Every country has had an annus horribilis. Denmark’s was 1864 …

April 18 last month marked the 152nd anniversary of a defeat that still reverberates around the corridors of power to this day

Over a century and a half ago, Denmark fought a battle for the southern part of Jutland – and lost. DR based its most expensive-ever drama series on this historic and monumental event, the Battle of Dybbøl, which took place on April 18 in 1864.

The production cost the national broadcaster no less than 100 million kroner and premiered in the autumn of 2014, the year of the battle’s 150th anniversary.

A complex history
The Battle of Dybbøl was the key battle of the Second Schleswig War, and it has had an enormous impact on this country’s self-perception and foreign politics ever since. It is a complex part of its history, which has always been associated with tensions and strong opinions. The many years of planning, along with the cost and the sheer scale of ambition of DR’s project, indicate that the war of 1864 is not a subject to be taken lightly.

The former minister of culture, Per Stig Møller, got himself into trouble when he allegedly tried to interfere with the planning of the content of the series. In Møller’s opinion the series should not only focus on the defeat to the Austrian and Prussian armies (Germany was still seven years away from unification), but should include other historical events as well.

Mogens Jensen (Socialdemokraterne) criticised Møller for interfering and suggested that Møller did not want to focus solely on the Battle of Dybbøl because it can be seen as a stain on this country’s history, which exposes the national-liberal establishment.

The Germanification of Schleswig
The conflict that led to the war in 1864 had roots that went all the way back to Medieval times, when Schleswig (the southernmost part of Jutland and northernmost part of Germany) became a duchy with special laws. It was the duty of the duke of Schleswig to protect Denmark against foreign tribes threatening the southern border of the country.

Over the years the duchy of Schleswig became more and more detached from the rest of the country and, during financial and political chaos in the 12th century, rich noblemen from the neighbouring German duchy of Holstein took possession of Schleswig.

Although it still officially remained a part of Denmark – in 1460 King Christian I was acknowledged as duke of the united area of Schleswig-Holstein – the Germans became powerful in the local town governments and German became the spoken language in the churches of Danish-speaking Schleswig.

National hatred leads to war
When nationalism became widespread in the 1800s, the tensions between the Danish and German populations in the region came to the fore and the lurking conflict burst into flames. German nationalists wanted independence from Denmark and insisted on drawing the border at the river Kongeåen, just south of Kolding and Fredericia.

On the other hand, Danish nationalists believed that Schleswig, but not Holstein, should be fully incorporated into the Danish kingdom, as it contained a majority Danish population. They insisted the border be drawn at the Eider river, just above Kiel.

The tensions between the parties led to what is known as the First Schleswig War, or the Three Years’ War, from 1848 to 1850. Thanks to help from abroad, and a resolute domestic effort, Denmark managed to win the war.

And then a second war
Despite winning the war, Denmark was forced by the international community to promise that Schleswig would still retain its link to Holstein, which meant Danish nationalists had to shelve the idea of a border along the Eider and try to collaborate with Holstein.

However, the Three Years’ War had only intensified the hatred between the two parties, who were not in any way prepared to collaborate with each other. In 1863 Denmark broke its promise to the international community by introducing the so-called November Constitution, which separated Holstein from the Danish kingdom but also, and more importantly, united Schleswig with it.

This infuriated Prussia and Austria, who demanded that the November Constitution should be annulled in January 1864. The government refused and, on January 31, Prussia and Austria declared war; this became known as the Second Schleswig War.

Denmark decided to withdraw all its soldiers from Holstein and station them at the fortification Dannevirke, 20km north of the border between Holstein and Schleswig. However, because the rivers in the area were frozen over, the Prussians and Austrians managed to get round the Danish soldiers and attack Dannevirke from behind. The Danish army then decided to retreat and most of the soldiers were sent to Dybbøl.

The Battle of Dybbøl
While the Danish soldiers got ready for the big battle at Dybbøl, the Prussian and Austrian soldiers marched further and further up into the country, occupying big towns such as Kolding, Vejle and Fredericia along the way. They also gathered a huge army just outside of Dybbøl and had modern weapons imported.

At 4am on 18 April 1864, the invading soldiers launched a heavy artillery assault on the entrenchment at Dybbøl. The attack lasted for six intense hours, killing many soldiers and destroying the fortification. At 10am the firing ceased and 10,000 Prussians stormed what was left of the fortification. The Danes fought back as best they could, but the Prussians kept sending in reinforcements, and by the end of the day the Prussians had taken over Dybbøl.

Denmark had suffered a devastating defeat: 1,699 men died during the battle and 3,131 were captured. Battles continued around Jutland for another few months, but defeat in the Battle of Dybbøl was the deathblow. On July 20, the government admitted defeat and asked for a ceasefire. The conditions for peace were tough: Denmark lost all of Holstein and Schleswig, corresponding to a loss of two thirds of the area of the country before the war and a reduction of one million in the population number.

1864 remembered always
In 1920, after the First World War, the modern day border was created as the north of Schleswig was reunited with Denmark after a referendum. It was a victory for a country that had decided by then, following the lessons of the Second Schleswig War, to never use war as a political tool. Since Dybbøl, it has tried to stay passive and neutral in all matters regarding war, and Danish forces were not involved in warfare outside their frontiers until the 1999

NATO bombings during the Kosovo War. The defeat in 1864 was a serious blow to the country’s self-perception, which was still influenced by a glorious past in which it had ruled over both Norway and Sweden. It had gone from being a nation with imperial dreams to being a fairly insignificant midget state.

The Battle of Dybbøl is a bitter reminder of this and the recent DR drama series is not in any way feel-good entertainment.