This post grew out of a discussion with Guan over the changing interpretations and role of the American Civil War in US history and politics. To both of us, the obvious Danish parallel would be how the Second Schleswig War had been interpreted in Danish history. It would be an understatement to say the the entire Schleswig affair was complicated and you would have research the issue very carefully and write a book to do the question any justice, but here are some impressions.
First, the received wisdom about Denmark in the 19th Century is a curious mix of Whig history and pessimism. Say “Grundtvig” and almost any Dane you meet will make approving sounds. Add the 1849 Constitution and the cooperative movement to the mix and you have Denmark presented as a progressive state characterized by a peaceful transition to democracy and a benevolent nationalism. A nationalism which obviously was juxtaposed with the aggressive German nationalism.
On the other hand, the 19th Century was also a century of defeats and major conflicts. Basically, the period from 1801 to 1864 saw the downfall and disintegration of what had once been a major Empire controlling important parts of the Atlantic Ocean and the North and Baltic Seas and the reduction of Denmark into a minor Northern European nation state. Similarly, even if Denmark never experienced a civil war, most of the century – and especially the second half – was characterized by a constitutional conflict mobilising countryside against the major towns and the landed aristocracy against farmers.
If we compare the 1864 war to the American Civil War, there are some obvious differences in scale. 1864 was less a disaster with regard to the (relative) number of casualties than in structural terms: 1864, to paraphrase Hobbes, was a nasty, brutish and short affair; something which no doubt limited the physical extent of the damage.
On the other hand, the economic and political effects were significant: Denmark lost 2/5 of its Continental European territory and population. The economic effects may be more difficult to gauge: Flensburg was a major harbour and even if Kiel and Altona didn’t match Copenhagen in size, they were still major economic, and in the case of Kiel academic, centres. How the industrialization of Denmark and an to a lesser degree Schleswig-Holstein during the late 19th Century would have been influenced by the continued existence of a Danish-German state is very hard to say.
Danish mythology often refers to Enrico Dalgas’ famous quote “What is lost outwards, will have to be won inwards” to describe the reaction to the loss of Schleswig-Holstein. Unfortunately, Dalgas never said this and the quote originates from Sweden which saw a policy to populate and develop agriculture in Norrland during the later part of the 19th century (or perhaps even Germany!). The cultivation of the heaths in all likelihood wasn’t a result of 1864 but due to demographic developments and changes in agriculture.
On the political scene, 1864 sparked another round of the struggle between traditional conservative agricultural elites and the national liberal urban bourgeoisie which had dominated Danish politics from the 1840s. On the one hand, the urban bourgeoisie could have benefited from the fact that foreign powers no longer had an interest in Danish constitutional politics, on the other hand the foreign and military policies of the national liberals had ended in a spectacular failure in 1864. This gave the conservative forces the upper hand in the creation of the 1866 constitution, even if protracted conflicts over the introduction of parliamentary rule were seen in all Scandinavian countries during the second haft of the 19th century. The specifically Danish element was the conservative backlash during the 1860s, even if France and Prussia had seen a (violent) suppression of the 1848 movement.
finally, there is the question about 1864 and the way Danes saw themselves following the defeat. We know that Denmark couldn’t on its own mobilize a military force that would in any way deter a potential aggressor, let alone intimidate any of the major European powers. Perhaps this was one reason why Danes continued to nurture the image of the benevolent nationalism while neglecting to discuss the excluding elements of Danish culture? And how much of the “active foreign policy” of the 1990s and 2000s has in fact been an attempt to restore Danish national prestige to its (imagined) pre-1801/1864/1940 glories?