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.

  • the rich get richer

    God is a slippery little fecker !

  • chrisjones2

    I found it very ……….. Scandanavian…….

  • Korhomme

    Indeed, rather than the predigested pap that is the staple of so much TV here, Scandi TV and Nordic Noir makes you think. Did you?

  • notimetoshine

    I have to say the quality wasn’t as good as I would have expected of a Nordic style drama. I think that the UK stations would have given better production values but a really interesting period of history and not one that is often used as fodder for drama.

  • chrisjones2

    I thought it was morbid!!! BUt I did THINK it was morbid

  • Makhno

    I found it well worth the initial effort. In a way, it was also about WW1, the trench warfare scenes etc. It also left me wanting maybe two spin off series, one focussing on the home front and the other showing the families in WW2, up to the death of the soldier (in Iraq?) Hopefully at least one of these is in production.

  • Korhomme

    Sure, the story is morbid in parts. But what of the themes behind the story? Did you think that the theme of religious dominance of political thought in Denmark in 1864, as personified by Monrad, had any resonance with, say, events in N Ireland a century later?

  • Korhomme

    It was certainly had going at times. It seems to have been a ‘flop’ in Denmark, despite being one of their highest budget TV productions. Yes, it brought forth images of WW1, yes, the Danes kept out of open conflict (when they were part of NATO) up to the late 90s perhaps because the memory of what happened was so seared into the collective memory.

    I still think that it was more than just a story, it was an exploration of what and why the events portrayed happened—and to horrify us with the ‘what’. Yet it is the ‘why’ which so resonates with me.

  • Over-ambitious.

    Too earnest for its own good.

    And more than a little plodding.

    But enough about me! [Or the original post? – Ed]

    Given the subject matter, that’s, perhaps, understandable.

    But I don’t think it translated well beyond its original Danish audience. In every sense. There was also the distinct smell of ham about some of the performances. Borgen ‘stars’, I’m looking at you!

    It was no Killing [part 1, maybe 2, only].

    And a long way behind The Bridge.

  • Korhomme

    It was very different from the usual Nordic Noir dramas. I thought the production values were very high—too high perhaps. Interesting period drama, but much more than that.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    In Denmark’s case the hubris of god’s chosen people was defeated by Bismarck’s superior forces. Here, god’s chosen people still posture and revel in their manufactured triumphalism.
    Repulsive as war is, it’s worth reflecting on the profound psychological change that comes about when any people accept their unequivocal defeat.

  • Makhno

    Them Danes are spoilt, if that was a flop!

  • Seamuscamp

    I don’t think it is wise to accept fiction as history – we see too much of that in an Irish context. This was a fictional drama, not a historical documentary.

    The basis of the 1863/4 war was political nationalism. Denmark attempted to foist a “liberal” constitution on S-H, in contravention of treaty obligations – the London Protocol, recognised by France, Russia, UK, Austria, Prussia, Sweden and Denmark; which brought the 1848-51 war to an end. That was why Catholic Austria allied with Protestant Prussia; and Protestant Sweden failed to ally with Protestant Denmark (as it had done in the earlier war). And why UK and Russia did nothing.

    The reason why Danish leaders were so blase about war with Prussia stemmed from their defeat of Prussia in that earlier war.

    Perhaps the flabby acting reflected the flabby history.?

  • Gopher

    The basket case that was the HRE did not change with the
    Congress of Vienna and the German Confederation with fiefs in and out of the Empire/ Confederation. Just like the HRE got raped by Richelieu the German Confederation got raped by Bismarck, Denmark was just a tiny pawn in that game. Denmark of course made it easy for Bismarck. France was propping up an Austrian Archduke in Mexico and giving England a naval scare whilst Bismarck took Russia out of the game by supporting them during the Polish revolt in a proto reinsurance treaty. Poor Austria if you dont know who the mug is in a poker game its you. The only similarity I can think of with Northern Ireland is if you dress Paisley or SF up as Prussia and put Austrian trousers on either Trimble or the SDLP youve got your perfect reasonance a century later

  • NMS

    I understand that it’s avowedly anti-nationalist perspective went down very badly with certain parties. As did the sodomising of the cow and linking the utter waste of war to current conflicts such as NATO’s Afghanistan adventures.

