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Where We Come From...

Queen Thyre Danebod Builds the Danewerk in the 10th Century

Thyre Danebod lived in the first half of the 10th century. She was the wife of the Danish king Gorm. To protect her country from incursions by the German king Otto I, she is said to have ordered all the adult men of the kingdom, around the year 940, to build a protective rampart along its southern border. This more than thirty-kilometre-long defensive bulwark was called the »Danewerk« (with many variant spellings). We now know that the Danewerk cannot be attributed to Thyre, because it is much older. But in the 19th century they praised the farsightedness of the queen, who was believed to have provided lasting protection against foreign invasion and thus guaranteed the kingdom’s continued existence.

In his painting Lorens Frølich portrays her as a determined woman who directs the work on the wall with forward-looking mien. This myth of origin illustrates the disposition of the Danes, whose constant fear of being conquered by the Germans was further fed in the 19th century by two wars and finally confirmed by the loss of the duchies of Schleswig, Holstein and Lauenburg. In the war of 1864 against Germany and Austria, the Danish population felt disgraced when their own troops abandoned the Danewerk, although the bulwark had long since become obsolete and strategically useless.



Agrarian Reforms in the Late 18th Century

While the principal aspect of Danish foreign policy throughout the 18th century was »peace and quiet in the North«, the Danish foreign minister Andreas Peter Graf von Bernstorff overcame brief internal disturbances to lead the country to a period of great prosperity. As of 1787 he put through land reforms, thus freeing the peasants, a feat styled in the 19th century as the core of national self-awareness. The Danish image of themselves as a freedom-loving, peaceful people was fed by the fact that - while continental Europe was dominated by the turmoil of war and the violent upheavals of the French Revolution - Denmark was realising the libertarian and humanitarian ideals of the Enlightenment in agrarian reforms achieved not through revolutionary, but instead reformistic methods. The edict of 1788 emancipating the serfs, with which the monarch gave the peasants their freedom for all time, laid the cornerstone for patriotism and the devotion of the people to the crown.

In solemn remembrance of the great reform, the citizens of Copenhagen erected a victory column, which was completed in 1797. The four allegorical female figures surrounding the obelisk symbolise the fidelity, virtue, diligence and bravery, thus completing the image of the good king. Pictorial representations of the victory column were widely distributed in the 19th century. Especially popular was the painting by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg made for the royal Christiansborg castle in Copenhagen in the 1830s. It shows Danish peasants at the victory column thanking - according to some critics not humbly enough - the king, Christian VII, and the crown prince, Frederick, for emancipating the serfs.


Faith and War

Niels Ebbesen Murders Count Gert, 1340

The German-Danish War in the Year 1864

In 1863 Denmark adopted a joint constitution for the Danish kingdom and the duchy of Schleswig. In doing so the Danes violated international agreements about the indivisibility of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. In the resulting German-Danish War, Denmark was defeated and had to cede Schleswig, Holstein and Lauenburg to Prussia and Austria in 1864. This defeat further convinced the Danes that Germany was aiming to expand and that Denmark was constantly under threat from the south. In retrospect, the war of 1864 was exalted to the status of the heroic struggle of a small country defending itself against the overpowering enemy.

The memory of the Battle of Dybbøl on 18th April 1864 took on a particular significance. This battle, which ended in defeat for the Danes, was of no great importance from a military point of view and cost many lives, but it became a symbol for the self-sacrifice of the Danes, who fought for their homeland to their dying breath and with their last ounce of strength. Even to this day the flags are raised on April 18th in remembrance of the battle.

Vilhelm Rosenstand, who had taken part in the war as a soldier, celebrated the Battle of Dybbøl in a painting from 1894. The faces of the soldiers in the front ranks are painted with portrait-like precision, giving the feeling that the observer is participating in the artist's own personal experience.

The war also rekindled the memory of Niels Ebbesen, a nobleman from Jutland who was considered the saviour of Denmark. Although the counts of Holstein were already losing power and were willing to exchange Jutland for Schleswig, Niels Ebbesen entered the Danish national memory as the liberator of the nation for having attacked and killed Count Gerhard (Gert) of Holstein. In her painting Agnes Slott-Møller gives expression to the honour accorded the Jutland squire since the German-Danish War. Niels Ebbesen is seen by the observer as a proud and heroic warrior.


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