The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives

National Internationalism - the Danish Golden Age Concepts of Nationality

  • Hans Vammen, arkivet.thorvaldsensmuseum.dk, 1997
  • Translation by Keneva Kunz
  • This is a re-publication of the article: Hans Vammen: ‘National Internationalism – the Danish Golden Age Concepts of Nationality’, in: Meddelelser fra Thorvaldsens Museum (Communications from the Thorvaldsens Museum) p. 1997, p. 9-17.
    For a presentation of the article in its original appearance, please see this facsimile scan.

The Danish Golden Age and the Birth of Nationalism

At the turn of each century, debate arises as to the exact commencement of the new century In Weimar, however, no one had doubts regarding the 19th century: it was celebrated on December 31st, 1800, by four friends: Goethe, Schiller, Schelling and Steffens. But they did not know that they were celebrating the beginning of the Danish Golden Age, and they certainly had no idea that they were celebrating the birth of the Era of Nationalism.

The mere fact of their meeting can be seen as an expression of the shared Nordic-Germanic culture. This culture originated with their common mentor, Johann Gottfried Herder, who had gradually begun to define the identity of the Germanic peoples. It thus wakes up false, and far too modern, associations if we say, as is often done, that Danish and Nordic thought was German-influenced, let alone German- dominated. In 1769, Herder anticipated in his diary “a new spirit in literature, which will begin at the Danish end of Germany and bring the country to life.” Herder had no imperialistic intentions behind this pronouncement.

Steffens provides a good example of the apparently multinational life which took place in this common culture: born in Norway, his father had Dutch parents and his mother was from the Danish Bang family (as was Grundtvig’s mother). He attended school in Elsinore and then university in Copenhagen. After holding the position of lecturer in Kiel, he spent a few years as a member of the circle of the Jena Romanticists, preaching their message in Copenhagen in 1802 (this message had admittedly already gained a foothold there through Fichte’s connections with the Ørsted brothers). Later he became a professor in Halle, Breslau and Berlin. Nonetheless, the national issue was inextricably tied up with ideas shared by the Romantics, even as varied as those could be. This is because the word national held a meaning for Steffens that was different both before and after his day (fig. 1).

It is, in fact, one of the difficulties when studying the history of Danish nationality, that the same word is used in a wide variety of ways from 1750 to 1850. For example, Reinhard Koselleck and his colleagues included a 300-page “dictionary entry” on the German concepts of Volk und Nation in Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe – which was so comprehensive that it had to be put on hold for more than a decade while work progressed from the letter N (for Nation) to the letter V (for Volk). I shall attempt to provide an extremely watered-down version of their work in my account of the historical development of the concept in Denmark.

To start, we should keep in mind that discussions regarding the word nation or national only involved a tiny percentage of the population, as was true for intellectual life of the entire Golden Age period. In other words, these discussions were engaged in by the bourgeois class in a wide cultural sense, including parts of the aristocracy. As Lorenz Rerup has demonstrated, most recently in Dansk identitetshistorie, there is no national discourse among the commoners of town or country until after the first Schleswig war, 1848-51.

The Three Concepts of Nationality

Danish scholars, such as Povl Bagge, generally have distinguished between three different concepts of nationality. They are most often referred to as patriotism, literary nationalism and political nationalism. There is a further distinction made between a tolerant form, nationality and a more aggressive, nationalism. In the following discussion I will give these three concepts names that are more closely connected with the history of ideas: the Rationalist, the Herderian and the Hegelian respectively.

1. The Rationalist concept of nation originates prior to the Golden Age, and will only be briefly discussed here (It is carefully drawn up in Volume 2 of Dansk identitetshistorie). In this case, national feelings are directed towards the Danish Realm, which is multinational in the modern sense of the word, and towards its king. Although conflicts occur between the king’s Danish and German speaking subjects, there are no consequences for the culture. The culture continues to share a common ideological basis with the European Enlightenment, and thus can be described as cosmopolitan. The Rationalist approach did not disappear with the advent of Romanticism after 1800, although it was held to a decreasing extent after 1840. It was shared by the majority of the bourgeoisie, particularly the highest civil servants of the State, together with ministers, physicians and military officers. Viewed politically, it included both conservatives and radicals. An example of the latter is the officer and farmers’ politician, A. F. Tscherning. With a few notable exceptions, the merchant and industrial tradesmen classes of the bourgeoisie followed this approach through the entire Golden Age period. Their common-sense attitude was observed by the Romantic elite with disdain and they were referred to pejoratively as “philistines” or the like.

