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Fighting for the Flag: Danish Identity and National Symbolism


“The flag is the best symbol of Denmark - it defines our society.”  This statement by an elderly Danish man captures the prevailing sentiment toward Dannebrog – “the cloth of the Danes.”  In numerous interviews with Danes we heard echoed a familiar refrain: “I am proud of our flag,” said one 34-year-old man.  “It is a beautiful flag,” concurred a 21-year-old woman.  A comprehensive national mythology surrounds the long history of the Danish flag, proclaimed by some to be the oldest flag in the world.  According to legend, Dannebrog fell from heaven on June 15, 1219, during a battle in Estonia, enabling King Valdemar II to lead the Danes to victory.  

The use of the Danish national flag historically had been restricted to the King and the Royal Navy. Not until 1854 were private citizens allowed to use the flag.  Contemporary understandings of the flag cannot be divorced from this crucial historical context, because for many Danes it is the mythology surrounding the flag that makes it such a popular symbol.  In the words of one young Danish woman, “The story about the flag is a wonderful story.”  Perhaps due to this unusual history, the flag enjoys a much more prominent presence in Denmark than in most other countries.  The Royal Danish Embassy in Washington, D.C. reports: “The Danish people love their flag and are very proud to use it whenever it is possible, this being as a tiny paper version for the Christmas tree or as facial make-up at a football match.”  Though undeniably a national symbol, most Danes do not see the Dannebrog in political terms.  Several stated outright, “The flag is not political.”  When pressed, 34-year-old Kristian admitted, “Yes, it may be political - I suppose it has to be.  But most people just use it for personal celebrations.”  Even foreigners seem to recognize the popularization of the flag in Denmark.  Two Italian university students studying in Denmark reported being well acquainted with the mythology of the flag, and they laughingly reported their first encounter with Dannebrog on a birthday cake.  Yes, they agreed it was primarily a celebration symbol, and no, it was not political.  Sociologist Peter Gundelach explains, “Flying the flag is regarded as quite natural in Denmark, compared to Sweden, where continual acclamation of the country is seen as perverse.”

A Divided Population?

Despite the ease with which many Danes display the flag, in 2001, renowned Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark) declared, "The Dannebrog is the Danish swastika - it should be burnt." Other Danes express a similar dissociation with regard to the flag.  Though using much less inflammatory language, 27-year-old Olga nonetheless remarked, "I no longer use the flag on my Christmas tree."  Again, in the words of one 24-year-old man: "It makes me sick."  These reactions, diametrically opposed to those expressed previously, prompt two questions: What explains the antipathy toward the flag expressed by some Danes, and how can we understand the dramatic chasm separating these two groups?

By most accounts, opposition to the flag is not opposition to the flag as such but rather a statement against what it has come to represent.  For some Danes, the flag has come to be associated with Dansk Folkeparti - the Danish People's Party (DPP), a neo-conservative party that Martin Burcharth, U.S. Correspondent with the Danish daily Information, describes as “xenophobic” and “anti-immigrant.”  Author and historian Georg Metz asserts, “The Danish People's Party has conquered the flag.”  Bashy Quraishy, President of the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), agrees: “The Danish People's Party has taken a monopoly on using the flag.”  

The DPP came to power in the 2001 elections, earning 12% of the vote to place it in a right-wing coalition with Venstre - the Liberal Party (understood in the classical economic sense) - and Det Konservative Folkeparti - the Conservative party.  The DPP, led by Pia Kjærsgaard, campaigned on a vigorously anti-immigration platform, combining nationalistic rhetoric with flagrantly xenophobic statements.  As the official party website unequivocally declares, “Denmark is not an immigrant country and has never been so.  Therefore, we will not accept a transformation to a multiethnic society.”  The DPP uses the flag in every political speech and in all official press releases, and it has even incorporated the Dannebrog in the party logo.

