1864 und die Folgen, Teil 4 | 1864 between nation and region: The need for a new history

A guest contribution by Steen Bo Frandsen. Anniversaries always present a reason to look back and reflect about the past. In earlier times specific dates were chosen for celebrations, mourning or commemorations. Nowadays we experience a bombardment of events stretching over the whole year. The outbreak of the Great War was “celebrated” almost before 2014 began. Nobody could wait until August, and we are already now almost drowned in books and articles commemorating the war. Historians, journalists, directors of museums, film producers and travel agents all want to make money out of this unique occasion. Apart from the scale it is hardly different if we look at 1864 in Denmark. Attention is no longer focused exclusively on April 18th, the date of the decisive battle in Dybbøl. Conferences, exhibitions, re-enactments and other events run non-stop through the whole calendar of 2014. Even a TV series about that fatal year is threatening next autumn. It has been claimed that Danes are the only people to celebrate their own defeats. This is hardly true, but they have even learned to make a business and marketing out of their failures too.

To historians anniversaries are not least about funding. A jubilee itself offers an indisputable argument for “relevance”. What Marxists introduced in the 1970s when they argued that academic work had to be relevant, has now become the deadly weapon of their old enemies. So far anniversaries are the winners when it comes to funding historical research and events. Anything else would be stupid, because a whole industry is now commercialising anniversaries. And so it is in fact not that much about history, but certainly about money.

Why should 1864 be particularly relevant today? What are we supposed to celebrate? What should we remember? The importance of this outstanding year in Danish history is beyond any doubt, and 2014 is not going to change that. But it remains unclear what exactly we should commemorate. A bloody catastrophe and a national debacle? The final breakup of the Gesamtstaat and the birth of the nation-state? That we finally got rid of the Germans? Should we repeat the national myths? Or should we once more condemn the incompetent politicians with their dozens of false decisions?

It used to be much easier. 1864 was closely related to the national ideology, and the defeat was a decisive factor in the success of the nation building. One cannot separate the memory of 1864 from the hatred towards the Prussians as a part of national identity. The overwhelmingly strong neighbour made it easier to explain and forget one’s own mistakes. It made it possible to create the myth of being an innocent victim of an evil empire. Hatred became a constructive element in transforming loss and defeat into something positive to Danish identity. Only for a short time after 1864 the Danes were in fact a nation of losers. The defeat provoked a strong leap forward in the society, and it spread a much more realistic idea about the country’s own resources than was the case in most other nationalisms. 1864 showed the limits of territorial nationalism.

To modern Danish nationalism 2014 looks promising, but the reason is not as much 1864 as the European Elections that once more will boost red-and-white sentiments. Already their predecessors of the 19th century fought against “the European necessity” of the Gesamtstaat. Most politicians have grown tired of nationalist rhetoric however, but they have never been able to exorcize this element from society. The war and the strained relations to the Southern neighbour has been a part of this ever since 1864.

In 1964 thousands of people gathered at Dybbøl to commemorate the war of 1864. They met on the former battlefield around the mill that is one of the most famous national symbols. At this national event on holy ground the social democratic prime minister and ardent pro-European Jens Otto Krag held a speech and urged the Danes to move forward and engage themselves in Europe. He had hardly finished before King Frederik IX – a king that usually did not participate in political discussions – spontaneously held a speech himself in which he stressed the emotional, backward-orientated national memory. The prime minister did not succeed in historicizing the past. On the contrary Dybbøl and the mill remained prominent symbols to the nationalist movement in the long battle against the Common Market and the European Union in the following decades. Nationalists also succeeded in keeping German representatives away from the annual commemorations at Dybbøl until the beginning of the new millennium.

In this way the 18th April at Dybbøl remained a last retreat for a nationalism in the old germanophobic version. Perhaps this was a necessary obligingness towards a sentiment that dominated the development of the countries for a long time. The nationalists never found the right time to show magnanimity and transform the sentiments of the past into something new and constructive. This seem almost absurd compared to the impressive moments of reconciliation at Verdun or other places of much greater loss and horror than Dybbøl. But it also seems strange and inappropriate after 60 years of military alliance and a close relationship between the neighbours.

Even if it can be argued that the success of Tom Buk-Swientys book Slagtebænk Dybbøl (2008) has a lot to do with the return of war to Danish society after Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, it is fascinating and strange at the same time how this long gone war of 1864 still captures the interest and imagination of the Danes. It is important though that Buk-Swienty did not repeat the old national narrative. He did not celebrate the Danish war but stresses the hardship of the soldiers and the problems behind the lines. The national way of describing a war without taking notice of the feelings and ideas of the other side is effectively opposed by quoting enemy voices that clearly demonstrate that the war was a terrifying experience to them too. A critical distance to the tradition can be seen in other publications from later years too. It reflects a certain “post-national” atmosphere, but it also can be seen as a confirmation of the total victory of the nation-state. There is no longer the same old need for drama and emotion. The nation-state and the national community can even do without the old enemy and is developing strategies for peaceful cross border cooperation.

