European stories

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Europe - the beautiful story

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Let it be said without further ado as Denmark holds the Presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2012: Denmark and Europe are inextricably linked.

Europe has enriched Denmark, and a Denmark without Europe is inconceivable. Another certainty is that in spite of its limitations, Denmark has, if not enriched Europe, then had some influence, formerly as a large and medium-sized military power and latterly as a peaceful smaller state in a union where war is no longer an option, and commercial, cultural and other competition prevail instead. If the Europeans are in trouble, they find a peaceful solution, however good or bad. We have, so to speak, gone from cannons to coffee tables.

Denmark has had its own role to play in the European drama that began to unfold after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. There are but few written sources in the ensuing centuries. But from circa 800, the Danes were demonstrably in existence. They give and they take, mostly the latter, as personified by the Vikings who gain ground on Iceland, Greenland and North America and find their way into the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Russian rivers. They go on to create veritable empires in Britain and along the shores of the Baltic Sea. Elsewhere they settle, forget their Nordic ancestry and create mighty realms such as in Normandy and Sicily. In fact, until the Napoleonic Wars, Denmark was often a keen contender in European power struggles. The subsequent national caution follows on from the ceding of Norway to Sweden in 1814 and especially the loss of Schleswig-Holstein to Prussia and Austria in 1864.
 
Europe's birth certificate

Jacques Le Goff, the French historian, applies Gallic precision in dating the beginning of Europe – St. Patrick's Day in 658. On this day, Abbess Gertrude of Nivelles died in her monastery outside what was to become Brussels.  According to her autobiographical writings she was "known by everyone in Europe.” This, then, is the European 'birth certificate', just like the one we have for Denmark 300 years later on the great runic stone at Jelling. The clergy and other intellectuals call their world Europe, a Europe centred not around the Mediterranean Sea but towards the Atlantic Ocean. One of the most interesting popes in history, Gregory the Great, is dead. Charlemagne, ruler of the Frankish kingdom, has not yet been born. Byzantium fades into the background, the Moors conquer the Iberian Peninsula and the recently baptised Clovis, King of the Franks, establishes his capital in Paris. Before long the Nordic peoples, Balts, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians will be joining the new religion. Europe emerges: the Europe of artisans and artists; of cities and universities; of Romanesque and Gothic churches; of crusades, pogroms, plague; of voyages of discovery, of witchhunts and humanists. Let the Europa of antiquity ride on as the Phoenician princess on the back of the Zeus Bull. It is the Middle Ages that turn her into a political concept and a continent of people of flesh and blood.
                                                 
This Europe is a never-ending story, and its unification takes time. The fact that the Union at this moment in time comprises 27 member states, is no small feat in itself and confirms the dynamism prophesied by leading politicians after the Second World War.
                                             
European summit

I would contend that Denmark's first real European was Absalon, born in 1128, the son of a Zealandic magnate, Bishop of Roskilde, Archbishop of Lund, founder of Copenhagen, in his youth a student at the university in Paris, from where he returned to Denmark with a French cook and a French cookery book. He joined forces with Valdemar the Great, King of the Danes, born of a Russian princess and married to a Russian princess. The Danelaw in England had by then been lost to the ex-Scandinavian Normans, and the Baltic Empire was emergent. Valdemar the Conqueror, son and successor of Valdemar the Great, finds his first wife in Bohemia, his second in Portugal. Valdemar IV as king unites a fragmented Denmark, destroyed by intrigues, and attends a European summit in Krakow. Queen Margaret I finds her successor, Boguslaw, whom she renames as a more Nordic-sounding Erik, in Northern Poland. Erik I Evergood dies in Cyprus en route to the Holy Land, his Queen Boedil dies on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem.

Denmark's first truly European monarch has to be Christian I, who in 1474, during a visit to Rome, obtained the pope's permission to establish a University of Copenhagen. 300 years later, Denmark has three universities, a Dano-Norwegian one in Copenhagen, a German one in Kiel and the English-language one in Frederiksnagore north of Calcutta.

Rainy, light and fair

This Denmark is European. It builds its 2,000 Romanesque village churches and a handful of Gothic cathedrals in the European style. But the great masters of quintessential Danishness, Ludvig Holberg and Georg Brandes, are Europeans. The Golden Age is purely European: Eckersberg, Lundbye, Købke, Marstrand and Constantin Hansen among its painters; and among its poets: Baggesen, Oehlenschläger, Heiberg and the eternal traveller Hans Christian Andersen.
 
Where would Denmark be if King Frederik VI – following the Battle of Copenhagen, the surrender of the fleet, national bankruptcy and the loss of Norway – had not flown in the face of economic sense to announce in 1813 that the best Danish painters, draughtsmen, sculptors and poets were notwithstanding to be dispatched to Rome? We would not have had the light. We would not have learnt through our artists to see rainy Denmark as a light and fair land where the beech tree is reflected in the blue sea.

Where would we have been without our naval heros such as Tordenskjold, Ivar Huitfeldt and Cord Adeler? Where would we have been without noble families such as Bernstorff, Rantzau and Rewentlov? Where would we have been without immigrants such as Saly the sculptor, Pilo the painter and Bournonville the ballet master, without musicians the likes of Hartmann and Weyse; all these Norwegians, Swedes, Germans, Frenchmen and others who influenced the creation of – by European standards – a not insubstantial Danish culture? And for that matter: where would we have been without Martin Luther and his emissary in Copenhagen, Johannes Bugenhagen? We wouldn't have been where we are today!

We drew some of our greatest talents from abroad and sent out countless of the same. Ole Rømer measured the speed of light – its "hesitation", as he called it – in Paris, and created the fountains of Versailles; the astronomer Tycho Brahe wound up with the curious Emperor Rudolph in Prague; Melchior Lorch, one of the leading artists of the Renaissance, spent years in Vienna and Constantinople; Niels Steensen became one of the leading lights of Catholicism; the portrait painter Vigilius Eriksen painted Russian Empress Catherine the Great on horseback. Rebels such as P.A. Heiberg and Malthe Conrad Bruun made a career for themselves in Napoleonic Paris after being expelled from Denmark, which they had dared to criticise. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and author Georg Brandes were among those who withdrew to Berlin when the controversies that surrounded them in Copenhagen became irksome.

Music and literature came to us largely by way of Germany, literature also from France and architecture from countries such as Italy. More than 70 per cent of the Danish language is based on German imports. The royal court in Copenhagen was largely German-speaking, French in its culture and intensely Francophile. Both Baggesen and Oehlenschläger deliberated on whether they should be Danish or German poets. At home, the Golden Age genius H.C. Ørsted, the physicist and chemist who discovered electromagnetism and the chemical element aluminium, sat in his Copenhagen drawing room lending a Danish tone to the German words. The Danish road to culture and civilisation was forever heading southwards. Inspiration from the north was insubstantial, but was not unknown to Grundtvig, the Dane who elevated the nascent democracy from being a paradigm of governance to civic involvement in the life of the nation. This was the Grundvig who created the folkehøjskole, the institutions for adult education as one of the most notable Danish contributions to a common European culture.

An essence of Denmark
Denmark survived within Europe. This is the essence of Denmark's history. Denmark survived in the shape of a civic national consciousness, which in spring 2012 would do well to devote its energies to the rational, holistic individual, the social individual - an individual who may not have been born in Europe, but who nonetheless embraces a sense of European identity. In other words, the good news story, the story that is not about money and crises, but that reaches deep into the minds of the people.