Morten Messerschmidt, Vice-President of the youth organization of the DPP, defends his party’s use of the flag as a perfectly legitimate use of a national symbol.  “I love my flag - it's only a symbol of the Danish country.”  He went on to point out that anyone could use the flag, and that other parties indeed continue to do so.  “I don't really see a problem,” he insisted.  Amalie Lyhne Larsen, a representative of the Social Liberal Party's youth organization, disagreed.  "The flag is always a strong symbol," she contended.  In explaining her opposition to the DPP and its use of the Dannebrog, she suggested, "the Danish People's Party uses feelings...instead of arguing in a rational manner."  Maintaining that she does not see it as a political symbol, Caroline, a 21-year-old native Dane, declares, "To use the flag in a debate about immigration is to put symbols on it that don't belong."  She quickly appends that she still uses the flag for her own celebrations and sees the DPP’s use of the flag as aberrant but inconsequential.

Much Ado About Nothing?

If it is true, as Metz, Larsen, and Quraishy believe, that the DPP has monopolized the flag as a political symbol associated with xenophobia and intolerance, how can we explain the seemingly innocuous sentiments many Danes express regarding the flag?  One way to approach that question is by posing another: Who are the people articulating these divergent viewpoints?  To the far right stands the DPP, using the flag as a national symbol connected to their political platform.  Opposite this is what we will call the liberal (understood in the American political sense) intellectuals, composed of academics like Metz, highly visible liberal media figures like von Trier, and the educated youth who feel threatened by the DPP's use of the flag and reject it accordingly.  Somewhere between these poles the Danish public continues to use their flag as always, celebrating birthdays and football games with almost cavalier disregard for the heated debate over the proper role of the Dannebrog in Danish society.  This admittedly simplistic rendering of the dilemma nonetheless reveals a fascinating divide between the intellectuals and the greater part of the public, both of whom recognize the DPP's usage of the flag but who reach differing conclusions regarding the significance of that use.  

The Identity Debate

At the heart of the immigration debate and the fight for the flag is a much deeper and more complex issue: the future of Danish identity.  As Sasha Polakow-Suransky, senior correspondent to the American Prospect, astutely notes, “It is a debate, ultimately, about what it means to be Danish.”  BBC correspondent Angus Roxburgh agrees, writing in Preachers of Hate: The Rise of the Far Right: “The [immigration] debate brought to the fore the question of what it meant to be Danish, and indeed European, in this age of mass migration.”  Much of the anxiety surrounding the issue of immigration stems from an underlying uncertainty about the status and future of Danish identity.  Many Danes experience genuine difficulty when attempting to pinpoint precisely what it means to be Danish in a globalizing world.  When asked what it meant to be Danish, Kristian, a 34-year-old native Dane, pondered for a moment before finally replying, “I don’t know.”  Theology professor Johannes Sløk explains, “There is really no such thing as Danish identity.  Our roots lie in Ancient Greece, Rome, and in France… Danish identity is rye bread, boiled potatoes and thick brown gravy.”  Fatma, a Pakistani immigrant, spoke in similarly dismissive terms.  “The fact is the Danes have little national culture left.”

The inability to define Danish identity clearly has spawned what New York Times foreign affairs editor Roger Cohen describes as “an acute case of the identity crisis now afflicting several European states.”  A recent article in the Copenhagen Post echoes Cohen’s assessment, suggesting that “Denmark has experienced a crisis of national identity.”  This anxiety-ridden environment conditions people toward a defensive response.  As Cohen notes, “That very erosion of national distinctions, occurring throughout Europe, provides fertile ground for nationalist or anti-immigrant outbursts that pay politically.”  Thus, in response to this perceived lack of national unity and identity, the DPP has identified the enemy: anything not “Danish.”  Rallying around an anti-immigration platform, much of the DPP's propaganda plays powerfully on the symbolism associated with "Danish" images - the Dannebrog, the Krone, the Royal Family, and traditional Danish songs.  It has attempted to stake a claim to authentic “Danishness” in an effort to exclude those who do not identify with these symbols.  The DPP published a book leading up to the 2001 electoral campaign, entitled “Denmark’s Future: Your Country, Your Choice,” featuring a cover photo of an Arab man armed with a gun, while the back cover displays the Dannebrog juxtaposed against a background of Muslim women wearing headscarves.  The implication is clear.  In the words of Mogens Camre, the DPP’s European Parliament representative, “All Western countries have been infiltrated by Muslims, some of whom are polite to us while waiting until there’s enough of them to get rid of us.”  

