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With all due Respect: 150 Years of Commemoration


With the exception of the Danish Waffen‐SS deployments and voluntary, individual participation in the wars in Spain and Finland, from 1864 right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Denmark has not fought any war, nor has she been otherwise involved in active combat. Thus, for a considerable number of years, Denmark has had no experience with paying tribute to surviving veterans or fallen national heroes. Although monuments to participants of both world wars have been set up and consecrated, the honouring and recognition of veterans and dead have been played low key. 

There are several explanations for that, and central amongst these is the typically Danish apparent, although superficial, modesty. The ways in which this manifests itself have varied over the years. In 1799, the author Peter Andreas Heiberg published his cognition that “orders are for idiots.” Thus, he embarrassed the establishment, the nobility, and the Royal Family, who were more or less the only ones to receive such tokens of public appreciation and at Christmas Eve 1799 he was given 24 hours to leave the country, dying in exile in France in 1841. However, writing as he did, he intimated that in his home country honours were for the chosen few and that one, not being amongst them, had to be careful and modest as to one’s public expressions. Throughout the following years the kingdom shrank continuously losing Norway in 1814, Schleswig, Holstein and Lauenburg in 1864, The Virgin Islands in 1917 and Iceland during World War II. The realm grew increasingly modest in size and grandeur, and the mentality was influenced by this decline. Moreover, in 1905 the Social Liberal party was founded believing in abolition of national defence and the futility of national pride. The Royal family and public appreciation through royal honours were anathema to this party. Its clout was felt throughout society and, for almost a century, its influence on opinion formation remained considerable. Skærmbillede 2020-01-20 kl. 17.01.18.png


Lex Jante 

As we can see through the Heiberg quotation, longstanding Danish tradition requires appreciation to be used sparingly. This was the case in the 18th century – and so it is today. Generally, the Danes were and still are averse to seeing their neighbours decorated, especially so if they have not been equally fortunate themselves. In 1933, this dull view was codified by the author Aksel Sandemose in his novel En Flygtning krydser sit Spor [A Refugee Crosses his Track]. This so‐called Lex Jante states as its main commandments that: “thou shalt not believe that thou art of any significance . . . thou shalt not consider yourself above the rest of us . . . thou shalt not assume yourself to be wiser than we.”2 

Such reservations go hand in glove with Social Liberal thinking and have affected the appreciation of veterans and fallen warriors too. One of our retired generals, who wished to procure some approval of those having fought at Tuzla, was met with the response that this was indeed no simple matter, because “there were others who had been brave, but who would receive no medal, as there had been no eye witnesses to their deeds.3

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On 24 November 1998, H.M. the Queen gave two soldiers the "Ebbe Munck Award.” They had been selected amongst thirty‐four officers and other ranks, because in an April night of 1994 their mechanised company had managed to pull thirty Swedish and Norwegian soldiers out of a Serbo‐Bosnian barrage. Quite a few wondered why not all thirty‐four got a decoration for valour. They had fought for hours under great danger from the Serbo‐Bosnian artillery bombardment and successfully rescued all the Swedish and Norwegian personnel out of the cauldron. They had represented Denmark in the most honourable way, and they had contributed to making future UN actions a lot easier. 

However, sparingly as appreciation may be used, precisely the events of the post Cold War years, the activist foreign policy lead by Denmark, and the ubiquitous deployment of Danish troops in harms way may be heralding a change. 


Decorations and medals 

Change or not, in Denmark it has always been difficult to procure official appreciation and, mostly, endeavours to strike campaign medals or commemorative coins have foundered against Lex Jante like reluctance. 

