Wednesday, April 11, 2012

An Introduction to Danish Culture

by Jamie Glazov

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Norman Berdichevsky, a contributing editor for New English Review and the author of more than 200 articles and book reviews that have appeared in a variety of American, British, Danish, Israeli and Spanish periodicals. He is the author of the new book, An Introduction to Danish Culture.

FP: Norman Berdichevsky, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Berdichevsky: Thank you for having me and allowing me to present readers with information about An Introduction to Danish Culture which followed the publication of The Left is Seldom Right by a few months.

Tell us what inspired you to write An Introduction to Danish Culture.

Berdichevsky: The book was my answer to the moral crisis that grows ever more ominous and threatening and was brought into the public forum with the so called ‘Muhammad Cartoon Crisis’ in which, overnight, Denmark became the target of not only Muslim wrath and violence but an unprecedented and ignorant criticism of Danish society in much of the Western media as if it were the culprit for a “provocation.” It was a bitter pill to swallow for many Danes who saw their country turned into a pariah state in 2006 by worldwide demonstrations just as Israel had been by the JIHAD GENIE that will continue to run amok (an old Danish expression) and needs to be put back in the bottle. Yesterday, Israel, Today, Denmark ……. tomorrow the World! Nevertheless, the full cost of the Muslim boycott of Danish goods and services was far less than first feared and more than made up by a spontaneous “Buy Danish” campaign that was wholly the initiative of individuals and owed nothing to any formal support or statement by Denmark’s “allies” in NATO and among Western heads of state.

The record needed to be set straight and proclaimed loudly and strongly. My familiarity and appreciation of Denmark, family connections, its people, culture, language, traditions and way of life were gained through first-hand knowledge of Danes I am proud to call my friends, many years residence in the country, family connections (my son and three grandchildren) and a profound respect, admiration and sense of obligation to acquaint my fellow Americans and others with a realistic picture of what I learned. I also wrote the book as a personal testimonial to my deep sense of gratitude towards the Danish people for their conduct during World War II and especially for the aid and comfort they provided to their Jewish fellow citizens.

I had seen two Danish films at the old Thalia movie theater on Broadway and 95th Street and they had made an enormous impression on me – Dreyer’s “Ordet” (The Word) based on the play by World War II resistance hero, Pastor Kaj Munk and Ditte-Menneskebarn (Ditte-Child of Humanity) based on the book by the great proletarian writer Martin Andersen Nexø. They intrigued me – how did these writers – much like Hans Christian Andersen use the tiny canvas of their small country and ‘minor’ language (about the same number of speakers as Hebrew) to paint such a universal work.

FP: What are the central themes of your book?

Berdichevsky: The book is divided into several sections on the country’s geography, economy, important historical events, the language and cultural achievements including Denmark’s contribution to science, engineering, seafaring, shipping, exploration, literature, philosophy, the cinema, architecture, its record on human rights, democratic institutions, and humanistic traditions all of which deserve to be much more widely known; eleven outstanding ‘Great Danes’ and those facets of the national culture such as the national language, social relations, food and drink, the country’s reputation as a social welfare state, the role of the tiny but influential Jewish community, modern political issues and the role played by Danish-Americans in American society.

FP: Why Should Americans bother about Denmark?

Berdichevsky: For several reasons, Denmark is often cited in many American public policy debates as the outstanding example of a model European social welfare state and for this reason held up a model for the Left (and so claimed Oprah after a two-day visit) or criticized by those on the conservative side of the spectrum such as Bill O’Reilly for its sky high taxes and lack of initiative (conclusions he also reached after a two day visit). It behooves us all to examine how much truth there is in each claim and what a majority of Danes have felt about these issues and whether or not the many polls cited by observers claiming that “The Danes are the happiest people in the world” are accurate.

Denmark is an ally, a member of NATO and maintains a small force in Afghanistan. It shares with us many vital interests including the treaty provisions that allow the stationing of American bases in Greenland, and more importantly our values. It is worth dwelling on how the Danes behaved as trusted allies in World War II. On March 21, 1945 at noon, 46 Mosquito bombers and fighter aircraft attacked Shell House, used by the Gestapo in Copenhagen to imprison Danish resistance fighters on the top floors. The building was attacked with precision bombing that demolished the lower floors of the building. More than 100 Germans and Danish collaborators were killed in the attack. Leading members of the Resistance managed to escape in the chaos.

This magnificent action that lifted Danish morale across the country was marred by the unfortunate accident of “collateral damage”. One of the low flying British aircraft unfortunately struck a signal tower on the nearby railway line. The resulting fire was mistaken by other attacking aircraft as the target and they dropped their bombs on the school. More than one hundred Danish civilians were killed in the conflagration that engulfed the orphanage and surrounding residential buildings, among them more than 80 children. In spite of the terrible tragedy, the attack had a galvanizing effect that signaled to the entire country that Denmark and the Danish Resistance were valued allies who were not forgotten. It also led to a significant and immediate drop in the number of collaborators who had been shown proof that the Allied cause was triumphant and could reach them in their most protected lair.

