At 64 years of age, Count Henrik Holstein can look back on an interesting and varied career, comprised of working with the US Foreign Service, business, teaching and writing.
Now on his second book, Count Holstein also gives history lectures and offers guided tours around Danish castles and cathedrals. As an active board member, he devotes a great deal of time to the charitable Johanniter organisation and the Danish Nobility Association. Count Holstein recently spoke to Diplomacy Magazine.
What was your upbringing like?
I grew up in the countryside. When I was 11 years old I was sent to Herlufsholm boarding school, where I spent eight wonderful years. Normally it would be only seven years, but I asked the headmaster for another year – or perhaps he asked me!
After joining the Royal Guards I became a sergeant and was designated for officers’ school, but after a year waiting for a place, I left.
What does your career path look like?
Back in the early 80s I spent three years in South Africa working for a British chemicals company. It was a remarkable experience to work with the local population down there.
Some years later I served as political advisor to US Ambassador Terence Todman for a total of three years. It was during a time that has often been described as a “controversial era in the history of Danish foreign policy.”
However, I’ve spent most of my time in business. I was an export manager and for six years a managing director. I also tried to run my own business and lost all my money! It was only recently that I retired to this former convent in Roskilde in order to take up writing. I’m mostly writing about historical subjects, that have always fascinated me.
How did you get into the political advisory role?
It was almost by mistake. I was told about an opening at the American Embassy by an acquaintance applying for the position. He said: “Henrik, I’ve been rejected, why don’t you try?” I did, and was invited in for a series of interviews. Eventually, they told me I’d get the job because I was the right guy, but I would need to learn a lot of things very fast. Indeed, I really had a lot to learn – but it was very, very exciting.
What was it like to work with Ambassador Todman?
Ambassador Todman is the only professional ambassador the United States has ever deployed to Denmark in my lifetime. It was an honour to serve him – I learned so much from him and the work was extremely satisfying.
Todman was from the US Virgin Islands, formerly the Danish West Indies. He served in the US Army during and after WWII. He was always top at the universities. He became US ambassador to a number of nations, followed by Spain, then Denmark and finally Argentina, where he was dubbed ‘the Viceroy’ with loving sarcasm. He was a so-called ‘career Ambassador’ from 1990 until his death in 2014.
In Denmark, he explained to the Opposition of the time that if they made it difficult for American warships to sail in Danish waters, the ships would stay away altogether. The Opposition commented to the press that now they knew what it was like for a Hungarian prime minister to be called in for a meeting with the Soviet ambassador! Todman never accepted that an honest politician could turn ‘not coming with our ships’ into ‘coming with our forces to put you right’.
This particular period of the Cold War was crucial for Denmark as a NATO member, and that made my job even more interesting. At one stage an Opposition spokesman was in line to be the next chairman of a NATO organisation, even though he had always been extremely critical of NATO and the United States.
I objected and said “at least the US could protest about it,” but the ambassador said Washington had decided not to make a fuss; they, for their part, would just withhold information from this man throughout his tenure. Not at all satisfied, I compiled a report quoting some of the most radical statements this fellow had made, and somehow it was sent to Washington. Next thing I knew, the chairmanship was given to another country, which resulted in great relief – even within the man’s own party.
How do you see the importance of diplomacy?
While just before WWI it was rather the opposite, modern diplomacy serves to avoid misunderstandings between nations. Diplomacy may defuse crises and, ultimately, prevent war.
For the individual embassies, the most important duties are to be the eyes and ears of their respective countries, to recommend appropriate responses, and to carry out an efficient public affairs strategy. However, professional diplomats may well have a different view.
When has diplomacy been most essential in your time?
Probably when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. It was absolutely critical that diplomacy functioned well in those days. During the Cold War it was easy to label things black and white, them or us, whereas the world is much more complex today.
Do you see any similarities between the Cold War and global tensions today?
Fortunately, today’s tensions are not at the same level as they were during the Cold War. We can travel to Russia whenever we want – even to Cuba – and vice versa. I sincerely hope that it will stay like that. But we have some very complex challenges that are extremely dangerous. The huge development of fake news and the troll factories that spread disinformation constitute a completely new sort of warfare. We’ve always known about propaganda, but this has different aspects and dimensions that are scarily far-reaching.
Which qualities should a diplomat try to embody?
As an outside observer it seems that it is mostly the older generation of statesmen who embody the virtues and qualities of a diplomat: never arrogant, always agile and goal-orientated, impeccable with perfect manners.
It seems that some of these qualities are occasionally lost in some of the younger Danish diplomats as they strive to be ‘relaxed Danes’ at the expense of elegant and congenial manners – unlike most of their foreign counterparts.
What are you currently working on?
I’m writing my second book, which revolves around Germans who helped Danish Jews and resistance fighters during the Occupation of Denmark (1940-45), a topic that has not been given prominence before.
There are some very touching stories like that of the Dane whose life was saved twice in one day by German officer. Or when the Shell House was bombed and everyone ran out of the house, and the German prison guard ran against the stream, up the staircases to the top floor to let the prisoners out of their attic cells.
My first book was ‘Nobility in Our Time’, which endeavours to sum up the framework of rules, etiquettes and traditions still applying to the Danish- Norwegian nobility – lest it all be forgotten. You may find more at historiesus.dk.