The Year of 1864, a text by Andreas Faludi

The illustration shows a painting by Josef Carl Püttner (1821–1881) of the Austrian Navy engaged in support of Prussia in the Battle of Helgoland. CC 0.4.

Assuming its audience to be in the know about the significance of the date, the Danish TV series under this title seems to vindicate Lord Palmerston‘s bon mot (referred to in my earlier blog on ‘Territorialism Follies’) that the issue was beyond comprehension. Danish viewers in any case must have understood the message. Others at least learn about a nationalistic fervour making Denmark embark on absorbing Schleswig – of which the Danish king in his capacity as a German prince was the rightful sovereign – into a unitary Danish nation-state. Other German sovereigns saw this as casus belli, so Austria sent a navy squadron and Prussia its modern army giving the Danes a devastating blow. (Within a couple of years, but this is a different story, Prussia would turn on her Austrian ally, making her into the junior partner she remained until her empire dissipated in 1918.)

Discussing Danish history, amongst others, Cooper (2021) helps in understanding, not only this episode, but also Danish exceptionalism ever since. So, after Brexit, Denmark is for instance the only country with an opt-out from the Euro (while at the same time aligning the Kroner with the common currency, whereas Sweden without one refuses to honour its obligation to exchange her Kroner for the Euro). However, the other opt-out from EU citizenship is the most telling, garnering, as it did, the largest majority in subsequent referenda against rescinding it. This until, emulating the Danish position of EU citizenship being merely an add-on to national citizenship (a matter discussed in ‘The EU a Tangle’) the Treaty of Amsterdam made this opt-out meaningless. (See:

More relevant is the, exceedingly tough Danish position concerning refugees. Not even emulating Australia off-shoring them is beyond the pale, nor taking the valuables of refugees to pay for their upkeep. The nationalists wanting a homeland for all Danes, Cooper’s explanation for the desire to incorporate Schleswig in the 19th century, still seems to hold.

It is a position that sells well, not only in Denmark. Which is why it is sobering to go deeper into Cooper’s take on the situation in 1864. The catastrophe, he notes, ’…came not from a miscalculation but from a failure to calculate at all. Denmark was swept along on a torrent of national feeling, and the belief that their cause was right and would therefore triumph.’ (2021, 114) Only one player considered to be an outsider, the new king speaking Danish with a German accent had his misgivings. But ‘…Denmark was now a democracy and he had no power.‘ (ibid)

Which shows the problematics of the production of democratic legitimacy. It’s not that the people have the ultimate say, rather that it’s the people of, more or less artificially created national territories rather than the people affected that has the last say. Denmark’s one-time foreign minister in the twentieth century, Cooper says, saw this clearly. He wrote there to be a widespread perception ‘…that Denmark’s foreign policy is determined by the Danish government and parliament. … In fact Danish foreign policy is determined by factors over which the Danish government and parliament can exert very little influence.’ (Ibid) Cooper praises him for having understood this lesson and steering his country — a different story, this — relatively unscathed through the troubled waters of the twentieth century. But this is a difficult sell in election campaigns, even though this awareness is badly needed, and not only in small countries for that. So, beware of what, with deliberate provocation, I call the democratic illusion of elections being the royal road to rendering self-determination operational. What is also badly needed is to be willing and able to calculate the costs.


Cooper (2021) The Ambassadors: Thinking about Diplomacy from Machiavelli to Modern Times, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London.