‘How to Get to Denmark’ — from Rome

Culture - February 6, 2024

European Diary: Rome, June 2022

Rome certainly deserves to be called the ‘Eternal City’. Nowhere has one as strong a feeling of history as in the capital of the Roman Empire and later of the Catholic Church and of the Italian state. The British writer Edward Gibbon recalled in his memoirs how he was inspired to write his renowned history of the Empire: ‘It was at Rome, on the fifteenth of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing Vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the City first started to my mind.’ In December 1923, Jon Thorlaksson, Icelandic entrepreneur, Prime Minister and first Leader of the conservative-liberal Independence Party, stood in the ruins of Forum Romanum and allowed himself to shed a tear upon reflecting on the decline of this great city. But in a sense, the ancient Romans are still alive and kicking through the Romance languages, all descended from colloquial Latin, and for a millennium classical Latin was of course the means of communication in Western Europe. Indeed, in 1933 the aforementioned Jon (as he should be called: most Icelanders have no family names, Thorlaksson just meaning that he was son of Thorlak), now Mayor of Iceland’s capital Reykjavik, found himself sitting next to Italian Air Marshal Italo Balbo at a dinner in Reykjavik where Balbo had a stopover on his celebrated 1933 transatlantic flight from Orbetello in Italy to Chicago. Jon and Balbo had difficulties in communicating until they realised that they could both speak Latin, then taught at grammar schools both in Iceland and Italy. Thereupon they had a lively conversation in fluent Latin. For me, it is always a pleasure to visit the Eternal City, as I did in the summer of 2022, when I was asked to give a talk there at a conference organised by ECR, European Conservatives and Reformists, on 24–25 June. The topic was the third sector, between the public and the private sectors.

The Third Sector

The third sector is indeed a highly relevant topic for European conservative liberals. In my talk in Rome I recalled that two prominent thinkers, Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, both had emphasised the third sector, or what is commonly called civil society, constituted by the family, locality, congregation, voluntary associations, sports clubs, schools and last but not least the nation with its history, language, law, literature, legends, myths, folk songs, folk dances and other customs, habits and manners. Burke and Tocqueville both understood that individuals are not only consumers and producers entering into enforceable contracts with one another. Economic man, homo economicus, is a rational construct, useful for making economic predictions, but not a plausible description of the nature and conditions of human beings. Individuals are also members of several communities, with ties, attachments and commitments following from such membership. It was this that often gave their lives direction and meaning.

At the conference in Rome, I felt that the most useful contribution I could make would be to present a Nordic perspective on the third sector. At the time I was doing research for a month in Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital, on the Nordic liberal tradition. My working hypothesis was that the relative success of the Nordic countries was not because of the welfare state constructed by social democrats in mid-twentieth century, but rather because of the solid legal and social framework offered by the nation state, supported by a strong third sector, developed mainly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In my talk I focused on Denmark. One reason Denmark fared well in modern times was the strength of civil society there, as American philosopher Francis Fukuyama observed in a recent book, The Origins of Political Order. He even suggested that many other societies had to find out ‘how to get to Denmark’.

Grundtvig and Social Cohesion

Economic reforms in Denmark inspired by Adam Smith had in late eighteenth century created a large class of independent farmers who became in the nineteenth century loyal supporters of Nikolaj F. S. Grundtvig, the great conservative liberal widely seen as the most influential interpreter (or even creator) of Danish national identity, Danishness, danskhed. Grundtvig, a pastor, was not only a prolific author of hymns, but also the proponent of ‘happy Christianity’. He was a firm beliefer in religious freedom and free speech, also for those of whom he disapproved. His adage ‘Freedom for Loke as well as for Thor’ is widely known in Denmark and the other Nordic countries: Loke was a devious heathen god, whereas Thor was a heroic god. Grundtvig also contributed much to the people’s high schools established in Denmark and other Nordic countries in the nineteenth century. They provided civic education to many with neither the time nor the means to pursue university education.

