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Symbols as Political Weapons: Dansk Folkeparti’s Battle for Nostalgic Nationalism

“National symbols are the embodiment of community, independent of class, social, political, or cultural differences.  They serve to define the boundaries of a state in relation to other states and impose limits (in defining a people) with respect to national minorities within a nation's borders.” 

- Inge Adriansen, inspector at the Museum at Sonderborg Castle

The Copenhagen city bus pulled to a halt.  Emblazoned across its side was a picture of a cute Danish girl- fair-haired, blue-eyed.  A large, threatening slogan appeared next to the photo: “By the time you retire, Denmark will be a majority-Muslim nation.” Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party, hereon also referred to as ‘DF’), the extreme right political party with 22 members in Parliament, produced the advertisement.  The message to Danish voters was clear: support immigration, and you are supporting the demise of the Danish identity.  Yet add up all the Muslim immigrants and their descendants and they total only 1/20th of Denmark’s population. 

Dansk Folkeparti first gained political recognition after the latest national election in November 2001. With 12% of the popular vote in the coalition system, they became the supporting voting bloc for the victorious rightwing government.  The DF has made its mark in the political arena by using traditionally Danish symbols to elicit fear: of immigrants, of the euro, and of the end of the welfare state.  In the September 2000 euro referendum, among the slogans used by the DF were: "Vote Danish - vote no!" and "For the Krone and fatherland - vote Danish!" The implication, that Denmark and the euro are mutually exclusive, infuriated many citizens.  

Old Symbols, New Meaning

The DF has hardly blazed any new trails by using symbolism in the political sphere.  The history of the Social-Democratic Party and the Conservative Party are likewise full of national rhetoric and symbolism. The notion that only the extreme political right uses symbols is not true.   Indeed, not even the nationalist, populist term ‘Folkeparti’ (‘people’s party’) is original.  According to Uffe Østergaard, leading researcher at the Danish Center for Holocaust Studies, “In the mid-30's the Social-Democratic Party called themselves the People’s Party. In principle, they were internationalists, though not in reality. In reality, they were nationalists."  

Yet in today’s political climate, it is the DF who stress national symbols out of not only boundless pride for Denmark but also to advocate the rejection of anything or anyone who is not adequately Danish.  Østergaard delineates their true motive: "They are the ones preserving and protecting the national (Danish) symbols. You can argue that they are using these symbols to define us versus them with respect to foreigners. This would be fair to say." 

Sometimes, they clearly go to far.  In the euro referendum, the DF advertised a quote by John Christmas Møller, a strong Christian nationalist and exile, who said after WWII: “the border is where the border is, let’s not start the debate about regaining German land [that we lost in 1864].” According to David Trads, the editor-in-chief of Danish newspaper Information, the DF misused the quote, using just its first clause (“The border is where the border is”) to make a case not to join the euro. The DF took what was said in one context and applied it to completely different political circumstances. 

A War Waged with Images

“Flip through the DF’s monthly magazine,” suggests David Trads, “and you’re bound to come across a story about Old Denmark, a profile about, for example, a woman who helps the elderly or the poor, and a piece about the history of the Danish Krone, or Danish holidays, or an explanation of why Danes raise the flag on certain days.”

Trads, the author of Danskerne Først, an unflattering portrayal of the DF published earlier this year, reveals that in every DF publication- their monthly magazine, Pia Kjærsgaard’ autobiography and political commercials- there is one theme that supersedes every other: their boundless affection for everything that is Danish.  

DF’s patriotic promotional recipe is intentionally simple.  Start with the logo of the Dansk Folkeparti: the letters DF encircled in two Danish flags.  Mix in a famous nationalistic historical figure: N.F.S. Grundtvig.  When fighting a euro referendum, flaunt the Krone.  If the issue is immigration, appeal to the nostalgic days of yesteryear with symbols of Old Denmark.  If nothing else works, the Queen will fit the bill.  Combine recognizable symbols with simple platforms: “NO to the EU!”; “NO to immigration!”; and “YES to elderly care!”.  Repeat the same message again and again.

The strategy works because, as Trads explains, “DF seeks much of their support from the less educated. Their voters read fewer newspapers, watch less news on television, and are less involved than other groups in the public debate.”  For this constituency, symbols stick better than drawn-out arguments.  As political issues are becoming increasing more complicated and international, DF counters this current with minimalist interpretations and traditional values.   Trads illustrates, “DF says ‘The EU wants to erase the Danish nation-state; the immigrants want to erase it was well. We are the only gatekeepers to Danish culture. If you want to preserve it, you’d better listen to us.’” 

