Bornholm: Denmark's Easternmost Baltic Reach

By Berdichevsky, Norman | The World and I, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Bornholm: Denmark's Easternmost Baltic Reach


Berdichevsky, Norman, The World and I


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. …

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