Carlsberg Foundation 17: Bias, neglect and misrepresentation – the unfortunate side of history writing in Denmark and Estonia between c. 1800 and 1990

Stefan Pajung and Mihkel Mäesalu

Soon after we started working on this research project, we discovered to our great surprise, that a comprehensive historiography of the Danish-Estonian relationship in the Middle Ages up to the present time was nowhere to be found. So, in the beginning of 2021 we attempted to fill that void and write it ourselves. During this process it became even more apparent than we already were aware of, that this subject for many years had been treated with extreme bias, misrepresented grossly or just had been neglected. But why was that the case – and how has this changed?

In the case of Estonian history writing, this was until the middle of the 20th Century mostly due to it being dominated by Baltic German historians who primarily focused on the efforts of German missionaries, merchants, knights, settlers, and the Teutonic Order at the expense of the substantial Danish involvement in Estonian medieval history in the 13th and 14th centuries, even going so far as writing that there was no trace of influence from Denmark on the development of the Duchy of Estonia to be found.

Baltic-German historian Friedrich Georg von Bunge (1802-1897). Wikimedia Commons.

After Estonia gained independence in 1918, a national Estonian professional history writing emerged alongside the already existing Baltic German history writing. Estonian historians were manifestly anti-German and re-imagined Estonian history in a strongly nationalistic, but at the same time somewhat “Post-Colonial” way. The research of Estonian historians focused on the history of previously unrepresented ethnic and social classes: ethnic Estonians, peasants and the lower classes in the towns. According to this narrative, the native Estonian population had been oppressed by the German and Danish invaders, who had forced them to convert to Christianity. Afterwards, the foreign invaders exploited the people and the resources of the land for their own gain. However, the native population of Estonia on several occasions revolted against the foreign occupiers. Especially the great uprising of 1343 received much attention. German as well as Danes were both perceived as foreign occupiers who had subjugated the Estonians.

During the Soviet occupation of Estonia (1940 – 1991), history writing became heavily influenced by dialectical materialism, but at the same time retained its previous nationalistic and anti-German attitudes. The Germans and Danes were now labeled as western aggressors and agents of “feudalism”, against whom the Estonians fought with the support of friendly forces from neighboring Russia. This view clearly reflected the political situation in the early years of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union being the heroic fighter for freedom against the western capitalist warmongers. In time, these extreme points of view became less and less pronounced, but only after the independence of Estonia in 1991 could Estonian history writing fully free itself from Soviet influence and Marxist doctrine.

During the last thirty years a new generation of Estonian historians have abandoned the previous nationalistic attitudes and began to research topics, which were previously considered as “the history of the Germans”: political history, the Teutonic Order, the higher clergy and the urban elites of the towns. Some important advances have already been made regarding a re-assessment of the Danish period in the Estonian Middle Ages. As this is an ongoing process, many of the views of the older Baltic German historiography on Danish Estonia are still considered as valid in current scholarship.

As to the Danish treatment of Danish-Estonian common history, this also involved some major changes since 1800. When Danish historian P. F. Suhm wrote his history of Denmark during the last decades of the 18th century, he quite naturally included Danish Estonia in his narrative. That Suhm put emphasis on including the history of the entire Danish monarchy, and not just of the core country, can be attributed to his recognition of the importance of the individual parts of the conglomerate state in the fabric of the realm.

Danish historian Peter Frederik Suhm (1728-1798). Wikimedia Commons.

But in the 19th century the political realities changed, and so did Danish history writing. Denmark had lost Norway in 1814, and from the 1840’s there was unrest in the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, where German nationalism was on the rise, and this led to Civil War by the end of the decade. Meanwhile, Scandinavianism occupied the mind of many influential Danes, and this also reflected itself in the history writing. The relationship with the other Scandinavian kingdoms and, increasingly, the animosity towards the Germans throughout history became central themes of Danish history writing during the first half of the 19th century and up until 1864. Then another war broke out over the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, which ended in a Danish defeat.

In the aftermath of the traumatic loss of the Duchies, most Danish historians restricted themselves to write history with the main purpose to strengthen Danish national identity. Subsequently, there was little room for dealing with those parts of the kingdom which already had been lost previously, especially not if that loss had happened 500 years in the past. While Danish medieval history experienced quite a resurgence over the last decades of the 19th century, and numerous source publications saw the light of day through a truly Herculean effort by the leading historians of the time, this did not include a similar interest in Danish rule over Estonia. Those Danish historians who treated the common history of Denmark and Estonia at all, focused mostly on the same three seminal events which previous generations had only devoted a few pages to: the conquest of 1219, the Treaty of Stensby in 1238 whereby Denmark regained the Duchy of Estonia from the Teutonic Order, and the sale of Danish Estonia to said Order in 1346.

From the 1920’s onward, Danish historians switched their focus from the political to the socio-economic part of history, but they also largely remained disinterested in Danish Estonia. It is quite telling that the most detailed and groundbreaking study concerning Danish Estonia that was published in Copenhagen before the war was “Die Estlandsliste des Liber Census Daniae” by the Danish-Estonian historian Paul Johansen from 1933, someone not educated within the Danish academic framework and its traditions (and limitations). After the war, Danish medieval history at first concentrated on the interaction between Denmark and the Northwest European cultural sphere, the creation of the Union of Kalmar, the struggle with the Hanseatic cities and the general socio-economic developments during this period.

It was only in the 1970’s, that interest in the history of Danish Estonia increased in Denmark, and that was mostly due to one man, Professor Niels Skyum-Nielsen from the University of Copenhagen. He was not afraid to stride off the beaten track and thus included a short treatment of the Danish period in Estonia in the first volume of his new History of Denmark. He himself disproved those Baltic German historians who had alleged, that that there was no trace of influence from Denmark on the development of the Duchy of Estonia to be found. Unfortunately, Skyum-Nielsen’s work on Danish Estonia were cut short by his early death in October 1982, even though his completed studies were published posthumously. But he had sown a rich seed, which was harvested by a younger generation of Danish historians, who in the 1970’s and 1980’s continued to publish works on Danish Estonia. This new generation now integrated various aspects of Denmark’s involvement in Estonia into their treatment of Danish history.

Danish historian Niels Skyum-Nielsen (1921-1982). Wikimedia Commons.

However, it was only after the end of the Cold War and the independence of the Baltic States that interest in the history of the Baltic countries increased significantly. This trend was strengthened even further through several beneficial developments within the field of history both internationally and in Denmark. First and foremost, medieval historians from all the Scandinavian countries became involved in the study of the crusades, and Danish scholars naturally focused on the Danish involvement in the Northern Crusades directed towards Livonia and Estonia. Also, by the 1990’s there was a trend towards internationalization within history writing which increased the collaboration between scholars across border. Also, the publication of research results in other languages than Danish among Danish historians became the norm rather than the exception from 1990’s onwards, thereby encouraging the exchange of ideas and promoting research in fields hitherto only rarely touched by Danish scholars. Furthermore, the internet, digitalization of sources and access to archives in Estonia not commonly visited by Danish scholars also made the study of the Danish period in Estonian history easier and more accessible than ever before.

Thus, it seems that Danish Estonia has begun to reclaim its right place in the history of Denmark in the Middle Ages if the scholarly studies that have been published since the year 2000 are something to go by. This is still ongoing, and we that work in the field, hope this development will continue. We, at least, try to contribute to this trend, and we hope this will inspire others.

Our full article on the subject will be published in an upcoming issue of Forschungen zur Baltischen Geschichte later this year, if anybody should be interested.