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Bornholm: Denmark's easternmost Baltic reach.

Bornholm, the "Pearl of the Baltic", lies about 100 miles from Copenhagen but only about 25 miles southeast of southern Sweden. So, anyone glancing at the map without much knowledge of Scandinavian history would be likely to ask "Why is this island Danish rather than Swedish? The answer also explains why the Danish capital is at the extreme eastern end of the Danish realm, a seemingly strange, peripheral place for administering the rest of the country.

In the past, Bornholm's outlying location from Denmark proper proved problematical. Bomholmers have always resented what they consider to be the view of most Danes that their island was of little value and too remote. While Denmark was spared any major fighting or bombing during World War II, Bornholm was chosen for target practice by German V-1 rocket scientists. Multiple rocket launches were sent from Peenemunde on the German Baltic coast 200 miles away.

Thanks to the alertness of the Danish police, news of the test was smuggled out to the Allies.

The islanders' very different experience of the war was most apparent on May 5th, 1945, a date that all other Danes regard as their liberation day, after five years of German occupation. There were noisy celebrations and jubilation everywhere in the country and no attention was paid to the fate of Bornholm, where German troops refused to surrender the island to the Russians. The result was three additional days of intense bombing by the Soviet air force and an occupation by Russian troops that lasted until April 1946.

Bornholm is distinctive in many of its customs, traditions, regional dialect, architecture, climate, geology and landscape, all of which differ from the rest of the country. It is warmer, less rainy and still heavily forested. Its underlying granite has also resulted in more angular surface features than the rounded hills and gently rolling terrain of much of the rest of Denmark.

Farmsteads are more dispersed in Bornholm and not grouped together in small villages. The distribution of churches also follows this pattern. In the rest of Denmark they are found in the centers of towns and villages rather than spread out across the countryside.

Bornholm's Fishing Wealth

In Denmark proper, farming and fishing were two distinct occupations, but the great fishing wealth in the waters around Bornholm resulted in a seasonal shift by farmers to become full-time fishermen during the Fall, between mid-August and early October. Salmon, cod and herring are sources of nutritional wealth and even today, the island provides almost the entire supply of fish for MacDonalds restaurants in Europe. For those who love traditional smoked fish, Bornholm is a paradise and all the work of salting, skinning and smoking is still done by hand.

Archaeologists have uncovered a wealth of treasures-buried coins of Russian and Arab origin that reveal a profitable trade in which Bornholm played a major role as the mid-point between the oldest Viking center in Hedeby, in south Jutland, and the great Russian rivers, as well as between Germany and Sweden. The clerical scholar, Adam of Bremen, referred to Bornholm as the "great harbor of Denmark." More evidence of the island's prosperity has been found in the rune stones, with their chiseled inscriptions. The Bornholm rune stones refer only to Christian saints, indicating that Christianity came to the island only after the disappearance of old pagan beliefs. Several of them indicate that

Bornholm and the Swedish province of Skane became part of the Danish kingdom in the late 10th century, after Harold Blatand (Bluetooth) had "won all of Denmark."

The herring population of the Baltic virtually exploded in the 14th and 15th centuries and brought with it great prosperity. It also attracted many foreigners, especially Germans from the Hanseatic city states. The Church also took advantage of this increased wealth from fishing to build chapels in favored coves and bays from where the boats were launched.

The golden age of fishing brought with it the threat of piracy long after it disappeared elsewhere in northern Europe. Local authority was insufficient to stop organized attacks, blackmail, arson and plunder carried out by pirates in cahoots with merchants from Lubeck and other Hanseatic cities. The pirates burned and looted Bornholm's major cities of Nekso and Aakirkeby. Not until 1512 was the king in Copenhagen sufficiently motivated to defend the island to send a fleet to ward off further attacks. The Swedes, ever ready to lend a hand to weaken Danish authority, aided the pirates.

The Danish-Swedish Rivalry and its Outcome for Bornholm

Until the peace of Roskilde in 1658, southern Sweden (Skane), containing the major cities of Malmo and Lund, had been the easternmost part of the Danish kingdom for centuries. Denmark once exercised total control of the exit and entry to the Baltic Sea. All shipping had to pass through Oresund (the narrow strait separating Sweden and Denmark) and pay tolls to the Danes. For a brief period, Denmark was a major naval power and even ruled Estonia on the eastern shore of the Baltic.

Sweden and Denmark fought several wars for control of the Baltic and the status of Skane. A Swedish victory in 1645 resulted in a major change of the map.

