Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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  • Historical background and contextDanishFaroeseFinnishIcelandicNorwegianScandinavianSwedish
  • Cultural Field:
  • Author:
    Simonsen, Kim
  • Text:

    Scandinavism is mostly remembered as an unsuccessful 19th-century political movement promoting Scandinavian unity, with some political impact between 1854 and 1864; ultimately the ideology is considered to have foundered over the Schleswig-Holstein question, when Danish interests failed to obtain significant support from the other Nordic countries. While Swedish and Norwegian volunteers had joined the Danish forces during the Schleswig War of 1848-50, Denmark stood alone in 1864. This political view is, however, limited; cultural Scandinavism has longer roots and a more persistent presence and afterlife.

    Positioned between Russia in the east and Germany to the south, Danish and Swedish intellectuals felt the need to identify a common cultural heritage for the entire North; opinions in subaltern regions like Norway (independent in 1905), Iceland (1944) and Finland (1918) being more ambivalent.

    Attempts to articulate a common “Nordic” position on the cultural map of Europe go back to antiquaries like Ole Worm (1588-1654) and Absalon Pederssøn Beyer (1528-1575). Political Scandinavism can be dated back to the late 18th century, when the republican-minded Danish historian Frederik Sneedorff (1760-1792) addressed a “Scandinavian Society” in London calling for a unification of the Danes, Norwegians and Swedes into a common Scandinavian fatherland. Initially, however, the main initiatives were cultural.  In 1795 the journal Nordia was founded by the Danish man of letters Jens Kragh Høst (1772-1844), who also published Svenske blade (“Swedish notes”) in 1798-99 and several books about the Swedish language for Danes. A meeting between Høst, the Swedes Karl August Ehrensvård and G.A. Paijkull, and the Danes Knud Lyne Rahbek and Peter Andreas Heiberg resulted in the establishment of the Skandinaviske Litteratur-Selskab (Scandinavian Literary Society) in 1796. It published 7 volumes of a Skandinavisk museum between 1798 and 1803 and 23 volumes of proceedings (Det skandinaviske litteraturselskabs skrifter, 1805-32).

    Following the Napoleonic Wars, convivial gatherings among Scandinavian intellectuals and artists in Rome fostered a Pan-Scandinavian cultural awareness, as did the fresh inspiration of Nordic mythological material, which was felt to offer a fresh, homegrown alternative to the overused and worn-out Classicist repertoire. Lively debates on the topic engrossed the art world. While the Copenhagen Academy of Art remained Classicist in outlook and rejected Nordic mythology as barbaric and repulsive, others (Nyerup, Grundtvig) published compendia. Philologists like Rasmus Rask and Carl Christian Rafn would through text editions (e.g. the Edda) and grammatical studies also map a linguistic and literary root system which, in contradistinction to German, was seen as a common “Nordic” culture-historical space, antedating and transcending nationally Danish-Swedish differences. Nordic-mythological subjects had made their appearance in the theatre as early as 1778, when Johannes Ewald’s (1743-1781) “singspiel” Balders død (“The death of Balder”) was performed in Copenhagen; in Sweden, King Gustav III himself (1746-1792) had written Frigga (“Frig”), performed as a comedy in 1783 and as an opera from 1787. Adam Oehlenschläger’s poems and plays, inspired by Nordic mythology and antiquity (e.g. Nordens guder, “The Nordic gods”, 1819), made him popular in Sweden as well, while the Swedish national writer Esaias Tegnér found appreciative readers in Denmark. Even Hans Christian Andersen caught the bug: after travels in Sweden, he wrote pro-Scandinavist poems such as Jeg er en skandinav (“I am a Scandinavian”, 1837).

    Such cultural Scandinavism took a firm hold among student fraternities, who proclaimed the ideal in choral singing and mass meetings. Student meetings were held in Uppsala (1843), Lund (1845), Copenhagen (1845) and Christiania (1851), with a renewed upsurge in the 1860s (Lund 1862, Copenhagen 1862, Christiania 1867). The movement’s leader was the Dane Carl Ploug (1813-1894), author of its anthem Længe var Nordens herlige stamme (“Long the North’s magnificent tribes”, 1842).

    Such cultural understandings worked alongside political rivalries and national loyalties – which would lead each separate nation to vindicate its entitlement, as opposed to others’, to call the literary (saga and Edda) heritage its own. While national interests outweighed the common Scandinavian ideal (as became obvious in the 1864 war), vestiges of cultural Scandinavism persisted, and helped prepare a monetary union (operative between 1873 and 1914) and a common policy for the Nordic countries to remain neutral in the First World War (proclaimed by the “Meeting of the Three Kings” in Malmö, 1914). A Nordic Association (Foreningen Norden) was founded in 1919, with branches in the various Scandinavian countries. Today, the countries share a common airline (SAS, founded in 1946) and have a passport union and consultative inter-parliamentary association in the Nordic Council (Nordisk Råd, formed in 1952).

    Word Count: 721

  • Article version:
  • DOI:
  • Arndt, Astrid (2004). Imagologie des Nordens: Kulturelle Konstruktionen von Nördlichkeit in interdisziplinärer Perspektive (Frankfurt am Main: P. Lang)

    Fjågesund, Peter (2014). The dream of the North: A cultural history to 1920 (Amsterdam: Rodopi)

    Henrikson, Paula (2010). “Inventing literary heritage: National consciousness and editorial scholarship in Sweden, 1810-1830”, in Jensen, Lotte; Leerssen, Joep; Mathijsen, Marita (eds.) (2010). Free access to the past: Romanticism, cultural heritage and the nation (Leiden: Brill), 103-125

    Hillström, Magdalena (2014). Skandinavism: En rörselse och en idé under 1800-tallet (Stockholm: Makadam Forlag) [Scandinavism: A movement and an idea during the 19th century]

    Rohde, Hermann Peter (1982). Danske kunstnere i Rom (Viborg: Rosenkilde og bagger) [Danish artists in Rome]

    Stadius, Peter (2014). “Trekungamötet i Malmö 1914: Mot en ny nordisk retorik i skuggan av världskriget”, Historisk tidskrift för Finland, 99.4: 369-394 [The Three Kings' Meeting in Malmö, 1914: Towards a new Nordic rhetoric in the shadow of the World War]

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    All articles in the Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe edited by Joep Leerssen are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://www.spinnet.eu.

    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Simonsen, Kim, 2020. "Scandinavism", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 16-07-2020, consulted 15-10-2021.