The Danish Peace Academy
Hansen, Peter Mikael: The history of conscription
and conscientious objection in Denmark
This article is a rough outline of some of the major features af
the history of military conscription and conscientious objection in
Denmark. From the early medieval periode to the 20th
century, with emphasize on the latest centuries.
Already in the late viking-age and the beginning of the
Middle-Ages a form of conscription in Denmark emerged. Conscription
was based only on the rural population either personally or
finacially. This form of conscription was maintained until personal
conscription in principle for every man was introduced in
mid-19th century. Hereafter general conscription has
been the rule of the danish defence, with greater og lesser emphasy
on professional soldiers. Today conscriptions seems unnecessary in
the eyes of the young generation. Denmark has no enemy. In addition
the danish military are engaged in tasks under UN, NATO or EU in
the future, outside danish territory, which are carried out by
Objection to military service has been a feature in danish
history of conscription, and resistance can be traced back as early
as 1600s. In 1917 Denmark got its first civil service law. Before
that time people objected to military service in three major ways,
either by articulated objection on religious or political grounds,
or more commonly by draft-resistance or desertion.
The numbers after 1917 has been influenced by many factors
peaking in 1953 and 1970s. Especially the 1970s saw a great number
of conscientious objectors.
The geography of objection to military service based on
religious grounds and draft-resistance before 1917 seems to be a
rural phenomenon. However this tendency are not conclusive.
Political motivated objection and conscientious objection after
1917, especially in contemporary CO-hisory, seems to be associated
with urban areas. Also these studies are not conclusive.
First known conscription
The development of conscription and the armed forces in Denmark
has always been closely connected with the powerstructures through
Around the years 800-1000, great peasants, chiefs, kings and
vikings roamd the land present called Denmark, and they fought a
constant struggle for power. Due to the geographical conditions,
the rough landscabe in Scandinavia and dense forest, most transport
was based upon shipping. And so was the first armies. Fleets of
armed men either defending or attacking. In the beginning
participation in these armies was more or less on volunteer basis,
but soon some kind of conscription emerged.
Soon after the viking-age around 1050, the first known form of
conscription in Denmark emerged when the so-called leding,
was established. The danish word
leding can be translated to something like ‘on the
road’ or ‘on expedition’, and therefor ‘to
go to leding’, meant ‘to go to war’. This
leding was based on viking-traditions . Thus already in the
late viking-age and the beginning of the Middle-Ages a form of
conscription based upon the Vikings traditions of gathering people
for armed expeditions can be traced.
Throughout the Middle Ages the everpresent struggle between the
lordship and the Kingdom intensified and resulted in the power
being centralised around the Kingdom on behalf of the rest of the
feudal society. The arms-race throughout the medieval period was
characterized by increasing professionalism. Thus partly rented
armies was an increasingly common feature throughout the medieval
period. However the balance between conscription and
professionalism was not static. The balance between conscription
and rented armies shifted and developed all the time according to
needs, powerstructures and technological development.
Jydske-Law from 1241 by Valdemar Sejr says, that every harbour
should provide the army with one man. This was the first law of
conscription. And the principle of conscription based on land was
introduced in the lawbooks. But soon due to technological advance,
weaponry-innovation and geographical changes in the landscape -
less forest and more agriculture - the need for armed horsemen
increased. Thus Parallel to providing persons to the army, based on
a certain area of land, the state also collected money to finance
an increasing professionalisation of the army. Again the power got
increasingly centralised and monopolized during the medieval
periode. Later instead of harbours the land got divided into
lægder. The size of the lægd changed through
time, according to the needs for more men or finance, but
eventually it became more or less equal to that of the
In the 1500s the army was mainly based on rented personel
instead of drafted personel.
In short conscription was based on the rural population - the
peasants, either personally or finacially. This conscription based
on a certain land-area division was introduced during the medieval
periode, and was maintained until personal conscription in
principle for every man was introduced in mid-19th
century. (See later).
But not everybody rushed to meet the call ups. As early as 1428
during an attack on Sjælland and Skåne the danish king
Erik of Pommern emphasized if a person stayed at home when the
enemy attacked, he should be hanged.
This human feature - the dislike of participating in war - has been
recognized in the militarylaws ever since. The penalty of desertion
or any kind of objection to the military service has been servere
trough time. Nevertheless desertion and other kinds of objection
Also the period 1600-1849, especially the period up to 1788, was
charachterised by the army shifting between being based mainly on
rented personel and drafted conscripts. Especially during
war-periods, conscription was re-introduced.
