“Some of my countrymen probably think Copenhagen is a boring town and a small town. To me, on the contrary … it is the most favorable habitat I could wish for. Big enough to be a major city, small enough that there is no market price on human beings.” Stages on Life’s Way, Søren Kierkegaard, 1845.
Today you’d be hard pressed to find anyone complaining that Copenhagen is a boring town; its modern reputation is, on the contrary, of a cosmopolitan, forward-thinking European metropolis. On top of this, Denmark is consistently ranked among the happiest countries in the world.
However, despite the march of progress, much of what the great philosopher Søren Kierkegaard saw in the mid 19th century still rings true today. The Scandinavian capital still feels very much like a large town, despite having grown to include over half a million people within its boundaries. As a consequence, you will find the people are exceedingly hospitable and place immense value on their personal relationships.
Copenhagen through the Ages:
“Copenhagen” - the name itself suggests a meeting place for the world: the Danes call it København, meaning “merchant’s harbor,” reflecting the international trade and commerce that has taken place in the city from its earliest days.
Copenhagen was founded in 1167 AD when the warrior-Bishop Absalon built the first castle on Slotsholmen (Castle Island), although archaeologists believe the site was inhabited before this, during the Viking Age proper (9th-11th centuries AD). Copenhagen’s early economy was based on herring fishing and trade, facilitated by its providential natural harbor, right at the junction of the North and Baltic Seas, where the Hanseatic League of trading towns was dominant. The League spent a couple centuries periodically obliterating the town of Copenhagen when it suited them. In the 15th century, the city became the capital of Denmark, replacing Roskilde, and fell henceforth under the authority of the monarchy instead of the bishopric. The University of Copenhagen was founded in 1479, marking the city’s increasing prosperity.
Denmark’s most popular king, Christian IV “the Builder” (r. 1588-1648), initiated a comprehensive upgrade of the city, which he wanted to transform into a fitting seat for an empire. He erected fortifications around the whole town, built the merchant’s town of Christianshavn on an artificial island and constructed many of the baroque buildings and castles throughout the city. In the 1700s, Copenhagen was devastated by plague and fire. This period saw the building of Christiansborg Palace (now the Folketing, the Danish parliament) and Frederikstaden along with Amalienborg Palace (the current royal residence). In 1801 Denmark suffered a major naval defeat right outside Copenhagen at the hands of British admiral Horatio Nelson, and was severely bombarded and invaded in 1807 in the course of a British preemptive strike. In 1864, Denmark lost the Second War of Schleswig to Prussia, which crippled the national self-esteem and began a pattern of isolationism that has lasted until the present.
What is known as the romantic period in Europe is known as The Danish Golden Age in Denmark and lasted from approximately 1800-1850. Strangely, this flowering of intellectual output coincided with a marked national decline and worsening material conditions in Copenhagen. During this time lived and worked great artists like the sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen and painter Christoffer Wilhelm Eckerberg, the great nationalist thinker N.F.S. Grundtvig, the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, and the author Hans Christian Andersen, best known for fairy tales like “The Little Mermaid.”
In 1852, residents were finally granted building rights for the areas beyond the old fortifications, which developed rapidly. Denmark did not participate in World War I but was invaded and occupied by the Nazis between 1940 and 1945, and Copenhagen became the seat of their puppet regime. Nearly all of the 8,000 Jews living in Copenhagen during this period were clandestinely shuttled across to safety in unoccupied Sweden. Like Germany and other Western European nations, Denmark experienced a labor shortage in the late 1960s and early 1970s and recruited swathes of Turkish, Pakistani, and Yugoslavian guest workers, many of whom ended up staying permanently. Since the mid 20th century, Copenhagen has seen unprecedented growth and further expansion into the suburbs, encouraged by the new metro system and the Øresund Bridge, which has formed a new multinational metropolis by connecting Copenhagen to Malmö in Sweden, its larger neighbor across the water.