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Confronting the “Totalitarian Threat”: The Danish People’s Party and the National Platform

Seen from across the Atlantic, the recent rise to prominence of anti-immigrant right-wing political parties in Western Europe appears bizarre and frightening. For Americans, immigration is nothing new.  Though American workers may feel threatened by the perception that immigrants “take their jobs,” they respond by demanding more secure borders and tougher immigration laws, rather than assimilation or deportation.  The threat is economic, not cultural.  After all, the United States has always been a multi-cultural society, built on the backs of immigrants of all colors and faiths, brought together in common struggle to achieve the (often-elusive) American Dream.  Racism and xenophobia exist, to be sure, as does the myth of an all-encompassing “melting pot” of customs and way of life.  Yet the American national narrative extols diversity and tolerance of difference as two of the country’s most celebrated, if still unattained, aspirations.

So to an American ear, the words of former Danish People’s Party (DPP) Member of Parliament Mogens Camre that “Muslims should live in a Muslim-Country, and that is not here,” contain ominous echoes of Nazi-like bigotry and anti-Semitism.  Indeed, the right-wing nationalist parties with whom the DPP is often compared – France’s Front Nationale and Austria’s Freedom Party – have been said to maintain connections with neo-Nazi or former Nazi fringe groups.  But in Denmark, a country with a proud history of saving its Jews during World War II, similar connections would almost certainly be political suicide.

And in fact, the DPP sees itself as a political descendant not of the Nazi party but of its sworn enemy - the Danish resistance in World War II.  Unlike its counterparts in France and Austria, the DPP maintains a strict emphasis on democracy and freedom.  Its leaders see political Islam as a totalitarian ideology, a threat to democracy.  And they argue, often successfully, that Denmark must take steps to curtail this threat.  As historian Torben Jorgensen explains, “There’s an awakening sense in this country over the last twenty years that democracy is not something that you’re given and then you’ve got it.  It’s something that needs defending.”  As the DPP has presented it, this fight is actually about preserving the Danish way of life.  Defense of democracy is inextricably connected with a sense of national identity – of what it means to “be Danish.”

Conquering the national platform against the totalitarian threat: A history
Nationalism has proven an effective political tool throughout history.  And the DPP is not the first group in Denmark to use this rhetoric to promote unity against a perceived foreign threat.  In 1933, Hartvig Frisch (1893-1950) made such a call for national unity in his book Plague over Europe.  Though others called for mobilization along the lines of Nazism, communism, and fascism, Hartvig Frisch spoke strongly for a humanist and democratic platform in defense against these outside ideologies. As Jørgensen states, “Hartvig Frisch was very much defending a vision of Denmark which I would place somewhere between then Social Democrats and the Radical Left.  It is very much humanitarian, very democratic, very…in a way not of this earth.  There’s just a hint of naiveté in it.  He had very much luck with it.” 

Frisch was a member of the Social Democrats who at the time were in government with the Radical Left.  They clearly opposed the Nazi factions that existed in Denmark and the influence they had begun to have on the youth of the Conservative party.  But as much as the Social Democrats hated their radicalized opponents on the right, they also despised the communist fractions to the far left.  Frisch’s call for unity reflected a general consensus on the need to combat these ideological extremes.

Still, considering Denmark’s policy of neutrality, Frisch’s book was seen as a major provocation towards the Nazi party in neighboring Germany. And even though the fractions of Communists and Nazis in Denmark were relatively small, the idea of a strong and capable government without too many democratic obstacles had support in some circles in the Conservative Party. These politicians initially thought that Mussolini and Hitler could be good for their respective countries.  But as the dictators’ methods became more and more drastic it became evident to almost all that the totalitarian threat had to be fought as strongly as possible. 

