Economic Development in Denmark Before and During the World War/The Rise of the Lower Classes

The Rise of the Lower Classes

The class distinctions of to-day are essentially different from those of the past, and the difference is manifest in all countries. The social gap separating the peasant and the noble in the eighteenth century was enormous; and under lying it was a deep-rooted conviction that every man was born into his class, whether that of noble, peasant, or plain citizen. There might be a feeling of dissatisfaction among the poor, and this feeling might even, under special circumstances, lead to revolt. Almost all countries have known peasant revolts. But in spite of dissatisfaction and revolt the conviction persisted that every man must remain in the class into which he was born. In the same way it was an idea inherited from the Middle Ages that the conditions in which an artisan or peasant lived must also be satisfactory to his children and his children's children.

During the developments of the nineteenth century all this necessarily changed. On the one hand, numerous intermediate stages arose which made it possible for a successful peasant or citizen to rise from the lowest class to the highest. Any member of the lower classes might have 'a marshal's baton in his knapsack'. Unfortunately, however, there were only a few marshals' posts, and the many who were left in the lower classes quite naturally began to compare their condition with that of their successful brethren who had risen to higher positions. The distinction between the citizen, the peasant, and the noble was superseded by the distinction between the poor and rich. It was the good fortune of Denmark that the sharpness of this distinction was somewhat dulled by various favouring circumstances.

Great landowners, as has been said before, did not occupy at all the same position in Denmark as in many other countries; even to-day the two thousand great farms comprise only one-sixth of the Hartkorn (the Danish unit of land-tax). Nor have our large manufacturers had such chances for outgrowing the swaddling-clothes of handicraft as have those of other countries. Moreover, education in Denmark was at a comparatively early time so far advanced that class distinctions were thereby largely removed. It is well known that at a certain stage in the social-economic development of a country strong demands are made for the education of the lower classes, many thinkers considering it the most important social problem to be dealt with. Its solution was not everywhere so successful as it was in Denmark, where education was made compulsory as early as 1739. But in many places the quality of the instruction was poor. In the summertime most of the village schools were empty, and often the teacher had had but little training and received but little salary. But in 1814 a reform of the whole system of elementary education was introduced. This reform, which had been in preparation for some time, was very important. For many years it made Denmark a model country in regard to educational matters, although it was found impossible to carry out the original plans in full on account of the frugality of the taxpayers and the poor economic condition of the country in general.

Access to university training has without doubt been easier for people of moderate circumstances in Denmark than in many other countries, and many gifted peasant boys have been helped along to advanced studies and have thus formed a link between the upper and lower classes. Of great importance was the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural College, which was founded in 1856 and soon superseded older institutions. A group of excellent teachers here raised the teaching to a high level and conducted valuable researches in the various fields of inquiry. Early in the nineteenth century, moreover, came an interesting development in the form of high schools for adults, especially for young peasants. These schools have played a very important part in the social life of Denmark, and honour is especially due to the famous N. F. S. Grundtvig for the impulse which he gave to their establishment. In a number of treatises he expounded his idea, and in 1844 he succeeded in bringing about the foundation of the first high school, which was in Rödding (Sleswick). Some years later his example was followed in a few other places, and after 1864 the movement progressed rapidly. In the course of time many excellent men made their influence felt in these schools; and even though the amount of knowledge obtainable in the short time that young men or women could generally spend in school (as a rule only six months) could be neither extensive nor thorough, it was, nevertheless, sufficient greatly to widen their intellectual horizon. Also a number of technical schools, agricultural schools, and trade schools were eventually established, and these, too, contributed a great deal toward raising the intellectual level of the population.

The Free Constitution which Denmark established on June 5, 1849, further contributed to this result. This constitution was preceded by the estates general, provincial consultative meetings which had prepared the population for the great transition from absolutism to political freedom. The Free Constitution stood its test through all the ensuing changes and was a powerful means of elevating the Danish people by giving all classes a part in political life.

In the first part of the nineteenth century, there was in Denmark, as in almost all countries, a period of economic stagnation. The Wars of Liberation had led to a general derangement of business, which lasted well into the thirties and caused much distress throughout the country. The prosperity which had prevailed at the close of the eighteenth century, and which had contributed to the great development of agriculture after the introduction of the agricultural reforms, was now brought to an end by a lowering of the prices of agricultural products, which fell with great severity upon the farmers. The protective policy of England exerted a highly unfavourable influence, in that it hampered our agricultural exports and further depressed our prices. Taxes were exceedingly heavy, and in spite of arrangements that were made for facilitating their payment many farmers were obliged to give up their farms. All over the country poverty and scarcity reigned to an extent now difficult to appreciate. But the people bore the stress of circumstances with hopeful resignation, and after 1830 conditions improved somewhat. Then followed a period of prosperity for Danish agriculture. But in other respects there were many adversities to be endured; the first years of the thirties, for example, were characterized by great epidemics, the year 1831 being the only year of the nineteenth century in which there were more deaths than births.

During this long period of reaction little energy could be expended for agricultural reforms. All that could be done was to allow the farmers to take full advantage of the previous reform measures. At the end of the eighteenth century loans had been granted to leaseholders who wished to buy their lands and cultivate them as freeholds, and these efforts were continued during the first years of the nineteenth century. After a time they lessened somewhat, but the conversion of the leaseholds into freeholds did not cease entirely. In 1835 almost two-thirds of the farms were freeholds.

A reaction was also felt in trade and industry. Toward the close of the eighteenth century there had appeared, in connexion with the more liberal politico-economic movement, a certain tendency to relax the guild restrictions. Plans had even been formed for the complete abolition of the guilds. As a matter of fact, however, the restrictions were only slightly relaxed. In 1800, for example, it was stipulated that any journeyman who had worked steadily for four years might become a free master, but might not employ an apprentice or journeyman. But even this limited concession was withdrawn in 1822, and other reactionary regulations were introduced. It cannot be said, however, that the guild restrictions in Denmark were felt to be very severe. In the towns, indeed, to which trade was chiefly confined, the guilds were sharply distinguished from one another. But it was comparatively easy to become a journeyman, and when a journeyman had made a masterpiece he was entitled to become a master with the right to employ as many assistants as he saw fit. In the country districts certain trades were carried on freely or by special licence; but the country tradesmen were not allowed to work in the town.