After a war with Sweden (1657-60) absolutism was introduced in
Denmark in 1660. The king regained power over the lordship and put
more emphasize on conscription. Also the drafting-rules changes. It
was now the landowners and the lords who was in charge of
implementing the conscriptions system. During this time it was
difficult to resist drafting, primarily because the local
authorities headed by the lord and the landowners was in charge of
the conscription and they new about almost every young man.
Nevertheless there was a considerable amount of antagonism among
the rural population towards the miltary service. ‘Most
people among the rural population saw the military service as a
threat, and many young peasants fleet the country to Amtserdam or
other free-hold places’.
Desertion was a common feature. Not only among drafted peasants but
also among volunteer soldiers. Examples of soldiers seeking refuge
among priest and farmers is described in Hans Henrik Appels book
Tinget, Magten og æren.
Again in 1701 conscription and especially the militia-system got
a revival. The Medical Board got introduced by law 27. September.
Again the nobility gained power over the local young male rural
population. However the young men still tried to escape military
service, so the noblemen got introduced that no young man was to
move from his native town. In 1733 adscription was introduced.
But desertion and escaping military service in the
18th century, by running away for example to Norway,
Slesvig and Holland was still a common feature, as described in
Birgit Løgstrups Bundet til Jorden - stavnsbåndet i
During this period with adscription in Denmark (1733-1788) a
comprehensive antagonism towards the military service arose,
especially amongst the rural population, and running away to the
cities or other countries was a well known and well used way of
escaping military service. Another known way to escape military
duty was by self-inflicted injuries. An example is known from 1787
were one of the royal ministers, Bolle Luxdorph, noted in his
diary: “in Cronborg District 14 peasants had cut off there
own thumb” and one of his officials added: “on there
right hand to escape military service” - one of his officials
When adscription finally was disbanded in 1788, the landowners
primary responsibility for drafting disappeared. After 1788 the
draft examination was re-centralized and a new bureaucratic system
was introduced. This system proved easier to escape. Many young men
simply stayed away from the draft board, or escaped through a
medical statement from a local doctor or priest.
In 1788 the conscription shifted from being based on land to be
based on persons. Rural persons that is. Every young male person
from the countryside was now liable to military service. In those
days - and during most of the 19th century in fact - the
rural population exceeded between 80 and 90 % of the total
In 1803 the amount of rented personel in the army decreased
significantly. The part of the armt which was professionalised got
more or less dismantled, and according to the rising liberal
movement troughout Europe, the peasants in Denmark in 1830s and
1840s started questioning the conscription being based only on the
rural population. The rising power of the peasants and there
alliance with the rising liberal movement in the cities and among
students and academics put pressure on the Absolutism. Especially
the liberal movement felt there time had come. And together with
the peasant-movement they were a strong opposition to the King.
During the war with Preussia (1848-1850) the need for more
soldiers increased dramatically and the state issued a preliminary
conscription for all young men (with some exceptions
though). This law was later written into the first danish
constitution in june the 5th 1849. Denmark got its first
democratic free constitution here in 1849. This constitution also
layed down the structure of the military conscription which more or
less kept the same up till today.
In principle conscription was now based upon all young
men. Only in principle though. You could get an exeption if you
were a priest or teacher, or you could pay somebody else to serve
the military instead of you. So the rich got off. Also other minor
humanitarian exeptions was written into the law.
From 1849 to the First World War
With the free constitution in 1849 came general conscription. In
principle conscription was now resting on every young mans
shoulders. But did all young Danish men, which wasn’t
included te exeptions in the law, join the army? Whar happend for
instance with conscientious objectors - young men who objected to
join the military system either based on religious or other
There are several dimensions to the early CO-history in the
second half of the 19th centuryand the beginning of the
20th. This article will in this period focus on three
ways of rejecting the military service. Firstly articulated
conscientious objection. Secondly desertion and thirdly
Articulated conscientious objections as one dimension
In the period from the introduction of general conscription in
1849 to the first civil service law, which was passed in 1917,
articulated conscientious objectors objected primarily on religious
grounds. However few and scattered they were, they did exist.
Several examples can be described. Recent studies shows religious
objection to military service in Denmark as early as 1850s and
1860s and troughout the period, increasing in numbers up to First
A couple of examples can illustrate early religios conscientious
For example Ove Petersen from Horsens. During the war in 1864
between Preussia and Denmark he got called up but refused based on
religious objection to military service, and got sentenced to
jail. Also Jens Andersen from
Saltum refused repeatedly in the period 1865-66 on basis of
religious objection, and got sentenced to jail.