In 1848, riots in the Danish duchy of Holstein developed into war. Various countries, members of the German Confederation as well as elements of the population of the duchy of Schleswig supported the Holsteiners, and Danish as well as German casualties were unavoidable. Thus, the Secretary for War petitioned the King that a medal be struck. The general concept was to award it in a silver version for valour and in bronze as a campaign medal for all those having fought. King Frederick VII, finding this to be trespassing on his prerogatives as Sire of Decorations, refused and in stead ordered the Treasury to explore the possibilities for striking a medal of his own choice. As, after a short truce in 1849, the war was resumed, the Privy Council advised that the medal should not be awarded until final cessation of hostilities. Thus, in 1851 the conditions were right, but now the King was worried that the peaceful co‐existence of the former belligerents might suffer if some of his subjects be awarded for subjugating some others, and on 28 January 1851 he dropped the whole idea. Nonetheless, although no one was awarded any medal so far, the discussion went on for another twenty‐five years.


Conflicts with the southern neighbours were definitely not over. 15 November 1863, following the demise of the old sovereign, the new king, Christian IX, had to sign a constitution, drafted by the recently established parliament and valid for the Kingdom of Denmark as well as for the duchy of Schleswig; though not for Holstein. This act constituted a breach of the London Peace Agreement of 1850, and it provided Prussia and her prime minister, Count Otto von Bismarck with a welcome excuse for war. As the Constitution was not rescinded, the German Confederation intervened militarily. In July, an armistice was agreed, and as part of the Peace in Vienna the Danish King had to cede the duchies of Schleswig, Holstein und Lauenburg to Prussia and Austria. 29 April 1864, a medal was agreed upon and quite a few recommendations for awarding it were submitted. In the end, however, it was decided not to grant it due to the sad outcome of the war. In lieu of this medal a limited number of particularly brave officers and soldiers were awarded various degrees within the Order of the Dannebrog. 

In 1872, 3,000 veterans submitted a petition for a commemorative medal for both wars of 1848‐50 and 1864, and on 14 June 1872 the Secretary for War, Wolfgang Haffner, suggested that the Treasury allocated the funds necessary. Contracts were signed with a number of French engravers – the cheapest – and in October 1876 the medals were ready for awarding: one for participation in the war of 1848‐50, one for 1864, and one for participation in both of the two wars. 

While envy is rampant, whenever a Dane sees his neighbour decorated, the appreciation of foreigners do not arouse similar emotions. Thus, somewhat out of the ordinary, a number of decorations were awarded by the Danish King for gallantry in the Russo‐Turkish War of 1877‐78. Christian IX was honorary colonel of the Regiment No. 17 of the Imperial Russian Dragoons and wished to honour some of its officers and NCOs. While the officers got high Danish orders, ten NCOs were awarded golden medals and another forty got similar ones in silver, all of which had been paid for by H.M.’s private coffers. 

After World War I, paragraph five of the Peace Agreement of Prague of 1866 was put into force, and a plebiscite was carried out in the duchy of Schleswig to determine which parts of that duchy would merge with Denmark. Eventually, the northern part of Schleswig was reunited with Denmark. The process was carefully supervised by French and British troops. Grateful for their assistance, King Christian X had a medal struck and awarded to all foreign troops having contributed to the peaceful execution of the referendum. 

In 1945, as the German occupation forces left Denmark, a new medal was agreed upon. This was to be awarded solely to those having contributed to Denmark’s survival from abroad. Thus, 3,000 persons received the Kong Christian X Frihedsmedalje “Pro Dania 1940‐45.”Amongst the first to receive this medal were the kings of Norway and Sweden, United Nations’ Secretary General Trygve Lie, Count Folke Bernadotte for his rescue of Danish concentration camp inmates, the British Prime Minister Clement Atlee, the Foreign Secretaries Anthony Eden and Ernest Bevin as well as Winston Churchill, the true liberator of Denmark, who for no explicable reason did not get it until one year later than the others. Subsequently, another medal was awarded 905 Danes having fought with Allied forces – of these 78 post mortem. However, none was given to the members of the Danish resistance movement, as its representatives claimed that these partisans had only done what was necessary at the moment and might be seen as a natural obligation to all Danish citizens (see also the contribution by Torben Jørgensen in this edition).. 

