1864 und die Folgen, Teil 7 | Scandinavianism and the war of 1864

A guest contribution by Lars Edgren. The Second Schleswig War in 1864 has often been interpreted as the end of the Scandinavian movement. The failure of the Swedish government to support Denmark (see the text by Maik Ohnezeit on this blog) was the end of plans to unite Sweden, Denmark, and Norway (perhaps also Finland) in a political union with one monarch in common.


Symbolic depiction of Scandinavianism, unkown artist
Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Scandinavianism was a nationalist movement of the 19th century which became a lost cause. Today the idea of uniting the Scandinavian countries as one seems to be a strange one. But we are locked in perceiving realities based on the actual outcome of history. At the mid nineteenth century a united Norden was not a stranger idea than a united Italy or Germany. Scandinavianism was based on the idea that the Scandinavian countries shared a language, a culture, and a history. This of course required some hard work of suppression of parts of this “shared history” which was actually more formed by conflict than co-operation. But such constructive and suppressing work was also required in Italian and German nationalism. A united Scandinavia union cannot be said to be an unlikely outcome of history. The languages are certainly very similar, they shared a Protestant religious culture, and while wars had been common, their history was linked in many ways, including a union in the 15th century.

Scandinavianism as a politically relevant movement started among students at the Scandinavian universities in the 1840s and spread to the educated elite through newspapers. Norway and Sweden was already joined in a political union, sharing the same monarch. While the two countries had different constitutions, they had a common foreign policy. The idea was to add Denmark to this union under the same king. The king of Denmark from 1848, Frederick VII, had no heir, and it was commonly acknowledged that he could not have any children. The hope was therefore to make the union king the heir of the Danish crown.

In Sweden, Scandinavianism had many appeals to the political opposition. Both Denmark and Norway had more democratic constitutions than Sweden. A Nordic union could thus be a way to push for political reforms in Sweden. Swedish foreign policy was very much dominated by the relation to Russia. Official policy had for a long time been wary of doing anything to offend Russia. To the opposition Russia was not only seen as an actual geo-political threat but also as a symbol of an autocratic political system. They wanted a foreign policy in opposition to Russia, perhaps even with the hope of regaining Finland, which had been lost in 1809. A union of the three countries would improve the military and political leverage of Sweden in the Baltic.


The Danish king Frederick VII (ruler 1848–1863)
Painting by I. Vilhelm Gertner (1861)
Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

In Denmark, the national liberals, who wanted to create a constitutionally unified Denmark by incorporating Schleswig and leaving Holstein outside the state, needed Swedish support against the German Confederation, which would clearly not accept such a policy. Scandinavianism as a political project reached its peak in the late 1850s, when the dynastic ambitions of the Swedish king, the interest of the reforming opposition in Sweden, and the policies of the Danish national liberals all conspired to favour a political union. But such a union would never come to be. Why? One reason was to be found within the Swedish-Norwegian union. In the late 1850s a constitutional conflict developed between Sweden and Norway concerning the right of the king to appoint a governor or viceroy in Norway to fulfil his functions in his absence. In Norway this office was seen as a mark of Norwegian subordination to Sweden. When the Norwegian parliament abolished this office in 1859 without consulting Sweden, this caused uproar in Sweden.

The reaction in Sweden forced the King, Charles XV, to refuse to sign the Norwegian bill as he had previously promised. The result was an increasing enmity in Norway against the union, but also a strengthening of Swedish nationalism in Sweden, that is a nationalism that focused on the Swedish state rather than a wider Scandinavian identity.


King Charles XV of Sweden and Norway (ruler 1859–1872)
Colourised photograph by Mathias Hansen (1823–1905)
Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

The other cause of decline was the developing conflict between Denmark and the German Confederation (especially Prussia). While both Denmark and Sweden saw geo-political advantages in a union between the countries, they had different focuses, as mentioned. To Sweden, the conflict over Schleswig was of minor importance, and hardly worth risking a war over. Promises of support had been given, especially by Charles XV, but finally the Swedish government decided to withdraw support and forced the king to follow that policy. This not only marked a decisive shift in influence over Swedish foreign policy away from the kings, but from the view-point of Scandinavianism, the ambitions to create a political union with a common king was from now on a lost cause.

However, this was not the end of attempts at a closer co-operation between the Scandinavian countries, based on the ideas of a shared culture that was promoted by Scandinavianism. This was never only a political project. It was also a movement stressing a common cultural heritage which could form the basis of economic, intellectual, and cultural co-operation. As a dynastic project, Scandinavianism was certainly at an end in 1864. No further attempts to claim a common nationality were made. But as an idea stressing the similarities and common interests between the Nordic countries, Scandinavianism was not dead. Even if the word was less often used, co-operation between the countries continued. In all fields of activity (science, professional organizations, industry, workers, etc.) Scandinavian conferences continued to be important. It is suggestive that the Swedish national museum in Stockholm is actually called the Nordic museum, and initially had the intention of preserving a shared Scandinavian heritage. But co-operation has also been explicitly political. A monetary union was created in 1873 and lasted for almost fifty years. After the Second World War attempts at closer political co-operation has persisted. In 1948 and 1949 a military defensive alliance was discussed, a political co-operation within the Nordic Council has existed since 1952, and a close economic co-operation was discussed in the late 1960s. These were all attempts that fitted well within a Scandinavianist ideology, even if this word was not used. However, both military and economic co-operation failed in the long run. I would suggest that a more proper date than 1864 for the death of Scandinavianism would be 1973, when Denmark chose membership of the European Economic Community (EEC) rather than closer co-operation with her Nordic neighbours. Today it appears that the Nordic idea to a greater extent is subsumed under the European alignment or perhaps even under a greater concern for globalization.

Dr. Lars Edgren is Professor of history at the University of Lund, Sweden, and currently also leader of the historical department at his home university. His research focuses mostly on societal change during the 18th and 19th century and how this reflects in urban environments. Examples for this research are his analyses of artisans’ changing role in this period, but also the development of radical movements and the early labour movement’s history. Current projects include an investigation into Swedish republicanism in the 19th century as well as social hierarchies and symbolic order in Malmö during the 18th century.

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
NordicHistoryBlog (2014, 18. Juli). 1864 und die Folgen, Teil 7 | Scandinavianism and the war of 1864. . Abgerufen am 27. Mai 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/se1y

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