Today the Danes are the world’s leading pork butchers, slaughtering over 28 million pigs a year and agriculture represents over five per cent of the country’s total exports. In his book «The Almost Nearly Perfect People» British author and journalist Michael Booth unveils astounding facts about the Danes. These are excerpts from his book, published by kind permission of the author.
Once upon a time, the Danish ruled all of Scandinavia. They like their fairytales, the Danes, but this one is true. The Kalmar Union of 1397 was a historic high point for the Danes, with their equivalent of Elizabeth I, Queen Margaret I, ruling a loosely unified Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The union held for over a century until, in 1520, the then Danish king, Christian II, rashly beheaded around eighty Swedish nobles in the so-called Stockholm Bloodbath, something of a diplomatic faux pas. Though Denmark did manage to hold on to Norway for a few hundred years more, henceforth the Swedes would play a far more proactive role in the region’s history, mostly by holding Denmark’s head in the toilet bowl while Britain and Germany queued up to pull the handle.
There was a brief false dawn for Denmark under the reign of their great Renaissance king, Christian IV – Denmark’s Henry VIII, with similar appetites and girth – who oversaw some of Denmark’s most ambitious military and architectural projects, funded chiefly via the toll he extracted at Helsingør (Elsinore) from ships entering and leaving the Baltic through the narrow bottleneck there (it was the Panama Canal of the North for a while).
Christian IV was fortunate not to have lived to witness one of the darkest days of Danish loss. By the terms of the Treaty of Roskilde, signed a decade later in 1658, the Danes were forced by the Swedes to relinquish what are today the southern Swedish region of Skåne, Blekinge and Halland, as well as the Baltic island of Bornholm (the latter was eventually returned and remains Danish).
The ensuing centuries were even less kind to the Danes, and I am afraid to say, the English played a pivotal role in compounding their misery. In 1801 a British fleet, with Nelson as second in command, attacked the Danish navy anchored outside Copenhagen to prevent it from falling into French hands. The British returned in 1807 for similar reasons, but this time bombarding Copenhagen itself for three days, resulting in the deaths of as many as two thousand locals and the destruction of a good part of the city. The attack had the opposite effect of that intended, forcing the Danes into the arms of the French.
When the dust settled on the Napoleonic wars and everyone had swapped sides at least once, Denmark discovered that it had lost Norway to Sweden in yet another of those dratted treaties, this one signed in Kiel in 1814.
How the Danes must have come to dread treaty-signing time. Another, signed later during that, for them calamitous, century, would finally denude Denmark its troublesome territories, Schleswig and Holstein, the Danes having been forced to abandon their thousand-year-old-defences, the Danevirke, to the Prussians in 1864.
With Schleswig and Holstein gone south, Denmark had lost roughly a third of its remaining land area and population, and by some estimates as much as half of its potential income. Over time it would also lose its small colonies in India and the West Indies, and even the Faroes voted for autonomy. When Adolf Hitler’s army invaded Denmark in April 1940, it inadvertently relieved Iceland of its Danish head of state.
There was little resistance to German occupation for the first three years or so, indeed, both the Danish king and prime minister at the time, criticized the nascent Danish underground when they occasionally carried out minor acts of sabotage. Unlike the Norwegians, who resisted with great courage and ingenuity (greatly aided by their mountains and climate, admittedly), Denmark had little choice but to submit to life as a pliable German satellite.
It would be surprising if the long litany of loss and defeat had not had a lasting impact on the Danes, but I would go further. I suspect that it has defined the Danes to a greater extent than any other single factor – more than their geography, more than their Lutheran faith or their Viking heritage, more even than their modern political system and welfare state. You see, in a roundabout way, Denmark’s losses were her making.
Their greatly reduced circumstances bound the Danish together more tightly as a tribe than any of the other Nordic countries.
The Danes adopted a glass-half full, and it is an outlook which, I would argue, has paved the way for the much-trumpeted success of their society to this day.
Hvad udad tabes skal indad vindes.
(What was lost without will be found within.)
The line was originally written by the author H. P. Holst in 1811, but it obtained greater purchase when it was adopted by the Danish Health Society, which interpreted it, quite literally, in its work to reclaim coastal land by draining sandy territories in Jutland. So successful was the society at this that, by 1914, Denmark had effectively replaced the hectares it had lost to Germany with fresh, farmable arable land.
But Holst’s declaration also encapsulates what turned out to be the Danes’ great cultural ‘Golden Age’, a mid-nineteenth-century period of increased social mobility and artistic blossoming that saw the son of a washerwoman, Hans Christian Andersen, publish his first fairy stories and go on to be one of the first genuinely world-famous figures; Søren Kierkegaard write his groundbreaking existentialist works; and the great classical sculptor August Bournonville, contribute to a great flurry of artistic activity within Denmark at the time.
Assuming that you know nothing about Denmark, within the first five minutes or so of meeting a Dane they will usually say something along the lines of “This is just a little land. We are only a little over five million people; we’re pretty much all the same.” They will probably add that that they have no mountains or waterfalls, and that you can cross their country by car in four hours. But after a while – it can take anything from five minutes to a year, depending on the Dane in question – you will begin to detect the steely pride beneath the ‘aw shucks’ surface humility. That’s when they might casually mention their world-leading wind turbine industry, the absence of poverty in Denmark, their free education and health systems and generous benefits. They will tell you how they are the most trustworthy and equal people in the world, how they have the best restaurants in the world, and, yes, the Vikings will probably crop up as well.
The Danes have a deep and justifiable satisfaction born from the knowledge that they have built, from relatively unpromising foundations, arguably the most successful society on the face of the earth. The ‘arguably’ is mine. To the Danes there is no argument.
Today the Danes are the world’s leading pork butchers, slaughtering over 28 million pigs a year. The Danish pork industry accounts for a fifth of all the world’s pork exports, half of domestic agriculture exports and over five per cent of the country’s total exports. Yet the weird thing is, you can travel the length and breadth of the country and never see a single sow. (That’s why the author named this chapter Danish bacon, or just Bacon).
My own ignorance of Denmark was almost total before I started coming here a decade and half ago so, before we attempt do divine the secrets of the Danes’ success in greater depth, I am going to take a moment to fill you in on some of the aspects of contemporary Danish life that I believe make such a wonderful place to live, but of which you might not be aware. It is a bit random but bear with me, I think it gives a good overview:
- The landscape of Southern Funen (Fyn), which undulates like a reclining nude.
- The pleasantly woozy feeling after a lunch of pickled herring with red onion on rye, a Tuborg and an icy schnapps.
- The fact that I once saw the Danish prime minister on a pre-election walkabout in Copenhagen, on the equivalent of Oxford Street, and no one was paying him the slightest bit of attention.
- Arne Jacobsen’s petrol station on Strandvejen, the most elegant petrol station in the world.
- A visit to Bakken, the old amusement park to the north of the city. It is the best way I know of travelling back in time to 1968.
- The word Pyt. A dismissive exhalation which roughly translates as ‘Let it go, it’s not worth bothering with.’ Midsummer party threatened by rain? Pyt med det! (‘Pyt with that!’)
- They sell wine and beer in cinemas, and you are usually allowed to take it into the auditorium with you. Is there any greater litmus test of a civilized society?
Do great confectionary, pickled herring and complex modular construction toys amount to the recipe for human happiness? Probably not (although for me, yes). There is more to Denmark’s success and the enduring, Olympic-gold-level happiness of its people. Much more.