Frisch argued that one should never compromise with the values of democracy.  Denmark should never ally with one totalitarian ideology to fight the other.  Fascism, Nazism and Communism were all within the same totalitarian spectrum that posed a grave threat to the democracy and the humanitarian values Frisch deeply believed in.  Jorgensen notes: “Hartvig Frisch was a unique person.  His first argument that Germany was a big pest – many people shared that feeling.  In a way that was free for him to say.  He knew that he was on steady ground with the people.  But after the war he condemned the [brutal] treatment of proposed Nazis.  And there he has absolutely no resonance with the people at all.  Now that’s bravery. Sometimes those kind of people do emerge - someone who really does have values and will fight for them no matter what.  This is not a very good time for that kind of man.”     

Frisch appealed to the basic values of Danish democracy to mobilize Danish nationalism against an outside threat.  And in many ways, the Danish People’s Party has attempted to follow in this tradition.  DPP Member of Parliament Jesper Langballe has likened the threat of political Islam to a new “Plague over Europe” and argues that Denmark must act to protect its system of democracy.  In his words, “Islam as a totalitarian system of thought is the new totalitarian threat that we need to fear to at least the same degree as we feared Communism and Nazism.” 

Yet Langballe also has a somewhat ambivalent relationship to Frische, as he believes that he did not go far enough to protect Denmark from the threat.  And perhaps this difference illuminates variation in the versions of democracy that each aims to uphold: “[Frische] hated and despised the resistance movement,” claims Langballe, “and after the liberation he called the people who had executed snitches, as a necessary part of the fight. murderers. He had a sense of the totalitarian threat but he had no sense whatsoever about what national identity and nationalist struggle means.”  
The Making of a Multi-Cultural Society
The fear of a new existential threat to democracy has increased as Islam and its followers have become a part of the Danish landscape.  Unlike the US, widespread immigration to Denmark began only in the 1970s, increasing throughout the following decades.  People from all over the world, but in particular from Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and the Palestinian territories, and in the 1990s from the Balkans, left the instability or poverty of their own countries to find refuge in Scandinavian welfare states.  To a large degree, the Danish people welcomed these newcomers with open arms, continuing to provide opportunities for family members to join them and to become a part of society.  

Yet slowly many Danes began to feel that this introduction of difference into their relatively homogenous society was bringing with it previously unknown ills.  In the words of Langballe, “Multiculturalism meant unsettled immigrants, crime, too many on welfare, the problems stacked up.”  Some were offended that the new immigrants didn’t make an effort to speak Danish well.  Others objected to the “special treatment” that Muslims seemed to demand when it came to school lunches, or that their girls wore headscarves and wouldn’t date Danish boys.  They weren’t “integrating” into Danish society.

Benny Engelbrecht, MP for the Social Democratic party, admits that when his party was in power in the 1990s, they did little to address this growing unease and conflict.  To a large degree, he says, the rise of the Danish People’s Party and its heavy influence on today’s political discourse is a result of the fact that the Social Democrats didn’t address problems of integration until too late.  

As the elections of 2001 arrived, 275,000 Muslim immigrants and their descendants found themselves making up about 5% of the Danish population.  While this number was low, their visibility was steadily increasing.  The Danish People’s Party capitalized on the increasing distrust and fear of a changing country.  They won 12% of the vote, and became a crucial voting block for the governing parties of the right.      
A Revival of Nationalism
That was seven years ago.  Today, after two more elections in which the DPP has maintained and even slightly increased their representation in parliament, many would argue that they have taken control of the discourse on issues of ethnic minorities in Denmark.  They set the policy agenda.  And after successfully tightening immigration and citizenship policy, the DPP has turned to “integration.”  Their members argue that ethnic minorities, and especially Muslims, must be willing to “become Danish” if they are to stay.  

But what does it mean to “be Danish?”  Ask a Dane on the street and you will likely hear “hygge,” loosely translated as “coziness.”  An inclusive term.  But the success of the DPP has been partially based on an ability to appeal to other symbols and behaviors – the flag, the Danish language, traditional songs and history – that pose boundaries between ethnic Danes and immigrants whose historical roots lie elsewhere.  

