Amid tough immigration laws, Denmark has contributed countless times to the fields of science, art, literature and design.
Smaller and less well-known than neighboring Norway and Sweden, Denmark is something of an enigma to the wider world. However, Danish contributions to science, engineering, exploration, seafaring, literature, philosophy, music, architecture and many other fields are substantial and enduring.
In this interview, James Blake Wiener, communications director at Ancient History Encyclopedia, speaks to Dr. Norman Berdichevsky, author of An Introduction to Danish Culture, which explores the remarkable history and sociocultural characteristics of this Scandinavian nation.
James Blake Wiener: In An Introduction to Danish Culture, you introduce readers to the greats of Danish history: Tycho Brahe, Hans Christian Andersen, Søren Kierkegaard, Niels Bohr and Karen Blixen. One is hard-pressed not to find a Danish contribution to the fields of science, art, literature and design. What initially attracted you to Danish culture?
Norman Berdichevsky: As a 16 year old, I saw two films that made a very strong impression on me. They were Dreyer’s Ordet (The Word), based on Pastor Kaj Munk’s play, and Martin Andersen Nexø’s novel, Ditte Menneskebarn (Ditte, Child of Man), which was based on the book by the great proletarian writer, Martin Andersen Nexø. They intrigued me. How did these writers — much like Hans Christian Andersen — use the tiny canvas of their small country and “minor language” to paint such a great universal work? How could it be that they were able to paint such great works, similar to the Bible in their universality?
My answer is that they, like the ancient Hebrew prophets working in a small language, reached a universal audience through the themes they dealt with: the relations between parents and children, poverty, love, envy, social climbing, snobbery, faith, patriotism, loyalty and grief. Proof of this can be seen in the museum in Odense to the works of Andersen, the most translated author in history (after the Bible).
Wiener: Dr. Berdichevsky, can one say with affirmation that there are “core Danish values”? If so, how did they emerge and what would differentiate them from those of Denmark’s Nordic neighbors (Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Finland)?
Berdichevsky: In contrast to the many similarities, all three are constitutional monarchies; all have a state-affiliated Lutheran Church; they have similarities in language (Danish and Norwegian are mutually intelligible and both Danes and Norwegians can read Swedish without major problems); and they hold a long history of political unions between all three kingdoms. Nevertheless, Denmark stands apart: first, due to its proximity to the continent and major European cultural influences from France, Germany and Great Britain. In terms of actual “values,” I would cite an inbred modesty, a reluctance to embrace grandiose ideas and schemes, practicality, getting by and making due, and a distaste for snobbery.
Denmark was once a major power until the 17th century when it ruled much of the North Atlantic, controlled the Baltic straits, Norway, southern Sweden, Greenland and Iceland, reaching to the Danish West Indies (Virgin Islands). However, school students prefer to cherish the modest part of their history — one that sings of the country’s diminished size, mild landscape and its mother tongue.
There are some Danes, just as among every people, who have prejudices against others because of their origin, religion, skin color, race, sex, language and political views. But Denmark has given its Muslim population the same safeguards and protection of other citizens.
Denmark’s last military conflict was its brave defense against a combined Prussian and Austrian invasion of the country in 1864 over the disputed Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. The experience of fighting alone against overwhelming odds, the resultant defeat, fatalities, enormous territorial loss and devastation caused by a war against two “super powers,” left behind a profound distrust in diplomacy based on alliances with other nations and the ability of the military to defend the country.
Hygge (roughly translated as “coziness”) is an arch-Danish concept that embraces the idyll of warm, snug, comfortable and stress-free — an antidote to the long, glum winter. It is often called the reason that Danes are the world’s happiest people (claimed by many polls) — if only that were so. However, these studies use statistics that are essentially based on economic and social well-being, which is not the same as happiness. The suicide rate in Denmark is approximately the same as in the United States.
Wiener: For many years, Denmark has had one of the highest levels of economic equality in the world. Why has this remained a political and social priority for the Danes?