Another example is Julius Stevnsborg from Copenhagen which july
1871 refused to meet his call up, due to conscientious objection
based on religious grounds. He got sentenced to 3 years in
These and many other cases can be seen in the Danish National
The CO-question was brought up on official level by the jewish
community around 1884 when prof. A.A. Wolf complained to the
ministry of war, about the lack of consideration towards jewish
conscripts serving during jewish festivals. This question brought
about the problems with religious objection to the military
Later 7-days adventists refused to serve from friday to
saturday, and got punished for objection.
From late 19th century the demand for a possibility
to serve an alternative service grew in strenght - especially from
From then on numerious religious objections to military service
can be found during the last period of the 19th century
and the beginning of the 20th century.
The geography of these religious objectors are interesting. They
did not come solumnly from distinct geographical areas, but
appeared more or less widespread troughtout the hole of the
country. However religious conscientious objectors seem to be
connected more to rural areas than cities.
Desertion - as another dimension
Articulated objection was only one in many ways to escape or
reject military service during the period 1849-1917. Another
possibility was desertions during peace and war time.
Desertions was a common feature also in this period. Hundreds of
cases of desertions in this period are to be found in the Danish
The top of the ice-berg
During the period from 1854 to 1906 there were at least 54 cases
of desertion and absentation from the army. This can be concluded by
studying documents from the judge advocate general, and this is
only the top of the ice-berg. Not all deserters are liable to pass
the desk of the judge advocate general. Most of them did only pass
the judge advocates, and in these files. Also From the regional
archive of Fyn in Odense is preserved some documents from the
period 1890-1903 which enables us to get another glimse of the
military criminals records. These records are full of desertions
It must be emphasised however, that not all deserters are to be
categorised as conscientious objectors in a modern sense.
Draft resisters - a third dimension
Another dimension is when the young men simply did not turn up
to the draft board. This method was well known and perhaps te most
popular way to escape military service. Some young men and families
emigrated simply to escape military service. Not all emigrated young
men emigrated to escape military sevice of course - but emigration
was a well known and efficient method to escape military
Source: Danish The National Archive.
Sessions-protokoller: Justitsministeriets 2. kontor. Diverse akter
vedr. session. Arkivnr. 05.
Source: The Danish National Archive.
Sessions-protokoller: Justitsministeriets 2. kontor. Diverse akter
vedr. session. Arkivnr. 05. Og Ministerialtidende B.
Source: The Danish National Archive. Ministerialtidende
The figures above indicate some major fluctuations. It is
possible to recognize the war in 1864 (see figure 1). Also the
emigration from Denmark to primarily America in the late
19th is recognizable. Another peak occurs during the
First World War (see figure 2). In the 20th century a
notable rise in draft absence occurs during the Second World War.
(See figure 3).
It is more than likely that these fluctuations - especially the
fluctuations during wars - can be explained partly by a objection
military service. How big the amount of draft-resistance based on
objection to military service alone was, is impossible to say. It
must be emphasized that draft-resistance was primarily a
combination of young mens eager or need to immigrate to a
supposedly better world often in America, and the young mens
antagonism towards the military service. This combination led many
young en to flee the country before military service.
Geographical studies shows that draft-resistance in this period
occured relatively slightly more in rural areas than in cities. And
geographical studies carried out from Fyn underline this
Another possibility which have to be thouroghly investigated is
the transfersion of critical people from armed-service to non-armed
service like the “work-force” within the army.
A legal method was by payment to present another person in your
place instead of your self, or to switch numbers. Undoubtely
“CO’s” used this method. This however was a legal
The last category were “CO’s” could hide was
during medical examinations. Rejection of people during the draft
examination if they articulated a kind of objection did happen.
The war in 1864 was the first war fought by general conscripts.
In 1869 the conscription-law got rejusted and some of the early
exeptions was removed from the law. In 1894 a lottery-system was
introduced. The army did not need all the young men. During the
drafting session at The Medical Board drawing lottery was
introduced. The highest numbers got free.
First World War
The first two decades of the 20th century saw a rise
in objection to the army. A new and strong articulated objection
was linked together with socialism and ever larger groups of the
growing working class saw the military as a tool for capitalism and
The left wing got ever more fractionated, and a left-winged
opposition to the Socialdemocrats adopted conscientious objection
in there political fight against the capitalist society. A group of
young working class men went on hungerstrejks in direct actions
against the military. They refused the army on a political basis.
