“The Prime Minister’s New Clothes” in Denmark Today

In Europe, the legitimacy of almost all established political parties and governments seems to be suffering from metal fatigue. This malaise is aggravated by their attempts to implement neoliberal economic policies and adapt themselves to US imperialism at the same time.

Is the small Scandinavian country of Denmark an exception that proves the rule? The Danish economy is doing relatively well (even if we take into consideration the fact that one out of four Danes receives some kind of state support). The minority Liberal-Conservative coalition government of Denmark can count on the parliamentary support of the Danish People’s Party, a populist xenophobic party that has succeeded in putting the question of immigrants at the forefront of domestic politics in recent years.

On foreign policy, the ruling right-wing government has established the country as a most loyal ally of the Bush administration. Despite the parliamentary majority of the government, however, the country is split over both socio-economic policy (labor-market reforms and stricter course on the integration of immigrants) and foreign policy (participation in the war in Iraq). However, the traditional left-of-center opposition has not been able to distance itself from the policies of the government. As a matter of fact, the previous Social Democratic coalition government had itself charted the political course of adjusting the Danish welfare state to neoliberalism and introducing restrictive measures towards refugees and immigrants from the Third World. Only the “People’s Socialist Party” and the leftist coalition “Unity List” have consistently opposed the war in Iraq — the rest of  the Parliamentary opposition has been wishy-washy.

Disregarding the division of the population and its own potential fragility, the present right-wing government acts as though it were in complete control. It seeks to further deregulate and liberalize the institutions of the welfare state1 while striving to have the country play an unprecedented international role. Denmark’s profile in world politics has risen with its recent accession to a non-permanent seat on the Security Council of the United Nations. A small Danish detachment is in Iraq in support of the US war. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Culture launched a cultural offensive: the worldwide celebration of the bicentennial anniversary of Denmark’s most famous writer, Hans Christian Andersen.

Ironically, one of Andersen’s best known tales is “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In it, the vain ruler has three foreign tailors make him a suit, which is said to be so fine that only the intelligent can see. During a parade, a child innocently observes that the emperor is in fact naked, whereupon the assembled onlookers burst out laughing at the sight of their emperor without clothes. In today’s world, spin doctors and advisers to presidents and prime ministers have replaced the tailors, but the outcome is the same. Speeches are devoid of content, and it is only a matter of time before they are revealed to be empty.

Andersen’s metaphor came to mind as the self-appointed commander-in-chief of the “war on terrorism,” George Walker Bush, stepped out of Air Force One at the Copenhagen airport on July 5th, in order to visit one of his most loyal supporters. As the leader of a staunchly conservative and pro-American coalition, Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen was elated and radiant at the opportunity of welcoming his American friend who was on his way to the G-8 meeting in Scotland. In Denmark for only seventeen hours, starting with a good long sleep outside of Copenhagen, the American president celebrated his 59th birthday in what some journalists dubbed the “bed and breakfast” visit.

Nonetheless, the security arrangements surrounding the short stay managed to create havoc for thousands of air travellers and commuters in the Copenhagen area. Whereas the two-day visit of then President Bill Clinton in July 1997, the first ever by an American president to Denmark, was marked by a genuine relaxed atmosphere and sympathy for the visitor, the Bush stop-over will certainly not go down as a landmark of popularity. President Clinton addressed a crowd of 20,000 at the famous Kongens Nytorv, and he and his family mingled freely with people in the streets of Copenhagen. In contrast, the Bush entourage was shielded by a seldom-seen degree of isolation, transported only by helicopters or protected motorcades. Moreover, during the president’s movements from and to the airport, practically all air traffic over Copenhagen was suspended, except constant helicopter patrols over the greater Copenhagen area, including the seaside.

The relation between the US and Danish governments has always been close regardless of the party in power in Denmark. Likewise, the United States has traditionally enjoyed a high degree of popularity among Danes. Ties between Danish-Americans and the country of their roots have been maintained. The Fourth of July is even celebrated by some Danes. Many Danish politicians, academics, labor leaders, and other influential persons have studied at American schools and universities or visited the United States, often overtly or covertly sponsored by US organizations. The pro-American bias played a significant role in Danish politics of anticommunism during the Cold War era. Of course, 9/11 released deeply-felt expressions of popular sympathy for the United States.

However, Bush’s visit revealed a change of perception in public opinion. An omen of change had already manifested itself in an opinion poll published on the eve of Bush’s arrival, which showed that only thirteen percent of Danes approved the present US foreign policy while nearly half were outright critical. Opposition to it was significant even within the center-right constituency. Needless to say, a majority of Danes are sceptical of their government’s pro-American course.

That’s despite the ubiquity of the pro-American corporate media. The center-right control of the press is almost complete, except for one daily newspaper. Both state- and privately-owned television channels are dominated by American entertainment and political journalism that caters, with few exceptions, to a pro-US interpretation of world politics. CNN is the role model for Danish TV news. In the afternoon of July 6th, about 20,000 persons gathered in front of the US embassy and marched through the streets of Copenhagen to the Parliament (Christianborg), chanting “Stop Bush” and “Another World Is Necessary!” Predictably, the anti-Bush and anti-war demonstration was either ignored or denigrated by the media. For more objective coverage, Danish viewers had to switch over to Swedish TV channels!

