Passive resistance in Sønderjylland

Today we were in Tønder Museum & Kunstmuseum – a brilliant place. In addition to the exhibitions about which more later, we had lunch in the beautiful café. Earlier in the day we had been looking at classic Danish Design furniture in a wonderful furniture shop in Tønder, so before I go on, a quick word about this place. Among other things completely out of our reach fiscally including a beautiful Børge Mogensen designed sofa for a cool £5,000 (£9,500 if you snapped up the two-person job as well), local lad Hans Wegner’s classic cord-seat chairs were on sale for a mere £600 a pop, making the dining room set we fancied a snip at £11,000. This is important in terms of the money Danes chuck at interior design to make their museums the envy of the world.

In addition to the beautifully designed exhibitions, one of which was an amazing collection of Dutch ceramic tiles, ubiquitous to the area (note to self: write about the Dutch influence on Danish renaissance design), the design of which, I suspect, will at some point mysteriously reappear as murals on Jeannie’s bathroom wall, there was also a beautifully-designed café where we decided to eat lunch. I should mention here that the Museum of South Jutland and Tønder Art Museum are a major Danish cultural institutions, yet during the hour and a half it took us to wend our way through the narrow passageways and rooms of the old museum building and into the light and airy new art part, we were the only people in the place; likewise the restaurant, which could seat around 40 visitors, all on Wegner chairs, grouped in fours around Wegner tables. So, everyone was in effect sitting on classic examples of Danish Design. The museum must have spent about £50,000 just on the seating arrangements. Jeannie commented that she couldn’t imagine a museum in the UK doing that, or that we had been the only people in exhibitions you would have had to book up three months in advance in a comparative London culture joint.

So, following our classic Danish light lunch of marinated herring with a curry & chopped cucumber dressing (which Jeannie has taken a shine to), filet of plaice with remoulade and roast beef with grated horseradish and other good things, while Jeannie immersed herself in the art books that were there for all-comers to peruse with no obligation to purchase, I popped over to have a chat with the nice lady who cooked and ran the place.

She asked what we were doing there and I explained briefly the idea behind the Borderlands Project, saying that I was particularly interested in hearing stories from the minorities on both sides of the border. She told me that although she herself was ethnic Danish, her mother had been German and had grown up during the Second World War. “It was a hard time for her,” she said but didn’t illuminate and although I would have liked t ask if I could have spoken to her, it seemed inappropriate at the time. However, I mentioned that I was aware of the huge significance of the Second Schleswig War and the loss of South Jutland to Prussia and how it still reverberated today. She agreed and added that we should visit the Zeppelin Museum from WW1, which I have always wanted to, because they had stories to tell. She then told a couple of her own:

During WW1, she told me the Zeppelins raided England – I said I knew, because WW1 is one of the bees in my historical bonnet. Yes, she said, but did you know that Zeppelins were the reason the British began experimenting with carrier-based aircraft? That I did not know and was surprised the café cook at a museum knew this sort of stuff. Apparently, the British aircraft could raid the Zeppelin sheds in Tønder, which was at that time part of Germany, but they couldn’t get back again, so plans were made to adapt some ships so the planes could land on specially adapted flight decks to save them ditching in the North Sea. That was amazing fact number one!

Amazing fact number two is the ways in which Danes found to express passive resistance to the occupying powers both after 1864 and following the German occupation of 1940.

Firstly there is the origin of the famous ‘Sønderjysk kaffebord’ [roughly translates as ‘coffee club’ – allowing for cultural interpretation]. Following the Second Schleswig War of 1864, after which Prussia (soon to become a unified Germany) annexed South Jutland to a line just south of the town of Kolding, the Danes were not allowed to meet on the street in larger groups for fear that insurrection might ensue. Creative as usual, they got around this by holding what could be translated as ‘coffee clubs’ where patriotic groups would meet for coffee and the forbidden Danish snaps. A tradition developed where the cakes served became more and more elaborate. So now – as I have experienced myself – when you are invited for coffee and cakes – historically, for example, after church on a Sunday where the pastor will have delivered a sermon critical of the occupying powers but couched in parable and metaphor that only Danes would understand, you will be offered more cream cakes than an average human can consume in half a lifetime and not a few glasses of fiery snaps.

Also after the war of 1864, the Germans declared that Dannebrog, the red and white Danish flag was also forbidden, so the tablecloths would be produced in red and white to defy this edict. Some also painted the walls of their rooms red and their windows white for the same reason. Then apparently, during WW2 on the island of Romø, a church had the Danish flag painted on its roof. The locals were ordered to paint it over, which they did but in water-based paint so that whenever it rained, the paint washed off.

I may not have retold these entirely accurately, but they are pretty much as I heard them today. Any corrections are, however, heartily welcome.