the plastic toy building blocks made by LEGO that are popular throughout the world. Taken together, Danish industry produces about one-quarter of the nation’s annual GDP.

Energy in Denmark

Because Denmark lacks coal reserves and its low terrain offers little waterpower potential, the nation had to import almost all of its energy before 1980. In 1966 petroleum and natural gas reserves were discovered beneath the Danish sector of the North Sea. Production began in 1972. By 1996 Denmark had achieved energy self-sufficiency. Today, Denmark is a net exporter of energy. The offshore petroleum and natural gas industry operates out of Esbjerg in western Jutland. Most of Denmark’s electricity is produced in thermal plants using domestically produced fossil fuels, as well as some imported coal. Production in 2006 was 43.1 billion kilowatt-hours.

Denmark supports the development of renewable energy sources, including solar power, wind power, waste incineration, and biofuel generation. Thousands of state-of-the-art windmills dot the Danish landscape. Taken together, renewable energy accounts for 22.1 percent of Denmark’s electricity generation. In 1985 Denmark passed legislation banning the construction of nuclear power plants in the country (see Nuclear Energy).

Services in Denmark

As in most developed nations, the service sector, backed by a sound educational system, has grown into the dominant force of Denmark’s economy. In 2007 services accounted for about 73 percent of Denmark’s GDP. Public administration accounts for about one-third of all services. Private services include banking and finance, insurance, transportation and communications, and the important tourism industry.

Visitors to Denmark enjoy the nation’s great wealth of cultural activity, from its world-class museums to its impressive medieval castles. In Copenhagen, many visitors are attracted to the Strøget, said to be the world’s longest pedestrian shopping street, and to the famed Tivoli Gardens, an amusement park with cafes, pavilions, and manicured gardens. One of Denmark’s most famous attractions is LEGOLAND, a park in Billund in central Jutland. The 10-hectare (25-acre) theme park features elaborate models of miniature towns, including Copenhagen and London, constructed from tens of millions of LEGO toy building blocks.

Transportation in Denmark

The sea separates Denmark’s lands, so ships are vital for passenger and freight traffic, both within and beyond the country. Ferries link Jutland with the islands in the Baltic Sea, the Baltic islands with one another, and both Jutland and the Baltic islands with Germany, Sweden, and Norway. In addition, bridges link many of the islands. In 1998 a suspension bridge linking the islands of Fyn and Sjælland opened to traffic. Two years later a 16-km (10-mi) bridge and tunnel opened connecting Copenhagen with the Swedish city of Malmö. The link, called the Øresundsbron (Øresund Bridge), makes it possible to travel between the two countries in 15 minutes. Bicycles are a popular form of transportation throughout the country.

Denmark has 2,133 km (1,325 mi) of operated railroad track, more than 80 percent of which is part of the Danish State Railways system. The main rail route leads south through Jutland to Hamburg, Germany. Motor vehicle traffic runs on 71,847 km (44,644 mi) of roads. Danish Airlines is part of the Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS). Danair provides domestic air service. The international airport is at Kastrup, near Copenhagen.

Communications in Denmark

The government telephone service operates long-distance lines, but many of the local services in Denmark are operated by private companies. Radio and television programs are produced by the state-owned Radio Denmark, which operates two television networks and national and regional radio stations. Programs on these channels are commercial-free, and are supported by licensing fees from set owners. TV2, a national public service television station, receives some government funding. In 2003 two commercial television stations began broadcasting and quickly attracted significant audiences. Danish law protects freedom of expression, and Denmark’s numerous newspapers and periodicals reflect a wide variety of political viewpoints.


Denmark is a constitutional monarchy, and succession to the throne is hereditary. Queen Margrethe II succeeded to the throne on the death of her father, Frederick IX, in 1972. Denmark is governed under a constitution adopted in 1953, which included a provision that for the first time permitted women to inherit the throne. All Danish citizens 18 years of age or older are permitted to vote.