Your Identity – Your Choice

The Right – particularly the DPP – has embraced a narrow, group-oriented, nationalistic and exclusionary view of Danish identity, using the Danish flag as a national unifying symbol.  This symbol is both inclusive – it encompasses all Danes – but also exclusive: the definition of Danish according to the DPP explicitly excludes immigrants.  The liberal intellectuals imagine something quite different: a fluid, dynamic, individual-oriented identity founded not on national boundaries but on membership in a global world.  The role of the flag in defining this identity is less concrete.  Quraishy articulates the extreme position in this regard, asserting, “I am against using the flag as a symbol – it has always been used for nationalistic feelings.”  Although referring generically to flags, he believes the Dannebrog is no exception.  He admits that it is “sometimes innocent” but goes on to say that in the present political climate it is “used as a unifying symbol for an ethnic people.”  He rejects the notion of national identity in its entirety, arguing that, “We have to change our idea of identity.”  For Quraishy, the identity of the future is humanistic and entirely subject to the autonomous decisions of the individual.  Identity does not depend on accident of birth – geographic or ethnic – but rather on individual choices about who one wishes to be.  Commonality of interest, not skin color or country of origin should be the cohesive feature of identity.

Other liberal intellectuals, Georg Metz prominent among them, espouse a more moderate position regarding the future of identity but one nonetheless opposed to the narrow nationalist vision of the DPP.  Polakow-Suransky describes the distinction: “In one direction [the DPP’s] lies a regressive policy of isolationism – one that idealizes a nostalgic image of an innocent Danish past.  The other [the liberals’] envisages a multi-cultural society, enriched by the benefits of cosmopolitanism.”  While Metz does not see the flag as a necessarily dangerous symbol, he maintains, like Quraishy, “national sentiment must change.”  He sees Denmark’s acceptance of the Euro and the Europeanization that act symbolically entails as inevitable, believing that the higher rates of education among Danish youth will translate naturally into a more global perspective.  Based on experiences from periods of nationalism in Danish history, in his mind, the DPP is temporary – a passing wave of paranoia that will recede when more rational minds prevail.  Though Metz resents what he sees as the DPP’s monopolization of the flag, his optimistic attitude tempers that resentment and leads him to a less militant response than that expressed by von Trier: The popularity of the DPP, according to Metz, is indicative of a willful ignorance toward the realities of a globalizing world.  As the Danish people become better educated, they will recognize the impracticality of the stance taken by the DPP, thus depriving it of its influence.  

Others are not so optimistic.  Reviewing Preachers of Hate, David Lammy writes for The Guardian that, “Roxburgh convincingly demonstrates that the trends he is documenting are not as new, contained, nor transient as some commentators have optimistically suggested.”  Dismissing supporters of the DPP as merely uninformed runs the risk of alienating them in future elections as well as failing to face the real concerns accompanying the DPP’s rise to power.  Political commentator Erik Meier Carlsen explains, “You could conclude that these people [DPP supporters] are basically stupid, but their seemingly xenophobic reluctance about immigration is to some degree a very rational fight for substantial economic and political interests.”  Crucial among these interests is one that defies classification in “economic” or “political” terms: a concern over the future of Danish identity.  The refusal of the liberal intellectuals to take this concern seriously poses a dilemma for the future of Denmark: denying the existence of a problem does not aid in its solution.  The fact that Denmark has voted twice against the Euro indicates a much broader support for nationalistic tendencies than Metz and others would like to believe.  Indeed, Pia Kjærsgaard claimed credit for the defeat of the Euro, crediting the DPP campaign “Vote Danish – Vote No” (to the Euro) as representative of the Danish national sentiment.  While only 12% of the populace voted for the DPP in the last election, it seems evident that the DPP has been more effective in communicating with the general public than the pro-European liberals.