2. The breakthrough of Romanticism around 1800 meant a major transformation of a great number of concepts: mechanical changed to organic, things changed to life, existence to process, reason to soul, cognition: to understanding, society to history and fatherland to nation. The organism analogy, which can be found in Herder and is fully developed in Schelling (and in Steffens as well), directs attention towards the individual as encompassing the entire history of humanity and, in the final analysis, of the world. The individual proceeds from its embryonic existence through all the earlier stages towards greater and greater individual variation. Insight into what is universal is achieved through steadily more extensive understanding of what is individual. The nations, which are regarded as analogous to individuals, achieve their identity through historical consciousness, and national differences are a valuable expression of cultural richness. Deep insight into human existence can be achieved by listening to the peoples’ voices (Stimmen der Völker, the later, romantic title of Herder’s famous collection of folk ballads). According to Herder, the medium which preserves the nation’s spiritual gene code is its language: “a breath from our mouth becomes a portrait of the world, the model of our thoughts and our feelings in the soul of the other.” Fichte, who was an aggressive nationalist, says in his Speeches to the German nation of 1808: “People who speak the same language are already, prior to all human art, bound together by nature herself with a mass of invisible ties. They understand one another and manage to achieve ever clearer mutual understanding, they belong together and comprise a natural and indivisible whole. They cannot absorb another people of different origin and another language and mix with them, without throwing themselves into confusion and disrupting enormously the healthy progress of their development.”

This nationally-based international point of view is a common characteristic of the Romantic elite which produced what we refer to as the “Golden Age” of art and scholarship. Numerically speaking, they are a small group. However, they appear so powerful because their works have dominated the history of literature and because they, without any real protest from the rationalist majority, occupied a number of key professional and official positions. The criterion of the Herderian vision of national values is that other nations be recognised; this is a premise for the recognition of one’s own nation. H. C. Ørsted created more than 2000 Danish neologisms to replace Greek and Latin concepts (fig. 2). Of these, many are still used, e.g. ilt and brint, for oxygen and hydrogen. Ørsted fully recognised the significance of the ancient cultures and cultivated co-operation with natural scientists of all nations, but he maintained that “words created from the very ore of the national language effects the imagination much stronger and clearer than foreign words” (1820). J. F. Schouw, botanist and president of the estates of the Danish kingdom (fig. 3), criticised the Hegelian politicians sharply for wishing to oppress the Frisians and Greenlanders as less-worthy nations. If we do so, Schouw maintained, we lose our right to defend the Danes in Schleswig. Even Grundtvig himself, who at times made very aggressive remarks about Germans, and maintained, in his more maniacal moments, that Denmark was the new Israel where the feminine Messiah would be born, never deserted the Herderian recognition of other nations’ rights. As late as 1865 he pronounced that: “We (the Danish people) see the positive aspects of all peoples, have no longing to exalt ourselves, but to hospitably receive everything that can be integrated with what is our own.” The same basic view is expressed concisely in this statement (1857) by classical philologist J. N. Madvig, who was renowned throughout Europe:

“My mother tongue has a heavenly tone’ [quote from a song by Grundtvig], for me no less than for anyone else; but this is exactly what all people, whose language has reached the level of song, sing, in their own varying words, and this they have the right to sing; this they should sing. I do not love my language because it is or has been splendid or lovely – and for this reason the frequent use of these words to describe the language appears to me less than desirable – I love it because it is the language of my forefathers and my people. And because I love it, I am pleased that it can satisfy the needs of my thoughts and emotions, that it bears the traces of having been used again and again in the higher services of the spirit, that it is full of vitality and responsive to change; I do not make my affections conditional upon any comparison. Not even for its venerable age do I praise my mother tongue … But Danish is my language and I wish for no other.”

3. Towards the end of the 1830s, as already mentioned, the question of nationality became a political issue, following the deepening division over the status of Schleswig. But there is a clear division between the younger and the more senior national liberal politicians. The latter, including J. F. Schouw, H. N. Clausen and L. N. Hvidt, recognised German rights in Schleswig as well and from an early stage pressed for a division of Schleswig along the linguistic boundary. This was not true of the younger group, headed by Orla Lehmann and D. G. Monrad. They accorded higher priority to the historical right of the State than to the right of national self-determination, and thus sought a constitution for the whole of Schleswig together with the kingdom, the so-called Ejder programme (fig. 4). This policy was advanced by Orla Lehmann in a new and aggressive style in a speech delivered in 1842. He warned any possible crusading Germans with the following words: “And, should it prove necessary, we will with our sword carve on their backs the bloody testimony of the truth: Denmark refuses!” It was this position which eventually, in 1864, would cost us Schleswig, because the National Liberal government refused England’s proposal for the division of Schleswig at the London conference.

