By Mary Hilson, Professor, PhD, Aarhus University

What is Denmark?

Among Denmark’s many historical tourist attractions is the site known as ‘Kongernes Jelling – Home of the Viking Kings’, operated as part of the National Museum. Since 2015 visitors have been able to learn about the Viking Age in an experience centre at Kongernes Jelling, but the site is best known for the two rune stones erected during the second half of the tenth century by the kings Gorm the Old and his son Harald, later known as Bluetooth. According to the National Museum’s website, ‘the Danish nation was born and created in Jelling’, given that these stones mention the name Denmark. For this reason, the Jelling rune stones, together with the adjacent burial mounds and church, were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1994.

As a myth of national origin the story is a compelling one. The larger of the two rune stones has been referred to as ‘Denmark’s baptism certificate’, marking the end of paganism and the establishment of the kingdom within the context of ‘European Christian civilisation’. It suggests, moreover, a kingdom of remarkable longevity, possibly even one of the oldest in Europe. As with all such national stories, however, the reality was much more complicated than this. To be sure, the term ‘Danes’ to describe a distinct group of people appeared in sources from the ninth and tenth centuries, or even earlier (see Module 1). But as this course will show, there was no unbroken line of descent from the time of Gorm and Harald to the present day. ‘Denmark’ has meant many different things, contingent upon time and place.

If there is any element of continuity, it is probably the maritime nature of the territory that is now known as Denmark. Consisting of the Jutland peninsula together with about eighty inhabited islands, and with only one land border, shared with Germany in the south of Jutland, Denmark was and is an archipelago, strongly affected by the sea. This is important in two respects. First, despite its relatively northerly location in a global context, situated as it is between the latitudes of approximately 54.8 and 57.8 degrees north, Denmark has a largely temperate and variable climate. The landscape is mostly depositional and thus also relatively low-lying and only gently undulating. In this respect the territory of Denmark had many more similarities with that of the north German plain, of which the Jutland peninsula was an extension, than with the neighbouring territories of Sweden and Norway.

Second, the position of the Danish archipelago, situated as it is between the Baltic and the North Seas, meant that maritime trade and connections have had a fundamental influence on Danish history. Especially significant was the ability of the Danish monarchs to control the Øresund – the narrow channel that connected the North and the Baltic Seas – and to exact tolls from the shipping that passed through it. But equally influential were maritime connections across the North Sea, and beyond that to the Atlantic. The historical legacy of such connections meant that in 2023 the Kingdom of Denmark (Rigsfællesskab) included the north Atlantic territories of Greenland and the Faroe Islands, albeit with various degrees of self-governance.

Satellite image of the Danish realm: Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Denmark

Satellite image (c. 2004) of the Danish realm: Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Denmark. Photo: NASA Worldview

In the modern era, the Danish national self-image has been that of a small state, internally united around its shared language and culture, but vulnerable to political and cultural threats from outside its borders. With a population of over 5.9 million in 2023, Denmark was certainly much smaller than European states like Germany, France, Italy or Spain. It was by no means a micro-state, however; rather, it belonged to a significant group of medium-sized European states with populations in the range of 5–11 million. Among these were Norway (population 5.5 million), Finland (5.5 million) and Sweden (10.5 million), which together with Iceland and Denmark constitute the Nordic region or Scandinavia. Although its economy was tiny in comparison with that of global giants like the USA or China, by any per capita measurement Denmark was undoubtedly one of the world’s wealthiest countries, and in common with the other Nordic countries, the majority of its residents enjoyed exceptionally high standards of living and material comfort. Indeed, by Eurostat’s measurement of GDP per capita in purchasing power standard (PPS), Denmark ranked third among the EU-27 countries in 2022, behind Luxembourg and Ireland.

Early modern Denmark was a much larger state, which reached its full extent in the seventeenth century. The historic grandeur of its capital Copenhagen bears witness to this, as do the names of parts of the city’s harbour, referring to Greenland, Iceland and the West and East Indies. Although the Early Modern Danish monarchs were never quite as powerful as their Habsburg counterparts in Austria, another formerly extensive state which had become severely truncated by the twentieth century, the Early Modern Danish realm could nonetheless be counted as a medium-sized European power. By the end of the nineteenth century this was no longer the case, following territorial losses in 1658, 1814 and most traumatically in 1864, when defeat by the Prussian army severed the historic links between the Danish kingdom and the duchies of Slesvig (Schleswig) and Holsten (Holstein). The current southern border was established in 1920 following Germany’s defeat in the First World War.