Thus, in the wake of the latest world war the Danes still accepted themselves in the role of a small power, whose primary aim must be neither to provoke nor to boast. Moreover, the Social Liberal attitudes, which had been co‐responsible for the disastrous lack of defence preparedness prior to World War II, were carried over to the post war era. 

However, in 1956 a medal was struck and awarded to those having participated in the operations of the hospital ship Jutlandia during the Korean War. 

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Tribute to the dead 

Although orders and medals are important ways of paying tribute to the veterans, it is equally essential to make sure that those giving their lives in the service of the nation, of peace, or of liberty and human rights are honoured in a dignified manner. 

For this purpose the Danish Defence has conceived a manual for the execution of ceremonies. This is subdivided into chapters on general measures and appendices laying out the procedures to follow in each of a number of sadly likely situations. 

The procedures to follow in the case a member of the armed forces has died in action include appointment of an officer on the Defence Staff responsible for all further actions to be taken. The Commanding Officer of the dead soldier’s, sailor’s or air man’s unit is responsible for informing the next of kin. The dean of the relevant service will be part of the team planning the further procedures. The press and information department on the Defence Staff informs the press. On the ground, the senior Danish representative will prepare the transfer of the corpse to Denmark, and he/she or the Commanding Officer will organise a memorial ceremony in co‐operation with the unit’s chaplain. The body will be placed in a zinc coffin draped in the Danish flag, and flown to Denmark on an Air Force plane escorted by a guard of honour. Once in Denmark, if the family of the dead so wishes, the coffin will be taken from the aeroplane to a near‐by hangar for a short ceremony. Here, a representative of the Chief of Defence will speak briefly, and a military band might be part of the ceremony as well. As the coffin is placed in the hearse, a bugler will sound the ‘Last Post’. A military funeral might then be held. 

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One appendix describes the responsibilities of the pallbearer in connection with the funeral. He or she will make sure that the coffin is draped in Dannebrog and that the deceased’s head gear, sword and decorations – the latter on a black cushion – are on the top of it. At the grave, the pallbearer strips the coffin of the decorations, sword and head gear. The flag is folded, the coffin is lowered, and after the final blessing, the bugler sounds the ‘Last Post’. Finally, the colour is dipped three times over the grave. 


Graves and memorials 

There are military cemeteries – garnisonskirkegårde – as well as individual headstones and memorials paying eternal tribute to those fallen for their mother country. Thus, on the military cemetery in Copenhagen there is a monument to General Olaf Rye, who died for his country at the renowned sally from Fredericia in 1849.

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The last national wars, those of 1848‐50 and 1864, have been commemorated in memorial statues and monuments at several places in Denmark. Amongst the most widely known of these are the „Isted Lion“ residing in Copenhagen at the Royal Arsenal Museum, the Soldier in Fredericia and the “Little Bugler” in Copenhagen. 

The Isted Lion was created by the sculptor Herman Wilhelm Bissen (1798‐1868) as a memorial to the victory at Isted in 1850. It used to sit in Flensborg as a token of Danishnes, but after the defeat in 1864 it was taken off to Berlin. However, in 1945 the Lion came home to Denmark. The Soldier, too, is made by Bissen, as a monument commemorating the victory in the 1848‐50 war against the German powers. 

Denmark did not participate actively in World War I. Nevertheless, a number of Danes, forced to fight as the German Kaiser’s subjects, died during that war. These have been honoured by a memorial in the park of Marselisborg near Aarhus (see also the contribution by Peter Hornshøj Sørensen in this edition). 

Nor did Denmark take any official part in World War II, although a considerable number of Danes fought as members of the Waffen‐SS at the Eastern Front and in the Balkans. Because of the German occupation of Denmark 1940‐45 as well as due to the character of the Nazi‐regime, these soldiers have never become a part of the Danish national pantheon nor have their veteran associations received any official recognition. A burial mound erected by themselves in their training camp at Høvelte Gaard, was blown up as the war ended. 

