Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

TV: “1864”- Danish drama, BBC4.

In John Wilmot on June 25, 2015 at 12:17 pm

Like many other viewers. I’ve become rather addicted to “Danish Noir” on the box – but this particular offering on BBC 4 was something a bit different. It looked at the background to the disastrous war between Denmark and Prussia over the disputed territory of Schleswich-Holstein to the south of the Danish mainland. The British Prime Minister at the time, Lord Palmerston, famously declared that only three men really understood what the conflict was all about – “the Prince Consort, who is dead, a German professor who’s gone mad, and I who’ve forgotten all about it.”

The film’s director suggests that it arose as a pernicious example of national hubris – the kind reflected in such phrases as “our manifest destiny”, or “God’s chosen people”. Denmark had chosen to go to war on a wave of nationalist fervour, to claim a victory that it was thought would have made Denmark great again.

Both sides it seems were unprepared for what was to come. A Danish army captain leads his detachment towards the front, only to die of old age as they head south. On the Prussian side, the General in charge is also in his dotage, buoyed up with memories of his part in the war against Napoleon some fifty years previously.  As he leads his men he can’t even remember who they are fighting against.

The central characters are two young brothers who are swept up in the country’s patriotic fervour, and volunteer for the conflict – leaving behind the girl that they both love.

They believe, like most others in Denmark, that they will sweep all before them and give the Prussians a bloody nose (a dissenting voice incidentally is shown in a cameo role for Hans Christian Anderson, who doesn’t really understand what it’s all about).

Needless to say, it doesn’t go well for the Danes. Outnumbered and eventually outmanoeuvred, by the Prussian forces they are forced into ignominious retreat, which finally ends in crushing defeat and the loss of one third of their territory  They are forced to accept that there is no “manifest destiny” involved and the voices of nationalism fall silent.

It’s perhaps no wonder that few outside of Denmark remember the conflict. In 1864 the American civil war was reaching a climax, and for us in Britain the events in the conflict between north and south were rather more central to our interests. But its long term impact was the unification of Germany, the rise of strident nationalism in that country, and two blood-stained world wars. Meanwhile in Denmark, controversies over their war with Prussia and the German Confederation remain a sore point for many.

Incidentally, there’s also a book been published on the war, also titled “1864” (written by Tom Buk-Swienty and published by Profile Books price £8.99)

JOHN WILMOT

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