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Capital punishment in Denmark

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Capital punishment in Denmark

Capital punishment in Denmark (Danish: Dødsstraf - literally "Death punishment") was abolished in 1930 but restored from 1945 to 1950 in order to execute Nazi collaborators. Capital punishment for most instances of war crimes was legally ended in 1978 (and in all cases since 1 January 1994). The last execution was in June 1950.

Currently reinstitution of capital punishment is not supported by any political party in Parliament. According to an opinion poll from 2006, one fifth of Danes supported capital punishment for certain crimes. The number was unchanged since another poll in 1999.[1]

History to 1945

For the most part, Denmark followed the style of other European nations, with government-employed executioners, called skarpretter (headsman) in Denmark. The headsman had the status of a Royal government employee.

The last public execution was in Lolland of Anders "Sjællænder" Nielsen in 1882. The spectacle generated calls for the abolishment of the death penalty, particularly since the headsman, Jens Seistrup, had to swing his axe several times in order to complete the job.

The last execution prior to 1946 was on 8 November 1892 in the courtyard of the State Prison of Horsens. Jens Nielsen, sentenced to a long prison term for arson, allegedly wished to commit suicide by provoking his execution and accordingly made three attempts to murder a guard over the years, with his decapitation by Seistrup's axe following the third attempt.

The last headsman in office was Carl Peter Hermann Christensen who held the position from 27 August 1906 until 1 April 1926, but never performed any executions.

Starting during the first decennia of the 1800s, death penalties were increasingly commuted to life imprisonment by the Crown. After 1892, death sentences were handed down but not carried out. This also applied to the last death sentence prior to 1945 which was handed down in a civil court on 13 June 1928.

On 1 January 1933, Denmark abolished all capital punishment under the old penal code, when the new Danish Penal Code[2] automatically came into effect, entirely replacing the older code from 10 February 1866. Under military law, however, capital punishment still remained an option.

1945 - 1950

Remnants of the Christianshavn execution shed used from 1946 to 1950

Between 1945 and 1947 three special laws were enacted to bring capital punishment back into the penal code,[3] to address crimes committed during the occupation of Denmark. These were ex post facto laws and were part of the purges (Danish: Retsopgøret) attempting to meet public opinion demanding severe punishment for wartime offenders, in particular certain informants and those HIPO and Gestapo officers responsible for brutal murders or torture.

About 13,500 people were sentenced as collaborators, denouncers or traitors under these laws. About 400 were killed, mostly in extralegal reprisals,[4] with 76 formally sentenced to death and 46 of the capital sentences carried out. The 30 remaining were pardoned. The sentences were carried out by firing squads of 10 voluntary police officers, either in Christianshavn, Copenhagen (29). The latter execution area is today inside Christiania, on the Second Redan of the outer rampart, Enveloppen (in Christiania called Aircondition, Dyssen area) where a concrete floor and drain can still be seen at coordinates .[5][6][7] (See: Freetown Christiania#Barracks and ramparts)

The last person to be executed in Denmark was Ib Birkedal Hansen, shot by firing squad on 20 July 1950.[4]

Political background to the post-World War II purges

In 1943 the clandestine Danish Freedom Council first issued their thoughts about Denmark's return to democracy after the war. Among their demands was prosecution of war criminals and of those responsible for the violation of Denmark's legal system and independence. They endorsed retroactive legislation but were then opposed to the death penalty.[8]

Shortly before the German surrender, however, the Freedom Council worked with a clandestine committee of lawyers to elaborate a proposal for a war crimes act that including the death penalty. The Prime Minister appointed another committee, consisting of civil servants and judges. These two proposals were merged in a subsequent bill. A major point of difference was whether the law would be retroactive to only the 29 August 1943, when the Danish government resigned, or all the way back to 9 April 1940 when the occupation had begun. The resistance movement got its way and the latter was decided.

The first penal code appendix bill came before in Parliament from 26 to 30 May 1945, just three weeks after the liberation on 5 May. 127 members of the Landsting.

K.K. Steincke of the Social Democrats, himself a lawyer, expressed the general viewpoint in this way:[9]

If anyone in 1939 had claimed that in six years from then I would be endorsing a bill about the death penalty, even with retroactive force, I would not have regarded him as sane. But since then, barbary and lawlessness have occurred, the normal state of law has been violated deeply, and I feel then more tied to a deeply violated public conscience than to normal conditions. We must deal with these criminals, not of a lust for revenge, but so that we soon may return to normal conditions.

The purge after World War II has been widely debated, partially because small offences were sentenced quicker and generally more severely than trials for greater offences which lasted longer, while moods were cooling down after the end of the war. Another point of critique was the retroactivity of the law. Contrarily, proponents in the 1945 debate argued that if the death penalty was not re-applied, war criminals would be subject to mob justice or lynchings. According to a 1945 opinion poll, about 90 percent of the population were in favour of death penalty for certain war criminals.[10]

The background been documented in depth by historian Ditlev Tamm.[11]

After 1950

In 1952 the post-war penal code provisions were amended in order to avoid again amending the law on a retroactive basis should Denmark again come under foreign occupation. The amendments reserved capital punishment for crimes committed with particular malice during wartime (murder, treason and denunciation, limited to offenders over the age of 21).[12] This legal basis for civil executions was abolished in 1978[13] and capital punishment was abolished in military law at the same time. There were no capital sentences after 1950.[14][15] Capital punishment was still mentioned in the preamble of the law text, however, a new amendment confirming the removal of the death penalty from all Danish law was approved in Parliament on 22 December 1993, effective from 1 January 1994.[16]


  • Parliamentary question S 2023 to the Minister of Justice, 2 April 2001
  • Dorthe Andersen: Death Penalty in Denmark and Europe after World War II,
  1. ^ Hver femte vil straffe med døden, Danmarks Radio, 6 November 2006
  2. ^ Law #126 encacted on 15 April 1930
  3. ^ The acts #259 enacted on 1 June 1945, #395 enacted on 12 July 1946 and #423 enacted on 7 October 1947
  4. ^ a b Peter Øvig Knudsen, Birkedal. En torturbøddel og hans kvinder Gyldendal (2004)
  5. ^ Skydeskuret på Amager (The shooting shed on Amager), Information, 29 May 2007 (in Danish)
  6. ^ Picture of execution shed floor
  7. ^ Picture of original execution shed
  8. ^
  9. ^ Morten Christian Andersen: Dødsstraf i Danmark : Retsopgøret efter 2. Verdenskrig, 2006 (in Danish)
  10. ^
  11. ^ Ditlev Tamm: Retsopgøret efter besættelsen
  12. ^ Act #227 enacted 7 June 1952
  13. ^ By act #195 enacted on 3 May 1978
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ By act #1097 enacted 22 December 1993
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