18th century Danish Enlightenment-feudalism conflict on film

This video is the trailer of the Danish film A Royal Affair (2012), which I saw today.

The central character in this film about Denmark in the eighteenth century is the German doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee (5 August 1737 – 28 April 1772).

Struensee was a supporter of Enlightenment ideas. From being a humble small town doctor, he managed to become physician to the king of Denmark, and to get much political influence.

Unlike some other movies about past events, the film is fairly close to history. It is based on two historical novels: The Visit of the Royal Physician by Per Olov Enquist; and Bodil Steensen-Leth’s Prinsesse af blodet.

Like most eighteenth century European countries, Denmark had a society which might be called feudal; and a royal absolutist system of government.

This meant, in theory, that all government decisions were based on the king’s will. In practice, the system depended on, and benefited, the landlord aristocracy and the hierarchy of the Lutheran state church.

King Christian VII of Denmark was mentally ill. Struensee managed to partly restore Christian’s health, and won the friendship of the king. After saving the life of the little crown prince, he won the friendship of Queen Caroline Mathilde as well. This developed into more than friendship later.

The role of Queen Caroline Mathilde in the film reminded me somewhat of the Duchess of Devonshire in the movie The Duchess, the scene of which is laid in the same eighteenth century; a young woman of good will trapped in a straitjacket of stifling aristocratic rules; married to a husband who loves dogs a lot more than his wife.

In the film, Struensee and the queen, while out riding in the countryside, saw a poor peasant killed on the orders of a court nobility landlord. From then on, they tried to influence the royal government toward Enlightenment reforms. That meant tensions in a context of a feudal society ruled by royal absolutism.

Struensee promoted public health. He abolished the death penalty, torture, and censorship. He attacked the privileges of the nobility and the state church.

A weak point for Struensee (not mentioned in the film) is that he did not speak Danish. That made it harder for him to build a base of support for his pro-people reforms amongst Danish poor peasants and Copenhagen city people. That made things easier for Struensee’s enemies. They whipped up xenophobia against Struensee, the “evil German foreigner”. The priests hated Struensee for his lack of religious orthodoxy. The landlords hated him for being a bourgeois commoner upstart, influencing a king which they considered to be their monopoly as nobles; and for endangering their riches and their privileges to treat peasants like animals.

In 1772, in a coup d’état, the conservative forces of the nobility, the state church, and the army command arrested Struensee and Queen Caroline Mathilde. They banished the queen to Germany, separating her from her children. Reversing Struensee’s abolition of torture, they tortured him horribly. Reversing Struensee’s abolition of the death penalty, they first cut off his right hand; then, they beheaded him; then, his dead body was drawn and quartered. Then, the coup d’état reactionary government abolished all of Struensee’s reforms.

The film, in its last images, has a happy end. They mention that in 1784, there was a counter-coup d’état by Crown Prince Frederic, who then proceeded to restore most of Struensee’s measures. Prince Frederic was, unusually for royals, pro-reform as he disliked the conservative court clique for having separated him at a tender age from his mother, and for killing Struensee who had saved his life.

However, this makes the end maybe a bit too happy.

Denmark is still a monarchy, though not an absolute monarchy like in the eighteenth century. It is still an unequal class society. Contrary to Struensee’s days, the privileged elite are mainly not the nobility anymore; but the bourgeoisie, Struensee’s class, which by now has lost its eighteenth century progressiveness.

The eighteenth century Danish nobility, afraid of losing their privileges, whipped up xenophobia against Struensee because he was German. The Danish xenophobes of today do not really hate Germans any more (especially not German nazis). They want to reinforce inequality by whipping up hatred against Muslims, Africans, Roma, etc. etc.

The film shows that the Danish army officers made a coup d’état against Struensee because he wanted to downsize the military budget in order to have money for public health. For the same reason, he wanted to downsize the royal court as well. This reminds me of countries today, where there are savage cuts on social services like health; but not on money for royals; and where military budgets keep rising for one “humanitarian” war after another. And where military coups are advocated if people within a democracy don’t accept austerity rammed down their throats.

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11 thoughts on “18th century Danish Enlightenment-feudalism conflict on film

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  7. I checked the most happy countries of the world and Denmark I believe was at the top of the list, taking in account of their history of repression, it is surprising they would be at the top of the list,it makes one think that if this country was as cruel as it appears in the article then how worst it may have been in other “civilized countries”


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