As in most European states, history writing has played a significant role in the establishment and consolidation of the Danish state and Danish national identity, especially during the nineteenth-century era of nation-building. Indeed, the tradition of danmarkshistorie (Danish history, or history of Denmark) is exceptionally well established, with the present volume merely the latest contribution to the genre. As with all national histories, it is also a tradition characterised by disagreement, shifting perceptions and even contradictions. This brief introduction lays out the broad chronological lines of Danish historical development and sets them in context. It then sums up some of the main points of consensus in Danish history, while also highlighting some of the major controversies.

Periods of Danish history

The periods of Danish history presented in this course follow the logic of political history. The account charts the emergence of the Danish kingdom during the so-called Viking Age from the late eighth century, and its territorial consolidation during the Middle Ages. From 1397 until 1523 the three Scandinavian kingdoms were united under the same monarch in the Kalmar Union, albeit governed according to local laws and customs. The territory covered by the union was extensive, ranging from the Karelian peninsula in the east to the western Norwegian fjords, from the North Cape to the river Elbe, and including Iceland and the north Atlantic archipelagos of the Faroe Islands, Shetland and Orkney. The personal union between the three crowns came to a violent end in the early 1520s (see Module 3), and for the next one hundred and fifty years the Baltic Sea was dominated by the rivalry between two Scandinavian kingdoms centred around Stockholm and Copenhagen respectively. During the Early Modern Era one can therefore speak of an ‘East Norden’ – the Swedish realm, which had its capital at Stockholm and included Finland and territories south of the Gulf of Finland – and a ‘West Norden’, the Danish realm ruled from Copenhagen.

The Early Modern Danish monarchs ruled over a fairly extensive entity known as a ‘conglomerate state’. In Danish, this is referred to as helstaten – perhaps ‘Greater Denmark’ would be the most appropriate translation – to distinguish it from Denmark as a nation state, established during the nineteenth century. In addition to the core of the kingdom – Jutland, Fyn, Sjælland and the smaller islands – Greater Denmark included the territories of Blekinge, Skåne and Halland, which were ceded to Sweden in 1658; Norway; the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein; Iceland; and the Faroe Islands. By the eighteenth century it had also acquired overseas colonies outside Europe. The earliest of these was established in the 1620s at Tharangambadi, or Tranquebar as it was known in Denmark, on the Coromandel coast of India. This was followed in the eighteenth century by trading posts at Serampore in West Bengal; the Nicobar islands in the Indian Ocean; and a series of forts and trading posts on the ‘Gold Coast’ of West Africa, now part of Ghana, which formed a base for the capture and transport of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic. Denmark was thus an active participant in – and beneficiary of – the notorious north Atlantic triangular trade, which reached its peak in the late eighteenth century, and included the three Caribbean islands that made up the Danish West Indies: St Thomas (acquired by the Danish West Indian Company in 1672), St John (1718) and St Croix (1733). Finally, there was also Greenland. The rich animal resources of the Arctic – fish, whales and fur animals – attracted Danish and Norwegian interest from the Late Middle Ages, but Greenland’s status as a colony of the Danish crown became formalised following the start of missionary activities in the early eighteenth century.

The consolidation, expansion and subsequent decline of Greater Denmark has to be seen in relation to other historical developments in Europe. From the tenth century, with the conversion of the Danish kings and their subjects to Christianity, the Danish realm was drawn firmly into the sphere of the Roman Catholic Church, with its bishops and abbots connected to the political and cultural networks of European Christendom. The Lutheran Reformation in the sixteenth century severed the ties with Rome, but strengthened those with the Germanspeaking centres of the new faith. The Swedish defeat of Denmark in 1658, and subsequent annexation of the provinces of Skåne, Halland and Blekinge, followed the upheavals of the Thirty Years War, which consolidated the power of the Swedish kings. Swedish dominance in the Baltic was relatively short-lived, however, for the founding of the city of St Petersburg in 1703 set the scene for the emergence of Russia as a significant Baltic power, and the wars that followed marked the decline of Swedish aspirations to great power status. The most serious territorial losses for Denmark came as a consequence of the Napoleonic wars of the early nineteenth century. Following the Treaty of Kiel in 1814 the Danish realm was amputated, as the kingdom of Norway became part of a personal union with the Swedish crown, albeit under its own constitution. Arguably more significant in terms of national identity, and certainly more traumatic in national accounts of Danish history, was the military defeat by the Prussian army in 1864, which led to the loss of Schleswig and Holstein. Subsequently, Germany’s defeat in the First World War enabled a new border to be drawn across the southern part of the Jutland peninsula in 1920, following a plebiscite.