Denmark ceded to Sweden the islands of Gotland and Osel, Bornholm, two large Norwegian border provinces and Halland--a large part of what is today Southern Sweden. The occupying Swedish force however, was driven off the island by Bornholmers who refused to accept the Treaty. Further Danish attempts to win back these lost possessions resulted in an even greater loss in 1658. In this disastrous 1658 war, the Oresund froze over, allowing Swedish forces to attack Denmark on foot. This allowed the Swedes to outmaneuver the Danish fleet causing panic in Copenhagen.

Faced with the threat of total defeat by Sweden, Danish King Frederick III, willingly signed a treaty relinquishing all Danish territories east of Oresund, including Bornholm

Although the island was still protected and accessible only by sea. Rather than continue the war as the ice began to melt, the Swedes willingly withdrew from their siege of Copenhagen in return for a guarantee of permanent control over Skane.

After some strenuous negotiations the Danes accepted a humiliating peace (Treaty of Roskilde, 1658) that permanently ceded all of Skane including Bornholm to Sweden. Nevertheless, a revolt and the assassination of a Swedish governor made the Swedes reconsider that it was not worth the effort. They saw an opportunity to throw a bone to the Danes to assuage their pride. The Bornholmers petitioned Danish King Frederick III to accept them back into the Danish Kingdom on condition that the island would never be ceded again! (Treaty of Copenhagen 1660)

In the ensuing three centuries, Skane was gradually "Swedified." From 1676 to 1679, a bitter guerrilla uprising attempted to oust the Swedes from the newly conquered region but was unsuccessful. The Danish minded inhabitants of Skane could not repeat the successful resistance of the Bornholmers. For two centuries, Danish nationalists continued to dream of recovering "Eastern Denmark", but by the mid-19th century Sweden had clearly achieved military superiority and suppressed any lingering resistance in Skane. As late as 1854, a Swedish law prohibited the import of Danish books that might recall Skane's Danish past.

The World War II Experience and Bornholm's Most Famous Son

Bornholmers consider themselves fortunate in having escaped the Iron Curtain. The island actually lies east of the Polish port city of Stettin, one of the boundaries of Eastern Europe (Trieste in Italy was the other), cited by Winston Churchill in his famous Iron Curtain speech in 1946. When Soviet troops ultimately were withdrawn from Bornholm, many of them returned home with tales of capitalist Denmark as an affluent paradise. The Bornholmers' experience with Russian communism is all the more ironic because its greatest literary figure, Martin Andersen Nexo, perhaps second only to Hans Christian Andersen in fame and the number of books sold, devoted his career to the struggle on behalf of the working class and was hailed by the Soviet Union as a great author of international stature.

Although born in Copenhagen, Nexo moved to Bornholm as a young child and worked as a shepherd and shoemaker's apprentice under the most appalling conditions. He became a teacher and then writer. He was an ardent admirer of the USSR even after a visit there in 1923. His works reflect the struggle of the Danish working class to achieve dignity and some have been made into powerful films such as Pelle the Conqueror and Ditte the Daughter of Man. In 1949, upon Denmark's admission to NATO, Nexo left Denmark to settle in East Germany until his death in 1954.

Tourist Paradise Today

The island's 228 square miles of heaths, fertile fields, forests and lakes are contained within a 68-mile coastline of dramatically steep cliffs and white, sandy beaches. Also known as the Sunshine Island and the Wild Cherry Island, Bornholm offers vacationers hiking and biking trails and three golf courses as well as museums, quaint old churches and galleries.

The island can be reached by two ferries (two-and-a-half hour trip) and a catamaran (80 minute voyage) from Copenhagen. The completion of the Oresund bridge linking southern Sweden with Copenhagen and faster ferry connections have renewed Denmark's ties to Skane.

Denmark has also granted generous subsidies to lighten the burden of travelers to Bornholm's outlying location. Danes planning to live or work in Bornholm are no longer burdened by excessive transportation costs. Tourists too can now enjoy easier access to what was once Denmark's "remote" "Far-Eastern" island.

Norman Berdichevsky is a native New Yorker who lives in Ocala, Florida. He holds a PhD in Human Geography from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1974) and is the author of The Danish- German Border Dispute (Academica Press, 2002), Nations, Language and Citizenship (McFarland & Co., Inc., 2004) and Spanish Vignettes: An Offbeat Look into Spain's Culture, Society & History (Santana Books, Malaga, Spain. 2004). He is the author of more than 175 articles and book reviews that have appeared in a variety of American, British, Danish, Israeli and Spanish periodicals. Dr. Berdichevsky teaches Literature, English, Geography, History and Creative Writing at the Central Florida Community College in Ocala, and he writes a regular monthly column for the online publication New English Review.
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Title Annotation:CULTURE
Author:Berdichevsky, Norman
Publication:World and I
Article Type:City overview
Geographic Code:4EUDE
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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