These are emotional symbols which, though deep-seated, have until now been absent from the political arena.  According to Jorgensen, “it’s a fact of life that many people feel attracted or attached to their country, their values; from the landscape to the language.  But the Second World War made [political] nationalism impossible.”  The expansion of the European Union has furthermore made national identity and boundaries ever more elusive.  The DPP has been able to voice a nationalist reaction to globalization in a political forum.  Their positions reflect real economic and social interests which demand a place in the Danish dialogue.  
The new Plague over Europe
But the nationalism of the DPP not only builds on the positive symbols of the past, but also stokes fear that difference in Denmark presents a threat.  To compare a system of religious beliefs - Islam - to the triple ideological threat of the 1930’s is no light claim.  And indeed, to Langballe, the sentiment is deeply personal.  His father was a leader of the Danish resistance movement in Randers and actively fought the Germans during World War II.  For him, there is a clear parallel between the resistance during the war and his own present resistance against the totalitarian ideology of Islam.  Langballe deeply believes that Islam and democracy are totally, completely incompatible.  “Islam is a collective, holistic, totalitarian way of thinking, where the religion and the religious norms dictate everything and where there cannot be a distinction between the religious and the political.”  It is a system that for him has no place in Denmark.

To some, this rhetoric itself might be seen as reminiscent of “The Plague over Europe.”  DPP and the other right-wing populist parties in Europe have come under much fire for their statements, and have been labeled racist, fascist, even neo-Nazis.  Though the DPP claims to defend democracy, many wonder how freedom of religion and freedom of speech play into their vision of a democratic society.  Historian Joachim Lund encourages application of the “Jew-test” to DPP propaganda: “Replace the word "Muslim" with "Jew" and see if it looks familiar…” Others point to recent DPP-inspired and pushed for legislation banning the headscarf for judges and refugee policies which seem to deliberately exclude Muslims. This is just one example of how DPP nationalism has become discriminatory.  Can democratic Denmark truly reject an entire religion as “un-Danish”?

Yet Jorgensen reminds us that identifying an outside threat, and appealing to nationalist sentiment against it, has been a successful political tool both now and in the 1930s.  “It’s extremely difficult to define yourself in a vacuum.  It’s much, much easier to define what you’re not.  I think that’s one of the basic rules of politics - you have to define yourself in rejection of something else.”  

At the same time, he also cautions against going too far.  The history of the Holocaust does play a role in the limits of this kind of national self-definition.  There is a huge difference between rejecting a specific ideology and rejecting a specific religious group. 

For their part, the DPP is very conscious about the fine line they walk.  Though their views are seen by some as extreme, they have successfully repelled attempts to paint them as neo-Nazis by expelling members from the party who do harbor those tendencies.  And, as Langballe notes, the DPP has been quick to assert that the party is anti-Islamic, not anti-Muslim.  He says, “It is obvious that Muslims can become a member of the family that we call Denmark.” He points to Naser Khader, a Muslim Member of Parliament, as an example.  It is important to the DPP that they are against Islam as a religion and an ideology, rather than any particular ethnic or religious minority.  

But is there a difference between Islam and Muslims? The distinction sometimes becomes fuzzy.  Indeed, MP Kristian Thulesen Dahl was once quoted as saying that the DPP is “anti-Muslim,” only to be rebuffed later by party leader Pia Kjaerskaard.  And in Langballe’s words, “When I make this separation it is not because in the concrete reality I can separate Muslims from Islam, but it is a pure principal.”  And later, when talking about the threat of radical Islamist leaders influence on immigrants: “There is colossal recruitment potential in these people who have Islam in their blood and soul.”

Other members of the party are more uncomfortable with this fuzzy line, and with the attempt to define “Danish-ness” negatively.  Rebecca Vedersø Holst, President of the DPP Youth League in Copenhagen, would prefer to speak about maintaining Danish culture and democracy: “I know [Langballe] sees us fighting against the Muslims, and it’s all a big fight.  I don’t see it like that.  I see that we have to preserve Denmark, and we have to preserve the good things in Denmark.”  

