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Last Updated: Friday, 11 February, 2005, 18:39 GMT
Denmark's most popular Dane
By Nick Rankin
BBC News, Copenhagen

The Danish Prime Minister, Anders Rasmussen, said his election victory this week was a fairy-tale win. And he reminded Danes that it would soon be the 200th birthday of one its most famous citizens.

Physicist Niels Bohr was born in Copenhagen
The night before the 60th anniversary of the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp, they showed "Schindler's List" on Danish TV.

Of all the countries in Europe, perhaps Denmark was the most appropriate place to show Steven Spielberg's fairy-tale of redemption from Nazi horror.

For the Holocaust failed to happen in Denmark.

Forewarned through the synagogues, most of Denmark's 7,000 Jews were not at home the night the German soldiers came for them in October 1943.

Helped by kindly friends, neighbours, Christian fellow-citizens and the Danish resistance, they were smuggled across the sea to safety in neutral Sweden.

Fewer than 500 Jews were caught and shipped to Theresienstadt concentration camp, where 52 of them died. Six months later, a fleet of white, Scandinavian ambulances drove down into Germany to bring the survivors home to Denmark.

One of those who had managed to escape to Sweden was the quantum physicist Niels Bohr, who was then flown to Britain and on to the USA, where he helped develop the atomic bombs that finally defeated the Axis.

Popular vote

Last year when the readers of Denmark's oldest newspaper were asked to vote for the greatest Dane ever, Niels Bohr came second.

The winner however was not someone with the power to destroy worlds but a man who could create them.

A statue of Hans Christian Andersen. (Photo: James Wooldridge)
There are several statues of Hans Christian Andersen in Copenhagen
For with 36% of the vote, the most important Dane who ever lived was judged to be that teller of fairy-tales Hans Christian Andersen.

In Unesco's bizarre list of the world's most translated authors, Hans Christian Andersen is up there in the top 10.

He may be behind Walt Disney Productions, Agatha Christie, the Bible, Jules Verne, V I Lenin, Barbara Cartland, Enid Blyton and Shakespeare, but his fairy stories have been translated into nearly 150 languages around the world.

Millions of people recognise the name Hans Christian Andersen without perhaps knowing that the man himself was Danish, because his wonderful stories have migrated across frontiers and become naturalised.

In China for example, Andersen is known as An Tu Shung, which translates roughly as "teacher of peace and compassion".

Russians think he is Russian, Germans believe him to be German, and Hans Andersen has of course long been a staple of the British nursery.


The fairy-tale of Hans Christian Andersen's life, he was the ugly duckling who became a literary swan, began on the 2 April 1805, and Denmark is not letting his imminent 200th birthday go unremarked.

A small Scandinavian nation, best known for exporting bacon and beer, is culturally rebranding itself, under the marque HCA 2005.

A Danish arts festival organiser called Lars Seeberg started preparing for this anniversary about five years ago.

From the beginning, he understood that Hans Christian Andersen belonged not just to Denmark, but to the world, and that this bicentenary should be celebrated internationally.

Andersen's fantastic writings have now reached even further than the author himself, who spent 10 of his 70 years abroad, visiting Iberia and Istanbul, Norway and Naples.

Lars Seeberg got together his budget of 22m (32m euros), a third each from local government, national government, and a private foundation, and then started inviting foreign artists to create works in response to Hans Christian Andersen.

Some of these people were surprised to discover that Andersen wrote far more than just his 156 fairy-tales.

In our modern age of spin-doctors and public relations, Andersen's wise eye sees through cant and hype
Others found these stories of transformation were not just for children, nor were they as sentimental as Disney and Danny Kaye would have had us believe. Though they may feature courage and love and the kindness of strangers, five out of every six stories also deal with death.

Some stories are pantheist, some psychological.

Some are science fiction, others satirical. Often they are parables of freedom, which still resonate.


One of Hans Christian Andersen's stories, "The Wicked Prince", is about a cruel ruler who laid waste his neighbouring countries by killing and plundering, and who then set out to conquer God with a vast flying ship, pulled by eagles, spitting machine-gun bullets.

A statue of the Little Mermaid
Copenhagen also has a statue of Andersen's "Little Mermaid"
In the end, God just sends a small swarm of tiny midges, one of which gets in the prince's ear, drives him mad and leaves him lashing out with his useless sword.

In the excellent Museum of Danish Resistance in Churchill Park in Copenhagen, I came across an edition of this story produced under the Nazi occupation of Denmark in the 1940s.

It was straightaway seized by the German censor, no doubt because the illustrations showed the wicked prince's castle hung with swastikas.

In our modern age of spin-doctors and public relations, Andersen's wise eye sees through cant and hype.

"The Emperor's New Clothes" is about two swindlers who persuade a celebrity that the outfit they are going to sell him is absolutely fabulous, but that it will be invisible to people who are stupid or who are not worthy of their positions.

Since nobody wants to be thought a fool, or to lose their job, everybody praises this gorgeous garment, until a small boy innocently points out the wearer is completely naked.

Watching the TV with elections imminent, you begin to get the picture.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 12 February, 2005, at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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