1. Denmark in the world war era

From 1914, the European continent was shaken by two world wars, recurring economic crises, political instability and a widespread feeling that the old Western order was in crisis. The Decline of the West, written by German thinker Oswald Spengler in the shadow of the First World War, put forward a deeply pessimistic interpretation of history, which also gained influence in Denmark. The Danish historian and politician Peter Munch was less bombastic but also described the outbreak of the First World War as a historical turning point: ‘From a bright time of progress, where work could be performed in relative security, we proceeded to a time of misfortune, horror and hatred, where everything was insecure’.

Yet these events did not preclude long-term growth in society after 1914. The growing class of industrial workers in particular achieved a higher standard of living and more widespread political and cultural recognition than ever before. The worst extremes were avoided, which contributed to the consolidation of the Danish nation state and national self-understandings, the democratisation of political institutions and progress in mitigating the effects of poverty and disease. In these areas, faith in progress could live on.

At the European level, however, political and cultural development was now characterised by clearer rifts and more obvious crises. Modern industrial and scientific innovations, which had hitherto been unequivocally hailed as progressive, now showed their darker side. During the two world wars in particular, it became clear that the tremendous industrial consequences of civilisation could also lead to equivalent levels of barbaric destruction. The historian Eric Hobsbawm described 1914 as the beginning of the ‘short’ twentieth century – the ‘age of extremes’, he called it – which lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The first three decades of this period were so marked by violence that other historians have characterised 1914–1945 as a second Thirty Years’ War, or as a long and complex European civil war. While such characterisations are difficult to reconcile with the relative calm in Danish history during most of that era, it is safe to say that the question of modern-day world war haunted the era as a whole in Denmark, too. We will therefore refer to the years 1914–1945 as the ‘world war era’.

Extremist forces on the right and left – such as Nazis and Communists respectively – saw the destructive trends of the era as opportunities for recovery: the imminent dawn of a new, better society. Other figures, such as the previously mentioned Peter Munch – defence minister during the First World War and foreign minister from 1929 to 1940 – sought to protect the old society from disaster through careful reform and organisation. Remnants of the old existed alongside – and in stark contrast with – the radically new. In his 1935 book Erbschaft dieser Zeit, the German philosopher Ernst Bloch sought to explain his own country’s drastic development towards Nazism in the 1930s based on ‘the contempo-raneity of the non-contemporaneous’ (Gleichzeigtigkeit des Ungleichzeitigen). Alongside industrial towns with their modern aspirations for the future stood not only German agriculture with social relics from an older aristocratic order, but also widespread Romantic recollections of the rural homeland. The formulation ‘the contemporaneity of the non-contemporaneous’ can be extended to cover several other historical topics, not least during the world war era. Old and new, rural and urban, crisis and prosperity, war and peace, and optimism and pessimism opposed each other strongly, including in the relatively limited territory of Denmark.