At the heart of Slotsholmen, an island in the centre of Copenhagen that also serves as the country’s seat of government, is the Danish Krigsmuseet – or War Museum. Housed in an historic arsenal hall that dates back to the 1600s, the museum tells the story of the conflicts in which Denmark has been involved over the past 500 years – and with it much of the wider history of Scandinavia and north-western Europe.
The modern military history of Denmark is defined by its relationships with two neighbours, Sweden and Germany. Back in the 1500s, Copenhagen was the centre of the Kalmar Union, which brought Denmark, Norway, and Sweden together under the rule of Danish Queen Margaret I. This alliance came to a violent end, however, in 1520, with the ‘Swedish Bloodbath’, in which 80 Swedish nobles were murdered on the instigation of the Danish crown. Sweden broke away, beginning a long rivalry with their neighbours for control of the Baltic.
The two countries would go on to fight regularly over the coming century, with Denmark slowly but inexorably bleeding territory to Sweden, which was becoming a Great Power. Territory was also at the root of the other great conflict of Denmark’s post-1500s history, with what was then the German Confederation. The struggle over the three duchies of Schleswig, Holstein, and Lauenburg was one of the most perplexing diplomatic disputes of the 19th century, so complex that, as British statesman Lord Palmerston is said to have remarked, ‘only three people have ever really understood it’.
Two vicious wars with the Germans – known as the First and Second Schleswig Wars – saw Denmark lose the territories by 1864, although after the First World War, in which the Danes were neutral, they clawed back some of Schleswig from a shattered German Empire. Denmark was invaded in 1940, and for the following five years put up fierce resistance to the Third Reich, as chronicled in the Museum of Danish Resistance elsewhere in the city.
Cannonry past and present
The arsenal hall, built in the time of King Christian IV in 1604, is an impressive 156 metres long, a daunting size which strikes visitors as soon as they step inside. The museum is split over two levels, with the ground floor featuring some of the museum’s oldest exhibits, including the Anholt cannon, found off the island of the same name, which may have been part of Margaret’s fleet. Other weaponry on display dates from the pivotal Battle of Dybbøl of 1864, when the Danes were shattered by the Germans during the Second Schleswig War. A much more modern exhibition stand on the Cold War includes a 203mm howitzer capable of firing nuclear grenades, reflecting Denmark’s firmly Western-allied position during that period.
Only when you go upstairs to the first floor, however, do you realise quite how impressive in size this museum is. On coming out of the stairwell, visitors are met with seemingly infinite rows of glass cases, each of which contains model ships, suits of armour, weapons, and other military paraphernalia. It would take a good couple of hours to appreciate everything in detail.
A few exhibits stand out. There is the beautifully preserved Gottorp Armour from the 1500s, which was once the preserve of the Schleswig nobility. Other, more international treasures include a collection of uniforms from Tsarist Russia, and similar assemblages of belongings from American soldiers in the years leading up to the American Civil War.
Denmark’s own history is explored through a fascinating and gorgeously detailed selection of model ships, once the property of a now-closed museum in the nearby district of Christianshavn. Meanwhile, a series of tableaux explores how the city expanded over time from a provincial harbour to the centre of a great naval power. The museum in this sense has an edge over so many others around the world, in that it was a physical part of the history it now documents. The building served the Danish navy continually for several centuries until ships became too large, after which they docked elsewhere.
Back on the ground floor there is a large exhibition called A Distant War. This immersive experience recreates the sandy, searing atmosphere of a military camp in Afghanistan as it would have been experienced by coalition forces during the so-called War on Terror. Joining countries such as the US and the UK, Denmark was one of the smaller European nations to send in troops to remove the Taliban regime in 2001. This exhibition focuses on a particular team of Danish soldiers during a tour there in the autumn of 2010.
Visitors are led through multiple settings, from a European bedroom to an airport, and then eventually to Camp Bastion. As they move along inside the exhibition, the lighting and atmosphere change, as does the ground beneath their feet, shifting from solid concrete to uncertain, stony ground. Like some huge, deadly playground, visitors can have a feel of the sand-bagged walls, climb atop a lookout tower shrouded in camouflage, or clamber aboard an armoured Eagle IV vehicle that was hit by an IED during its service. It is the closest most Danish – or even European – citizens will get to experiencing the punishing conditions of that war.
Finally, towards the exit of the museum, there is a short photographic exhibition on the current conflict in Ukraine. The 30 or so images on display – mostly of fleeing civilians, ruined infrastructure, and dead soldiers left lying in fields – are all in black and white, and could easily have been from a war decades past, rather than one which began just 18 months ago.
The beautiful surroundings of Slotsholmen offer visitors many other experiences after they visit the war museum. As well as checking out Christiansborg Palace – from which the Danish monarchy has ruled for centuries – you can take a guided tour of the harbour where warships were once loaded. Visitors can also check out the Lapidarium of Kings, a collection of statues and sculptures in a building that once housed a brewery for thirsty soldiers.
Danish War Museum, Open 10am-7pm Tuesday to Sunday Tøjhusgade 3, 1220 Copenhagen K, Denmark +45 4120 6850 https://en.natmus.dk/museums-and-palaces/danish-war-museum
WORTH CHECKING OUT… Upcoming Events and Exhibitions
Road to Recovery
Until 28 August 2023
National Army Museum, Royal Hospital Road, London, SW3 4HT, http://www.nam.ac.uk/whats-on/road-recovery
Free For those who have injuries suffered in conflict – from life-changing physical disabilities to mental conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – the road to recovery can be a long one. This exhibition explores the challenges soldiers face and the help they receive along the way.
The Byzantines: places, symbols, and communities of an over thousand-year-old
Until 28 August 2023
Palazzo Madama – Museo Civico d’Arte Antica, Piazza Castello, Turin, http://www.palazzomadamatorino.it €12
At its geographic height, the Byzantine Empire stretched from Tunisia to the Caucasus, before collapsing in 1453 with the Ottoman conquest of its capital, Constantinople. More than 350 objects, including sculptures, mosaics, gems, and gold, have been brought together at this exhibition in Turin to explore the epic history of the ‘heir to ancient Rome’.
Until 31st December 2023
Canadian War Museum, 1 Vimy Place, Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0M8, http://www.warmuseum.ca/event/war-games
Prices vary War games are as ancient, varied, and complex as war itself. Similar in theme to a recent exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London, War Games at the Canadian War Museum explores how conflicts have shaped the games people play, and in turn how games themselves had been used to develop tactics and train the soldiers of the future.