The younger national liberals acted in this manner because their concept of nationality was based on Hegel’s theories, which were incompatible with those of Herder. Hegel does not support the idea of the single individual as the source for universal insight. He claims to eliminate the contradiction between Rationalism and Romanticism. The dynamic aspect is preserved in the dialectical form of cognition, but what is shadowy and intuitive is brought under the light of reason through insight into the progressive self-realisation of the universal spirit. This is a distinctly elitist theory: those with insight have an historical right to serve as guardians for the ignorant masses. It was this point which called forth furious protest from Søren Kierkegaard on behalf of the individual against what he called “levelling”.

Hegel’s model for the development of national cultures was the opposite of Herder’s. The nations are originally differentiated, but move towards a greater and greater likeness. He was not totally wrong here, demonstrated by the fact that today one can buy a bottle of Coca-Cola anywhere in the world. Hegel’s approach legitimises aggressive nationalistic politics; because the more developed and thus superior nations have an historical right to assist or, if necessary, force inferior nations in the direction of higher levels of civilisation. The highest level is represented by the German nation.

As mentioned, all three concepts of nationality are evident in Denmark during the period 1800-1850. The first, the Rationalist, was always present, as was the Herderian, but its hegemony is broken at the end of the 1830s. The Hegelian, on the other hand, can only be seen in what art historian Hans Edvard Nørregaard-Nielsen has diplomatically called the “second phase of the Golden Age”, the period after 1840. At this time, however, so many changes in the society and intellectual environment had taken place, that in my mind it makes no sense to include it in the Golden Age.

Social Changes and the Effect on Nationalism

Up to this point I have given a very condensed description of the concepts of nationality in the Danish Golden Age. But the historian’s work is not completed until an explanation – even if only a tentative one – has been offered for the development described. An answer, in other words, to the question: What was the cause, or were the causes, of these national attitudes which would have such great political and social consequences?

Even the early attempts at national history writing identified this question and resolved it within the national-Romantic framework of thought: What is involved is an awakening. The national identity had been latently present the whole time, but now it was awake. Did not Steffens say that it was the same spirit which slept in the stone, dreamt in the plant, awoke in the animal, and became conscious in the human individual. The spirit of a people reveals its national characteristics when it blossoms, just as two apparently similar bulbs reveal themselves to contain a tulip and a daffodil. In contrast to this, recent writings, especially those influenced by anthropology and folklore, maintain that national identity is something absolutely new, which people try to legitimise by an artificially constructed tradition, in much the same way as the Renaissance conceived of itself as a rebirth of the culture of antiquity, but was in reality new thought in a new society.

To judge between these two interpretations of the national raises insurmountable theoretical problems, at least in my mind. But what they do agree upon is that consciousness of the national is something new, and that this, in any case, has far-reaching consequences for the actions of the persons involved.

This still does not provide an historical explanation. So I wish to make a cautious link with the developmental model of the history of mentalities, which was created by Norbert Elias in his great work on “The Civilizing Process.” The following explanation, tentative as it is, of course should be combined with other explanatory factors.

The extensive changes which Danish society underwent during the 18th century and of which agricultural reforms comprised a part, marked a transition from a collectively oriented society of estates to an individualistic and capitalist competitive society, that was integrated into the world market. In the mental sphere it brought about the weakening of a number of traditional identities and the accordant need for new ones. The newly freed individuals had greatly increased possibilities of action, but also lacked the protection of traditional networks. These isolated individuals could easily come to experience one another as potential enemies. The result was widespread anxiety, and a growing need for security. There was a latent aggression towards persons or situations which threatened the vulnerable mental order which individuals sought to construct as a defence against chaos. Such mental development always takes place over several generations, because childhood is so decisive for the individual’s conception of security and self-esteem.

If we see this in light of the Golden Age, the Ørsted-Oehlenschläger generation, born 1770-1790, was raised by parents who throughout their youth were solidly anchored in the traditional society. The Ørsted generation consciously experienced the new split as a loss of the sense of security they remembered, and they used the energy provided by that security to work towards restoring the lost harmony. On the contrary, the next generation, born 1800-1820, was making its influence felt in intellectual and political affairs around 1840. These were the children of the Golden Age’s first generation, who had themselves experienced the extensive social changes. This second generation had, right from the start, experienced insecurity through their parents and thus did not believe in harmony. They distanced themselves mentally by suppressing their feelings of insecurity and consciously sought refuge in the cold security of irony. It is no coincidence that Søren Kierkegaard’s dissertation is concerned with the concept of irony.

