1864 und die Folgen, Teil 8 | The Destiny Year in Danish History, Politics and Culture

A guest contribution by Jesper Vind.  Since 1864 and the Battle of Dybbøl, the tiny town in Southern Jutland has not only been regarded as a military battleground. The narrative of Dybbøl has been a battleground too. In history, politics and culture. From October 12th 2014 and the next seven Sundays the Danish Broadcasting Corporation will show the television drama „1864„, about the Danish-German conflict in 1864. The Television drama is the most expensive TV-series in Danish history. It has cost 25 million Euros, primarily paid through a state grant. It has already generated a lively debate among a number of historians and politicians, who have seen part of the series in advance. They accuse the series of „abuses of history“, and it seems to be the beginning of another hot debate about the Danish destiny year.

When you look back in time and see how the Battle of Dybbøl has been marked during the past 150 years, then one thing is crystal clear: It has been used for very different purposes. Initially, Dybbøl was seen as „Denmark’s Thermopylae“, or „Denmark’s Waterloo“. In 1889, the author Herman Bang published the novel „Tine„. It interpreted 1864 as a national trauma, which Bang called „the wound fever from Dybbøl“. In 1904, another famous author wrote about 1864. It was the famous Danish poet Johannes V. Jensen who characterized the Danes as „Sons of the beaten“.

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Skanse [Entrenchment] 3, Dybbøl, 1864 – colorized
Flickr, CC-BY-NC-SA Statens Arkiver

During the First World War, Denmark was neutral. In 1917 the poet Jeppe Aakjær described this in the following words, which became an often cited mantra: „You tiny Lilliput country, enjoying yourself in secret, while the whole world is burning around your cradle.“1 After North Schleswig had ‚come home‘ to Denmark in 1920, historians actually began to see it as positive that the German-speaking South Schleswig, Holstein and Lauenburg were lost, because we had got a Denmark with greater coherence.The point was that we had become a small, peaceful, culturally homogeneous nation-state. Historians in the 20th century saw 1864 as the basis for the successful Danish welfare state. They drew a line from 1864 to the Social Democratic term „Denmark for the people“, because it was only in 1864 that „Denmark actually found itself.“ We learned how to win internally what was lost externally. We became educated, and the farmers developed the uncultivated nature and increased exports.

To both intellectuals and politicians the lesson of 1864 was, that this small country should be self-sufficient and adapt to the major powers, especially Germany, and never again pursue an active foreign policy. The lesson was based on what the Social Liberal Party’s spiritual father, Viggo Hørup, articulated about Denmark’s defence: „What is the use of it?“ This more or less pacifist historian tradition was, however, challenged after the Cold War ended, when Denmark suddenly again became strongly engaged in military activities. It started with the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein in 1990–91, and it continued during the civil wars in Yugoslavia.

As a result of the activist Danish foreign policy the Danish Prime Minister from 2001, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, began to draw the year of 1864 into the debate, where he formulated a principled criticism of what he called „the small state mentality“. To Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Denmark’s current activist foreign policy was in direct contrast to 1864. He said in 2003, when Denmark joined the U.S. as an ally in the Iraq war:

„The fall of the Berlin Wall meant that Denmark was able to emerge from the shadow of 1864. For more than a century, small state and adaptation policies characterised Danish foreign policy vis-à-vis Germany and later the Soviet Union.“2

According to Rasmussen – who later became NATO’s Secretary General – there was a straight line from the showdown with the Dybbøl-syndrome, to Denmark’s participation in both the Iraq and the Afghanistan wars.     Against this background, the war in 1864 became a subject of interest in the public debate. Several Danish historians began to write books and articles about the war again.

In his two books – „Slaughter Bench Dybbøl“ and „Doomsday Als“ – historian Tom Buk-Swienty almost recreated the wars to life with his literary devices. The books have been published in over 100,000 copies. Buk-Swienty calls 1864 „Denmark’s Waterloo“ and the defeat  „Denmark’s Ground Zero – Stunde Null“. Buk-Swienty’s books also gave inspiration to artists.

For example the popular rock singer Lars Lilholt, who wrote a song about 1864, which he called „Denmark’s Killing Fields“.  Historians today generally believe, that 1864 can hardly be exaggerated. But in 2014 the young historian Rasmus Glenthøj published his book „Sons of the beaten“ in which he disputes the history writing, that has dominated the interpretation of 1864:

„The 1864-tradition with whipping ourselves has been running for 150 years. But you have to acknowledge that the Danish politicians in the 1860s were in a very desperate and almost hopeless situation. Of course political errors were also made by the Danish politicians, but the real story about ‚1864‘ is not about the hubris and nemesis,“ Glenthøj said in an interview.3

Glenthøj tries to see the defeat of 1864 in a longer and in a larger perspective: „The starting point for understanding 1864 is actually Denmark’s defeat in the Napoleon Wars in 1814, which resulted in the loss of Norway. It was in this year, that Denmark became a small state, and the small state mentality arose – and not in 1864, as it is always claimed.“4

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Picture from the re-enactment event „Kampen om Als“ on 28–29 June 2014
Flickr, CC-BY-NC Michael Caroe Andersen