The Danish Caribbean islands were sold to the USA in 1917, since when they have been known as the US Virgin Islands. The current boundaries of the Nordic region date from the upheavals of the Second World War, namely the Finnish cession of territory to the Soviet Union in 1944, and the proclamation of the Icelandic republic in the same year. Iceland had gained significant constitutional rights in 1918, but remained in a personal union with the Danish crown. This did not completely sever the north Atlantic ties however, for in 2023 the Rigsfællesskab still included the Faroe Islands and Greenland. The Faroe Islands had gained home rule in 1948, while a constitutional reform in 1953 changed the status of Greenland from that of a colony to that of an amt (local government district). Subsequent changes in 1979 and 2009 significantly increased Greenland’s autonomy from Denmark, while at the same time awareness of cultural differences and post-colonial legacies also increased. In 2023, therefore, the Faroe Islands and Greenland remained within the Rigsfælleskab under self-rule, but it was by no means certain that this arrangement would persist.

Satellite image of Denmark

Satellite image (c. 2007) of Denmark. The image shows the strongly maritime nature of the Danish territory, including the Jutland peninsula and the many islands, from Læsø off north Jutland to Bornholm to the east. Nowhere in Denmark is very far from the sea. The Øresund – the narrow strait between the large island of Sjælland and Skåne in what is now southern Sweden – has had a very important role in Danish history. Photo: NASA Worldview

The contexts of Danish history

As already mentioned, two geographical factors were especially significant for the historical development of the Danish realm: first, that it was an archipelago, with easy access to the sea; and second, the position of these territories between the North and the Baltic Seas. Denmark’s historical development has thus been shaped by influences from the north and east (Sweden and Scandinavia; Eastern Europe, Russia and the Baltic Sea), and from the south and west (Western Europe – Germany, Britain and the Netherlands; and the north Atlantic). From a Scandinavian or Nordic perspective, Denmark has often been perceived as a link between the Scandinavian north and the rest of Europe, at least in cultural terms.

The German-speaking lands to the south of the Baltic Sea were certainly an important source of ideas and influences in Danish history. The first and perhaps most significant example of this was the Lutheran Reformation in the sixteenth century. A second example was the influence of new political ideas in the nineteenth century under the broad categories of liberalism and nationalism. In particular, the revolutions of 1848 had far-reaching consequences for the Danish monarchy, though without the eruption of revolutionary conflict on the scale seen elsewhere in Europe. German examples and ideas were also an important influence on the development of new forms of organisation from the late nineteenth century, notably the labour movement.

Equally important, however, were the contacts and influences across the North Sea, with the Netherlands and the British Isles. As shown in Module 1, these contacts were facilitated by new technologies in shipbuilding during the so-called Viking Age, and meant that the Danish King Cnut presided over a North Sea realm uniting Denmark and parts of England during the period 1016–1035. Throughout the Middle Ages and after, societies around the North Sea were connected by maritime trading networks, which also extended further into the north Atlantic and the Arctic. During the eighteenth century, the neutrality of the Danish realm allowed the expansion of global maritime trade, but this eventually brought it into conflict with Britain, which bombarded Copenhagen in 1807 (see Module 5). After Denmark’s defeat to Prussia in 1864, Britain again became an important influence, this time as a market for Danish processed agricultural goods – above all butter and bacon – exported through the new port of Esbjerg on the west coast of Jutland. The importance of this trade, combined with the growing importance of the West German market, were driving factors in the entry of Denmark into the European Communities (EC) in 1973. The withdrawal of the UK from the European Union (EU) in 2021 again underlined the significance of the Danish relationship with Germany, but like the rest of Europe Denmark was also highly dependent on global trading networks including major players such as the USA and China.