Berdichevsky: We easily forget that all of Scandinavia was a peripheral and impoverished part of Europe for most of its history. In proportion to its population, migration in the middle of the 19th century was pronounced from all three countries to the US and Canada. Denmark has the smallest area and the fewest natural resources — even more in the modern industrial age, when Sweden and Norway could build on an industrial base of iron and oil. Danes were taught at an early age by their parents to be frugal. Naturally, this also inculcated a hostile attitude toward affectation and any conspicuous consumption by a wealthy elite. Many of the short stories of Hans Christian Andersen revolved around this theme.
Denmark’s most beloved church figure, N.F.S. Grundtvig, argued that Christianity was not a theory to be derived from the Bible and elaborated by scholars, who would quibbled over obscure translations from the original Hebrew and Greek. He questioned their right to elaborate on the Bible for daily life. He felt the Latin-based classical education of an aristocratic elite was out of touch with the common people, who would form the basis of a new democracy.
He believed in the value of a basic education for all adults, an idea which set in motion the popular folk-school tradition. He supported the democratic ideal of a popularly elected assembly, schools and a constitution. He opposed all compulsion as deadening to the human spirit and proved to be one of the most influential persons in Danish history, as his philosophy led to a new form of nationalism combined with the promotion of wisdom, active citizenship, compassion and greater equality.
Wiener: What are the negative consequences of Danish egalitarianism, if any, in your opinion?
Berdichevsky: A considerable number of Americans, who were attracted by what they perceived from afar as the Danish welfare state, came to settle in Denmark over the past 50 years — I was one of them. The great majority were looking for an “antidote” to the extreme materialism, rat-race mentality of competition, and ever-present danger of violent crime in the US. After some years, many either returned to the US or realized that the advantages of living in Denmark with its high degree of social solidarity came at the price of a stifling conformity.
In January 1981, the Danish left-wing weekly, Politiken, ran a series of articles on “Americans in Denmark: Who Are They? And Why Have They Come?” Those who found permanent jobs and even mastered Danish were critical of the lack of initiative, and all cited examples of being warned by Danish colleagues not to excel.
Individualism and diligence are not tolerated. I can verify this on a personal level. My son is a physiotherapist and his wife is a chiropractor. They successfully run their own clinic, which is forced to charge fees about a third more than older cooperative firms that receive a government subsidy, thereby enabling them to charge lower prices. My son worked for one of these firms but was told he could not use qualifications — earned through special training courses — that are symbolized by various initials after his name because “this would reflect badly on his colleagues.”
Wiener: While many still believe that Denmark is a veritable model of tolerance, liberalism and good-living, in recent years, Denmark has faced its fair share of criticism: the Prophet Muhammad cartoons controversy and Denmark’s tough new rules on immigration immediately come to mind. Has Denmark become a victim of its own self-image?
Berdichevsky: There are some Danes, just as among every people, who have prejudices against others because of their origin, religion, skin color, race, sex, language and political views. But Denmark has given its Muslim population the same safeguards and protection of other citizens, including immigrants from other parts of the world who have chosen to try and integrate, and accept the values of Danish society.
It has supported Muslim institutions and schools, and instituted costly programs designed to ease their integration into Danish society by making allowances for Muslim customs such as dietary restrictions. A Palestinian-born Muslim, Naser Khader, was elected to the Folketing (Danish parliament) from the moderate-centrist party that supported Danish policy in Iraq. But, like other Danes, he was shocked and outraged by the provocation of several Muslim religious leaders (who have control of the state-supported Islamic Religious Council), who purposely defamed the country and spread false stories about the cartoons.
Denmark cannot tolerate, and rightly so, the mistreatment of women or segregated facilities — for example, Muslim groups demanding that physical education classes in public schools, which include swimming pools, be segregated by gender. This is fundamental to Danes of all political persuasions. The “tough” new rules are meant to prevent abuse and fraud.
Having emerged from the First World War as a beneficiary of territory that had been under German rule, the Danish government bent over backward to placate German nationalism and the demand for revenge by giving the German minority every cultural right to organize and cultivate their language and traditions — just as it has done with immigrant Muslims today. Denmark can still be justifiably proud of its record in dealing fairly with minorities who wish to assimilate.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.