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Denmark Diaries: Folketinget

About a week ago, I was on a guided tour of the Folketinget, the Danish parliament. On a stormy autumn evening, I gathered with a surprisingly large group of visitors at a side entrance to the parliament.

Our guide for the tour was a 72-year-old Dane who has worked in parliament for almost fifty years. He had jumped in relatively spontaneously, was a little nervous at first and admitted after about ten minutes that he hadn’t spoken English since he left school. (He made small mistakes very rarely, unlike the otherwise impeccable English of the average Dane, but to do a guided tour on short notice after fifty years without any practice was truly impressive.) As time went on, he became more confident, incorporating more jokes and anecdotes from his working life.

The Danish parliament is located in Christiansborg, a former royal palace that now also houses the highest Danish court, the official residence of the Danish prime minister and royal reception rooms for state visits.

One of the first stops we made was, of course, the plenary chamber - a beautiful old hall with lots of wood and a pretty stucco ceiling. We didn’t sit in the visitors’ gallery, but right next to the seats for the Queen and her attendants when she visits the parliament each year. The stucco ceiling shows the coats of arms of all the Danish regions - as well as Schleswig and Holstein, which Denmark lost to Prussia in 1864. (The third and current Christiansborg Palace was built after the fire in 1884, the parliament moved in even later. So when the hall was built, Schleswig and Holstein already no longer belonged to Denmark.) For me, this was always a side note in German history, but for the Danes it is still very much alive in their collective memory. Before I came to Denmark, I didn’t know the year of the German-Danish War, but now I’ve heard it so often here that you could probably wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me about it. Our tour guide also kept interjecting “when Bismarck occupied Schleswig” during the tour - a relatively remarkable phrase in my opinion… (If you offered Schleswig to the Danes, I’m absolutely sure they wouldn’t hesitate for a second. If I were to imagine the same situation for Germany and Silesia, I can’t imagine that there would be unreserved approval.)

Interesting detail in passing: there are three large works of art in the plenary chamber - one was donated by a Danish tobacco company, the other two by the Carlsberg brewery. Many travellers to Scandinavia probably notice that the Danes like to drink a beer and smoke like a chimney, but I wouldn’t have thought that their love of beer and cigarettes would go so far.

One of our next stops was the hall where the Danish House of Lords used to meet before it was rationalised away in 1953. Today, the hall is used for public committee meetings and conferences - and, as our guide told us, parliamentary staff occasionally sneaks in to watch football on the giant screen… On the walls are huge paintings of modern street scenes from Nørrebro, Copenhagen’s multi-cultural neighbourhood. As the artist supervised the hanging of the paintings, he noticed the white panelling of the former visitors’ gallery of the House of Lords - and spontaneously had a lifting platform brought in to paint some black and white sketches that resemble the new paintings on the walls within a few hours.

One of our last stops was the gallery with the paintings of all the prime ministers. You can see a very nice change from classic oil paintings to more modern styles with a greater sense of experimentation, culminating in the portrait of Anders Fogh Rasmussen. After his term as Danish Prime Minister, Fogh Rasmussen was NATO Secretary General and is relatively conservative by Danish standards - and an artist from the left-wing alternative commune of Christiania was commissioned for his painting. The depiction of Anders Fogh Rasmussen is rather reminiscent of Tom Cruise in Top Gun and chooses a rather unusual perspective: Fogh Rasmussen stands above a valley that looks suspiciously like Afghanistan and through which a huge fighter jet flies.

In total we spent an hour and a half in the Folketinget, but I had the feeling that I could spend at least the same amount of time looking at new rooms and listening to new anecdotes…