In 2014 the politicians once again want to change the meaning of 1864. Well aware that the 150th anniversary could not be ignored the politicians have made it clear that they do not want the old history to dominate. Instead the anniversary should be an occasion to look forward. The leader of the Region of Southern Denmark, Carl Holst, explicitly stated his wish to push forward a region of growth across the border. It is quite difficult to see 1864 interpreted in a constructive way, but the year might of course be used to reinterpret history and change the focus from war and conflict to the many positive elements that can be found in the region’s past. Over the last decades the Danish-German border region has changed, but even though a much more relaxed and cooperative relationship has developed, the region is still marked by the conflict that reduced it to a sort of double periphery. The national movements that caused the conflict also celebrated the establishment of a clear border (although both sides wanted the border in a different place) as a victory in their national narratives. In the contemporary world it becomes still more evident however that a much closer cooperation is a necessity if this region shall prosper in the future.

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The storming of the Danish fortifications at Dybbøl, historical postcard
Flickr, CC-BY Statens Arkiver – Danish State Archives

The question is if – instead of trying to reinterpret 1864 – one should not search for a different history for the border region. An obvious possibility would be to reconquer the history of the region from the national interpretation of a never-ending conflict between incompatible neighbours. This way of seeing the history of Schleswig was constructed by national historians on both sides during the conflicts of the 19th century. This picture did not develop in the region. It was brought into the region from the outside, from the centres of nationalism in Copenhagen and Kiel. This narrative fuelled the conflict in Schleswig, and later it facilitated the integration of the two halves of the region into their respective nation states. Today the region has returned to a situation that has similarities with the times before the nation-state. At least we are far away from the border regime and the climate of aversion and antagonism of the old nation state. Could it be that the history of the border, the national conflict and 1864 might turn out to be a parenthesis in history?

The history of this region cannot be reduced to a history of conflict. The region was connecting and not the far end of the respective nation states. It was a passage and a transition. These concepts are much better descriptions of a region without a clear and homogeneous character. It was almost impossible to draw a border in this area. Languages, interests, identities and orientations were interwoven. The region showed why Danish and German seemed to be a continuity and not a dramatic break to many foreign observers. Schleswig was even in Denmark known as “Danish Holstein” to stress this complexity.

The 19th century ironically was an epoch of a new type of borders and at the same time one of movement and fast growing contacts to the outer world. It was no coincidence that the national discussions ran parallel to emotional debates about infrastructure. Roads, railroads, and steamship lines were eagerly discussed. Progressive liberals saw new possibilities and a hitherto unknown wealth in the future. They were fascinated by the possibilities to save time and to gain new information. Nationalists and conservatives did not always agree. They were more concerned with the threats against local habits and national identities. Effective lines of communication to the outside world were not an automatic gain. They wanted to control the flow of people and goods. It was important to decide where the Danes should send their dairy and cattle. A great example was the plan to build a railroad from Flensburg to Husum on the West coast of Schleswig. The intension was to open a new connection with Great Britain. The trains should not go any further to the South. The railroad should not be connected with the German railroads. It would only tempt the Danes to deal with their southern neighbours.

Even today infrastructure and the connections across the border on the peninsula are important issues in the public debate. In fact the infrastructure and the need to communicate effectively is probably the best choice if one wanted to propose a historic continuity fundamentally different from the narrative of conflict. Modern suggestions and plans for connections along the peninsula have much in common with past proposals, and even the arguments are quite similar to those of the middle of the 19th century. The problems and the obstacles are often similar too.

If the politicians on both sides of the border really want a change of narrative and a change of perspective in this area they cannot ignore the other dimension of the Schleswigian wars: the regional one. It is necessary to discuss the role of the region with respect to the nation-states and the balance between the economic centres outside the region. In the 19th century the conflict was also a battle between Copenhagen and Hamburg. Schleswig – the modern border region – lost that fight and therefore ended up being a divided periphery. A different development in this region can only be achieved with a much higher degree of cooperation and much less border.


Steen Bo Frandsen is a historian and Professor at the Department of Border Region Studies, University of Southern Denmark in Sønderborg. He has contributed extensively to the history of Danish-German relations and the history of the border region. Be it Schleswig as a lieu de mémoire or the discovery of Jutland in the 19th century, Frandsen is one of the most productive – and provocative – scholars on this field.


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