A little known slice of post-Holocaust history — the use of captured German soldiers to clear mines from the Danish coast immediately after the end of World War II — has been brought to light by a new Danish-German film that dramatizes a story heretofore rarely discussed even by Danish academics.
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“Land of Mine” (“Under Sandet”) is a feature film that is based around the forced deployment by the Danish government of more than 2,000 German prisoners of war, many of them still teenagers, to clear some two million land mines laid by Germany along Denmark’s western coast during the Nazi occupation. According to the most recent research, nearly half of these POWs were killed or injured — in some cases, left with permanent, serious disabilities — during the operation.
The Danes did not resist the decision, which was made by the British military that controlled the area and violated the Geneva Convention prohibition against making prisoners of war do dangerous work.
The operation has been described by some as a “death march,” since the Germans were required to periodically march through the mine fields to make sure all the mines had been cleared. “Land of Mine,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, was released in Denmark on December 3.
“Land of Mine” has generated controversy for its portrayal of the young Germans crawling on their bellies and uncovering the mines with their bare hands. The debate has focused on whether the Germans were really young, innocent youths, or whether they were experienced soldiers who had participated in Nazi atrocities. There are those who believe that the Danes did not distinguish between older and younger soldiers, although some of the latter were teenagers who had been drafted into the German army in the final months of the war.
In the wake of the film’s release, the Danish newspaper Politiken ran a major piece revisiting those historical events. The paper reported that according to the official historiography, in the days after Denmark’s liberation there was a meeting between Maj. Holland Stanley of the British army, a number of Danish officers and the German commander in Denmark, Gen. Georg Lindemann, at which it was decided that German soldiers with experience in defusing mines would be in charge of clearing the mine fields. Lindemann agreed to order soldiers from the German engineering corps who were already on their way home to return to Denmark and help clear the mines.
The prisoners were brought by the British to a prison camp in Southern Jutland, and in a three-day course were taught how to neutralize mines. The work began in Jutland, and later was also carried out on the Danish island of Zealand.
The British insisted that the Germans clear the mines before they left Denmark because they had the required experienced personnel, because otherwise the Danes would have to spend years trying locate and clear the mines (in fact, the last mine was removed from Skallingen in 2012), and because many of the mines had been planted on farmland that was vital to rehabilitating the country after the war.
The Politiken article notes that many Danes justified the operation after the fact by making reference to the atmosphere in post-World War II Denmark, which had just emerged from German occupation and believed that since Germany had laid the mines, it should clear them. Although the operation was reported in the press at the time, no one questioned whether it violated international law. There was general agreement that the Germans had no rights and could not expect mercy so soon after the war’s end.
Some now view the operation as Denmark’s biggest war crime, the newspaper noted, while others argue that the German soldiers were not in fact prisoners of war. Knud Christiansen, who was part of the Danish team that supervised the mine-clearing, says that the German soldiers volunteered for the mission because they believed that it would help them return to Germany more quickly, and that they received incentives, such as better food and a small salary. In an interview with Politiken, Christiansen denied that Denmark forced the soldiers to clear the mines. He also claimed that the soldiers who took part in the operation were not teenagers, and had previously served on the eastern front.
In his 1998 Danish-language book “Under Tvang” (“under duress: mine clearance on the Jutland West Coast 1945,” the jurist and historian Helge Hagemann raised serious accusations against the Danish policy. He wrote that the German team was not properly trained for the mission and worked under time and emotional pressures. According to Hagemann, the Germans were treated “like dirt,” hundreds died or were left with permanent disabilities, making the claim that they volunteered for the mission an unlikely one.