Even the locations of their press conferences are nationalistically significant.  Trads describes the media ploy: “When Dansk Folkeparti put forward a book outlining their political agenda, they held the press meeting at Frederiksberg Hotel, a great symbol of Old Denmark. And carefully placed on every table were branches of the bøg, the national tree. Similarly, they announced their senior citizens plan at the Worker’s Museum, a symbol both of Old Denmark and of social democrats.”  

Such attention to detail and scripted scenes are the work of Søren Espersen, a former journalist and current strategic mastermind/spindoctor extraordinaire of DF: “Espersen’s great at targeting his potential voters through unconventional media,” notes Trads.  

The Danish Flag

For the Dansk Folkeparti, the flag is a ubiquitous emblem, present at every occasion and in every publication.  The flag is of course a common national symbol, with its origin dating back nearly eight centuries.  This universality and timelessness was evidenced, for example, in the 1930's and 1940's when it was 'used' by parties as disparate as the Resistance Movement, the Danish Nazi Party, Dansk Samling (another right-wing party) the government (during the occupation).  

In any meeting held by DF, or at any occasion for pomp and circumstance, the Danish flag (Dannebrog) is placed quite prominently, where all can see it, and Pia is often draped in the same symbol, wearing a red dress and around her neck, a white scarf.   In the previous session of Parliament, DF put forth a proposal that a flag should be placed next to the speaker’s podium.  An appropriate and seemingly innocuous request, yes, but one that was rejected by the other parties, who saw it as a coup by DF to claim the flag as their own. 

In a recent article by Howard Knowles in the Copenhagen Post, Peter Gundelach of the University of Copenhagen delineates a clear distinction between the Danish love affair with national symbols and nationalism: "Flying the flag is regarded as quite natural in Denmark, compared to Sweden, where continual acclamation of the country is seen as quite perverse. 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." 

According to Inge Adriansen, “the flag is a universally effective symbol; it stirs emotion and agitation.” But it does not denote an absolute or fixed meaning.  People’s attitude or feelings towards it vary widely.  Yet generally speaking, everyone can relate to and agree on national symbols - few Dane’s are against the queen, against the flag, or against a pretty, young Danish girl. So while they imply different ideals for different individuals, almost everyone favors the values for which these symbols stand. 

N.F.S. Grundtvig

As DF has recognized, N.F.S. Grundtvig is the perfect historical figure upon whom to base their movement.  A Presbyterian minister, a poet, and a mythologist, he made many contributions to Danish society, creating the Folk school system, penning many traditional Church hymms, and helping to draft the main law, the Danish constitution.  Many call him a founding father of Denmark, for his “his patriotic songs interwove a national historical stance with a Christian view of mankind.”   Karl Christian Ebbesen, a spokesperson for Dansk Folkeparti, explains his popularity: “He has secured for Denmark democracy and freedom of speech and he has thought a lot about how we handle the foreigners.”  The latter contribution is somewhat more controversial then the first two.  

Grundtvig successfully advocated for a clause in the main law requiring all citizenship-seeking foreigners to gain individual approval by Parliamentary ruling.    Given that at the time of drafting few foreigners sought entrance to Denmark and Danes feared losing their nation, some thinkers suggest that Grundtvig’s opinions have been taken by DF out of context.  David Trads articulates some concern: “It is very dangerous to be a popular writer and then when you are no longer alive, other politicians claim posthumously that you would support their view. Grundtvig wrote at a time when there was a reason to be nationalistic. In the 1864, Denmark lost 1/3 of its empire, and risked losing the whole country- then people were scared. But we have no idea how Grundtvig would feel today about immigrants.” 

While xenophobia is the most perverse mandate the DF have secured from Grundtvig, it is hardly the only.  Grundvigiamisme, his belief system, stresses the quintessential role of the family as the microcosm of balance and community in Danish society.  Ebbesen concurs: “In a family, the parents work, earn money, and the children learn from their parents how they should act …If we put our children into daycare programs, then its not the parents who teach the children how things should be, it’s the teacher.”  Moreover, Grundtvig advocated on behalf of the masses in an era that prized upper crust thinkers and artists (Royal Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs).  Pia Kjærsgaard, in her party rhetoric, also expresses solidarity for the working class, saying, "We are more social than the Social Democrats."  Grundtvig and DF additionally both underscore the importance of the native Danish language, in its purest form, so that, according to Ebbesen, “we keep a society where everybody has the same rights and opportunities because they speak Danish.”  And finally, just as the Folkeparti glorifies the pristine era before immigration, Grundtvig nostalgically envisioned “the world stretching all the way back to Paradise” (RDMFA).  