Unlike Langballe, Rebecca has grown up alongside Muslims all her life.  She knows that the majority of Muslims are “very good people who want to be a part of Danish society.”  To be Danish, she says, “I don’t think it depends on what color your skin is, or how short your skirt is, or whether you believe in Christ or Buddha, or whoever.  But I think it depends on how you see the Danish society.  If you want to raise your kids to respect the policemen, to respect the democracy, to respect religions of all kinds, to respect each other.”  But, she says, it is a problem that many Muslims teach their children un-Danish values: “I don’t think it’s a Christian value, or a Danish value, to teach your children that men have more worth than women.  And a lot of Muslims feel that way.”
Rebecca worries that the birthrate of Muslims in Denmark is much higher than that of the ethnically Danish population.  And she is fearful of the Islamist fringe group Huzb Ut-Tahrir, who have advocated an overthrow of democracy and an imposition of the Shari’a law in Denmark.  Though most observers say they only represent a few hundred members, their extreme rhetoric gets heavy play in the media.  Rebecca believes that Huzb Ut-Tahrir has more sympathy among the Muslim community than it may seem.  So “when the Muslims, or Huzb Ut-Tahrir, or many of them declare war on Denmark, I think it’s a problem in the long term.”  
Any Success?
Have the DPP been successful at convincing the public that political Islam is incompatible with democracy, and presents an ideological threat to Denmark?  Voting results would suggest at least a partially affirmative answer.  The DPP got 13% of the vote in the November 2007 election, and are the third largest party in Parliament, with 25 members.  And as the crucial supporting bloc for the right-wing government, the DPP holds what many political commentators argue is disproportional influence, at least on the integration question.  

Engelbrecht, a member of the opposition party, agrees that the DPP has undeniably been able to shift the discourse on integration and ethnic minorities to the right.  Though he maintains that “no one has a monopoly on how Danish culture should be interpreted,” he also observes that, “It’s now OK to say things that were never said before. Our natural Danish openness to other cultures has changed.”

By painting Islam as a political ideology rather than a religion, the DPP is able to criticize Islam while at the same time refuting charges that they are engaging in religious discrimination.  And their rhetoric resonates with many.  Jørgensen states: “The [DPP] argues that this religion is an ideology - an argument that is not so easy to repel, I think. We have seen since the last 1920s a politicization of Islam which succeeded after the Afghanistan war in the 1980s.  It’s an old project, which is also based on nationalism by the way.  I think you should ask yourselves: What if they’re right?  What if this Islam really is a danger?  What if it’s a totalitarian ideology that has this ability to inflame a lot of people and make them ready to give their life for this political project?”

But it remains to be seen whether a large number of Danish people really believe that Islam and democracy are mutually exclusive.  In a short survey of random people in central Copenhagen, the results were mixed.  While many said they believed that Islam and democracy could coexist in the Danish context, others weren’t certain.  One man seemed frustrated at the disappearance of Danish “openness” to others, but still wondered why, “there has gone so many years – why have they not changed more than they have?” 
And another woman stated forcefully that successful coexistence “depends on if they learn what democracy is.”  These quotes indicate that though few may see Islam as a fundamental threat on par with Nazism, at least some are frustrated by a perceived lack of integration into Danish society.  This may at least partially explain the ability of the DPP to enter the mainstream of Danish politics.
Islam and Democracy
Still, many commentators in Danish politics would charge that the DPP plays on peoples’ fear.  They foster not just an abstract fear of difference but a very concrete fear of the scenario in which fundamental Islam sweeps over Europe and replaces democracy with religious Muslim rule.  Though the explicit “Plague over Europe” analogy remains politically incorrect, many Danish politicians have begun to approach Islam as a totalitarian ideology.  Even those outside the DPP now make statements which implicitly compare it to the ideologies of 1930’s.  And there is a clear consensus that Denmark should not accommodate totalitarian tendencies in any form. 

In particular, the issue of Shari’a law has repeatedly emerged in the center of public debates.  For many, the unwillingness of Muslim leaders to denounce the punishment of stoning adulterers proves the threat that Islam poses to the rule of law and democracy. Indeed, the DPP have been very successful in bringing to the fore these issues, where the line between religion and politics get blurred, and Islam appears irreconcilable with democracy. 

