According to a book I am reading at present, the phrase “Hvad udad tabes, skal indad vindes” is a phrase that nearly every Dane knows by heart. The phrase was uttered by the Danish author H.P. Holst in 1811, and became more popular “when it was adopted by the Danish Health Society, which interpreted it, quite literally, in its work to reclaim coastal land by draining sandy territories in Jutland .” The phrase means, in translation, “what was lost without will be found within,” and it gives a particularly interesting view of the world that I would like to examine at least in part. After all, for a phrase like this to become proverbial wisdom, even to the point of cliche, it has to speak to some sort of core and essential aspect of the worldview of a given society, and there are likely reasons why this is the case, even if those reasons can be debated endlessly based on one’s political and religious worldviews, for example.
Let us first ponder what approach this particular quote takes towards the problems of logistics and resources. It should be obvious that the quote assumes a great deal of power and responsibility for the self or the community or the society to provide the resources that are missing from without. Far from seeking to blame shortfalls on the difficulties of one’s physical or social environment, the author of the quote assumes that there will be resources lacking in the outside world, or indeed things that once were possessed that were taken away by external forces for which internal grit and hard (and smart) work must provide the substitutes. If you lack the resources you need, you must substitute resourcefulness. If you lack encouragement and external support, you must develop determination and an encouraging inner voice. If the world is hostile to you, you must find a way to overcome the world, or at least overcome its hostility. The phrase is an encouraging one, but not a complacent one, encouraging effort and creativity to deal with adverse circumstances.
And the context of this quote is certainly appropriate when one looks at Denmark’s situation in the 19th century (and not only then either). Once upon a time, Denmark had been a massive European power, dominating Denmark and Norway in the Kalmar Union, controlling the passage into the Baltic Sea and prospering from the sound dues paid by ships wishing to trade in Northern Europe, and even possessing the confidence in the 17th century to intervene on the side of the Protestants in the Thirty Year’s War (which didn’t go particularly well). But by the early 19th century, Denmark was not in a good place. Twice in the decade or so before Holst’s comments Denmark and its fleet had been attacked by the British in order to deny it to the French, and Denmark’s capital had suffered naval bombardment in war. And things would only get worse for Denmark as the century progressed. After the Napoleonic Wars it would lose control of Norway, which was given to Sweden as compensation for the loss of Finland to the Russians. In the 1860’s it would lose Holstein and Schleswig to a coalition of Prussia and Austria (who would soon fight among themselves), with no one standing in defense of the Danes. And the 20th century would bring the loss of Iceland and Nazi domination in World War II. Holst knew what he was speaking of; there was much that was taken away from the Danes during the time that he was writing, and Denmark was a little nation which did not account for much in the geopolitical calculations of more powerful neighbors and rivals.
That said, Denmark did find a great deal of internal strength despite these difficulties. Where it lacked natural resources it exploited wind power to help provide electricity for its society. Through reclaiming land it, like the Netherlands (another small European nation), managed to increase the amount of productive agricultural land where it could feed its people. And through its own internal resources of creativity, Denmark found that it was able to influence other societies, whether it was in providing toys like Legos , or whether it was through existential philosophy or the fairy tales of Hans Christen Anderson. If its military power was weak, and its demographics guaranteed it would be far smaller than the other more powerful nations around it (like Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom), it did have cultural influence largely thanks to the creativity of its own people, and it possessed a fair amount of wealth as a result of those same creative efforts. What was taken from without was replaced by what was found within, and so Holst’s quote expresses something quite true about Danish society and the resourcefulness of its people in overcoming a great many of their societal limitations.
What implications does this phrase have for others? Can others profit from the example of the Danes? Indeed, the example of the Danes can provide a great deal of encouragement for others. First, when we recognize that the outside world is at best indifferent and frequently hostile to our own interests, we can seek to build internally the sort of character and human capital that can allow for successful efforts. How can our situation be made better, and how can we become more resourceful and more productive. Where can our creative energies be turned towards creating a better world than what now is? Directing our efforts and energies in such a fashion, rather than either beating ourselves up or complaining about the harshness of the world around us, can actually improve the sort of situations we find ourselves in. The world around us may be hostile, but that only means that we have to draw our strength from another place.
 Michael Booth, The Almost Nearly Perfect People (New York: Picador, 2014), 24.