Danish Welfare State or Immigrants, Not Both.

As Sasha Polakow-Suranksy pinpoints in her piece, “Fortress Denmark?” published in The American Prospect, “at its core, the country’s immigration debate is about social solidarity and the nature of the welfare state- about who is entitled to remain in the Danish state’s benevolent realm and who will be pushed out.”

Despite having to pay extraordinarily high taxes, Danes predominantly accept the welfare state on the premise that they directly receive commensurate benefits.  However Mauricio Rojas reasons that absent a firm understanding between citizens and government, the welfare state will flop: "The welfare state presupposes a strong community. When you take tax you must redistribute to a community near you. The difficult problem is that immigration is resented by some [Danes] who say, 'they are taking our money'. For a welfare state to exist, you need a close community." 

But as David Trads explains, “The large influx of immigrants changes this central assumption, and many now feel that the system loses its effectiveness if outside individuals can immediately benefit from the system without working and paying taxes.” 

Too many non-working, non-tax paying immigrants put too large a burden on the system. The official Statistical Yearbook of Foreigners in Denmark states that in 2001 53% of working age immigrants are jobless, compared to 22% of native Danes.  As David Trads explains in his book, Danskerne Først, Dansk Folkeparti calculated the cost of Danish refugees at 30B Krone, which is twice the defense budget, or one half the cost of public health care.  This 30B krone is in itself a great symbol, because the opportunity cost, the tradeoff, makes a compelling, albeit self-interested case, for being anti-refugees. If that expense did not exist, how much more could government pay the elderly each month? Or the poor native Danes? These groups spoke up with their votes, supporting parties like the DF who said “No More” to refugees.  The Social Democrats and other leftist parties could not get across the point to these voters that the Danes had a moral obligation to rescue refugees fleeing persecution. 

 Does support for the welfare state preclude support for immigration?  The Dansk Folkeparti certainly thinks so. The Survey of Nordic Countries in the June 12, 2003 issue of the Economist elucidates the double snafu of immigration: according to DF, immigrants destroy the Danish identity directly because of their ethnic dissimilarity and indirectly by compromising the welfare state, which is part of the Danish identity. 

Even though the welfare state itself is not a visual symbol, it is symbolic of the ideals Denmark must tenaciously fight to uphold.  DF illustrates the parasitic influx of immigrants on the Danish welfare state with the metaphor of an overflowing bathtub: before trying to wipe the floor properly, one must turn off the faucet. The water represents the immigrants and the ‘decaying’ values and traditions that they bring with them.  Denmark must stop admitting more until those that are already in are fully assimilated.

National Identity v. Nationalism

"To be a national is a good thing. To be nationalistic, to have intense pride, is to be an extremist, which is bad."

 - Uffe Østergaard, leading researcher at the Danish Center for Holocaust Studies

Henrik Dahl, a leading Danish sociologist, has argued that in the future, beliefs about identity will be at the forefront of politics.  As the platforms of the DF suggest, Denmark needs to make a choice between being open minded and benevolent and being nationalistic.  

Some feel that Denmark has already made this choice.  In an editorial lamenting DF’s third place finish with an unprecedented percent of the vote, Dagens Nyheter, the Swedish daily newspaper, scathingly rebuked Danish voters: “It is difficult to point to any winner in the Danish election, but losers are easy to identity. They are all those with dark skin, humanism, and decency. Goodnight Denmark.”  And according to recent research by Peter Gundelach of the University of Copenhagen, the Danes, while perceiving themselves as the most tolerant people in the world, are in reality the most jingoistic. “This is uncontroversial, though they certainly do not see themselves as nationalistic,” says Uffe Østergaard, who specializes in research on nationalism.  “Pressures from Europe and immigration are bringing the question of identity out in the open.  Danes are no longer open to the world.”

The national identity of the Danes - to a large degree ethnic, but also political due to the nation’s complicated history in the 19th and 20th Century - "...focuses both on appearance and values, but also on a belief in the welfare state and the Danish culture. There is no either/or in Denmark on this matter" as Dr. Østergaard explains.  This form differs from other types of national identity, which are either predominantly political (as in France and USA) or principally ethnic (especially Germany under the Third Reich).

A fundamental question today is whether the Danes are willing to share with the immigrants their ethnic as well as their political identity.  Østergaard says that the short answer to this problem is no, but that the debate has by no means concluded.