This is what we in the U.S. and U.K. have forgotten – reliable allies are only those with whom we share fundamental values – in a nation with a thousand years of history behind it such as Denmark. We cannot find them in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere in the “Muslim World”. It is also a dramatic example of why true allies understand that in spite of the grief, such accidents and incidents should not divide us and must not be the occasion for pathetic hand wringing and calls for “investigations” (that give aid and comfort to our mortal enemies) but accepted as part of the price for

FP: What makes the country’s geography so unique that you devote five chapters to it?

Berdichevsky: Probably no more than one American in a thousand can name another Danish city besides Copenhagen or sketch a map outlining the diverse areas of Jutland – the peninsula on the European mainland bordering Germany, and the two major islands of Fünen (site of Odense, the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen), and Zealand where Copenhagen is situated. In addition, there are several hundred scattered smaller islands. Probably even fewer are aware that Denmark once constituted an Empire spanning the North Sea, Baltic, and North Atlantic, ruling over much of the north and east of England for two hundred years and including the territory of Greenland (50 times the size of Denmark), the Faeroe Islands, Bornholm (much closer to Sweden than Denmark), Iceland (now independent) and reaching into the Caribbean to the Danish West Indies (sold to the United States in 1917 and known since then as the U.S. Virgin Islands – the only part of American territory where you drive on the left hand side of the road) and that this small nation was once a great naval power and exerted control over large parts of Northern Germany (Schleswig-Holstein).

FP: What makes Denmark different from the other Scandinavians nations, their history and culture?

Berdichevsky: Denmark has none of the majestic scenery of mountains, fjords and glaciers that dominate Sweden, Norway and Finland. Its gently rolling terrain, lush and beautifully cultivated fields and gardens provide a Disney like setting that go so well with the “Fairy Tales” of Hans Christian Andersen. For centuries, Denmark was the most powerful Scandinavian nation and much more intimately involved in European affairs which meant a good deal of French and German influences at the court. Its proximity to Great Britain and reliance on a powerful navy were an important element in the European balance of power, a factor that when abandoned, exposed Denmark to the wrath of unrestrained German military force and the dramatic loss of territory in the 19th century (wars of 1848-51 and 1864).

FP: What are the most common stereotypes most Americans hold about Denmark?

Berdichevsky: Danish culture and society are often portrayed by pale stereotypes and clichés about socialism, cradle to the grave security, football, pornography, Hamlet, pigs, dairy cattle, beer and more recently the inevitable and obscene charges of “racism” stemming from the Cartoon Affair. On the other hand, much of the American public under the influence of Hollywood and media personalities have retained what is perhaps the longest lived myth to emerge from the Holocaust – that the Danish King Christian X volunteered to wear the Yellow Star (never imposed on the Danish Jews during the German occupation) as a symbol of solidarity with his Jewish subjects.

FP: Are the Danes really the happiest people in the world as shown by several surveys?

Berdichevsky: It depends. Many surveys claim that but they base their definition of happiness on the many entitlements of social welfare, national health insurance and unemployment benefits includingmaternity and paternity leave but as even Shakespeare was aware of when he had Marcellus comment in Hamlet that ”There is something rotten in the state of Denmark” Act 1, scene 4, 87–91. Many observers question the results and mention poignantly that Denmark’s high suicide rate – among the highest in Europe and approximately equal to the suicide rate in the United States (11.9 vs. 11.8 per 100,000 population according to Wikipedia on line) should make people question these studies and avoid any smugness. One doesn’t see all too many smiling faces on an average gloomy winter day. What is significant is that fewer Danes are couch potatoes – an extraordinary number of cultural, social, and sports activities keep people engaged and avoid the “idle hands are the Devil’s plaything” mentality.

FP: How have Danish-Americans fit into the USA’s cultural geography?

Berdichevsky: Danish-Americans form a proud yet modest community (no contradiction). Unlike most Americans of Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish descent, Danish-Americans were less likely to establish cohesive ethnic settlements of their own. While the other Scandinavian immigrants tended to congregate with their own countrymen, the Danes spread out nationwide and comparatively quickly disappeared into the “melting pot”. A large preponderance of the Danish immigrants were single men who searched for brides among women of other national origins and subsequently they were more likely to use English and teach English to their children avoiding the appearance of mono-ethnic or “ghetto” communities. Among names of prominent Danish-Americans (born in the U.S. of full or partial Danish ancestry including those born in Denmark who became U.S. citizens) are Gutzon Borglum (sculptor who designed and carved the monumental heads of four American Presidents on Mt. Rushmore), Victor Borge, Lloyd Bentsen (unsuccessful candidate for Vice-President, 1988), Buddy Ebsen (actor), Lauritz Melchior (opera singer),Viggo Mortensen (actor), Veronica Lake (actress), Lady Bird Johnson, Jacob Riis (photographer) and the late Ted Sorenson (speechwriter and co-author with President J. F. Kennedy of “Profiles in Courage”).