Danish history in the Nordic context

For much of the twentieth century and into the contemporary era, relations between the five Scandinavian or Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) have been peaceful. Alignments with other international organisations have differed. Denmark, Norway and Iceland became founding members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), while Sweden and Finland remained neutral throughout the Cold War. Denmark became the first Nordic member of the European Communities (EC) in 1973, followed by Finland and Sweden in 1995. All five countries have engaged in inter-governmental co-operation within the Nordic Council, established in 1952, the lasting achievements of which have included a Nordic passport union and free labour market. Moreover, official inter-governmental co-operation has also been underpinned by extensive inter-regional contacts among civil society organisations. Grander schemes to create a Scandinavian defence union and common market were periodically discussed during the post-1945 period, but never materialised.

The relatively recent history of peaceful co-operation in the Nordic region stands in contrast to the centuries of rivalry and conflict which preceded it. As already noted, the kingdoms of Sweden and Denmark vied with each other for control of the Baltic Sea and the territories that bordered it. From the early nineteenth century, some elites, especially among university students, started to declare their support for a form of ‘pan’-nationalism, namely Scandinavianism. Like all expressions of nationalism this was multi-faceted: it was driven partly by aspirations for liberal reform of the Scandinavian monarchies, and partly by renewed attention to idealised versions of the ‘deep’ Scandinavian past – the Viking Age and its common literary heritage in the form of the Icelandic sagas, and the Kalmar Union of the Late Middle Ages. Unlike contemporary European movements for the unification of Germany and Italy, the dream of a unified Scandinavia was never realised. Indeed, it can be said to have foundered against Prussian ambitions to unify Germany, for the major blow to Scandinavianist aspirations came when the Swedish king failed to send military support to Denmark during the 1864 conflict with Prussia, which was eventually to result in the unification of Germany. For a generation or more afterwards, ideas about Danish culture, language and history became the major driving force behind Danish nation-building, rather than Scandinavianism. Ideas of Scandinavian unity were sometimes revived during moments of crisis, for example in 1940, but Nordic region-building during the twentieth century rested on inter-governmental co-operation between the five sovereign states rather than aspirations to supranational unity.

The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, with Roskilde Cathedral in the background

The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, with Roskilde Cathedral in the background. The concrete and glass building was designed by Erik Christian Sørensen and opened in 1969 to house the remains of five Viking ships excavated in Roskilde fjord. It was regarded as an outstanding example of modern Danish architecture, but by the 2010s it was becoming increasingly vulnerable to damage from storm surges. In 2018 the building’s listed status was revoked and state funds were allocated to meet the costs of constructing a new building, which would protect the Viking ships inside from the likely future impacts of climate change. The preferred aesthetic form for the museum sparked political debate, showing how representations of the past continued to be hotly contested, in Denmark as elsewhere. Photo: Werner Karrasch, The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde

Nonetheless, historians continue to debate the legacies of many centuries of close historical connections in northern Europe, which arguably make it possible to speak of a shared Nordic history. While nineteenth-century historians found inspiration for a shared Scandinavian past in the so-called Viking Age – indeed, the very term ‘Viking’ was a nineteenth-century invention (see Module 1) – in the more recent historiography the focus has been on the post-1500 era. At a general level, a number of common features can be distinguished. The first is the impact of the Lutheran Reformation. Although the reform of the Scandinavian churches was not entirely without religious or political friction, it was undoubtedly less conflictual than in many other parts of Europe, and more thorough and far-reaching in its consequences, establishing what were to be largely mono-confessional states with little support for counter-reformation. These were unchallenged until the emergence of new religious movements questioning the authority of the Lutheran Church in the eighteenth century.

Second, the Reformation also contributed to the consolidation of state power, and the establishment of a central state apparatus in the capitals Copenhagen and Stockholm. In Denmark in 1660–1849, and for a shorter period in Sweden in 1772–1809, state power was concentrated in the hands of the monarchy. Indeed, Denmark stands out in a European context as one of the most extreme and stable examples of absolute monarchy (see Module 5), in Danish known as enevælden, although in practice the different provinces of Greater Denmark – for example Norway and the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein – were governed according to local laws and customs. Although the conglomerate state was disintegrating by the early nineteenth century, and absolutism was superseded by constitutional monarchy and eventually parliamentary democracy, there were nonetheless some continuities from the Early Modern Era. A strong central government, consolidated by well-developed institutions of local government, continued to be a distinctive feature of the Danish state in the 2020s.

