Thoughts on the Danish TV series ‘1864’

BBC4 has been showing the Danish TV series ‘1864’ recently; the final two episodes were broadcast on Saturday night. The series began by recalling the First Schleswig War against the Prussians and which Denmark ‘won’, though the main action was centred around the Second Schleswig war in 1864—in which the Danes were comprehensively, humiliatingly defeated by the Prussians—and its aftermath up to the present. The series has several layers of themes; the awfulness of war, the effect on families; the rigid class structures of the times, the ruling elite, their arrogance and character faults; the importance of religion; there’s a ‘love triangle’; and of death and rebirth. It’s very much in the ‘show don’t tell’ style, so you needed to keep awake; although the Danish and German bits were subtitled, occasionally the subtitles disappeared, and it took a second or two to realise that the action was in English. There are plenty of loose ends; there is one rather improbable, forced familial relationship; and in Johan, an odd supernatural aspect. Most of the characters were inventions, though some were real historical figures.

The Schleswig-Holstein Question was one that many tried—and failed—to understand and to solve. These two duchies originally had as their dukes the King of Denmark, but he had died without a male heir. The succession in Denmark could pass through the maternal line, but not under the Salic Law in the duchies. Parts of Schleswig and Holstein were German speaking, hence the Prussian interest. The second War was engineered by the Danes who wished these two duchies to be incorporated into a Danish state, and who issued a new Constitution to this effect; this inflamed the Prussians. This was the time when the concept of a ‘nation state’ as we understand it today was beginning; the incorporation of duchies and princedoms into a single ‘unitary’ being. The emergence and unification of ‘Germany’ under the forceful direction of Otto von Bismark (who appears in the series) and under Prussian domination is perhaps the best example of this.

The episodes emphasised the importance and significance of religion in politics, for those elite Danes thought and believed themselves to be God’s chosen people, and knew that their God was only on their side, and that He would protect them and give them victory, as apparently He had done before.

One of the historical characters was Ditlev Monrad. He was a Lutheran bishop who became a politician, and in 1864 was the Council President of Denmark, effectively prime minister. As portrayed, he was a slightly stooped, dark, hulking figure who was utterly convinced of and consumed by the rightfulness of the Danes’ position, and who delivered several bombastic, fulminatory outpourings to bolster belief—faith—and to subdue the weak and undecided. Even in the face of certain defeat he could not accept that his God wasn’t fighting on his side. Towards the end of the series he met the Danish king who had fully realised the gravity of their situation; Monrad accuses the king of treason. We see Monrad finally in an asylum and straightjacketed; there is talk of emigration to New Zealand and conversion of the natives. (The real Monrad did emigrate there.)

I found this portrayal of the influence of religion in general and of Monrad in particular to be very chilling.