Germany loses its culture

German as a discontinued model : Why Denmark's interest in German culture is waning

Sophie Wennerscheid is Professor of Danish Literature at the Institute for Nordic Studies and Linguistics at the University of Copenhagen. Her book “Sex Machina - On the Future of Desire” was recently published by Matthes & Seitz Berlin.

In the docudrama series “Grænseland” (Grenzland) produced in 2020, actor Lars Mikkelsen leads with a dramatic voice and a fixed gaze into the camera through a moving piece of Danish-German history and explains to his audience what it means to be Danish.

It is understandable that the story is told from a Danish perspective. But it is a shame that there are no German subtitles. This is how a German-speaking audience would understand why Denmark had to cede the duchies of Schleswig, Holstein and Lauenburg to Prussia and Austria after the lost battle at the Düppeler Schanzen in 1864, thereby losing almost a third of its size.

Although the king received the promise that the population of Schleswig could decide for themselves whether they want to belong to Denmark or Germany when the time comes, that remains an empty promise. The situation becomes dramatic when the Danish-minded young men from North Schleswig have to go to war for Germany against their will.

It was only when Germany lost the First World War and the borders of Europe were rearranged that the tide turned. At the peace negotiations in Versailles, the German-Danish border question finally came on the agenda and in 1920 a referendum decided that North Schleswig would become Danish South Jutland again, while South Schleswig including Flensburg and Sylt would remain German.

When King Christian rides across the old border on a high white steed, most Danes cheer. However, those who demanded a border line south of Flensburg and are now a Danish minority in Germany are disappointed. And those who would have liked to remain German and are now a minority in Denmark are also concerned.

Corona epidemic falls in the German-Danish friendship year

100 years after the historic event, which is being held in Denmark under the title “Reunification”, the German-Danish year of friendship 2020 is being celebrated under the auspices of the foreign ministers of both countries. Numerous events take place on both sides of the border to emphasize the cultural proximity of the neighboring countries and to strengthen the border region as a model for peaceful coexistence in Europe.

As a kick-off event, a large Germany exhibition was opened in the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen in January. A silent film festival followed with rarely shown German and Danish productions. But then in mid-March all celebrations stopped abruptly due to the corona epidemic and the German-Danish border was closed.

People who were used to unrestricted travel were faced with drastic restrictions. Above all, the members of the respective national minorities were irritated by the fact that solidarity was just conjured up, but now it was not cultural affiliation, but citizenship that decided who was allowed to visit whom.

When Denmark had a fence built against wild boars from Germany the year before to prevent the spread of the so-called African swine fever, the question arose as to whether such measures made sense.

Corona crisis as an argument for guarded borders

What is sensible in terms of health policy, and where are diffuse fears of the threatening stranger fueled? The national-conservative Danish People's Party, at least, was quick to use the corona crisis as an argument to promote the central point of its party program: "A safe country behind a guarded border."

The fact that the party was unable to assert itself with the demand for permanent border controls has not least to do with economic interests. Under pressure from the Danish Tourist Association, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced on May 29 that the border should be reopened at least a little.

German, Norwegian and Icelandic tourists have been able to re-enter the country since June 15, when King Christian crossed the German-Danish border exactly one hundred years ago. However, only if you have booked a holiday home for six days and do not stay overnight in Copenhagen.

If the partner of a German living there wants to visit his girlfriend, he must have their relationship confirmed in a written declaration and show it at the border. The number of people entering the country should be kept as low as possible, but enough money should come into the country.

Government promotes "Danes-first nationalism"

But border issues cannot just be about hard currencies. Friendship as a currency is at least as important, emphasizes the Danish director of the think tank Europa Lykke Friis. The Danish journalist and author Knud Vilby puts it more sharply.

In his view, Frederiksen's government is pushing for a “Danes-first nationalism”, which is supposed to bring about unity inwardly through demarcation from outside. The fact that the Prime Minister, with her hygge rhetoric, the Danish form of identity-creating comfort, puts national interests above European ones becomes clear from the rejection of the European aid fund requested by Angela Merkel.

The fact that the big neighbor in the south is the most important trading partner and that Germany is referred to as the leading force in Europe in the Danish media does not change the fact that Germany has lost much of its importance as a cultural force. Today the Anglo-American countries set the tone. Even the Germany exhibition was bought from Great Britain.

Fear of lack of German teachers

The new dominant culture in Denmark is particularly noticeable in the reluctance to multilingualism. Anyone who speaks English as well as the Danes are not very motivated to learn another foreign language.

Although Danish business associations emphasize that there is a shortage of skilled workers with a knowledge of German and the schools fear that there will soon no longer be any qualified German teachers, the number of German studies students is falling.

Of the approximately 4,500 first-year students at Aalborg University, only five students chose the German bachelor's degree in 2019. Despite strong protests, the course was then closed. German studies at the other universities in Denmark are doing better than their reputations.

The opening of the border could revitalize the exchange

At the University of Århus, Professor Søren Fauth inspires his students for the German language, literature and culture. Some of his students produce the podcast series “Deutschstunde”, which is well worth listening to. And at the University of Copenhagen, at the Institute for English, German and Romance Studies, they are researching the beginnings and the cultural reach of a “European Republic of Letters”.

If the borders now open again and everyone realizes how much travel and culture were missing during the lockdown, that means a new chance for the German-Danish friendship year 2020. In any case, in Copenhagen they are working at full speed again after the forced break.

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