Executive of Denmark

National executive power is ceremonially vested in the Danish monarch, but the real executive authority is vested in the prime minister. The prime minister, who represents the political party or parties that hold a majority in the Danish parliament, is formally appointed by the monarch. The prime minister heads a council of ministers, or cabinet, which administers the various departments of government. The prime minister must resign or call new elections if the government receives a vote of no confidence to form the parliament.

Legislature of Denmark

Denmark’s unicameral (single-house) parliament is called the Folketing. Legislative power is held jointly by the monarch and the Folketing. The approval of the monarch and the Folketing is necessary to enact legislation, declare war, or sign treaties. Members of the Folketing serve a term of four years, but the monarch has the power to dissolve the Folketing at any time. The 179 members are popularly elected; the Faroe Islands and Greenland are represented by two members each. Elections are conducted chiefly on the basis of proportional representation.

Measures approved by the Folketing may be submitted to a popular referendum with the consent of one-third of the members; if at least 30 percent of the eligible voters disapprove the measure, it is defeated.

Judiciary in Denmark

Judicial power in Denmark is vested in 82 lower courts presided over by individual judges. There are two high courts, each with a panel of judges, and a supreme court, which sits in Copenhagen.

Local Government of Denmark

For administrative purposes, Denmark is divided into the borough of Frederiksberg, the city of Copenhagen, and 14 counties: Århus, Bornholm, Copenhagen, Frederiksborg, Fyn, Nordjylland, Ribe, Ringkøbing, Roskilde, Sønderjylland, Storstrøm, Vejle, Vestsjælland, and Viborg.

District councils of between 7 and 31 members, headed by elected mayors, administer the 275 municipalities of Denmark. The city of Copenhagen is administered by a 55-member city council and by a smaller executive body. County councils headed by mayors administer the 14 counties. The ministry of interior supervises the counties, the city of Copenhagen, and the borough of Frederiksberg. Local committees supervise the municipalities.

Political Parties of Denmark

The most significant political parties in Denmark include the center-right Liberal Party; the right-wing Conservative People’s Party and Danish People’s Party; the center-left Social Democratic Party; the left-wing Socialist Party; and the Radical Left (also called the Danish Social Liberal Party). The New Alliance, formed in 2007 as the country’s first significant new party in a decade, represented a centrist position between the two polarized positions to the right and left in Denmark.

Health and Welfare in Denmark

Denmark’s social welfare system dates from the 1890s, and today it is one of the world’s most comprehensive. Health insurance, covering all of the Danish population, provides free medical care and hospitalization, payment for some essential medicines, and some dental care. Most hospitals are municipal. All persons are entitled to a retirement pension. Other benefits include employment injuries insurance; unemployment insurance; social assistance for the aged, blind, and disabled; and provisions for the care of children, including daytime care for children.

Defense of Denmark

Denmark abandoned its neutrality after World War II (1939-1945), and in 1949 became a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Yet Denmark remained somewhat ambivalent toward NATO for many years. In the 1990s, Denmark began taking a more active stance, including sending military personnel to the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991), the Balkan Peninsula during the Wars of Yugoslav Succession (fought mainly between 1991 and 1995), and voicing support for military cooperation in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.

Every male citizen from the ages of 19 to 25, except citizens of Greenland and the Faroe Islands, may be conscripted for four months of military service. In 2006 the army maintained a strength of 13,580 soldiers. The navy includes a small fleet and a coast-defense force and has 3,450 members. The Royal Danish Air Force, with 3,910 members, is tactically under NATO command. Each service has a volunteer home guard. The volunteer home guard comprises about 64,000 members.


People have lived on the Jutland Peninsula for thousands of years, since shortly after the last ice age ended about 10,000 years ago. The earliest inhabitants were nomadic hunters and gatherers. By about 3000 BC, a farming people inhabited parts of the peninsula. They were replaced by warriors from the south about 2000 BC. By the 1st century AD, small farming villages had been reestablished on Jutland. In the 5th and 6th centuries AD, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who then inhabited parts of Denmark and northern Germany, invaded England.