The authorities answered back with servere punishment, but the
CO-movement grew in strenght and in 1915 they organized themselves
in the organisation “Foreningen for konsekvente
Antimilitarister”. The people which broke with the
socialdemocrat were more or less synonymous with the
syndicalist-movement - a union based socialist revolutionary
This was probably the first major non-religious CO-movement in
Danish history. They published a magazine and according to
different archives and sources between 50 to several hundreds of
young men refused the army those years.
Geographical studies of these political motivated objectors
shows some differencies from the gepography of the previous
religious objectors. The religious objectors were scattered all
over the country, perhaps mainly in rural areas. In the case of the
political motivated objectors, there seem to be a tendency towrads
the geography of these people being a urban phenomenen rather than
a rural phenomenen. This could be explained by the political
motivated objection being primarily rooted in the working class,
which again was based in industrialised and urbanised areas. However the material is
scarce, and further studies need to be caried out.
Civil service law in 1917
The emerging of revolutionary socialists, the German revolution,
the Russian revolution, the Russian-Japanese War and the
Norway-Sweden union-crisis where the Swedish government hesitated
to use the army, worried the Danish establishment, especially the
capitalist society with leading right-winged newspapers and
Parallel to the socialists antimilitarism and there strong
opposition to conscription grew from religious communities a demand
for a civil service. Eventually the parliament passed a CO-law in
In short there are probably three major explanations why Denmark
so early got a CO-law.
First of all because of the political climate. Denmark had a
Liberal Socialdemocratic government.
Secondly, closely related to the first point of view, because
several parlamentarians including ministers, not at least the
minister of War P. Munch, had relations with the Danish
peacemovement, which again largely was related to middleclass
christian and liberal values. A peacemovement which - late though -
recommended a CO-law.
And thirdly because a CO-law could be used to contain the strong
antimilitaristic propaganda from the revolutionary socialist.
Many of the young men in the CO-organisation got arrested for
other political offences and the authorities cracked down on
revolutionary tendencies. The CO-movement disappeared more or
Between first and second world war
Soon after the First World War Denmark joined The League of
Nations. The governments faith in the League of Nations and
neutrality policy resulted in extensive disarmament, including
cut-backs in conscription. Few young men were drafted in this
period. Only 25% of the potential youn male annual-population got
Although it was possible to serve a kind of civil service after
1917, not many used the possibillity in the beginning. Public
informations about the CO-law were almost non-existent, and also
the low numbers of drafted young men resulted in few objectors.
In 1926 a Danish quaker went to England, and when he came back
he organised the pacifist peacemovement Aldrig mere Krig (AMK
“Never ever War Again”). To be a member you had to
support conscientious objection. Later AMK became a branch of War
resisters International (WRI).
In 1932 the politicians underlined the neutrality by further
cutbacks in the army. On the other hand the army got more
professionalised and increased and decreased the amount of
conscripted personel. Eventually the army in the 1930s was mostly
based on volunteer soldiers.
Numbers of COs between the wars was peaking in 1935 with over
500 CO’s. The civil service
was still a kind of punishment. The duty was longer and the
facilities not much better than in the real army. The CO’s
had to work and live in camps. And in charge of the COs was the
ministry of war.
2. World War
During the second world war Denmark was occupied by
Nazi-Germany. In the very beginning of the year of 1940, before the
occupation, the number of CO’s in Denmark increased, but as
soon as the country got occupied and the country went in a state of
occupation - the number of official applications for civil service
decreased. As soon as the war ended, the number of CO-applications
increased ones more - steadily reaching a new maximum in
The war polarised the population. Some people joined the danish
army, which still were in function untill 1943. The amount of
volunteer soldiers for the army increased, but so did the amount of
draft-resisters. Se figure 3.
Just after the 2. World War july 1948 conscription was
supplemented by a militia-system - Hjemmeværnet. This
militia-system was a addition to the conscription-system and based
In may 1949 a civildefence service was introduced again as a
result of the war. The civildefence service was connected with the
military system, helping the military during wartime or other
The military propaganda was strong from the beginning of the
Cold War. Especially because the government wanted Denmark - or
rather likely because NATO wanted Denmark - to be a member of NATO.
NATO-supporters succeded. In 1949 Denmark joined NATO togehter with
the rest of the first NATO-countries. The Cold War embraced
Denmark. In this Cold War invironment it was difficult to express
antimilitaristic and pacifistic attitudes.
