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Copenhagen - History

Copenhagen History

In the centre of Copenhagen is a small, canal-encircled island called Slotsholmen, which serves as Denmark's governmental seat. It was here in 1167 that Bishop Absalom constructed a small fortress within a harbourside village to try and stifle regular raids by the German Wends on the east coast of Zealand, thereby laying the foundations for the future capital of Denmark. The fortress inflated the village's sense of self-worth, causing it to grow significantly and to adopt the name Kømandshavn (Merchant's Port) - the moniker was eventually shortened to København.

The fortifications built by the bishop were destroyed during an attack on the town by ransackers from northern Germany in 1369 and work on a new defensive structure, Copenhagen Castle, began seven years later. The city's fate as the capital of Denmark was secured in 1416 when the reigning monarch, King Eric of Pomerania, moved into his sturdy new castle quarters. Grand Renaissance buildings such as the Rundetårn (Round Tower) - established as an observatory and still regularly used for that purpose - and Børsen, home to Denmark's stock exchange, were added in the first half of the 17th century by the aesthetically minded ruler Christian IV.

Copenhagen grew swiftly in size and population, and by the beginning of the 18th century had around 60,000 people living within its confines. The next 100 years weren't kind to the burgeoning capital, however. By 1711 nearly one-third of the population had died from bubonic plague, and a pair of fires (in 1728 and 1795) turned large areas of the city, including most of its wooden buildings, to ash. To top it all off, in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars in 1807, Britain's Admiral Horatio Nelson decided he'd had enough of Denmark profiting from wartime foreign trade, and of rumours that the neutral Danes were considering putting their naval fleet at Napoleon's disposal, and ordered a savage bombardment of the city. Much of Copenhagen went up in flames (again) and the British rubbed salt into the wound by confiscating the entire national fleet.

Several decades later, Copenhagen had turned its attention away from the atrocities of war and was concentrating on the cultural revolution that was daubing, scribbling and philosophising its way across the country. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, the writer Hans Christian Andersen, the verbose theologian Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig, and Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, founder of the Danish School of Art, all contributed to this artistic 'Golden Age'. Copenhagen benefited physically from the revolution through the grand neoclassical statues bestowed on it by sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen.

After Denmark became a democracy in 1849, it went through a lengthy and fairly peaceful period of economic development, not counting a political hiccup in 1864 when a short-lived war was successfully waged on it by Prussia.

Denmark managed to retain neutral status during WWI, but that ploy didn't work during WWII; the Nazis marched on Copenhagen on 9 April, 1940, and ended up occupying it and the rest of the country for five years. Although it survived the war relatively unscathed, Copenhagen was in a dishevelled state by war's end: many of its neighbourhood were slums. The city embarked on an ambitious renewal program and extended cradle-to-grave social security programs. Student protests in the late 1960s led to the proclamation of a 'free state of Christiania' on a military base outside Copenhagen in 1971, operating under communal property rules. It attracted so many people - up to 1000 - that the government was forced to allow it to continue indefinitely as a 'social experiment'.

Today, Copenhagen is flourishing as a centre of culture and the arts, and has had its historic skyline marred by only a few high-rise developments. An early highpoint of the new millennium for the Danish people would have to be the victory of the local Olsen Brothers in the 2000 Eurovision Song Contest, ensuring the staging of the 2001 gala event in Copenhagen. In July 2000 the Øresund Fixed Link, a massive 16km (10mi) bridge-tunnel, road-rail link between Copenhagen and the Swedish port of Malmo was opened; it is the first direct land link between Denmark and the rest of Scandinavian Europe. The death of the popular matriarch of the royal family, Queen Ingrid, in November 2000, was a low point for the country. In late 2001, for the first time in half a century, this liberal, tolerant country voted in a right-wing government on a platform of stronger immigration laws. It is yet to be seen how this political turn will affect Copenhagen's progressive social landscape in the long term.

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