Denmark And Iceland, by Elise C. Otte
This book is 5/6 about Denmark or so and only 1/6 about Iceland, which may have been fair in the mind of the author concerning the population of the two areas but is not necessarily the most enjoyable of results. This is a book written in the late 19th century when Denmark was at perhaps its lowest period for centuries, since perhaps the horrors of the Thirty Year’s War when Denmark’s monarch had lost nearly all power and prestige as a result of his defeat and humiliation in having taken on the power of the Catholic side all on his own. At any rate, by the late 1800’s Denmark had been abandoned by the powers of Europe to the fate of being carved up and deprived of important territories by the Germans in the first and most obscure of the three wars of German unification masterminded by Bismarck after 1860. These wars are spoken about by the author but not in any great detail. Most of this book instead focuses on the history of various Danish towns. This is by no means a bad thing, but it is not quite as interesting as one would hope, since the author does not present most of these towns as being anything particularly interesting or exciting apart from antiquarian tales as well as notes about how little of the old buildings survive from medieval times.
This book is thirteen chapters long, and eleven of those chapters focus on Denmark itself. As for me, the most interesting materials in the book are in the last two chapters, the penultimate chapter being about Denmark’s empire, especially in Greenland and the Faroe Islands, and the last chapter of which is about Iceland. The rest of the book is about Denmark’s historical geography, and it starts as one would imagine with multiple chapters on Zeeland and then focuses first on the other islands of Denmark and their cities and the histories of those cities as well as the communities of Denmark from north to south, with plenty of additional material included about the sound tolls and how Denmark was paid to free the trading nations of the Baltic from that burden as well as material about the successful Danish defense of their territory in 1848 that preceded their defeat in the 1860’s. Throughout the book the author praises the paternalism of the nobles as well as the kings of Denmark, although the book contains an appendix discussing various kings that has some harsh things to say about some of the Danish kings, one of whom is noted as weak in body and mind, which seems a bit harsh (but perhaps true).
In reading this book, I was struck by the melancholy nature of Danish history, and the way in which Denmark has long had only a few cities of any great importance in a historical sense, and seems to lack a great deal of historical sites in many of those places that have a noble history. In addition, it appears telling that Denmark did not do a good job colonizing and the book praises its efforts in the Caribbean that would soon be sold to the United States in 1917 shortly before Denmark’s fortunes as a nation began to turn for the better with the recovery of at least some of its land. This book, though, was written before the recovery of some Danish land and a great deal of Danish respect through companies like Lego. One thing that is rather telling is that Danish history as portrayed in this book appears to be subject to the patronage of kings who were or were trying to be powerful and project their weight against local nobles as well as other parts of Europe, which makes the discussions of Danish politics as relevant to American politics seems less than reasonable of an assumption to make. Thankfully, this book does not make such assumptions.