Age of the Vikings

The Vikings were Scandinavian warrior-sailors who dominated the seas of Europe from about the 9th century to the 11th century. They were excellent shipbuilders and the finest seafarers of their age. As both plunderers and traders, they were known from Russia to Iceland and from the British Isles to the shores of the Black Sea. The Vikings originally lived along the shores of Denmark and Norway. By the 10th century they had established settlements in eastern England and in Normandy, in northern France (see Normans). They had also ventured east across the Atlantic Ocean to Iceland, Greenland, and even North America. By the middle of the 10th century, Denmark had become a united kingdom under King Harold Bluetooth.

Harold Bluetooth had forsaken paganism for Christianity, and he initiated the Christianization of the Danes. Harold’s son, Sweyn I, conquered all of England in 1013 and 1014. During the reign of Sweyn’s son, Canute II, the Danish realm expanded to include Norway. The unified kingdom, which also included part of southern Sweden, declined after Canute’s death in 1035, and by 1042 Denmark’s union with England and Norway had been dissolved. For the next century, Denmark was torn by civil wars and outbreaks of violence.

Expansion and Prosperity

In the late 12th and early 13th centuries, the Danes expanded to the east. They conquered the greater part of the southern coastal areas of the Baltic Sea, establishing a powerful and prosperous realm twice the size of modern Denmark. In this era of expansion, feudalism in Denmark attained its zenith. The kingdom became wealthier and more powerful than it had ever been. Most of the country’s once-free peasantry saw their rights reduced. The era saw marked economic progress, principally in the development of the herring-fishing industry and in raising livestock. This progress promoted the rise of merchants and craftsmen and of a number of guilds.

Growing discord between the Danish crown and the nobility led to a struggle in which the nobility, in 1282, compelled King Eric V to sign a charter, sometimes referred to as the Danish Magna Carta. By the terms of this charter, the Danish crown was subordinated to law, and the assembly of lords, called the Danehof, became an integral part of the administrative institutions.

A temporary decline in Danish power after the death of Christopher II in 1332 was followed, in the reign of Waldemar IV, by the reestablishment of Denmark as the leading political power on the Baltic Sea. However, the Hanseatic League, a commercial federation of European cities, controlled trade.

The Kalmar Union

In 1380 Denmark and Norway were joined in a union under one king, Oluf III (called Olaf IV in Norway), a grandson of Waldemar IV. With Norway came the possessions of Iceland and the Faroe Islands. After Oluf’s death in 1387, his mother, Margaret I, reigned in his place. In 1389 she obtained the crown of Sweden and began the struggle, completed successfully in 1397, to form the Union of Kalmar, a political union of the three realms. Denmark was the dominant power, but Swedish aristocrats strove repeatedly—and with some success—for Sweden’s autonomy within the union.

The Kalmar Union lasted until 1523, when Sweden won its independence in a revolt against the tyrannical Christian II. The revolt leader, Gustav Vasa, was elected king of Sweden as Gustav I shortly afterward. A period of unrest followed as Lübeck, the strongest Hanseatic city, interfered in Danish politics. With help from Sweden’s king, Lübeck’s interference ended and Christian III consolidated his power as king of Denmark.

The Reformation Period

During Christian III’s reign (1534-1559) the Protestant Reformation triumphed in Denmark, and the Lutheran church was established as the state church. At this time the Danish kings began to treat Norway as a province rather than as a separate kingdom. Denmark’s commercial and political rivalry with Sweden for domination of the Baltic Sea intensified. From 1563 to 1570 Sweden and Denmark fought the indecisive Nordic Seven Years’ War and later, the War of Kalmar (1611-1613).

The intervention of Christian IV in the religious struggle in Germany on behalf of the Protestant cause in the 1620s led to Danish participation in the Thirty Years’ War. Continued rivalry with Sweden for primacy in the north led to the Swedish Wars of 1643 to 1645 and 1657 to 1660. Denmark was badly defeated and lost several of its Baltic islands and all of its territory on the Scandinavian Peninsula except Norway.

