The Danish Secret

What shaped the Nordic countries

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20 minutes by car from downtown Copenhagen, Denmark, a local farm displays their daily fresh strawberries, potatoes, and honey at an unattended roadside stand. Using your phone, you pay for what you take and, so far, the farmer has never had anything stolen.

Denmark

Denmark frequently pops up in American politics as an example worth emulating: democratic, prosperous, peaceful, well organized, and with a successful single-payer health care system. Some, like Fox News, seem to think, though, that Denmark is socialistic and resembles Venezuela; they should travel more — or, given COVID-19, call somebody at the US State Department who actually knows Denmark.

Poor Denmark in the 1800s

We are going on a historical journey, and as with all historical journeys, to fully understand what happened, we need to enter history a bit earlier than the development we would like to explore. We need to understand the initial conditions and a bit about the cultural and geopolitical situation in and around Denmark.

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Schools to the rescue

So, 1800, Denmark was a poor, feudal, agricultural country with an absolute monarch. The ruler was the crown prince regent, but he soon became King Frederik VI and though rather conservative, he and his cabinet made some very progressive moves. Apart from liberating the peasants, he also made a land reform in 1789 and established a school commission: it was obvious to Frederik and his cabinet that industrialization was coming to Denmark and that the peasants needed better education.

Enter: The border conflict, a constitution, and bildung

Beginning in February 1848, revolutions spread across Europe, and the bourgeoisie in Denmark wanted a liberal constitution rather than absolute monarchy. Frederik VI had died and had been succeeded by Christian VIII in 1839, he had also died and had been succeeded by Frederik VII on January 20th, 1848.

So, what is bildung in the first place?

Bildung is a German word that does not have an exact translation in English, though formation comes close. One difference between bildung and formation is that bildung has a 250-year-old philosophical tradition in Germany, and among the bildung philosophers we find Herder, Goethe, Schiller, Fichte, von Humboldt, and Hegel — and in Switzerland, Pestalozzi. Bildung is both ‘ordinary’ education and moral and emotional development, and bildung is the process of bildung as well as the result.

Painting: Anna-Amalia of Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach
Painting: Anna-Amalia of Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach
Duchess Anna-Amalia of Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach
  • To transcend our emotions, we need calming beauty, aesthetics that can align our emotions with the norms of society; we can then transform and become:
  • The person of reason or rational person, who has aligned himself with the ‘rationale’ and moral norms of society and has made the norms his own; this person cannot transcend those norms and expectations, though, and therefore he is not free either.
  • To transcend the norms, we need invigorating beauty, aesthetics that can shake us up and wake us up, and make us feel our emotions again, which allows us to transcend the expectations of others and become:
  • The free, moral person, who can feel both his own emotions and what is right and wrong according to morality; because this person has transcended his own emotions and the expectations of others, he can now think for himself and is therefore free.
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Friedrich Schiller
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Among the readers of Schiller’s letters were the sister of Frederik VI and Count Ernst Schimmelmann, member of the school commission, minister of finance and the richest man in Denmark. The picture shows the palace that was the Schimmelmann residence in Copenhagen in the decades around 1800; the most prominent members of Danish society would have gathered here, and for entertainment, they would read aloud, among other things, the letters from Friedrich Schiller.
Today, the mansion is headquarter of the Danish Odd Fellows and hence named The Odd Fellow Palace.

Romanticism and the Danish Spirit

The Enlightenment was rational, cerebral, and scientific; spirituality, emotions and nature did not get much attention. This left an inner void, and the bildung philosophers in Jena explored it, they discovered our inner development and they discovered culture as a phenomenon. Along with these new discoveries, they also discovered nature as a phenomenon, and they united their new topics of interest under the concept of spirit, Geist. They developed Sturm und Drang, Romanticism, and they discovered folklore as the indigenous source of local culture and spirit. By philosophizing about our inner world and how it interplays with the outer world, they explored what goes on in our mind, what they called Ideals and so, they developed German Idealism. This is not idealism in the sense we use the word today, but Idealism (with a capital I), which means how our inner world, the spirit, our idea(l)s, and the outer world interplay; it shapes us, we shape it, and we interact in this great ‘system’ of thoughts and interaction with the world and each other. Our spirit changes the world and thus, the world has spirit. Particularly Hegel became famous for writing about this world spirit, but Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814) wrote about it first.

Democratizing bildung and making it folk-bildung

In the audience was Steffens’ 19-year-old cousin, Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783–1872), a student of theology and an ardent Protestant Christian. He was not impressed by this ‘spirit stuff’ from Jena; according to him, there could be only one spirit: the Holy Spirit! But he was intrigued by the idea that there is a “spirit” in a people and that this is expressed through, among other things, folklore, tradition and language; that there is a cultural force keeping a people or nation together. Over the next decades, he kept exploring this and read everything by Rousseau, Herder, Goethe, Schiller, Fichte, and Pestalozzi that he could get his hands on, and then he reached the conclusion that the spirit of a people would be, so to speak, a chapter of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was everywhere, but the Danes had their Danish part, the Swedes their Swedish part and so forth.

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Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig, 1820
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Rødding Folk High School / Rødding Højskole, which opened in 1844.