A third commonly recognised feature of Nordic or Scandinavian history was the status of the peasantry. It is generally asserted that, in contrast to the lands east of the Elbe, and especially to Russia, Scandinavian agriculture was not based on serfdom. This is a statement that requires some qualification. As demonstrated in this course, the term bonde (translated as ‘farmer’ or ‘peasant’) was a complex one with meanings that changed over time (see Modules 2 and 3). The Romantic notion of a Scandinavian society of peasant farmers enjoying freedoms and customs inherited directly from the Vikings is mostly fantasy. Rural society was hierarchical and highly unequal, in Scandinavia as in the rest of Europe, and shaped by regular disruptions of failed harvests and epidemic disease. The Black Death reached Denmark in the mid-fourteenth century, with the same devastating results as in the rest of Europe (see Module 3). For centuries, the lives of much of the rural population of Denmark were not materially very different to those of peasants in the rest of Europe, and especially during the eighteenth century they were also subject to legal restrictions.

Moreover, in this respect Denmark also differed from the rest of Scandinavia in important ways. Although the sand of the Jutland west coast could sometimes be problematic, most of the country was fertile and easily tilled. This meant that it could support a relatively denser population than most parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland or Iceland, and therefore that it was easier to extract the agricultural surplus necessary to support a landed nobility. The landscape of Denmark, including the Danish province of Skåne, now part of southern Sweden, was therefore dominated by large rural manors to a much greater extent than other parts of Scandinavia. It also meant that urban development took place earlier and to a greater extent in Denmark than in the rest of the Nordic region.

The notion of the free peasantry as the principal bearers of historical change in Denmark owes much to the agricultural reforms of the late eighteenth century. The ‘Great Agricultural Reforms’ (Store Landboreformer) of the 1780s and 1790s, as they are known in Danish historiography, did indeed create a substantial class of self-owning farmers, and this group was later to become politically influential as one of the main drivers of political and economic liberalism during the nineteenth century. Through their party Venstre, created in 1870, they sometimes found political affinities with other agrarian parties across the Nordic region, not least as part of so-called ‘red–green’ agreements negotiated with social democratic parties in response to the economic and political crises of the 1930s. This too was undoubtedly influential in cementing notions of the special political role of the ‘free Scandinavian farmer’ in a European context, even though there were important differences between the Danish farmers and their counterparts in the other Nordic countries. But the long-term impact of agrarian changes on rural social structures has been a much-debated topic in Danish historiography.

Despite these differences, historians of the Nordic region have often cited the relative absence of major political conflict as a common feature. With the exception of Finland’s violent civil war in 1918, political change in the region is considered to have taken place through negotiated consensus rather than revolution. There is some truth in this statement, compared with the emphasis on the revolutionary tradition in France, for example. Classic examples in Danish history were the successful introduction of limited freedoms in the 1790s and the end of royal absolutism in 1849, when the state largely managed to avoid the upheavals seen elsewhere in Europe. Some scholars have pointed to this as evidence for the deeper historical roots of a so-called Nordic model of consensual politics, which has also characterised the twentieth century. But again this is a topic that has been contested in the historiography. There was no successful revolution in Denmark, to be sure, but there were many periods of political instability and unrest. Social cleavages – between social classes, genders and generations; between farming and industry; between town and country; between Copenhagen and the periphery, especially Jutland – continued to generate conflict throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. What was absent, at least after 1864, was any significant religious, ethnic or linguistic conflict within the borders of the Danish nation state that might be comparable to the sectarian divisions found in many parts of the British Isles, for example, or the linguistic ones in Belgium. Renegotiation of the border in 1920 left linguistic minorities on both sides, but these were small and relatively easily integrated, compared to similar situations in other parts of Europe. Only with increased immigration after the 1950s did Danish society begin to become ethnically more diverse, and especially in the early twenty-first century this gave rise to new conflicts – not so much between different ethnic groups, but rather in the form of political divisions over the extent to which immigration was desirable or not.

