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Danish post-colonial melancholia in the 20th century

Dansborg seen from the Parade Ground. Photo: Sophie Petersen, 1950. National Museum of Denmark
Dansborg seen from the Parade Ground. Photo: Sophie Petersen, 1950. National Museum of Denmark

The article focuses on Sophie Petersen’s book Danmarks gamle Tropekolonier (Denmark’s Former Tropical Colonies) from 1946: an outstanding example of a widespread Danish narrative about Denmark as a tiny benevolent and thoroughly humanistic nation, which ironically sacrificed its imperial potentials for the sake of justice, but thereby gained greater honour on a moral and ethical level. This narrative seems to have found its final form after the sale of the Danish West Indies, the last Danish tropical colony; perhaps as a sort of compensation and explanation for the ‘loss’ of colonial empire.  However, at the same time, the narrative played an important role legitimizing Denmark’s claim on all of Greenland in the name of its people. It again gained relevance in connection with the German occupation of Denmark and the decolonization following World War II.  Petersen’s book was invoked again and again over the following decades. Even in the present day, the narrative of the benevolent Danish empire is still reproduced—also when the explicit goal has been to create a counter-narrative. A possible explanation is found in theories of nation, remembering, and narration. Finally, the article discusses whether the continuing interest in the former colonies and the history of the past Danish empire should be seen (only) as a sign of post-colonial melancholia: a reaction against globalization, migration, and altered geopolitical and racial balances of power, or whether it might (also) be seen in a more positive light as an effort to appreciate history and create new and more equal meetings across borders.

Thisted, Kirsten. (2009). “Where once Dannebrog waved for more than 200 years: Banal nationalism, narrative templates and post-colonial melancholia”, in Esther Fihl and A.R. Venkatachalapathy (eds.): Cultural Encounters in Tranquebar: Past and Present. Special issue of Review of Development and Change, vol. XIV, no. 1-2.