If we transfer this to the national sphere it means that the first generation still has sufficient resources to build up a national identity which is open for foreigners. This is in accordance with Herder’s concept of nationality. The increased need of the next generation for security, on the other hand, results in elitist national chauvinism with the accompanying enemy images. This position is legitimised in Hegel’s philosophy.

Grundtvig, Heiberg, Lehmann and their View on Nationality

A few biographical examples can serve to illustrate this, although they prove nothing in themselves:

N. F. S. GRUNDTVIG (born 1783) (fig. 5), as previously mentioned, remained true to the Herderian national concept and, what is more, rejected Hegel and his school because of the unchristian arrogance implied in claiming to understand God (the world spirit). Through all the spiritual crises of his life he managed to keep his consciousness open for all the contradictions he felt within himself, without repressing them. Apart from this, his sexual vitality and his affection for earthly existence points backward in the direction of the mentality of older society. Grundtvig grew up in the older, agrarian culture of the country vicarage. His father was a Rationalist minister and in his early childhood he was raised by a nursemaid from the farming class. Malene, his nursemaid, would later become famous as his “language tutor” [sprogmesterinden].

The poet JOHAN LUDVIG HEIBERG (born 1791) (fig. 6) was a thoroughly different sort of individual. He made attempts to introduce Hegel to Denmark as early as 1825, but failed to gain a hearing for Hegel in the Golden Age’s inner circle. Further, he achieved no importance for political Hegelianism. Heiberg was embarrassed by uncontrolled outbursts of emotion. His aesthetics can be seen as one great attempt to prohibit art from dealing with reality, because reality was far too strong a stuff to be enjoyed without discomfort. Concerning the theatre he writes, for example:

“We must always keep this thought, even if only unconsciously, at the back of our minds: that the things which make us laugh, which cause us sorrow, and which we fear, are an illusion. Should this illusion be disrupted by allowing the truth to actually appear, in place of the appearance of truth, then our enjoyment of art must also disappear, as we feel pity instead of amusement, we suffer instead of being moved, we despair instead of being frightened.” Erotic arousal was also something he apparently could only feel at a safe distance – on the stage. In his home the purpose of mealtime was cultured conversation, which was not to be disturbed by references to the bestial consumption of food.

Heiberg was the child of an unhappy marriage. When he was 8 years of age, his father was exiled from the country for criticising the absolutist monarchy. His parents divorced because of his mother’s infidelity and the rest of his childhood was spent with various foster families. Only as an adult was he permitted to live with his mother once again. She lived with him for the remainder of her life, even after he had married a woman 22 years his junior. He lived a rather unproductive life until he experienced a semi-religious revelation. Through this he saw, with the help of the Hegelian system, the coherence of existence. (This of course is a very brief summary of one of the most famous family histories of Danish literature. But such are the facts!).

ORLA LEHMANN (born 1810) (fig. 7) is the first Danish politician in the modern sense of the word. His sense of tactics and organisation was ahead of his time and during the 1840s he became the most admired and stigmatized political figure in Copenhagen. His background was one of mixed nationality: his father, Martin Lehmann, one of the leading civil servants of the Danish state, was of german origin, and his mother came from a bourgeois Copenhagen-family. Martin Lehmann kept a diary, which has recently been brougt to light. Here we get a profound insight into his mentality and the home in which Orla grew up. The diary teems with self-accusations. Martin Lehmann complains that his propensity for good food and sexual pleasure (this of cause within the boundaries of matrimony) takes away energy from his duties. On Christmas morning 1812 he writes: “Woher kommt die bitterkeit, die an meinem Lebensfaden nagt, mir meine Tage vergiftet und die Ruhe anderer stört, welche mir eben die Liebsten sind?” (What is the cause of the bitterness gnawing my vitality, poisoning my days and disturbing the peace of others, even the most dear to me?) And several times he had to make a solemn promise to himself not to scold his wife.

Martin Lehmann cared very much for his eight children, most of all for Orla, whom he taught latin, “seinem dringenden Wuncsh zu befriedigen” (to satisfy his urgent request). After puberty, conflicts seem to have developed between Orla and his tyrannical father, especially concerning national matters. In 1830, when Orla was a law student, his fater sighs: ...’’Orla, dessen Verdänung … mir vielen Kummer macht und ihn mir mehr und mehr entfremdet hat” (Orla, whose danization causes me many worries and alienates him more and more to me). Orla’s aggressive nationalism seems to be a projektion of his conflicts with his german father.