    I thought it was very good, if certain themes were overworked. The sympathetic (balanced) portrait of Bismark and the Prussians is something you do not generally see. The limit of Prussian interest was unification of the Germans, not the control of other groups.

    Its back to Nordic noir next Saturday night with a Swedish thriller.

  • Korhomme

    The portrayal of Monrad made me think of Ian Paisley.

    And, although not posted until Monday evening, I wrote the piece early on Sunday before I heard Sir James Galway’s and Lord Trimble’s comments. I didn’t alter anything, but their remarks only reinforced my view.

  • Korhomme

    I thought the cow scene was supposed to represent just how dissolute the aristos were.

  • Gerry Lynch

    No sense, then, that Monrad was one of the leading figures in what was, by the standards of its time, a decidedly radical political movement, the first in Europe to be elected on the basis of universal male suffrage? Or that the Schleswig Wars were so enthusiastically supported not necessarily due to irredentism but the thought of Denmark liberating “its sons” living under the dictatorial Prussian jackboot and bringing them democracy? Class-ridden certainly, this was the 19th Century – we, of course, our considerably more enlightened which is why we make totally un-snobbish TV shows like Benefits Street and Britain’s Hardest Grafter.

    21st Century programme makers tell us a tale that our snobbish ancestors in their strange frock-coats back then fought wars, and fought them because they believed in God. They even wanted to foist their white man God on people on the other side of the world with totally different value systems. How silly and violent (and class-ridden) people are when they believe in God! Naught God!

    As he has been abandoned, today’s secular Danes would never fight in any wars, and certainly wouldn’t have the slightest hint of exporting their values to other countries.

    Of course not.

  • Korhomme

    Ah yes, ‘The Bridge’; Ice Maiden meets cuddly Teddy Bear, Aspies against empathy. Yes, I enjoyed ‘The Bridge’ but this is a very different concept, even if a lot of the actors are recycled from “The Killing’. Different rather than better or worse.

  • Korhomme

    The Danes did have a few colonies (dependencies) in the 19/20th centuries.

  • Gerry Lynch

    They still do have the Faroes and Greenland. Greenland has big social problems – as Brigitte Nyborg says at the end of that episode of Borgen, “I don’t think we did the Greenlanders any favours by discovering them.” Improbably, also what is now the US Virgin Islands was Danish until World War One’s naval blockade made it impossible for them to maintain their supply lines and they handed it to the Yanks.
    Can’t think of any others off the top of my head, but I’m sure there’s something I’ve forgotten!

  • Korhomme

    The Danes, like most of western Europe, were into ‘Empire Building’ though not on the scale of others. Wikipedia has a couple of pages:

    The US bought the Danish West Indies; I gather the colony had been loss making, and the Danes had been looking for a buyer for a while.

    Borgen was interesting; it explored a lot of social themes in a way that doesn’t seem to happen on UK TV, sadly.

  • Gerry Lynch

    I loved the first two seasons of Borgen. One of the best political dramas ever. The final season was certainly necessary and nearly brilliant but somehow it all went a little too crazy. The Greenland episode (I think Season 1 Episode 4) is genuinely moving.

  • Korhomme

    The episodes about pig farming and Greenland were very good, as was the one about trafficking/prostitution which had a much more considered and nuanced discussion than could ever be expected at Stormont.

    But, the episode about the fictional African country—the maps suggested Sudan/South Sudan—was a bit silly; it just wasn’t realistic.

  • Gareth Murray

    I was hooked on 1864, it did however end rather abruptly with many loose ends. The supernatural Johan who I sensed was a metaphor for God walking amongst the Danes, yet even he couldn’t halt their march toward self destruction, just disappeared. I also really needed the rapist and coward Didrich to die a horrible death, but alas there was no happy ending.

    There was also a touch of Ian Paisley in the portrayl of Monrad, who recognised the power of oratory in steaming up a sense of euphoria.