FP: Who are the most well-known and important individuals you chose for the section on “Great Danes”?

Berdichevsky: Hans Christian Andersen whose collected “Fairy Tales” are, after the Bible, the world’s most translated literary work, Danish-American humorist Victor Borge, philosophers Søren Kierkegaard, “Out of Africa: author Karen Blixen, the present Queen Margrethe II, Nobel prize winning physicist Niels Bohr, astronomer Tycho Brahe, Arne Jacobsen, the “Father of Danish Design”, engineer and poet Piet Hein, clergyman N.F.S. Grundtvig, and politician Arne Sørensen.

FP: Does Denmark present a successful example of Jewish assimilation?

Berdichevsky: By and large yes. Denmark of the mid-nineteenth century set a marvelous example in human relations and brotherhood based on mutual respect. It was possible because a small minority had seen how it was incumbent upon them to win the respect of their neighbors. In today’s topsy-turvy world, Denmark and other nations are struggling to maintain their noble traditions and culture in the face of provocation from a militant minority of Muslim immigrants that seek to impose its will and culture/religion on the majority. Although a few researchers have examined the question, “How did the Jews disappear from the Danish provincial towns?”, the evidence does not provide a clear explanation. There was clearly no discriminatory legislation after Jews were granted full civil equality by a special ordinance issued on March 29, 1814 although some craft guilds prohibited non-Christians from becoming apprentices to learn the particular skill. It is clear that some Jews left the provincial cities towards the end of the 19th century to settle in Copenhagen where they died. It may well be that others emigrated to the Danish West Indies (today’s U.S. Virgin Islands) to pursue their business interests or back to their places of origin in Schleswig-Holstein but the main reason is probably that they intermarried (without formal conversion) or just opted out from participation in Jewish community affairs.

FP: Why has Integration of the Muslim immigrant community been so difficult?

Berdichevsky: The Muslim minority of immigrants and their children/grandchildren has come to feel increasingly emboldened to act beyond the law under the influence of several imams who helped fan the flames of confrontation and distorted the cartoon controversy to exert their influence. Saudi money is apparent in the plans to construct a major mosque in Copenhagen. In the bustling Nørrebro neighborhood one can see how a major traffic thoroughfare reserved for bus traffic only and where parking for motorists was strictly forbidden, has been expropriated as a No-Go area for “ordinary citizens” (i.e. the non-Muslim majority). The lane along a stretch of the neighborhood’s major thoroughfare, Nørrebrogade, has been taken over by parked cars that are utilized by shop owners (all Muslim) to store their wares (predominantly fruit and vegetables) or simply expropriated by “passers-by” who have illegally parked, knowing full well that the Danish police and parking officials will not uphold the law against Muslims. This is nothing less than the existence of a separate law for those who now constitute a parallel culture under protection of their own Sharia law that are off limits to all others. Similar neighborhoods amounting to Muslim ghettoes exist in other cities. It is no secret that the voting behavior of Muslim immigrants supports the Leftwing parties that have done their utmost to turn Denmark into the model of what is called a “multi-cultural society” but which more and more resembles a mosaic of segregated neighborhoods. Moderate Danish Muslims who objected to the campaign of demonstrations and boycotts against Denmark during the “Cartoon Crisis” were threatened and ostracized.

FP: Has the Danish-German border issue been finally and fully resolved?

Berdichevsky: Yes. The pro-Danish movement to ‘return’ South Schleswig to Denmark that flowered briefly after World War II was nipped in the bud. The ‘core’ Danish minority population today in South Schleswig is much stronger than it was in 1920 and 1939, In recent local elections, the SSW (Danish Minority Party in South Schleswig) increased its share of the vote to regain strength and even attracted some voters who are the descendants of German refugees from the lost areas in the east that were annexed by Poland and Czechoslovakia after 1945. They identify with the Danish minority and feel that the program of the SSW speaks more closely to their social and economic interests than the German political parties. Both the German and Danish governments signed solemn agreements after World War II regarding their respective minorities guaranteeing them free rights to organize socially, culturally and politically and that their own self-identity could not be questioned, challenged or “tested”. What had been a conflict lasting centuries and a major issue even as recently as in 1945-50 has been put to rest. It makes a fascinating story.

FP: Norman Berdichevsky, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.

Jamie Glazov


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