Not least under the influence of the Grundtvigians, Denmark became a country of social cohesion and a high level of trust, while civic virtues thrived such as honesty, politeness, punctuality, and industriousness. Danish society was, and is, characterised by reliability, mutuality, solidarity, accountability, transparency, and a low level of corruption. Paradoxically, I submitted in my talk, Denmark’s military defeats in the nineteenth century when she had to give up Norway to Sweden and Schleswig-Holstein to Prussia, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The Danes abandoned futile dreams of military conquests and focused instead on trade, industry, and modern agriculture in which they became world leaders. Meanwhile, Danish civil society was strengthened, not only by individual entrepreneurship, but also by voluntary cooperation in many fields, for example in free congregations, local communities, dairies, consumers’ cooperatives, and private high schools.

The Danish National Spirit

Iceland was ruled from Copenhagen between 1380 and 1918 when she became a sovereign country, a constitutional monarchy in a personal union with the Danish king. In the past, most Icelanders studying abroad went to Denmark, although it was certainly not true what the French fantasist Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote (in Note P to the Second Part of his Discourse on Inequality) that some of the ‘noble savages’ from Iceland brought to Denmark withered away and died, whereas others drowned when they tried to swim back to their country! There still remain strong cultural ties between Denmark and Iceland. For example, my first foreign language at school was Danish. On the whole, I think that the Icelanders have benefitted from their relationship with Denmark, especially after the Danes abandoned mercantilism in the eighteenth century and absolutism in the nineteenth century.

Over time, I have myself come to appreciate the many attractive features of the Danish national spirit, or culture, mainly derived from (or perhaps being an expression of) Denmark’s strong third sector. This national spirit was well captured in sayings by famous Danes. The nineteenth century literary critic Georg Brandes once remarked: ‘He who does not understand a joke, does not understand Danish.’ When a German officer in 1940 spoke admiringly about the self-discipline of the Danes under occupation, Copenhagen Mayor Ernst Kaper retorted: ‘This is not discipline; it is culture.’ The twentieth century comedian and pianist Victor Borge once observed that the ‘smile was the shortest distance between people’.

Expressions of ‘Danishness’

The pleasant and positive, but slightly ironic, outlook which is very Danish is well expressed in the short and pithy poems by Piet Hein, a Danish polymath of mid-twentieth century. One of them is about ‘Those who know’:

Those who always
know what’s best
a universal pest.

Another poem is about ‘What Love is Like’:

Love is like
a pineapple,
sweet and

The Danish folk wisdom is also found in many commonly quoted old proverbs (some of which admittedly exist in other languages). One example is: ‘Elsk din Nabo men riv ikke Gjerdet ned.’ Love your neighbour, but do not tear down the fence. Another proverb is: ‘Enhver er sin egen lykkes smed.’ Every man is the architect of his own fortune. (It somehow sounds better in Danish than English.)

The Danish national spirit, danskhed, is perhaps best described by words which are hard to translate into other languages. I would single out two such words. One is ‘arbejdsglæde’. Literally it means ‘work joy’ which sounds somehow contrived in English. It really reflects the strong work ethic in Denmark, but also the Danish conviction that work should be rewarding in itself, pleasant, providing a sense of self-fulfilment. The workplace should be a forum for cooperation and mutual encouragement. The other untranslatable word is ‘hygge’. It describes a warm, cozy feeling or activity, anything that makes you relaxed and fulfilled. It conjures up an image of a happy family or a group of friends enjoying a Saturday evening with friends, drinking beer and telling jokes.

A New Challenge

The conclusion of my talk in Rome on the third sector was that the three main factors explaining the relative success of the Nordic countries in general and of Denmark in particular were the rule of law, an open economy, and social cohesion, indeed mainly brought about by a strong third sector. However, in Denmark this cohesion had recently been challenged by the influx of people from cultures hostile to free speech and individual flourishing, I added. These people formed enclaves where they tried to implement their own illiberal customs, while they abused the generous welfare provisions Denmark offered. I recalled the 2005 conflict between Islamist fundamentalists and a Danish newspaper which had published some cartoons of Muhammad the Prophet. Some imams in Denmark had even travelled to Arab countries in order to encourage them to boycott Danish exports. It was a conflict between the Danish tradition of free speech, for Loke as well as for Thor, and customs alien to Danes. But despite such challenges, Denmark remains a peaceful, prosperous country with a vibrant civil society, I said. She is by no means perfect but perhaps it was the combined strength of her relatively free economy and the important third sector which had enabled her to escape relatively unscathed from the social democratic experiment and other challenges.

(The illustration is a painting by Peder Severin Krøyer from 1888, of a festival in Denmark.)