In the beginning of the 50s the number of COs were still
increasing, but after 1953 the number of COs dropped. Maybe also
because of an increase in service lenght which in 1952 was extended
from 12 to 18 months. Also the military service-lenght rose to 18
months due to the international tensions and the Korean-war. During
the later decades the service-lenght decreased again.
In June 1951 soldiers on contracts got introduced. And this
system with some degree of army-personel on professionel contracts
have been a common feature of the danish army ever since. But also
in the period of 1950-1970 all young men got called up. During this
cold war period te army felt need for all potential young men.
At the end of the 50s and the beginning of the famous 60s the
number of COs began to increase again.
60s & 70s
The sixties and seventies saw the highest numbers of COs so far.
Out of progressive alternative societies, like the hippie culture
and the Vietnam-movement grew a peace-movement. Some COs in the
CO-camps started an information-office in effort to spread the
CO-message. So far it was still for the few and choosen! But now it
got respected by the majority of the population to be a CO for
maybe the first time in Danish history.
In January 1967 the Danish CO-organisation
Militærnægterforeningen was born out of the CO-camps -
a result of AMK. The student revolution and the peace-movement grew
in strenght. The Campaign Against Nuclaer-weapons succeded and the
protests against the Vietnam-war was a major factor in the increase
of COs. Also during this period the service lengt was reduced, and
in late 60s it became possible to serve civil service at ordinary
jobs outside the infamous work-camps. So far the CO-law had been
administrated by the ministry of war - from 1953 the ministry of
defence. Now the civil service was transferred to the Home
In the 70s the number of COs was at its highest. Several
thousands refused to join the army and applied for civil service.
So many infact that the authorities simple did not call all people
in for civil service. In 1973 about 17,6 % af allconscripts were
COs. Parallel to this story
is the dark side of the CO-camps. This came in focus especially
during the 50s, 60s and early 70s. The conditions was miserable,
and occasionally people lost their minds. The COs in camps reacted
to these conditions by demonstrating and setting fire to the camps.
Some even went on hungerstrejk.
All in all the conditions improved over the years, and more and
more COs were allowed a job while doing civil service instead of
being in camps.
In the early 1970s the army was based on half professionalised
and half drafted personel. And many of the drafted personel was
In the 1960s the Medical Board got centralised and therefor the
division of the land into lægder got cancelled.
Instead The Central Administration of Conscription was introduced
During the 80s and the recession the number of COs decreased.
The Reagan/Thatcher effect and neo-liberalism could explain some.
Another explanation is that during recession and high unemployment,
some young people go to the army just to get a secure job for a
while. In addition to these explanations is added the low numbers
of conscripts. The army did not call up so many young men, simply
because they didn't need them and the amount of soldiers the army
needed came volunteeraly. So the potential COs never came in actual
contact with the system. The numbers of COs dropped to a minimum
for many years in 1985.
In 1987 it became possible to get out of the army and get
transferred to civil service, even if you had served in the army
for months. For many years the only way out was via mental
institution, and that was left in your record for the rest of your
life. The problem was brought up in the parliament and soon a law
was passed. Today you can get out of the Danish army if you can
explain some new conscientious objections to the military service -
objection you didn't have when you first joined the military.
At the end of the cold war many had an opinion about less
military and more peace. The generation liable to miltary service
in the 90s are now questioning the conscriptions-system. Instead
they want a professional army and freedom for themselves. A kind of
politically motivated objection is emerging in the mid-90s and
together - with the other half of conscientious objectors which
preferably are antimilitaristic in there opinion - they are growing
in numbers again.
The future - A common European Army
Allthough heading towards a common EU-professional-army, most
parliamentarians in Denmark still favours conscription. In the
1980s danish politicians swifted back to emphasize on conscription,
and this political will resulted in some re-justing of the
military-structure in te beginning of the 1990s towards more
conscription. But for how long? Lately Holland, Belgium and France
has converted to professional armies, and Germany are planning to
do so too. In addition the young generation in Denmark are
increasingly hostile towards conscription. Many young people
prefare a professional army to conscription. Denmark has no enemies
- this is a conclusion also brought foreward by the latest
commission on defence. This points to cut-backs in military budget
and conscription. Lately barracks has been shut down. On the other
hand, the danish establishment want very much Denmark to be a part
of the international NATO, UN and EU military operations, which
requires deployment outside danish territory, even outside NATO and
or EU territory. These kind of operations requires increasingly
With the future generations the balance in danish politics
regarding the military structure are shifting towards more
professionalisation of the army. Conscription may soon be history
again in Denmark.