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Book Review: 1864 by Tom Buk-Swienty


This is a non-ficion book about the 1864 battle of Dybbøl in Denmark against Prussia, 18th April. Have you heard of it? Unless you’re Danish or German, or you’ve recently watched the Danish TV drama of the same title, it may not be too familiar.

The drama is a fictional account of the lives of the people who lived and fought through this war. It took inspiration from the book but though the characters in the series may share a few names and backgrounds, they are not portrayals of real people. I love Danish TV and film and it is refreshing to finally have something which is not crime or politics, but history. Especially a history that to begin with I knew very little about. I’m not going to go on too much about the drama – apart from the fact I loved it and for weeks it stuck with me and I couldn’t stop thinking about it after it finished. It has some of the best war scenes I have ever seen even in film. They are devastatingly real and they showed a true horror and honesty of war. It wasn’t gratuitous, but it didn’t censor anything or make it too clean like some other war dramas.

The war broke out in February after Denmark made the ‘November Constitution’ in 1863 which incorporated the duchy Schleswig  into the kingdom of Denmark. However it really started back in 1848 when a civil war broke out between the duchys Schleswig and Holstein and lasted three years. Denmark won the war but the  peace agreement known as the ‘London Protocol’ enacted by France and Great Britain stipulated that Schleswig and Holstein should remain independent and never be separated. So when Denmark tried to break this peace agreement it created fissures throughout Europe.

Prussia was primed for war. Otto von Bismarck at the time was suffering a political down turn. He sees the war as a way to regain confidence and power. Denmark’s Prime Minister of the National Liberal Party Monrad leads a patriotic fervour in Denmark in his own aspirations to expand Danish territory and claim back a land they think of as their own. It is a war of egos.

Neither France or the UK were forthcoming in their support for Denmark. Their cause was not popular and Denmark was unwilling to revoke the constitution or find a different way other than war. Denmark thus found itself alone against the much larger forces of Prussia and Austria.

1864 is about Denmark’s loss. How decisions made my political madmen condemned thousands of men to their deaths. Whilst Prussia exhibited an outstanding force and strategic brilliance, Denmark demonstrated mistake after mistake. Monrad was completely out of touch with what was really happening on the front and his government’s continuing instruction to defend Dybbøl at all costs, and refusal to allow the men to retreat resulted in Denmark losing land, in fact almost losing its entire existence as a country.

Tom Buk-Swienty tells the story of Dybbøl through the use of letters and memoirs from both sides of the trenches. His writing is often quite descriptive and sometimes it feels more like he is narrating a story but this is quite normal for some non-fictions nowadays. I imagine it appeals to people like me who do not generally read such books. Sometimes I feel it is too much – how can he describe something and present it as non-fiction when it is clearly being imagined. However this is my only criticism and frankly it is not one I am too much bothered by.

I really enjoyed this book, enough in fact to give it five stars over at Goodreads. It gripped me and I just wanted to keep reading. In fact after finishing I felt bereft. I didn’t want to leave the soldiers behind. I forgot that these people whose letters I read are long gone. If not killed in 1864 then died of old age. I enjoyed learning about these people and period of time. Reading the letters from soldiers, some who survived but many whom didn’t is heart-rendering because these are the letters of real people and it contained their hopes and fears, their love for the wives and children they would leave behind.

Buk-Swienty concentrated a lot on the emotional side of these men, their personal relations. One letter by a Prussian solider describes how a very brave soldier was found clutching a photo of his family and crying uncontrollably just before setting off on the 18th. He was later found dead. He goes into detail the wounds and disfigurements caused by shells, bayonets, bullets and shrapnel. The suffering of these men are great and it only reaffirms how horribly pointless the whole war was.

When we think of wars we think of the first world war or the second world war, but forget about all the wars beforehand, maybe because we do not learn much about them at school.  When we do look back to these wars it seems it is only with a sense of victory or righteousness. We won the Battle of Trafalgar, Captain Nelson as the hero and then the Battle of Waterloo with the Duke of Wellington. Although I confess – these are mostly names to me and I know little of the history behind them.

The memory of Napoleon reigns large in the minds of the people taking part in this battle. Many of the old commanders were veterans of the Napoleonic wars. What was war like back then? Perhaps not so large in scale as the first world war and without the more advanced weapons. How did people cope? How many lives were ruined throughout history and the seemingly constant bickering going on in Europe.

Reading this book makes me want to find out more. I would like to learn about Florence Nightingale, the Red Cross, the Crimean Wars and the Napoleonic Wars as well as the rise (and fall) of Prussia. I should really focus my area of interest, when I do settle down to read a non-fiction I tend to jump all over the place.

Some historians believe that the battle of Dybbøl foreshadowed the first world war – Denmark upset a pot of boiling water over fragile European relations and bolstered Prussia’s confidence leading to the unification of the German empire in 1871. If Denmark had better leaders in charge of the war (or had not sacked the most competent commander and replaced him with a stooge) then history may be a little different today.

I hope some more of Tom Buk-Swienty’s will be translated to English by his wife. I believe he has written one about Wilhelm Dinnesen who features a bit in this book. He is father to Karen Blixen who is famous for her book “Out of Africa”.

I’d recommend watching the TV series if you can and reading the book as itmakes a good companion to  the series. I really enjoyed both and they are probably the highlights of my TV and literary year so far.

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