BOOK: Joachim Joesten, "Rats in the Larder"
Joachim Joesten: Rats in the Larder: The Story of Nazi Influence in Denmark. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1939. Online at hathitrust.org.
One of my favourite sub-genres of WW2-related books are those about how Nazi Germany infiltrated other countries and tried to weaken them from within. I recently read Joesten's book about the Nazi influence in pre-WW2 Sweden (see my post about it) and there heard about his previous book about Denmark, Rats in the Larder, so I decided I would read that book as well. (Rats in the Larder is its American title; the British edition appeared as Denmark's Day of Doom.)
“Larder” in the title is a reference to the fact that Denmark was a large exporter of foodstuffs, especially pork and butter. In fact, as Joesten explains early in the book, Denmark's economy depended vitally on exporting these products and importing everything else. Its main customers used to be Britain and Germany (pp. 25–6), but it was increasingly cut off from the British market, partly because Britain could not afford to import as much due to the Great Depression and partly because it gave preferential access to agricultural products from the dominions, e.g. New Zealand. Thus Denmark was now largely dependent on exporting to Germany, for which Germany could now extort various concessions, not only economic but also political (pp. 34–8).
German interest in Denmark was partly economic (access to food from Denmark could help prevent food shortages such as those that had been a big problem for Germany during the WW1; pp. 66–70), partly military: having control of Danish territory would enable Germany to threaten most of the rest of Scandinavia and control access to the Baltic Sea; and conversely, if Denmark was under control of Germany's enemies, various important industrial and farming areas in northern Germany would be exposed to attack (pp. 70–2).
Apparently, the roots of Denmark's regrettably self-defeating attitude towards Germany went some time back in history. Following Denmark's major defeat by Prussia in 1864 (in which Denmark also lost the provices of Schleswig and Holstein), an opinion became widespread that since Denmark is bound to lose in any all-out war against a Great Power, there's no point in even trying to prepare for defense in such an event; partly because of this and partly because of the balance of power between various Danish parties, Danish foreign policy had ever since the start of the 20th century been controlled by a clique of “defense nihilists” who regarded any sort of military preparedness as futile (p. 94). Even before the WW1, Denmark got into the habit of asking Germany before taking any sort of military steps, with the result that Germany encouraged Denmark to develop defenses that would be useful against a naval attack by Britain, but to neglect anything that would be useful against a German attack overland or by air (pp. 100–8). Danish neutrality during the WW1 was also heavily biased in favour of Germany (pp. 229–44).
This seems to be a kind of self-reinforcing loop: the Danish politicians thought that Denmark was defenseless and would be easily overrun by Germany; therefore they didn't bother setting up its defenses; therefore it was defenseless and would be easily overrun by Germany, etc. Joesten argues that it needn't have been like that; a German attack on Denmark would only occur in the context of a major war between Germany and other Great Powers, therefore Denmark would not be facing Germany's full strength, nor would it be standing alone in the fight; and if it made an effort to fortify its southern border with Germany and establish anti-aircraft defenses around Copenhagen, it could delay German attackers long enough to give allies time to help (pp. 87–8, 114–5). (Of course, in hindsight one can't help wondering if it would really have been like that. We know how slow and ineffective Britain and France were about helping Poland, for example.)
There are a few chapters about the mechanics of spreading Nazi influence into Denmark; these gave me almost a sense of deja vu because they are so similar to how things went in Czechoslovakia and other countries. After WW1, plebiscites were carried out in Schleswig, based on which the northern part of the region went back to Denmark; thus, a small German minority was left on the Danish side of the border (pp. 146–52). Under the influence of German propaganda, several Nazi parties emerged amongst this minority, they set up their own paramilitary units (“it is a safe guess that their effective numbers at least equal those of the Danish border troops”, p. 167), the German press could always invent something to complain about whenever Germany wanted to exert some pressure on Denmark — and the Danish politicians, scared shitless, caved in every time. Germany also financed private German-language schools in Denmark, where the pupils could be bombarded by Nazi propaganda (pp. 173–4). Another familiar mechanism was a kind of German-sponsored bank that provided favorable loans to German farmers wishing to buy land in Denmark (pp. 176–7).
In an increasingly desperate effort to avoid anything that might give the Germans an excuse to complain and pose new demands, Denmark instituted a sort of unofficial censorship of anything to do with foreign policy (pp. 212–3); refrained from protesting about the numerous German violations of Danish air space and territorial waters (pp. 52–9); refused to perform marriages of foreigners if one was Jewish and one German (pp. 209–10); returned political refugees and deserters to Germany, even though they faced certain death there (p. 210); weakened its ties to Britain and the Scandinavian countries (pp. 197–206); etc.
Joesten concludes the book with the hope that Denmark might still change its policy and stand up to Germany, but as we now know, this didn't happen. He wrote this book in 1938 (it was published in 1939), and two years later, Germany overran Denmark, later in fact than he had predicted (as he thought it would happen as soon as the war broke out). I found this book to be quite an enjoyable read, both because it's a contemporary account and because I knew next to nothing about Denmark and the WW2, so everything here was new and interesting to me.