Perhaps Rebecca Holst’s viewpoint is more representative of Danish public opinion.  She doesn’t believe that Islam as a religion conflicts with democracy, but she does believe that how people interpret Islam is often problematic.  She says that the Reformation changed Christianity in Europe so it could adapt to a democratic secular society.  But Islam has not had such a Reformation.  She argues that it needs one: “If you look in the Koran and the Christian Bible, there’s really not that much difference.  They say really bad things both of them.  Really, really terrible things.  But Christian people don’t take it literally. Because we have had the Reformation.”

But Vice chair of the project Muslims in Dialogue, Imam Abdul Wahid Petersen argues that Islam is actually currently going through its own transformation. “Islam has to go through its own process. And it is true that Islam right now is facing one of the greatest challenges it has faced within the last 500 or 1000 years, because Islam is beginning to find it own expression and self-understanding in a Western European culture and context. And that is quite a task.”  In his mind, Islam and democracy are compatible, as long as Islam is given time and space to adapt to its new environment. 

Still, Abdul Wahid has been criticized for not denouncing the Koranic punishment of stoning.  He counters that he doesn’t believe it is something Muslims in Denmark would condone, or that it would ever actually take place, but he strongly resents the fact that people want him to denounce what he believes to be the word of God. He explains: “we should not distance ourselves from something that is a written part of the Shari’a codex.  If we begin to distance ourselves from Shari’a we distance ourselves from our religion.”  

Abdul Wahid is quick to point out that he speaks on behalf of himself, not for all Denmark’s Muslims.  Indeed, it’s hard to find someone who can.  And in large part, the DPP’s success in depicting Islam as a threat to Western Civilization thrives on the lack of unity in the Danish Muslim community. Abdul Wahid points out that the Muslim community itself is an extremely multicultural society, originating from Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and many other countries all over the world.  With such diverse backgrounds, it is difficult to create unified projects.  For instance, many claim that the lack of a proper mosque is a result of divisions in the Muslim community over logistics.  Similarly, Danish Muslims have not yet found a clear unified voice which can strongly counter the picture of Islam that the DPP is painting.  Such a leader could go a long way in changing the negative discourse in Denmark. 
Retaking the National Platform?
In the 1930s, Hartvig Frisch mobilized national sentiment and passion for democracy and humanism in order to repel a totalitarian threat at Denmark’s borders.  Today, the Danish People’s Party sees themselves engaged in a similar project against the threat of political Islam.  Yet today the perceived threat is within Denmark’s borders.  The fight against it treads a dangerous line between a mainstream political movement on the one hand, and an ultra-nationalist, xenophobic, anti-Muslim crusade on the other.

But is it possible to redefine the national platform again along the brave humanist lines of Frisch?  Can Danes recreate a national identity which is inclusive, defending democracy while at the same time protecting individual freedom of religion?  Or, in Jørgensen’s words, how can we “integrate human feelings for tribe and place into an acceptable mainstream political platform”?

Bent Melchior, former chief Rabbi of Denmark, Holocaust survivor, and outspoken advocate for inter-religious dialogue and minority rights, argues that we must acknowledge the realities of our time.  We live in a globally-connected world, and a European Union in which citizens of 37 countries have the right to move and settle freely.  Ideas do not stop at national borders.  Melchior says, “When you close your borders, it becomes a sort of discrimination, against those from the so-called third world, from Africa and Asia.  It’s based on racism.”

Instead, argues Melchior, Danes must see that nationalism and difference are not mutually exclusive.  He likens feeling Danish to putting on an old pair of slippers:  “People love to put their feet into old slippers.  You know, the worn out kind.  That is to be at home, to be relaxed. It is natural to have a place where you feel at home.  But it doesn’t exclude the rest of the world.”  Anyone can feel that Denmark is their home, regardless of ethnic-background, religious observance, or hair color.    