Denmark as a small state

Political opposition to immigration has been rooted in self-perceptions of Denmark as a small state in the European and global context, vulnerable to cultural and political annihilation. Especially after the traumatic defeat of 1864, Danish history was shaped by tensions between internationalist impulses and more inward-facing self-perceptions. Humiliating territorial loss was to be overcome by national self-reliance: ‘what is lost externally shall be regained internally’ (hvad udad tabes, skal indad vindes) in the words of a very famous phrase, the precise origins of which are rather obscure. It referred, in the national consciousness, to the idea that Denmark’s path to modernity and prosperity lay in domestic ingenuity and self-reliance, for example through the adoption of innovations in agricultural and industrial production. But this was only part of the story: Denmark’s development in the late nineteenth century was also based on a liberal commitment to free trade during the so-called first era of economic globalisation, after about 1870.

At the outbreak of the First World War the Danish government declared its continued adherence to a position of neutrality, together with its Scandinavian neighbours Norway and Sweden. This was maintained in the context of the rising international tensions of the inter-war period, together with a commitment to the liberal international order represented by the League of Nations. Neutrality was abandoned as a result of the experience of invasion and occupation during the years 1940–1945. In 1949 Denmark became one of the founder members of NATO, and in 1973, together with Britain and Ireland, part of the first enlargement of the European Economic Community (EEC). In fact, it was the only Nordic state to join before the end of the Cold War in the 1990s (see Modules 8 and 9).

Debates over foreign policy continued to reveal some of the enduring tensions in national self-perceptions as a small state within a precarious international order. On the one hand, Denmark cultivated a shared Nordic reputation for internationalism, for example in its commitment to a relatively generous overseas aid policy – seen in proportion to national income – from the 1970s. In other respects, though, Danish politicians sought to limit their engagement with the international order, negotiating special conditions with NATO during the 1980s and the EU during the 1990s (see Module 9). This changed in the post-Cold War period, when Denmark started to engage actively in United Nations-sanctioned military actions, most prominently during the 1990s in relation to wars in the Balkans, and after 2001 in the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. These actions took place even though there were no significant threats to Denmark’s own borders, and they happened at the same time as internal opposition to immigration hardened further.

Front cover of The Economist, immediately after the Danish electorate rejected the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum in June 1992

Front cover of The Economist, immediately after the Danish electorate rejected the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum in June 1992. Fascination with the Viking past was as strong as ever in the early twenty-first century, and stylised representations of the Vikings like this one were widely used in internal and external imaginings of the Danish nation. In February 2013 The Economist used a Viking as its cover image again, this time however in connection with a special report on the Nordic model. Photo: The Economist

The Danish welfare state – national and transnational

During the twentieth century, one of the main common points of Nordic history has been the Nordic welfare state: the comprehensive, universal and generous social security systems provided by the state and financed by high levels of taxation. Although scholars have largely agreed on the distinctive shared features of the Nordic welfare states, they have debated the historical processes which shaped their development. While the Danish Social Democratic Party never enjoyed the same political dominance as its Swedish counterpart, it was nonetheless a key influence on shaping the development of the welfare state during the twentieth century. But it was not the only one. Some scholars have pointed to the importance of the social security legislation of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in which liberal parties had a key role. Other research has highlighted the much longer path dependencies in the Danish welfare state, and the legacies of state and parish poor relief established after the Reformation.

The welfare state thus serves as just one example of how historical developments in Denmark have been forged by the complex interaction of many different factors, including transnational influences. Welfare policy was shaped by a broad range of ideas, among them the conservative social insurance schemes introduced in late nineteenth-century Bismarckian Germany; the ideas of British liberals such as J M Keynes and William Beveridge; and Swedish social democratic visions of the good society as the ‘people’s home’. At the end of the twentieth century these established paradigms were challenged by neo-liberal ideas of the so-called ‘Washington consensus’ in the era of globalisation. Meanwhile, there were also examples of the transfer of Danish ideas and influences abroad. Danish agricultural co-operative societies attracted international attention during the first half of the twentieth century, while during the 1990s Denmark’s ‘flexicurity’ – combining flexible market adaptation with high levels of welfare – attracted international attention as an approach to the neo-liberal global order (see Module 9). In 2011 political scientist Francis Fukuyama used the metaphor ‘Getting to Denmark’ as a shorthand for good governance.

