A Dark Time in Denmark's History

An Oscar-nominated film explores possible war crimes in the country after World War II.

One German trooper, Anders, helps his fellow soldier, Hans, across the dunes in the Danish film, Land of Mine.
One German trooper, Anders, helps his fellow soldier, Hans, across the dunes in the Danish film, Land of Mine. (Nordisk Film)

Had the Allies landed on the Western coast of Denmark on D-Day, the Nazis would have been ready. The German forces had built up the defensive Atlantic Wall, which stretched along the European coast from the top of Norway to south of France, to protect against an invasion launched from Britain. With Denmark offering a short route to Berlin, an invasion there seemed likely, and the Axis power prepared by planting between one and two million landmines along the Nazi-occupied nation’s shores.

Invaded by German forces in April 1940, Denmark was spared harsh treatment during most of its occupation. For the first few years, the Danish government chose to negotiate and cooperate with its German occupiers to avoid further aggression and hardship, and Danish government opposition only began in earnest in 1943 once Germany cracked down on civil unrest and made moves to deport Denmark’s Jews. When the war ended in 1945, those millions of deadly, undetonated mines remained, along with the question of who would clear them—and how.

British forces offered Denmark German prisoners of war to complete the task. Land of Mine (Under Sandet), a Danish film nominated for best foreign film at the Oscars, follows a Danish sergeant who commands a troop of former German soldiers as they clear mines from the Skallingen Peninsula. While the film itself is a fictionalized account, it portrays a very real, and difficult, part of the nation’s history: In forcing over 2,000 former German soldiers to clear the mines, Denmark may have violated the Geneva Convention of 1929, which states in Article 32 that “it is forbidden to employ prisoners of war on unhealthy or dangerous work.”

In the film, the former soldiers crawl on their stomachs across the beach with metal rods in hand. They gently prod the sand, at an angle, to locate landmines without risking a direct impact. When they happen upon one, they must carefully unearth it from the sand and extract the detonator. The prisoners depicted by director Martin Zandvliet are not well-trained, well-fed, or well-taken care of, and their hunger makes for shaky hands, their illness for delirium. These prisoners, as the film emphasizes, were not hardened Nazis. In reality, the majority of the POWs made to do this labor were teenage boys or elderly men, who were part of the Volkssturm, the national militia conscripted in the last years of the war to mount an all-out defense against the Allied invasion.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum credits Denmark as “the only occupied country that actively resisted the Nazi regime’s attempts to deport its Jewish citizens.” In histories of World War II, the small Scandinavian country is well-known for its rescue mission during the occupation, when a tip about the impending deportation of Jewish Danes resulted in a nationwide effort to get them to safety in neutral Sweden. While that story is more complicated than the simplified versionthe Nazi SS General Werner Best actually played an integral role in alerting Danish citizens before the roundupthe resistance did manage to transport over 7,700 Danish Jews (95 percent of the country’s total) and over 680 non-Jewish family members.

This is the story Danes are most comfortable with, but not the story Zandvliet is interested in telling. With Land of Mine, he insists that Danes come to terms with the immediate post-war period, when the country committed what could be considered a war crime.

As a country emerging from five years of occupation, Denmark was faced with a problem and a question: These mines must be cleared; who is going to do it? While the German boy soldiers had not been directly responsible for the mines being planted, neither were the Danes who they primarily threatened. And, as Haaretz explains, “There was general agreement that the Germans had no rights and could not expect mercy so soon after the war’s end.”

Generations later, there is controversy in Denmark over whether it was indeed a war crime. One Dane who oversaw the German soldiers said they volunteered to clear mines and were treated fairly, while historians who study this time period point to evidence that the British and Danish commanders chose to label the prisoners of war as “voluntarily surrendered enemy personnel” to avoid violating the Geneva Convention. And some may take issue with the lack of background and context given about the young troops: By putting these soldiers in a vacuum—the film includes no information on their actions, responsibility, and loyalty prior to the de-mining operation—it encourages a presumption of innocence. The boys talk of returning home to rebuild Germany, but the film includes no discussion of the war they fought in and its corresponding ideologies.

Most of the film’s power and interest comes from the ethical discussion it inspires. The Danish audience may be asked to confront this cruel episode in their nation’s history, but all viewers can draw parallels to their respective countries and conflicts, how they have behaved in times of war and afterwards, and how they remember and justify their actions. And this reflection on national memory and behavior can be uncomfortable. As Zandvliet told Indiewire, “there was a big debate after this movie in the media and TV, where everybody called me not patriotic enough. It’s not about that. It’s more the dilemma of the terrible things that happen after a war.” The reaction also shows the indelible force of patriotism given that even after many decades, Denmark’s decision and action are still sensitive subjects.