Friday, 31 January 2014

   A History of Denmark
Knud J.V. Jespersen

As the Danes are quick to point out Denmark is a small country now, but it used to be a very big one. A thousand years ago the king of England was a Dane and until as recently as the mid 17th century a large chunk of Southern Sweden as well as all of Norway and the Schleswig peninsular were ruled from Copenhagen. But from about that time on the Danes proved very adept at losing wars: first to Sweden – goodbye Skaane; then to Britain – goodbye Norway; then to Prussia – goodbye Schleswig Holstein.

This should have been a story of national disaster but the curious thing is that Denmark did not go the way of Poland, Ireland or the Balkans.  In A History of Denmark, Jespersen gives a concise thematic survey of the transformation of a multi-ethnic empire into an ethnically homogenous nation state. This is not a book for those who enjoy a telling anecdote. Jespersen focuses on the major institutions of the Danish state: government, Church, law and land ownership. His high level analysis makes fairly dry reading but it is well designed to reveal the structural continuities between the absolutist renaissance state and the constitutional monarchy which evolved from it. Both derived legitimacy from the consent of the governed and operated in opposition to the interests of the landed nobility.

Jespersen makes the point well that the land reform of 1780s which abolished villeinage and created the class of independent small farmers who set the tone of the country for over two centuries was an extraordinary achievement, given that not a drop of blood was shed in the process. This class of small holders were not peasants; they quickly adapted to commercial farming and created the agricultural basis of Danish prosperity. Similarly the adoption of a constitution in 1849 which conferred the vote on all adult males (women got the vote in 1915) was achieved without violence.

So while the Danes were not very good at winning wars they were remarkably good at nation building. The great vice of the Anglophone world-view is its lack of interest in how things are done elsewhere. This leads to a misplaced belief in the inevitability of certain historical processes. A History of Denmark is a useful insight into another path to modernity as well as an explanation of why there are no Danish republicans. 

No comments:

Post a Comment