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Danish citizens who were active with the Allied armed forces as well as on board allied men‐of‐commerce have had monuments paying tribute to their efforts and sacrifices (see also the contribution by Jakob Sørensen in this edition). 

Moreover, north of Copenhagen a commemoration park has been consecrated in the grove of Ryvangen, honouring the fallen or executed members of the Danish Resistance Movement. 

After World War II and until the fall of the Berlin Wall, Denmark has not participated actively in any war. Nevertheless, officers and soldier, and notably pilots, have lost their lives on service for Denmark. Thus, on the parade ground of the Guards’ Barracks in Copenhagen a monument was inaugurated in 1958 as a memorial of guards’ officers and guardsmen dying for king and country – as well as for the UN – from 1658 to the present. Twice a year, Guards veterans parade in front of this memorial paying tribute to their fellow guardsmen – the fallen as well as those still living. 

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Although no memorial has so far been set up to commemorate post‐1945 veterans and fallen members of the Navy and the Army, the Air Force has established one outside the Cathedral of Viborg.

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Unlike for instance Canada, Demark has not taken any effective initiative, so far, to bring about a decent nationwide commemoration of soldiers having put their lives at risk in peace enforcing international operations. But there are certainly those, who do their best to initiate such debate. On private initiative, a committee has been set up to consider and 

propose creation of a national monument to the Danish international deployments, and a location has been selected in Prinsessens Bastion in the Citadel of Copenhagen (see also the contribution by Bjarne Hesselberg in this edition). 

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The projected emplacement of a national monument to Danish international deployments 

While the scope of options for honour and commemoration traditionally includes monuments, headstones, decorations, memorial volumes, services and military parades, it might be worthwhile also to bear in mind that many of those, who should be at the centre of the nation’s attention, the fallen and the veterans, are youngsters of the ‘information society generation’. New forms of remembrance utilising today’s facilities, such as cyberspace, may be relevant future means of paying tribute. 



Conclusively and with due reference to history – glorious as well infamous, including the hypocritical omission of any mentioning of the troops bled white on the Eastern Front during World War II – as well as modern considerations concerning the tasks performed, the qualifications required, and the esteem, in which those staying safely at home should hold the brave‐hearts, it has been suggested that not only should a national memorial be crafted, history should be told and internalised concerning lessons learned – heroic as well as notorious. 



Kjeld Hald Galster: Ehrung der Gefallenen: 150 Jahre dänischen Totenkultes, paper præsenteret på Martin Luther Universität Halle‐Wittembergs konference ”Tod des Soldaten” i Wissenschaftzentrum, Berlin i oktober 2007. 

Aksel Sandemose: En Flygtning krydser sit Spor, Schønberg, 1972. 

Lars Stevnsborg: Det danske Kongeriges Ordner, Medailler og Militære Hæderstegn, Syddansk Universitetsforlag, 2005. 



1 Artiklen er en bearbejdning af et paper: Ehrung der Gefallenen: 150 Jahre dänischen Totenkultes præsenteret på Martin Luther Universität Halle‐Wittembergs konference ”Tod des Soldaten” i Wissenschaftzentrum, Berlin i oktober 2007. Det er senere fremlagt med nærværende titel på Nordisk Militærhistorisk Symposion på Forsvarsakademiet i oktober 2007 og let tilpasset til brug i denne artikel.  

2 Aksel Sandemose, En Flygtning krydser sit Spor, Schønberg, 1972. 

3 Lieutenant General K.G.H. Hillingsø in conversation with this author, autumn 2007.  

 4 Although several officers received knight’s crosses. Lars Stevnsborg, Det danske Kongeriges Ordner, Medailler og Militære Hæderstegn, Syddansk Universitetsforlag, 2005.