In 2014, Danes have also marked the 150th year for the Battle of Dybbøl. 15.000 people gathered April 18th at the old battlefield, where the Danish monarch and the Danish prime minister gave speeches. Both chancellor Angela Merkel and president Joachim Gauck were invited too, but they didn’t have the time to come to the big anniversary. Queen Margrethe praised the later years of harmony, which is seen, when the German military is now participating in the traditional Dybbøl Day every year. In this way her Majesty connected to today’s official history policy in the border region, which is about making Dybbøl a symbol of Danish-German bonding. Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt proudly told the audience at Dybbøl, that her great-grandfather fought as a Danish soldier there in 1864, and she stated that the soldiers‘ will to defend themselves in 1864 was meaningful: „We are standing on the shoulders of the generations that were before us. And when we come together today to mark the 18th of April 1864, we do it with a deep belief that Denmark is worth fighting for. Then and now.“5

Another big event in 2014 will be the Danish Broadcasting Corporation’s drama series „1864“, which will be broadcasted over eight Sundays. The series is made ​​by filmmaker Ole Bornedal, and it seems like it will stir up more history- and identity-debate. According to a „summary of the screenplay“ the drama is generally „a tale of innocence and love – and of ignorance and political folly.“ About Danish hubris and German nemesis. The political folly will be represented by the leader of the government in 1864, D.G. Monrad, who is irresponsible, provocative and without respect for international treaties. He leads Denmark on a fateful war against our southern neighbours. The drama series will also take place in Denmark today, 150 years later, where a misfitted young woman has lost her brother in the war in Afghanistan, and her family has disintegrated. On the brink of collapse she finds a diary from the 1800s. In the diary she discovers the story about 1864 and „the thousands of young men who sacrificed their lives in an absurd war.“

The parallel between Denmark’s recent military involvement and the war in 1864 has already created a lot of debate in Denmark. Historian Rasmus Glenthøj perceives the film project very critically. He believes, that the presentation reflects a one-sided view of the events, because the politicians seem to be the villains, who led Denmark into the catastrophe, because of arrogance, nationalism and hubris. Glenthøj points out that „today’s politicians are being held responsible for their carelessness by beating them over the head with 1864“ and by seeing Anders Fogh as today’s Monrad. It is simplistic, he says: „The television series seems to want to force a black and white world view on a gray world.“6 Inspector at the Royal Arsenal Museum in Copenhagen, Jens Ole Christensen, calls the description of the course of history „untrustworthy“. He believes, that the series is an attempt by the filmmaker to say something about the contemporary Danish war effort:

You could get the impression that Bornedal wants to show that mad men, then and now, bring Denmark into war. The film seems in fact to be more about ‚the wound fever‘ of 2001 than of 1864, and about that Danish politicians, together with the USA, went to war in Iraq. Parts of the Danish cultural elite hate, and is still racked by, the war effort, and therefore 1864 is misused for contemporary debate.“7

It certainly looks like Denmark is going to have another round of an everlasting, exciting public debate, and that „1864“ is still just as much about the present as it is about history.


Jesper Vind is a historical journalist at Weekendavisen, a Danish cultural weekly published on Fridays with over 200.000 readers in Scandinavia. He writes extensively about historical research and value debates in Europe. He has been a political reporter in the Danish parliament, and a speechwriter and adviser for the Danish minister of cultural affairs. He has an MA in History and German Studies from University of Copenhagen and Universität Freiburg.


  1. [„Du Pusling-Land, som hygger dig i Smug//mens hele Verden brænder om din Vugge.“] Jeppe Aakjær: Historiens Sang. In: Samlede Værker, andet Bind. Digte 1908–1918. Kjøbenhavn/Kristiania 1918, p. 161. Project Gutenberg free EBook version (last access on 10 October 2014). []
  2. „Danish EU Policy after the Presidency“. Speech by Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen at The Institute for International Studies, 15 January 2003. Online on the web presence of the Danish Prime Minister’s Office (last access 10 October, 2014). []
  3. Interview with Rasmus Glenthøj: „Den skandinaviske svanesang“. [The Danish swan song]. In: Weekendavisen, 4 April 2014. []
  4. Interview with Rasmus Glenthøj: „Sårfeberen fra 1864“. [The wound fever of 1864]. In: Weekendavisen, 15 March 2014. []
  5. [„At vi står på skuldrene af de generationer, der var før os. Og når vi mødes i dag for at markere den 18. april 1864, så gør vi det med en ukuelig tro på, at Danmark er værd at kæmpe for. Dengang og nu.“] „Statsministerens tale ved 150-året for 1864 den 18. april 2014 i Dybbøl“. Online on the web presence of the Danish Prime Minister’s Office (last access 10 October, 2014). []
  6. Interview with Rasmus Glenthøj: „Sårfeberen fra 1864“. [The wound fever of 1864]. In: Weekendavisen, 15 March 2014. []
  7. [„Man kunne få det indtryk, at Bornedal ønsker at vise, at vanvittige mænd dengang som nu trækker Danmark ind i krige. Filmen synes i virkeligheden at handle mere om sårfeberen fra 2001 og ikke fra 1864, og om at danske politikere sammen med USA gik i krig i Irak. Dele af det danske kulturparnas hader og er stadig martret af den krigsindsats, og derfor skal 1864 misbruges til nutidig debat.“] Bent Blüdnikow/Kristian Lindberg: „Massiv historikerkritik af Bornedals storserie“. In: Berlingske Tidende (Online-Version) 8 October 2014, last access on 10 October 2014. []

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