Danish “Exceptionalism”

Research by sociologist Peter Gundelach suggests that people like Metz and Quraishy underestimate the degree to which Danes will cling to their national identity.  Even if “Europeanization” seems inevitable to the liberal intellectuals, for many Danes the concept of Danishness still contains intuitive appeal.  Summing up the results of a 2001 study, Gundelach concludes, “Denmark is the most jingoistic country in Europe.  Danes are simply proud to be Danish.”  He elaborates, “We do see ourselves as a chosen people.”  Jesper Hoffmeyer, writing for the Danish daily Politiken, explains, “Danes are convinced that, deep down, they really are superior to other bigger nations… We Danes hide our sense of greatness behind a Lilliputian façade.”  By equating nationalism with ignorance, the liberal intellectuals do not give credence to the Danes’ attachment to their sense of Danishness.  When Danish actress Paprika Steen declares that “The term Danishness reflects the Danish People’s Party’s growing importance; it is the ugliest word I have ever heard,” she implicitly attacks those members of the population who, while perhaps not agreeing with the DPP, nonetheless feel that the concept of Danishness contains intrinsic value.  

At the same time, though, the liberal intellectuals do acknowledge a potentially nationalistic impulse in the Danish population.  Indeed, the liberal intellectuals’ opposition to the DPP’s use of the flag arises primarily out of the concern that the DPP could successfully manipulate Danes’ positive conception of themselves into an exclusionary nationalism.  Moreover, the DPP’s association of the flag with a closed and clearly defined national border conflicts with the liberal vision for the future of Danish identity as one united with Europe and predicated on a global understanding.  The liberal intellectuals fear that by appropriating a beloved symbol, the DPP could sway the populace away from the European project.  Peter Gundelach argues that many of these fears are unfounded: “Despite the prevalence of the national flag, a Dane would never accept it as an expression of nationalism.  Nationalism is something found in strange foreign countries, not here.”  That said, the fight for the flag nonetheless provides a crucial testing ground for the subsequent battle for the future of Danish identity.  

Bridging the Gap – The Future of National Identity

The Danes need to confront certain realities.  Neither Quraishy’s idealistic vision of a humanistic identity based solely on the individual nor Kjærsgaard’s nostalgic image of a Danish national identity centered on ethnic homogeneity will satisfy the Danish people.  Where the first is too extreme for a country clinging desperately to its Danish roots, the latter is too reactionary for a diversifying country in the 21st century.  The European project, to a certain extent, is inevitable.  While the outcome of the vote on the European Constitution is debatable, and Turkey’s entrance into the EU remains uncertain, the future of Denmark unquestionably parallels that of Europe as a whole.  With increasingly few truly distinguishing characteristics, Danes, like many other Europeans, face the task of constructing a new identity.  This is more complicated than it may seem, precisely because of the pervasive love of Danishness that seems to unite Danes.  As Gundelach notes, “We have an extremely high estimation of ourselves and of being Danish as something unique.”  Unfortunately, when that “uniqueness” is threatened, the defensive reaction can be exclusionary.  Gundelach points to Denmark’s tortured history to suggest, “We lost those wars in the nineteenth century, and we are still trying to compensate by a strong belief in national values.  We know we are Danes only because others are not.  It’s all cultural.”

Here Gundelach hits the proverbial nail on the head: When facing the difficulty of defining what is Danish, Danes have instead chosen the easier option of identifying what is not Danish.  What has thus far been ignored by the mainstream in the policy-oriented discussion of integration versus assimilation is the much less concrete, and therefore much more difficult, question of the future of Danish identity.  Polakow-Suransky suggests that this debate will be about “whether Denmark’s is an ethnic community or a civic one, an exclusionary body politic or an inclusive one.”  Given that there are these diverging viewpoints towards defining the individual’s group affiliation, it seems to be of utmost importance that we secure an inclusive framework within which each individual has the opportunity to define herself according to her understanding of the role of tradition and values, without limiting the ability of others to do the same.  The debate must revolve around common values, admit the importance of certain critical components of Danish national identity, and work to incorporate these values into the new “Danish” identity.  Sociologist Frederik Wiedemann identifies three quintessential aspects of the “Danish mentality” around which this new identity might take form – dialogue and compromise, tolerance, and solidarity.  However, the liberal intellectuals must also acknowledge that the question of Danish identity for the Danish people can never be a strictly academic debate – feelings too can and do play a powerful role in shaping the discussion.  To this end the dialogue cannot start until the liberal intellectuals can undermine the fear mongering of the reactionary Right.  Fear inhibits critical thought; and self-reflection is crucial to progress in this discussion.  

