Denmark between Britain and France


Hostage of the great powers

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Throughout the 18th century, France and Britain were locked in an intense rivalry that led to several wars in Europe and in their colonies – particularly in North America. Many other European states took part in the wars as part of shifting alliances. Denmark's neutrality, meanwhile, benefitted its exporters and shippers, who were able to take over market shares lost by warring countries. Copenhagen and the growing Danish middle class prospered during the 18th century thanks to the blossoming trade. But the commercial success brought Denmark into conflict with Britain, which accused Danish ships of not living up to their neutrality.

The Battle of Copenhagen
In 1773, Denmark entered into a League of Armed Neutrality with Russia in order to have an ally against Sweden. By declaring war on Britain in 1800, however, Russia left Denmark in an impossible situation: go to war against Britain or risk a Swedish invasion of Norway. The answer came on 2 April, when the British fleet sailed into the Sound and attacked Copenhagen. After the four and half hour battle that came to be known as the Battle of Copenhagen the Danes surrendered, and in the ensuing negotiations Denmark agreed to suspend is membership of the League.

Forced into war
In the early 19th century, the French army continued its conquest of the European continent, while at sea its fleet was being obliterated by the British Navy. With Britain ruling the seas, and France invincible on the ground, the only battlefield where either could gain ground was the commercial one. And in 1806 Napoleon decreed that all continental ports were closed to British trade, and the following year he forced Russia and Denmark to take part in the blockade.

Between a rock and a hard place
Now, both France and Britain were demanding that Denmark go to war on their side. Denmark was trapped; its only option was to take part in a war that, no matter who won, would see it suffer losses. In the end, it was the Norwegian question that determined Denmark's course of action. Denmark rejected the British ultimatum, and Britain responded immediately by attacking Copenhagen. After three days of seeing the capital being firebombed, the Danish government capitulated and was forced to hand over its fleet to the British. After that, Denmark had no choice but to join the war on the side of France and its allies.

On the wrong side
When France attacked Russia in 1812, Russia and Sweden joined forces. Sweden attacked Zealand, but the British, who supported the new alliance, would not permit an attack on Norway at this point. The loss of Norway, however, was inevitable. Denmark was dragged down in the French defeat, and its unwilling participation the Napoleonic Wars resulted in political and economic disaster. The state went bankrupt in 1813, and the 1814 Treaty of Kiel forced Denmark to cede Norway to Sweden.