As in earlier historical periods, twentieth-century Danish history followed the contours of Nordic, European and global history, with regards not only to political events, but also longer-term economic, social and cultural trends. Modern Denmark was irrevocably changed by global events such as the two world wars, the Great Depression of the 1930, the fluctuations of the Cold War and the oil crises of the 1970s. Historical developments in the early twenty-first century, not least the global COVID-19 pandemic beginning in 2020, further demonstrated this interdependence, while also showing how the importance of the national context was by no means diminished.

About this course

Beginning with the emergence of the Danish kingdom from the end of the 700s, the course provides an introduction to the history of Denmark as a political entity, from the eighth century to the present day. It is divided into nine modules each amounting to around 42 pages of text, but they also include several mini-lectures and films of around 8-12 minutes long presented by historians from Aarhus University. 

The text originally appeared in Danish as En danmarkshistorie · Fra vikingetid til nutid edited by Thorsten Borring Olesen and Bjørn Poulsen (Aarhus University Press 2021; second edition 2022). It was translated and published in English with the title A History of Denmark from the Viking Age to the 21st Century edited by Mary Hilson, Thorsten Borring Olesen and Bjørn Poulsen (Aarhus University Press 2023). Most of the authors are historians based at the Department of History and Classical Studies at Aarhus University, with contributions from Søren M. Sindbæk of the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies, also at Aarhus University, and Carsten Porskrog Rasmussen of Museum Sønderjylland. Few revisions have been made to the original Danish text, with the exception of this introduction and an updated epilogue in module 9.

Module 1 deals with the so-called ‘Viking Age’ (790–1050). It shows how the technical innovation of the Viking ship was crucial to the development of a territorial kingdom, including the establishment of a Danish-English realm across the North Sea during the tenth century. Module 2 (1050–1340) covers a period marked by violent conflict and instability, but also economic growth and the spread of Christianity. The strength of the Danish monarchy was consolidated during the Late Middle Ages with the establishment of an extensive conglomerate state including Denmark, Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, which is covered in Module 3 (1340–1523).

Module 4 (1523–1660) deals with the Lutheran Reformation and its impact on the Danish realm, during an era shaped by the influence of the nobility. This influence declined after 1660, with the consolidation of the Danish monarchy as one of the most autocratic and centralised regimes in Europe, as shown in Module 5 (1660–1814).

Module 6 covers the century from the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1814 to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, a period which saw the transformation of ‘Denmark’ from conglomerate state to nation state. As elsewhere in Europe, democratisation and a growing sense of national identity went hand in hand with economic and social developments. Module 7 (1914–1945) considers Danish economic, social, political and cultural developments against the background of the upheavals of the two world wars.

The final two modules of the course – module 8 (1945–1973) and module 9 (1973–2022) – deal with Denmark during the era of the Cold War and its aftermath. In contrast to conventional periodisations, it is not the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s that is seen as the major turning point, but rather the economic upheavals of the early 1970s.

The translation of any historical work inevitably raises many questions of terminology. Where possible we have tried to adopt standard translations used in international research literature, but there is not always agreement on these. We have tried to be consistent, but in the end it should be acknowledged that there can be no authoritative translation of terms that may also have changed in meaning over time. To avoid confusion, therefore, we have throughout the text included the modern Danish equivalent for terms where there was any doubt. Place names present further difficulties. We have decided to use the English names Copenhagen (København) and Jutland (Jylland), as these will be familiar to most readers, but note that the Danish names are used for the islands Fyn (Funen) and Sjælland (Zealand).

The books in both Danish and English from Aarhus University Press

The text from the online course in Danish History has also been published as a book by Aarhus University Press in November 2023 with the title 'A History of Denmark from the Viking Age to the 21st Century'. The book originally appeared in Danish as 'En danmarkshistorie - Fra vikingetid til nutid' edited by Thorsten Borring Olesen and Bjørn Poulsen (Aarhus University Press 2021; second edition 2022). Most of the authors are historians based at the Department of History and Classical Studies at Aarhus University, with contributions from Søren M. Sindbæk of the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies, also at Aarhus University, and Carsten Porskrog Rasmussen of Museum Sønderjylland.