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The Long Shadow of a Defeat

The Carlsberg Foundation’s Distinguished Associate Professor Fellowships | 08/04/2019

Niels Simonsen. The Retreat from Danevirke, 1864. Frederiksborg. Museum of National History

Victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan. This is certainly true of the Second Schleswig War. All political parties in Denmark washed their hands and blamed their political opponent or foreign powers. The aim of this project is to explore the political narratives that they created and how they have affected Danish politics, historiography, art, and national identity in the last 150 years.

By PhD Rasmus Glenthøj, Associate Professor at the Institute of History, University of Southern Denmark. Recipient of the Carlsberg Foundation’s Distinguished Associate Professor Fellowships.

With Denmark’s defeat to Prussia and Austria in the Second Schleswig War in 1864, the Danish state lost the two German duchies of Holstein and Lauenburg and the ethnically mixed Danish duchy of Schleswig. A loss of a third of its territory and forty per cent of the state’s population.

Even though the importance of the defeat in the Second Schleswig War to Danish history, identity, and politics is generally recognised, there are few studies of its impacts. The aim of this project is to create a new and more thorough understanding of the effects of this defeat on national identity and its role within the last 150 years ideological and cultural battles within Denmark. The participants of the project will strive to attain this goal with the support of several external collaborators and an interdisciplinary reference group.

“The aim of this project is to create a new and more thorough understanding of the effects of this defeat on national identity and its role within the last 150 years ideological and cultural battles within Denmark”

The importance of 1864

The status of the war within Danish history is reflected in the fact, that it is normally referred to simply as ‘1864’, the year the war was fought. The defeat marked the end of the Danish-German composite state, the formation of the Danish nation-state, and the creation of modern-day Denmark. It is seen as a national trauma that gave birth to an existential angst and it has been claimed that the defeat is central to any grasp of Danish identity, culture, history, and politics.

Kluge’s painting from 2014 reflects the artist perception that Danish national identity as marked by an inferiority complex and an ambiguous relationship to Germany and the European Union, which according to the painter can be traced back to ‘1864’. Thomas Kluge: Dybbøl 1864, 2014. Museum Sønderjylland, Sønderborg Castle.

Is new research really needed?

The current state of research only offers us interesting hypothesises, partial accounts, and limited case studies of the impacts of the war. In contrast to this vacuum, the war itself is amongst the most well-researched topics within Danish historiography. Hence, there is a paradoxical contradiction between the importance that the effects of the Second Schleswig War are generally ascribed and the limited knowledge we have of the war’s real impact on Danish history, politics, and culture. Therefore, there is a need for an extensive research project to examine, clarify, and challenge the commonly held perceptions attached to ‘1864’.

“there is a paradoxical contradiction between the importance that the effects of the Second Schleswig War are generally ascribed and the limited knowledge we have of the war’s real impact on Danish history, politics, and culture”

Participants and collaboration

The project consists of Rasmus Glenthøj, Jens Wendel-Hansen, Mie Ingemann Fredenslund. Fredenslund will examine ‘1864’ within Danish historiography, Wendel-Hansen will investigate ‘1864’ and the politics of history, while Glenthøj will study ‘1864’ in a comparative perspective to avoid methodological nationalism. The project has an interdisciplinary reference group and collaborates with several other research projects, research centres, research networks, museums and scholars. These collaborations create a platform for the project and secures its strong foundation within studies of history, art history, and literary history.

This cartoon was printed in 2013 in connection to the withdrawal of the Danish troops from Afghanistan. It paraphrased Niels Simonsen’s iconic painting of the retreat from Danevirke in 1864 (see above), replacing the canon with a tank and the soldiers with present-day politicians. The underlying idea being that history – and Danish foreign policy – repeats itself. The first time as a tragedy, the second time as a farce. Roald Als: Tilbagetrækningen af danske styrker fra Afghanistan. Politiken, 21. juli 2013.

Research approach

In the project, politics, history, and art are interconnected spaces of communication that affect each other. Hence, the three central groups that will be examined in the project are politicians, historians, and artists as the different subprojects will examine how these agents respectively have been affected by the past, how they have understood it and how they used the past to further their present-day agendas. The two first mentioned groups, politicians and historians, will be studied by the participants of the projects, while the importance of ‘1864’ to Danish art and literature will be examined through a collaboration with the project’s partners. Moreover, the narratives within text books for primary and secondary schools as well as the economic impact of the defeat will also be examined through a research corroboration.

“the three central groups that will be examined in the project are politicians, historians, and artists as the different subprojects will examine how these agents respectively have been affected the past, how they have understood it and how they used the past to further their present-day agendas”

Perspective

Even today the war can spark controversy as it did when Danish television aired the tv-series ‘1864’ in 2014 which resulted in heated public debate between the director, artist, politicians, historians and ordinary Danes lasting three months.

The project will not only investigate several central issues within Danish history and historiography, but also contribute to a greater understanding of present-day Danish society, national identity, and worldview in a globalised world. Moreover, it will contribute by giving a historical perspective on the connection between politics and identity, the interplay between politics, history and art, and how the past and the present affects each other. The comparative perspective can facilitate an international and interdisciplinary cooperation on the importance on defeats for national histories. As such it may serve as a platform for a future project that examines the role of defeats within a general, European framework.

Selected publications

Glenthøj, R. 2014. 1864. Sønner af de slagne. Gads Forlag: København.

Glenthøj, R. 2017 (2018). ”1864 før, nu og i fremtiden. Fortællinger i nyere og ældre dansk 1864-historiografi”, Historisk Tidsskrift, Bind 117, Hæfte 2, Den danske historiske Forening: København. 

Glenthøj, R. 2018. ”Historier om et nederlag. Et urtraume og dets virkninger gennem 150 år”, Fossat, Sissel Bjerrum, Rasmus Glenthøj & Lone Kølle Martinsen (eds.). Konfliktzonen Danmark. Stridende fortællinger om dansk historie. Gads Forlag: København.

Further reading

Struwe, L. & M. V. Rasmussen (eds.). 2014. Læren af 1864. Krig, politik og stat i Danmark i 150 år. Syddansk Universitetsforlag: Odense.

Adriansen, I. & S. B. Frandsen (eds.). 2016. Efter 1864. Krigens følger på kort og langt sigt. Syddansk Universitetsforlag: Odense.

Herning. R, H. Schultz Hansen &E. Imberger (eds.). 2015. 1864 – Mennesker mellem magterne. 1864 – Menschen zwischen den Mächten. Hamburg University Press: Hamburg.