Ordinary Danes are now critical of US policy.2 Not so with Danish industrialists. War dividends have been substantial for the family-owned A.P. Møller-Maersk conglomerate (“the world’s biggest container-shipping company”). Under a generous contract with the Pentagon, the company’s ships have been an important carrier of logistical and military material for the US military. In addition, the occupation authority awarded the conglomerate a twenty-year contract for the management of the Port of Khor Al-Zubayr in Southeast Iraq. The one “commoner” invited to Bush’s luncheon with the Queen, government officials, and leaders of the political parties represented in Parliament was Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller, the owner of AP Møller-Maersk, who is also the richest man in Denmark.3

In domestic politics, A.P. Møller has financed the center-to-right political parties. The payoff is that the company controls the better part of the country’s biggest banks and newspapers and also administers the state-owned oil fields in the North Sea. It has also vastly benefited from the rise of oil prices without having had its tax rate raised.4

It is in this context of the mutually profitable triangle trade among the Danish governing elite, the Danish ruling class, and the US empire that Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s “official historical revisionism” ought to be understood. In his endeavor to put Denmark at the forefront of the struggle against so-called “rogue states,” the Prime Minister exploited a painful chapter of Danish history during World War II.

When Nazi Germany occupied Denmark in 1940, in violation of a Non-Aggression Pact signed one year earlier, the Social Democratic government remained neutral. This position was reinforced by the government of national unity in 1941, which not only didn’t offer any resistance but collaborated with the invaders. The policy of collaboration continued until ordinary Danes began to resist and the German military fortune started to wane after the 1943 defeat at Stalingrad. Danes on the left have always known that the country’s political class and economic elite played an infamous role during World War II.

What does Fogh Rasmussen have to say about that? The Prime Minister criticizes politicians for their passivity and castigates the industrial and agricultural interests for having done profitable business with the German occupation forces. He argues that Danish cooperation with the occupier contributed to freeing German troops for combat and occupation in other countries. Not mincing his words, he says that Denmark was “the bread-basket of Nazi Germany” and Danish industry (which would include A.P. Møller’s weapons industry) worked for the German military machine. He also apologizes for the fact that in 1939 Danish authorities expelled twenty-one German Jews to Germany where they faced extermination.

Whatever the merits of the Prime Minister’s revision of official history, however, he conveniently minimized the responsibility of his own liberal party. For instance, he omitted the fact that a cabinet minister from this party favored, at the time, the death penalty for acts of sabotage! Similarly, he refused to acknowledge the collaborationist government’s crime of interning Danish communists in 1941 and handing them over to the Germans in 1943.

The Prime Minister’s official historical revisionism, which at first glance may appear to be dictated by a noble concern for the truth, turns out to be merely a rhetorical ploy to advance his government’s foreign policy, taking a page from the playbook of the Neocons, who invoke the specter of appeasement of Nazi Germany’s aggressive invasions that led to World War II upon hearing any case against any war. In other words, Fogh Rasmussen resorts to the same false analogy employed by the Neocons: we must follow an aggressive foreign policy including preemptive war, or else evil regimes and forces cannot be defeated before they engulf the whole world in flames of war. Such is his sorry attempt to legitimize and vindicate Denmark’s participation in the illegal war for “regime change” in Iraq.

It goes without saying that the Prime Minister’s belated argument for Danish resistance to the German occupation fails to include even a hint that the Iraqi resistance might itself be motivated by a similar logic of patriotism — much less an idea that their struggle against the foreign aggressors and occupation forces may indeed contribute to the prevention of further American adventures!

Who is the appeaser here? Fogh Rasmussen has, in truth, gone far beyond Chamberlain’s appeasement policy by collaborating with the most powerful imperialist power in the history of mankind. Danish historians of the future will certainly reflect on the extraordinary opportunism of the country’s power elite in allying themselves with the hyperpower.5

Stripped of the cover of the doublespeak woven by his advisors and spin doctors, the Prime Minister stands naked — a folly fit for Andersen’s fairy tale.


1. The government has raised the banner of market fundamentalism and a foreign policy course of following the US (and Britain) in the crusade against “evil.” Although no “born-again Christian,” the Danish Prime Minister is a hardcore economic liberal and militant moralist. By political and ideological inclination he was a neoconservative before the neocons gained access to the White House. In his 1993 book From Welfare State to Minimal State (in Danish), he formulated the liberal case for the dismantling of the welfare state.

2. Not having suffered any losses in Iraq, most Danes have not regarded the war as their primary concern. However, the recent horrendous bombings in London created a certain anxiety as to the consequences of the military engagement on the side of the United States. A poll taken in the UK revealed that 64% of Britons felt that involvement in the war in Iraq bore responsibility for the London bombings. Nervousness is particularly felt since the group responsible for the Madrid bombing last year has specifically targeted Italy and Denmark for their participation in the US war in Iraq.

3. As a show of magnanimity, Møller financed the newly opened Copenhagen Opera, but only on the condition that it be built according to his instructions, in disregard of the advice and expertise of the responsible architect!

4. The example of Denmark shows that, far from being the exclusive monopoly of authoritarian East Asian capitalism, “cronyism” can also be a well-functioning system of redistribution for the very rich in a parliamentary democracy in Western Europe.

5. The previous Social Democratic coalition government wholeheartedly supported the Clinton administration’s strategy in the Balkan war. But that had at least been legitimised by the United Nations.

Jacques Hersh is Professor Emeritus at the Research Centre on Development and International Relations, Aalborg University.  Ellen Brun is Researcher on Development Issues and International Relations at Aalborg University Centre, Denmark.  They have co-authored many books and articles, including Socialist Korea: A Case Study in the Strategy of Economic Development published by Monthly Review Press (1976).