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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France to compensate relatives of Algerian Harki fighters

France has paved the way towards paying reparations to more relatives of Algerians who sided with France in their country's independence war but were then interned in French camps.

France to compensate relatives of Algerian Harki fighters

More than 200,000 Algerians fought with the French army in the war that pitted Algerian independence fighters against their French colonial masters from 1954 to 1962.

At the end of the war, the French government left the loyalist fighters known as Harkis to fend for themselves, despite earlier promises it would look after them.

Trapped in Algeria, many were massacred as the new authorities took revenge.

Thousands of others who fled to France were held in camps, often with their families, in deplorable conditions that an AFP investigation recently found led to the deaths of dozens of children, most of them babies.

READ ALSO Who are the Harkis and why are they still a sore subject in France?

French President Emmanuel Macron in 2021 asked for “forgiveness” on behalf of his country for abandoning the Harkis and their families after independence.

The following year, a law was passed to recognise the state’s responsibility for the “indignity of the hosting and living conditions on its territory”, which caused “exclusion, suffering and lasting trauma”, and recognised the right to reparations for those who had lived in 89 of the internment camps.

But following a new report, 45 new sites – including military camps, slums and shacks – were added on Monday to that list of places the Harkis and their relatives were forced to live, the government said.

Now “up to 14,000 (more) people could receive compensation after transiting through one of these structures,” it said, signalling possible reparations for both the Harkis and their descendants.

Secretary of state Patricia Miralles said the decision hoped to “make amends for a new injustice, including in regions where until now the prejudices suffered by the Harkis living there were not recognised”.

Macron has spoken out on a number of France’s unresolved colonial legacies, including nuclear testing in Polynesia, its role in the Rwandan genocide and war crimes in Algeria.