In 1843 he fell in love with Maria, a daughter of one of Copenhagens wealthiest merchants. But the young woman first rejected his courteship, accusing him of being “a mocker”, deriding everything, including his own convictions and goals. In a series of letters – not to the girl but to her more positively minded mother, who was to prepare the daughter – he defended himself like an attorney, which he was. His inclination to mock he calls irony, which he praises as “the greatest gift of grace, the most certain basis of a steady attitude and a jovial mood”, freeing us of the “blind loss of oneself in any idea whatsoever … that destroys any quiet action and just decision, ... here only irony and above all self-irony can liberate us … This way, with the help of the relativistic viewpoint of irony, Orla Lehmann had his body under conscious control and liberated himself from the spell of ideas and gained the power to act. He actually got his Maria. But for eight years only, then she died of tuberculosis. That could not be cured by irony.

Identity and Nationality

I would like to add a few comments regarding the concept of identity, which is, in recent literature at least, often connected with the concept of nationality. It is well known that the same person can have many different identities, which are not necessarily irreconcilable, but which may, under certain circumstances, come into conflict with one another. I have, for example, an identity as a Dane, a male, a teacher and a cigar smoker. This normally does not cause me any major problems. But when a ban on smoking is introduced in the university common rooms, then a problem arises. In such an event I solve the situation by smoking only in my office. In other words, I carry out almost unconsciously, a prioritising of my various identities. It would be absurd to sacrifice my good position as a university teacher for the sake of being able to smoke whenever I choose. It appears to me that it can be useful to distinguish between identities, which can be regarded as compatible with the opposite identities of others and may be abandoned, and those which cannot be regarded in such a manner.

For example, religious identity includes the answers to our deepest questions on the meaning of our lives and the world around us. Even if one can accept the religion of others on a purely intellectual level, at a deeper, psychological level one must consider Kant’s demand that the moral laws to which I subject myself should apply for everyone. Such an identity I call absolute, because it cannot be relinquished without the feeling that my existence is threatened. It must for that reason be defended, in the most extreme instances with my life. History is not lacking in examples of individuals who chose rather to lose their lives than lose the meaning of their lives.

If we transfer these observations to the area of nationality, it becomes clear that national identity has, in many instances, the absolute character of religious fundamentalism. That the same is true of political identity, is evident enough from the examples of Nazism and Stalinism. But this fatal mixture of religion, nation and politics occurs perhaps only when access to a solidly anchored religiousness is blocked for one reason or another.

Keeping this in mind, if we turn back to the Danish Golden Age, I suggest that the moderate Herderian national feelings of the first generation are due to the following reason. The space for religious identity was occupied by the platonically inspired pantheism which was common to all Romantics. This belief was deserted by the following generation, despite its continuing presence as an ideological decoration. Thus, the way was cleared for a religious interpretation of nationalism. Although aggressive nationalism never took firm root among the population at large – as mentioned previously, participation in the Golden Age included only a very small proportion of the population – this was not due to the fact that Denmark is quite a small nation (history is full of examples of small nations that were fanatically nationalistic). Instead, the great majority of the rural population either maintained its roots in the traditional collective mentality or reacted to the wide-reaching social changes with the personal absorption in Christianity. This rural revivalism took place at the same time as the Golden Age and later became institutionalised in Grundtvigianism and the Inner (i.e. domestic) Mission.

In closing I would like to comment on the neonationalism of recent years, in connection with what I have been saying. Some 30 years ago, when I began to study the so-called Golden Age in Denmark, nationality and religion were regarded as the leftovers of a past, which on their own would soon disappear due to progress. Today everyone is aware that this has been shown to be far from the case. If the contingencies which I have attempted to describe, are even approximately correct, the new interest in national and religious questions is connected with the great changes we are undergoing in our time. According to the Bible, “in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” These words have been an absolute truth for at least 90% of humanity up until only a few decades ago. They have now become a problem, both for those who have employment and those who do not. The acceleration of change in the electronic society has long since surpassed the time human beings require to undergo experiences. This article, for example, was translated from Danish to English by a Canadian in Iceland. The words you have been reading, have in the course of scarcely seconds completed a journey which would have taken the Vikings two whole summers to undertake. All these changes create a demand for anything which can counteract the feeling of disorientation and rootlessness. Here religiously fanatical nationalism offers itself as a possible candidate. To those fearful individuals who advise against any form of national vision of the world, I want to point to the example of the peaceful and internationalistic national feeling which was prevalent in the Danish Golden Age until 1840: The cure against religious nationalism might be religion and nationality. But in any case, we will probably have to plan on celebrating the beginning of the new millennium on December 31st of the year 2000 with slightly less optimism for the future than did those four friends in Weimar in the year 1800.

Last updated 11.05.2017