Implicitly pointed out by the DF poster spread across the city bus, and explicitly by the Economist survey, the Danish genealogy is ethnically homogenous- blond-haired, blue-eyed- and shaped from a collective history- Norse farmers, merchants, and fisherman.  A British report on Scandinavia half a century ago depicted a region unspoiled by “alien stock.”  So it is not surprising that faced with a challenge to the central elements of Danish national identity, “Danes have an incredibly hard time imagining that one can be an immigrant and at the same time a Dane,” says Muharrem Aydas, leader of POEM, an umbrella group for minority groups.  With respect to immigrants, Aydas says that the outsider tag is permanently affixed.  Jakob Buksti, a prominent member of the Social Democratic Party, wittily concurs, "People often say 'New Danes' because they don't want to say 'Not Danes." 

David Trads says that “the Danish People’s Party aim to arouse a national nostalgia for the 50s and 60s when life was simple and pure,” suggesting the allure of the party stems from this traditionalism.  No other party has as an intense a desire to return to the “happy days,” an era characterized by traditional family values, and not so coincidentally, closed borders.  To combine traditional values with anti-immigration rhetoric might seem forced, but is effective nevertheless.  Søren Espersen is adamant that the decline of Denmark began in 1983, when legislation that opened the borders to migrants was passed.  

The fear that is present amongst some Danes, that foreigners will somehow tarnish Danish heritage and values, is what lies in the heart of DF. And so far, it has worked. Not only at national elections and the polls, but also in setting this issue of immigrants centerstage and inducing the other political parties to raise the bar with tough legislation, in order to "keep up" with the ‘demands’ of the public. 

Prospects for the Future

Through symbolism, Dansk Folkeparti aims to inspire national romanticism in the electorate, and convince them to join the fight in defense of a way of life long outdated.  While clinging to the remnants of Grundtvig’s era may be a fruitless vocation, its ramifications are pervasive and destructive.  

With the virtue of hindsight, with the current pressure from immigration, globalization, and closer ties to Europe, the British Report of 1951 was amazingly insightful: "the Scandinavian states can no longer consider themselves in a peaceful backwater, unaffected by the swift stream of events which bears remorselessly along."  And yet only now, fifty years later, has Denmark begun its struggle to address these forces as they relate to Danish identity.

Denmark faces a critical inflection point in it’s future. It can take the road less and indeed dangerously traveled, shunning the global community by revisiting isolationism, which Dansk Folkeparti exalts as an era of paradise. Or, Denmark can proceed in a much healthier direction, accepting difference, multiculturalism, and a cosmopolitan society, of course not without growing pains.


Articles and Books

Nationale symboler i Det Danske Rige 1830-2000: Adriansen, Inge.

Sønderjysk Månedsskrift, issue # 3, 2003, pages 45-49

Og gamle Danmark skal nok bestå: Banke, Cecilie

Information, 15th April 2000

Det Personlige Samfund: Pittelkow, Ralf

Lindhardt & Ringhof, 2003, 2nd edition (originally published in 2001)

(Assorted chapters)

Danskerne først: Trads, David

Gyldendal, 2002

Danmarks fremtid – dit land, dit valg: The Danish People’s Party

May 2001

Danes Struggle to Deal With Populist Instincts: Vinocur, John


Fortress Danmark?: Polakow-Suransky, Sasha


Grundtvig, one of the nation’s founding fathers: Miller, Andrew


Identity crisis for Denmark- are we Danes or Europeans?: Cohen, Roger

Denmark – Official Denmark – Church and Religion: Royal Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs 


The Danish National Flag: Royal Danish Embassy, Washington DC


The Party Program of the Danish People’s Party

Edging closer - Relations with the EU are warming a little: The Economist


A midsummer night’s dream: The Economist


Mix and Match: The Economist


Krybbe to grav: The Economist


Identity changes: The Economist



Uffe Østergaard, Danish Center for Conflictsolving and Holocauststudies, 17th of June (by phone)

David Trads, editor-in-chief at Information and author of “Danskerne først”, 19th of June

Adriansen, Inge, Inspector at Sonderborg Castle Museum, 19th of June (by phone)

Recently published “Nationale Symboler i det danske rige 1830-2000”

Karl-Christian Ebbesen: Public Relations for Danish People’s Party, 23rd of June (by phone)

Lectures (part of HIA-program)

David Trads: Danish Politics and the Danish Peoples Party

Søren Espersen: Short introduction and then Q&A

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HIA Program:

Denmark Denmark 2003


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