Denmark’s German refugees remember forgotten WW2 chapter

Barbed wire and tunnelling beneath it to go and pick flowers outside his refugee camp in Denmark are what Jorg Baden remembers most clearly 75 years on from World War II.

Denmark's German refugees remember forgotten WW2 chapter
A picture taken in 1945 shows German refugees accommodated at the General Motors assembly plant in Sydhavnen, Copenhagen. Photo: AFP

Baden's experience — a largely forgotten chapter of history — was one shared by some 250,000 fellow Germans interned in neighbouring Denmark following the conflict.

Between the ages of five and eight, Baden — now a cheerful German pensioner — was a refugee in Denmark, after his family and tens of thousands of his compatriots fled Germany as the Red Army advanced towards Berlin.

From February 1945 Denmark, then occupied by the Nazis, was forced to take those refugees, the majority consisting of old people, women and children, as well as wounded soldiers.

Mostly spared the fighting, the Scandinavian nation was Berlin's favoured destination for exiles.

The lion's share of the refugees arrived by boat, some of which were torpedoed by the Allies, across the Baltic Sea. They initially ended up in makeshift camps around the country.

After the May 5th “liberation of Denmark by the Allies, the Danish resistance realised that there were about 250.000 German refugees all over Denmark,” accounting for five percent of the population, John Jensen, historian at Varde Museum, told AFP.

Fearing the establishment of a German minority with too much influence, the refugees were gathered up into new larger camps or re-purposed military camps.

Exhausted from the journey and plagued by various illnesses, many refugees died shortly after arriving.

Some never received medical assistance as the Danish Medical Association recommended that its members should refrain from intervening.


“The common thought was if Danish doctors helped a refugee they were indirectly helping the German war machine,” Sine Vinther, historian at Roskilde University, said.

Between 1945 and 1949, when the last refugees left the country, 17,000 died, with 13,000 of those in 1945 alone — 60 percent of whom were children under the age of five. 

According to Vinther that is more than the number of Danes killed during the occupation. 

But even after the end of the occupation, Danish doctors remained hesitant to offer help.

“They could not get rid of their enemy image of Germans… Danish doctors failed their oaths in this period of Danish history,” Vinther told AFP at the Vestre Kierkegaard cemetery in Copenhagen, where more than 5,000 German refugees were laid to rest.

Jorg Baden was one of the lucky ones to receive help. At five years old he came down with diphtheria, but was hospitalised and treated.

“It was a critical time for many children, but I made it through,” the former English and history teacher said.

He recalled his family's hasty escape from Warnemunde in north Germany and the perilous journey across the Baltic to Haderslev in Denmark.

At the end of September 1945, they were transferred the Oksbøl camp — which would come to house up to 37,000 people, becoming the de facto sixth largest town in Denmark.

“We were first accommodated in horse stables which was very primitive… we had very little privacy,” Baden said.

“But my father was asked to teach mathematics… because of that we were allowed to move to a stone house where we had a room for ourselves, running water and flushing toilets which was a great step forward,” Baden, who is now 80, explained.

That was a luxury at the camp which allowed the family to live a “quite unspectacular and normal” life.

The camps were set up on the fringes of Danish society with the authorities aiming to “de-Nazify” the refugees.


“The general idea was to re-educate them to a more democratic way of thinking,” Jensen noted.

According to Vinther, the “refugees were almost prisoners.” 

“Danes were not allowed to interact with German refugees, the German refugees were not allowed to learn Danish or to talk to Danes because they were not supposed to get the feeling that they were wanted,” she said.

However, leaving Denmark took longer than expected.

“The Germans wanted to go back but they weren't welcome in the areas they came from, so the Danes had to negotiate with the Allied powers to repatriate them,” Jensen explained.

Jorg Baden and his family left Denmark for his father's hometown of Duisburg, where he had found work with the British army, in September 1947.

READ ALSO: How Denmark was liberated at the end of WW2

Member comments

  1. The Danes should not feel bad about this – the war was the Germans fault, and the Danes saved all those Jews from extermination. Most countries would have behaved in the same way over the German refugees – who were running away from the consequence of their own actions, after all.

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How a Viking king inspired one of our best-known modern technologies

A Swede and American tell the story of how they hatched the idea for the moniker 'Bluetooth' over beers.

A Danish 16th-century paining of Viking king Harald Bluetooth
A Danish 16th-century paining of Viking king Harald Bluetooth. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

At the end of the 1990s, Sven Mattisson, a Swedish engineer working at telecom group Ericsson, and Jim Kardach, an American employed by Intel, were among those developing the revolutionary technology.

In 1998, at the dawn of the “wireless” era, the two men were part of an international consortium that created a universal standard for the technology first developed by Ericsson in 1994.

But prior to that, they had struggled to pitch their wireless products. Intel had its Biz-RF wireless programme, Ericsson had MC-Link, while Nokia had its Low Power RF. Kardach, Mattisson and others presented their ideas at a seminar in Toronto in late 1997.

“Jim and I said that people did not appreciate what we presented,” Mattisson, now 65 and winding down his career at Ericsson, recalled in a recent interview with AFP.

The engineer, who had travelled all the way to Canada from Sweden for the one-hour pitch, decided to hang out with Kardach for the evening before flying home.

“We received a lukewarm reception of our confusing proposal, and it was at this time I realised we needed a codename for the project which everyone could use,” Kardach explained in a long account on his webpage.

‘Chauvinistic story’

To drown their sorrows, the two men headed for a local Toronto bar and ended up talking about history, one of Kardach’s passions. “We had some beers… and Jim is interested in history so he asked me about Vikings, so we talked at length about that,” said Mattisson, admitting that his recollection of that historic night is now somewhat foggy.

Kardach said all he knew about Vikings was that they ran “around with horned helmets raiding and looting places, and that they were crazy chiefs.”

Mattisson recommended Kardach read a well-known Swedish historical novel about the Vikings, entitled “The Long Ships”.

Set in the 10th century – “a chauvinistic story” about a boy taken hostage by Vikings, says Mattisson – one name in the book caught Kardach’s attention: that of the king of Denmark, Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson.

A Bluetooth adapter from 2004. Photo: Stefan Gustavsson/SvD/TT


An important historic figure in Scandinavia in the 10th century, the king of Denmark’s nickname is said to refer to a dead tooth, or, as other tales have it, to his liking for blueberries or even a simple translation error.

During his reign, Denmark turned its back on its pagan beliefs and Norse gods, gradually converting to Christianity.

But he is best known for having united Norway and Denmark in a union that lasted until 1814.

A king who unified Scandinavian rivals – the parallel delighted those seeking to unite the PC and cellular industries with a short-range wireless link.

And the reference to the king goes beyond the name: the Bluetooth logo, which at first glance resembles a geometric squiggle, is in fact a superimposition of the runes for the letters “H” and “B”, the king’s initials.

Low-cost and with low power consumption, Bluetooth was finally launched in May 1998, using technology allowing computer devices to communicate with each other in short range without fixed cables.

The first consumer device equipped with the technology hit the market in 1999, and its name, which was initially meant to be temporary until something better was devised, became permanent.