Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Chapter 5: 1864

Yesterday I looked at one under-represented aspect of the 19th Century in English speaking nations: Japanese history and today I will look at another; The Second Schleswig War.

Earlier this year the 2014 Danish drama 1864 was screened on BBC 4. As a big fan of Scandinavian film and television I was really excited. After all it was set in the Victorian period and stared many of my favourite Danish actors (PilouAsbæk, Nicolas Bro, Søren Malling and Sidse Babett Knudsen in particular). I was not disappointed. Beautifully writen and acted it has some wonderful highs and some brutal lows (the Prussian storming of Dybbøl is extremely difficult to watch).

I knew very little about the war coming into watching the series, but it made me want to look into it more. The reasons behind the war are complex. As British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston (played by James Fox here) put it:  “Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it.". The ending of the war would have a huge impact on 19th and 20th century history, however. The Prussian victory gave Otto von Bismarck (Rainer Bock in the series) the confidence to declare war on the Austrian Empire two years later, the resulting defeat of Austria giving Prussia total infulence over the German Confederation. Then of course a the same confidence resulted in a German victory over France in 1871 bringing about the unification of the country and leading, in part, to the Great War of 1914-18. The Schleswig War may be mostly forgotten but it did have an impact.

The series is, however, mostly shown from the Danish POV and doesn’t hold back from showing the horrors the vastly outnumbered and unprepared army went through. Alongside this we see the insanity of the politicians in Copenhagen, who believing they could win the war refused to withdraw from Dybbøl and ensured the bloodbath when the Prussians finally stormed the fortifications (Bro’s performance as the Danish Prime minister Monrad is a highlight of the series). Amid the horrors of war there are stories of love, jealously and personal tragedy. For us literature geeks, Hans Christian Andersen makes a cameo in a couple of episodes. I cannot recommend this series enough. 

1864: Amazon US | Amazon UK

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