Absolute Monarchy

Economic reverses resulting from these defeats had far-reaching consequences in Denmark. The growing commercial class, hard hit by the loss of foreign markets and trade, joined with the monarchy to curtail the power and privileges of the nobility. In 1660, capitalizing on the nobility’s unpopularity after its poor military performance in the Swedish Wars, Frederick III carried out a coup d’état against the aristocratic Council of the Realm. The monarchy, which until then had been largely dependent for its political power on the aristocracy, was made hereditary, and in 1661 it became absolute. The monarchy ended the tax-exemption privileges of the nobility, and nobles were replaced by commoners as local administrators.

In the 18th century Denmark began the colonization of Greenland. Danish trade in East Asia expanded, and trading companies were established in the Caribbean Sea in the Virgin Islands (see Virgin Islands of the United States). In 1788 the Danish crown abolished constraints on the liberties of the peasants, and in the following decades an agricultural enclosure movement greatly enhanced the production of livestock and crops.

During the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815), efforts by England to blockade the European continent led to naval clashes with Denmark. Copenhagen was twice bombarded by British fleets, first in 1801 and again in 1807, and the Danish navy was destroyed. As a result, Denmark was largely cut off from Norway. The Danish monarch reluctantly sided with French emperor Napoleon I. By the Peace of Kiel (1814) Denmark ceded the island of Helgoland to the British and gave Norway to Sweden. In return, Denmark obtained Swedish Pomerania (see Pomerania), which it later exchanged for Lauenburg, previously held by Prussia.

Constitutional Monarchy

A growing demand for constitutional government in Denmark led to the proclamation of the constitution of 1849. Denmark became a constitutional monarchy, in which civil liberties were guaranteed and a bicameral (two-chamber) legislature was established to share legislative power with the Crown. German nationalism in Schleswig and Holstein (see Schleswig-Holstein), both hereditary duchies held by the kings of Denmark, presented the Danes with serious problems in the wake of the Revolutions of 1848. The two duchies had long been objects of dispute between Danish kings and German monarchs. With diplomatic aid from Russia, Denmark prevailed in a first test of strength in mid-century, but in 1864 Prussia and Austria went to war with the Danes to prevent incorporation of Schleswig into Denmark’s territory and constitutional structure. The Danes were defeated and lost possession of the two duchies and of other territory.

In 1866 the Danish constitution was revised, making the upper chamber (Landsting) more powerful than the lower house (Folketing). During the last decades of the 19th century, commerce, industry, and finance flourished. Dairy farming and the cooperative movement expanded, and the working class grew in size as industry expanded. After 1880 the newly organized Social Democratic party played a major role in the Danish labor movement and in the struggle for a more democratic constitution. The principle of parliamentary government was recognized in 1901, ending a long political deadlock between the Crown and the Landsting on one side and democratic forces in the Folketing on the other side.

Territorial Changes During the World Wars

Denmark declared its neutrality during World War I (1914-1918). In 1917 Denmark sold the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean Sea to the United States. Constitutional reforms enacted in 1915 established many of the basic features of the present governmental system. Universal suffrage went into effect in 1918. The same year Denmark recognized the independence of Iceland, but continued to exercise pro forma control of the foreign policy of the new state, and the Danish king remained the head of state in Iceland. In 1920 North Schleswig was incorporated into Denmark as a result of a plebiscite carried out in accordance with the terms of the Treaty of Versailles; the southern part of Schleswig had voted to remain in Germany.

In May 1939 Denmark signed a ten-year nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany (see National Socialism). Despite this agreement, in April 1940 Germany invaded and occupied Denmark, although the Danish government was able to maintain control over much of its legal and domestic affairs until 1943. The Danish police helped Denmark’s 6,000 Jews to escape safely to neutral Sweden on the eve of their arrest and deportation. The United Kingdom occupied the Faroe Islands, and in 1941 the United States established a temporary protectorate over Greenland, building various weather stations and air bases on the island. In 1944 Iceland, following a national referendum, severed all ties with Denmark and proclaimed itself an independent republic.

International Engagement and Constitutional Reform

After World War II Denmark became a charter member of the United Nations (UN) and was one of the original signatories of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. Subsequently Denmark became a member of other international organizations, including the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the European Economic Community (a forerunner of the European Union, or EU).