Melchior acknowledges that there are conflicts in the society, and part of the problem is the culture of fear.  “My experience is that there is in the Danish population a fear, fear of the Muslims which is an old human reaction to the things that they don’t know.  You never know – what do they have in mind.  And the success of the DPP has been built on that fear, which is not rational, but it is a fact.  Against fear, I can argue. But they will say, “You are right, but nevertheless…”  

He also emphasizes that there are too few moderate Muslim voices being heard.  Melchior knows that it takes time for leadership to develop, even more than a generation.  And he sees Islam in the West going through a transformation of the kind Abdul Wahid speaks.  But as a longtime leader of a small yet important minority in Denmark, he emphasizes that religious leadership must make clear that “the law of the land is the law.”  And Muslims in Denmark, most of them immigrants from majority Muslim countries, have so far had some difficulty with that.  “They must learn how to live as a minority,” Melchior remarks.

Of course, the Danish people must also learn how to live with a minority in their midst.  One of the suggestions Melchior makes to encourage this mutual education is to bring religious communities together to work on a common social justice projects.  Such initiatives, similar to previous Christian-Jewish campaigns to protest “disappearances” in Argentina’s civil war, or support environmental justice, could allow Muslims, Christians, and Jews to meet each other on individual level.  And they could also present a different side of Islam from that usually seen in the media, proving that many of Islam’s values actually are very much in line with Danish ones.   

A few such projects have been attempted, and have met with mixed success.  And fear of the other is a hurdle which will be difficult to overcome.  But, in Melchior’s words, “You have to accept that if you tried and you failed, it’s not finished.  You have to try again.”  

It takes time - both for the Danish people to adjust and accept minorities, but also for Muslims to accept and embrace their status as minorities within the Danish society.  Denmark is not finished with this struggle.  As for the Danish People’s Party, the real question remains how much longer they will be able to dominate the dialogue.  Will the right-wing continue to accept their rhetoric as long as they need the political support?  Will the Social Democrats manage to shift the focus away from immigration and towards the global economic troubles which appear on the horizon?  Or will the tide of globalization and a growing EU simply wash over the DPP’s nationalist agenda?  Only time will tell.

In the meantime, Denmark is waiting for a person with true courage, a Hartvig Frisch-like leader who will show that humanitarian and democratic values can be a rallying cry around which to focus national pride and identity.  Then all Danes, regardless of ethnic origin or religious belief, can put their feet into old slippers and feel at home. 


Cohen, Roger. ”For ’New Danes,’ Differences Create a Divide.” The New York Times. December 18, 2000.

Frisch, Hartvig. Pest over Europa: Bolschevisme – Fascisme – Nazisme. Kobenhavn 1933.

Larsen, Rune Engelbrech.  ”Danish Hate Speech and Xenophobia”  Panhumanism.com. http://www.panhumanism.com/xenophobia/index.php.  

Lidegaard, Bo. Kampen om Danmark 1933-1945. Gyldendal 2005

Polakow-Suransky, Sasha. “Fortress Denmark?  After a fierce campaign battle on immigration, a social democratic stronghold takes a turn to the right.” The American Prospect (3 June 2002)

Rydgren, Jens. “Explaining the Emergence of Radical Right-Wing Populist Parties: The Case of Denmark”, West European Politics, 27:3 (2004), 474 — 502


Engelbrecht, Benny. MP, Social Democrats. Copenhagen, Denmark June 30, 2008

Holst, Rebecca Vedersø. President, Copenhagen section of Danish Peoples Party Youth League. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 29, 2008 

Jørgensen, Torben. Historian. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 30, 2008  

Langballe, Jesper. MP and Member of the European Parlament, Danish People’s Party. Copenhagen, Denmark, June 28, 2008

Lund, Joachim.  Historian.  Personal Email.  July 2, 2008.
Melchior, Bent. Former Cheif Rabbi of Denmark. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 30, 2008

Petersen, Abdul Wahid. Imam and Religious Leader. Copenhagen, Denmark. Juli 2, 2008


Kjaerskgaard, Clement.  ”Danish Politics – A tour of the landscape.” June 10, 2008.

Messerschmidt, Morten. MP, Danish People’s Party. June 11,
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