Dialogue here is the critical element. Neither the Right – by excluding “damn experts” from public debate – nor the liberal intellectuals– by adhering only to academic high-brow exchanges among themselves – has had success in bridging the increasing gap separating them from each other.  The liberal intellectuals in particular have had severe difficulty reaching the broader public due to unwillingness to “descend” to the realm of the popular.  Liberal intellectuals have a tendency to dismiss views contrary to their own as uninformed opinions and therefore not worthy of a response.  This sense of superiority only exacerbates the gap between the intellectuals and the rest of the public, a resistance manifested in the recent calls to remove “experts” from politics.

We take heart from the Danish people’s resistance to the DPP’s attempt to co-opt the Dannebrog as a symbol of exclusion.  Perhaps the liberal intellectuals can learn from the people’s example: the flag is for everyone, the DPP included.  The Danes we interviewed objected to the notion that the DPP could monopolize the flag.  In the words of one young Danish man, “It belongs to everyone.”  The liberal intellectuals condescend to the people by fearing that the DPP’s appeals to base emotion would sway the public, who are, in Metz’s formulation, “incapable of seeing the meaning behind the symbols.”  Meanwhile, the public hears comments like von Trier’s and reacts with disdain: Why all the fuss?  The task for the future is arriving at a common ground where the intellectuals and the public can communicate as equals.  This might involve using visual media instead of written in order to reach a broader audience, following the example of movie directors like von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration).  Had the liberal intellectuals bothered to look out of the Ivory Tower, they would have found no cause to worry about the DPP’s use of the flag.  The public, necessarily schooled in the art of interpreting imagery by virtue of living in a media-dominated world, had already reached their own conclusions regarding the flag: It is still our symbol of celebration.  Likewise, despite the assertions of Metz and others, the fate of Danish identity ultimately rests with the people.  We would do well to talk with them.




Articles and Books

Bønløkke, Helle.  “Debat: Farvel til folkets flag” Politiken, April 3, 2004.  

Brooks, David.  “Bitter at the Top” New York Times, June 15, 2004.

Burcharth, Martin.  “The Rise of the Far Right in Denmark” Correspondence: An International Review of Culture & Society, No. 9, Spring 2002.  

Cohen, Roger.  “A Danish Identity Crisis: Are We Europeans?”  New York Times, September 10, 2000. 

--  “For ’New Danes,’ Differences Create a Divide.”  New York Times, December 18, 2000.

Lammy, David.  “Light in the Dark” The Guardian, January 11, 2003.  

McSmith, Andy.  “Tory leader to attend rally with Danish racist.”  The Independent.  September 28, 2003.  

Polakow-Suransky, Sasha.  “Fortress Denmark?” The American Prospect, Vol. 13, No. 10, June 3, 2002.

Roxburgh, Angus.  “Preachers of Hate: The Rise of the Far Right” London: Gibson, 2002.

Terkelsen, Lene Halmø.  ”Et splittet flag”  Vejle Amts Folkeblad May 1, 2004.

“The Father of Danishness (Whatever That May Be)” Copenhagen Post, March 19, 2004.  

“We’re Danish – and Proud of It” Copenhagen Post, June 13, 2001.  


“National Flag” From Denmark’s Official Website:

http://www.denmark.dk/servlet/page?_pageid=80&_dad=portal30&_schema=PORTAL 30&_fsiteid=175&_fid=44851&page_id=1&_feditor=0&folder.p_show_id=44851#45111

“The Danish National Flag – Dannebrog”, Royal Danish Embassy in Washington, D.C.:  


“The Danish People’s Party”: http://www.danskfolkeparti.dk/


Metz, Georg:  Author and historian.  June 23, 2004.

Quraishy, Bashy:  President of European Network Against Racism.  June 22, 2004.

Random sample of people:  Kofoeds skole, Frederiksberg Centret, Vor Frue Plads, private homes.


Messerschmidt, Morten, and Amalie Lyhne Larsen: “Youth Political Debate” June 24, 2004.

Trads, David: “Danish Political Parties” June 17, 2004.

Wiedemann, Frederik: “Danish Mentality” June 15, 2004.


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