In 1953 Denmark adopted a revised constitution. The constitution created a unicameral parliament, permitted female accession to the throne, and included Greenland as an integral part of Denmark. Greenland was granted home rule in 1979. In 2008 Greenlanders approved a referendum to give them more autonomy from Denmark, including a greater say in foreign affairs and a larger share of the island’s oil revenues. Under the terms of the referendum Greenland would control its own police and court system, along with its coast guard. It would lose some subsidies provided by Denmark. The autonomy plan was to go into effect in June 2009.

Four decades of dominance by the Social Democratic party ended with the 1968 elections. Hilmar Baunsgaard, leader of the Radical Liberal party, formed a coalition government that lasted until 1971, when Jens Otto Krag, a former Social Democratic prime minister, retained office. King Frederick IX died in 1972 and was succeeded by his daughter, Margrethe II, the first queen to reign over Denmark since Margaret I more than five and a half centuries earlier. Later that year Krag resigned and was replaced as prime minister and party leader by Anker Jørgensen.

Economic Troubles

From 1973 to 1984, Denmark was ruled by a series of weak governments. No single party or group of closely allied parties held a working majority. During this period, the global economic slowdown triggered by the 1973 oil crisis hit Denmark sharply. Inflation and trade deficits increased and unemployment, which had virtually disappeared in the late 1960s, became chronically high. Denmark’s economic slowdown continued throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.

Liberals and Social Democrats headed the governments until September 1982, when Poul Schlüter became Denmark’s first Conservative prime minister in nearly a century. Elections in 1984, 1987, 1988, and 1990 returned Schlüter’s center-right coalition to office as a minority government. Under Schlüter, the government instituted a series of austerity measures to increase economic growth. They included an effort to suppress inflation by not indexing wages to the cost of living and imposing modest wage settlements when collective bargaining failed.

Foreign Policy Shifts

Although the Schlüter coalition enjoyed solid support for its domestic reforms, the government’s foreign policy remained controversial. The revival of the Cold War in Europe in 1979 disappointed many Danes. The Social Democrats challenged Denmark’s national security policies, putting forward an agenda that was anti-NATO, pacifistic, skeptical of military confrontation in Europe, and strongly anti-nuclear. In 1985 the Folketing passed legislation barring future construction of nuclear power plants in the country, and the government agreed to help establish a Nordic nuclear-free zone.

The dramatic end of the Cold War and the collapse of communist governments in Eastern Europe after 1989 changed the Danish foreign policy agenda. Denmark demonstrated a new international activism through modest participation in the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991), active encouragement and support for the newly independent Baltic states, and support for the rapid integration of the former communist states into a democratic and capitalist Europe. Denmark sent significant military forces for peacekeeping in the Balkan Peninsula during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia (Wars of Yugoslav Succession).

During this period, however, the Danes themselves demonstrated skepticism regarding European integration. In 1992 Danish voters narrowly rejected the Maastricht Treaty, which provided for increased political and monetary integration within the European Community (now the European Union). After modifications to the pact that promised exemptions from certain standards for Denmark—including the right not to participate in a common European defense force or to adopt the EU’s common currency, the euro—the Danes voted their approval in May 1993.

Growing Tensions Over Immigration

In the wake of a scandal over immigration visas, Prime Minister Schlüter abruptly resigned in January 1993. The scandal demonstrated a deeper change among the Danish people, for centuries an ethnically homogenous society. During the 1990s, a soaring number of refugees, especially from lands of the former Yugoslavia, the Middle East, and South Asia, fueled high levels of immigration in Denmark. Efforts by the Schlüter government to prevent political refugees from Sri Lanka from joining their families already in Denmark led to a scandal of historic proportions. The government’s illegal administrative measures forced Schlüter’s resignation and shone a spotlight on emergent social tensions within Denmark.