Danishness and the War — 1848–1851

As liberal ideas spread across Europe and industrialization caught on, there was a fear in Denmark that people in the duchies Schleswig and Holstein would rather join the richer German states and their confederation than be part of a poor country like Denmark. To make a long story short: In February 1848, as revolutions broke out across Europe, it came close to a civil war in the duchies over independence and/or affiliation with Denmark or the German Confederation. On March 21st, angry Danes in Copenhagen who wanted a liberal constitution marched to the royal castle; King Frederik VII agreed to giving a constitution if he could remain king — to the protesters, that was good enough. On March 24th, a war between Denmark and the German Confederation over Schleswig was officially declared and it became the First Schleswig War, which lasted from 1848 to 1851. It was ended by an armistice. In 1849, on June 5th, Denmark got its first liberal constitution; the monarchy survived, but absolute monarchy was gone (and Grundtvig was one of the authors of the constitution). Part of the armistice in 1851 was that Denmark, Schleswig and Holstein each got their own separate constitution, that a fourth constitution should unite all three of them, and that Schleswig, which had the strongest cultural and ethnic connection to Denmark, could not have closer political ties to Denmark than Holstein had.

A collective as well as individual mind-shift

How the constitution and the war changed people’s frame of mind, their emotions, their bildung, was captured eloquently by 19-year-old Mathilde Fibiger (1830–1872) in her semi-autobiographical letter novel Clara Raphael 12 Letters, which was published in 1851.

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Mathilde Fibiger, around 1850

Folk-bildung, the secret

One person, who desperately wanted to fight for Denmark in 1848, was a schoolteacher named Christen Kold (1816–1870). Unfortunately (or maybe not), he was too clumsy to load a gun, and the army dismissed him. This made him so disillusioned he considered emigrating to America, but he never did.

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Christen Kold, 1850
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The farm in Ryslinge that Kold bought in 1851, fixed up, and turned into his first folk high school.

That other fateful year, 1864, that transformed Denmark

The status of Schleswig-Holstein had not been fully settled, and in 1864 it got Denmark into a new war, this time with Prussia and Bismarck on the other side. The war was devastating to Denmark. Prussia conquered all of Holstein and Schleswig, i.e. half the peninsula of Jutland or one third of the landmass perceived as Danish after Norway was lost 50 years earlier. The defeat was not just a shock; it created a fear that Prussia might take the rest of Denmark as well.

The wider landscape and consequences of folk-bildung

The folk high schools matched the needs of the rural population, but workers needed education and bildung too. In the 1860s, Pastor Hans Christian Sonne (1817–1880) was appalled by the material poverty and moral misery of the workers in his small-town parish, and he went looking for a way to empower them. Inspired by the Rochdale Society in the UK, Sonne and local workers started the first cooperative grocery store in 1866. The bylaws stated that 2.5% of the profit should be spent on proper reading materials and they started a library and reading classes in the attic above the store. In 1867, based on these experiences, Sonne wrote a handbook for workers’ associations on how to start their own cooperative grocery stores cum folk-bildung, and over the next ten years, 160 stores were started; by 1919, Denmark had 1,820 cooperative grocery stores, many of which were also the local study center.

An open-minded sense of peoplehood

Now, wouldn’t this much focus on love of God and country lead to nationalism and chauvinism towards other countries and peoples among the Danes? It should be no secret that the Danes had no great love for the Germans and Prussians, but something else happened.

Folk-bildung 2.0

In the culturally fertile context of folk-bildung, a parallel intellectual wave emerged in Denmark: Cultural Radicalism. In many respects, it was the exact opposite of the folk-bildung of the folk high schools. The folk high schools taught the rural youth about their historical past; to value their traditions and national identity. Cultural Radicalism was an ideology that tried to get rid of religion, nationalism, conservative moral norms, and old gender stereotypes. Instead, it promoted modernity, enlightenment, universal values, sexual liberation, gender equality, and a scientific worldview.

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Georg Brandes, 1880s
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Poul Henningsen, 1930ish

The workers and the unions

The workers, their unions and the Social Democrats have played a huge role too, but even here, a special Danish invention has shaped not just Denmark, but all of the Nordic countries. It is called the Nordic Model, or the tripartite-negotiations, and it means that Denmark and the other Nordic countries have no official minimum wage. Yet wages are high, the job market is flexible and both employers and employees are overall happy.

The Danish Secret

So, this is the Danish secret: Some 10% of all Danes went to a folk high school, sharpened their thinking and became conscientious citizens with a moral compass, an urge to keep standards high, and the knowledge and skills to actually do so. These young men and women in the farming community impressed their peers and in many respects turned the general culture around. The workers did something similar, though at a different scale. Through private initiative and government support, Danish citizens invested in the education and bildung of each other, and we have done so for 150+ years. Workers and employers had the bildung to treat each other with respect and to see the wellbeing of the country as a common goal. They had the creativity to develop a model for collective bargaining that provided both flexibility and security, the so-called flexicurity.

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Famous 1949 Cultural Radical chair by Danish designer Hans Wegner, here 1960

Folk-bildung 3.0

We could change that. In Denmark and elsewhere. We could upgrade our understanding of the world. We could promote bildung again and educate ourselves to grasp the challenges from exponential technologies, new ownership and power structures, globalization, climate change, and the overall human impact on the only habitable planet we have. We could make the world a wiser place, and we could create new empowerment, folk-bildung and folk high schools for the 21st century around the globe. We could start studying “for the purposes of making life more interesting.” We could create a woke culture that was actually tolerant, not just a monolith of the politically correct opinions and cancel culture, but an open minded and curious culture that made learning fun, meaningful, diverse, and with deep cultural roots and the necessary pushbacks that force us to re-think and to grow.

Economist, futurist, author, full member of the Club of Rome. Works at Next Scandinavia, Nordic Bildung & European Bildung Network. www.lenerachelandersen.com

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