After Schlüter stepped down, a new majority coalition government was formed, with Social Democrat Poul Nyrup Rasmussen as prime minister—the first majority coalition government since 1971. In elections held in September 1994, the coalition headed by Rasmussen retained power, but it lost its majority in the Folketing. After shuffling his coalition slightly, Rasmussen was returned to office once again in 1998 with a majority of just one seat. In September 1999 Rasmussen issued an official apology to a group of Greenland Inuit (known as the Inughuit) who were evicted illegally from their homes and hunting grounds nearly 50 years earlier to allow for the expansion of a key United States airbase at Thule. The apology followed a ruling by a Danish court that Denmark’s government had violated Inughuit rights.

Denmark in the 21st Century

In November 2001, following a surge of support for his government after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the prime minister called a snap election. Despite a high turnout, however, the Social Democrat-led government was defeated, and the center-right Liberal Party emerged as Denmark’s largest political party. A minority coalition government composed of the Liberal Party and the Conservative People’s Party replaced the Social Democrat-led government. Liberal Party leader Anders Fogh Rasmussen was named prime minister. The far right, anti-immigration Danish People’s Party, which became the third largest party in the Folketing, agreed to support the Liberal-Conservative coalition.

As prime minister, Rasmussen vowed to halt the growth of taxes while maintaining the nation’s social welfare system. In 2004 Rasmussen’s government succeeded in pushing through a package of modest tax cuts. Rasmussen’s government also announced that it would move quickly to impose new immigration and asylum restrictions, and a new ministry of refugees, immigration, and integration was created. In July 2002 the government succeeded in passing the tough new restrictions—among the most stringent in Europe—into law. By 2004 immigration to Denmark had declined by nearly 80 percent from its 2001 level.

Denmark on the World Stage

During the controversial U.S.-led military invasion of Iraq beginning in March 2003, Denmark sent two naval vessels and a small contingent of troops to help oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (U.S.-Iraq War). The Rasmussen government’s strong support for the invasion sparked deep divisions within the Danish public; a bare majority of the Folketing voted in favor of the action. After the ouster of Hussein, Denmark deployed a peacekeeping force in Iraq. However, allegations that the Danish government exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq to justify the invasion forced the resignation of the government’s defense minister, Svend Aage, in April 2004. Four months later, in August, a scandal broke out over the alleged abuse of Iraqi prisoners by Danish soldiers.

In 2006 Denmark became the center of an international controversy after protests began to spread throughout the Islamic world against cartoons published in September 2005 in Denmark’s largest-circulation newspaper. The cartoons depicted the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Any attempt to depict Muhammad is generally regarded as blasphemous among Muslims. One cartoon portrayed Muhammad as a terrorist.

Leaders of Denmark’s Muslim community, which numbers about 200,000, objected when the cartoons were published, saying it was part of a growing climate of hostility against Muslims in Denmark. The editor-in-chief of the Danish newspaper apologized for the offense, but a number of newspapers in Europe and elsewhere reprinted the cartoons as an issue of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In response, demonstrations, often violent, took place throughout the Islamic world. A number of Islamic countries withdrew their ambassadors from Denmark, and in early February Danish embassies and consulates were attacked and burned in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran. Many Muslim leaders also called for boycotts of Danish goods.

Recent Elections

Buoyed by a healthy economy, the popular curbs on immigration, and a pledge to keep taxes from rising, Prime Minister Rasmussen scheduled a snap election for February 2005. Despite some lingering concerns over Denmark’s Iraq policy, Rasmussen and his center-right coalition secured a second term in office, winning about 54 percent of the vote.

Rasmussen again called early elections in late 2007, counting on high approval ratings and a strong economy to give his government a fresh mandate for additional reforms in the public sector. His Liberal Party and its coalition allies won 90 seats in the 179-seat Folketing—a narrow, one-seat majority. The opposition led by the Social Democratic Party secured 84 seats. The New Alliance, a newly formed party led by a Syrian-born Muslim, Naser Khader, won 5 seats. It represented a moderate centrist position between the two polarized extremes in Denmark. Although the party generally agreed with the Liberal Party on many issues, it supported the relaxation of immigration laws.

In April 2009 Rasmussen was named secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). He was succeeded as prime minister and Liberal Party leader by Lars Lokke Rasmussen, the finance minister.

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