The Danish island of Fanø was bypassed by the conflicts of the 20th century, yet remains marked forever by them. JAMES RODGERS visits and finds a European backwater with a lesson for Brexiteers
The lone white headstone stands out. Nearby, in the tiny cemetery, lie farmers and fishermen who worked the land, faced the North Sea storms, and now take their rest. The single, simple, stone is set apart, flanked by four more: flat grey slabs that mark the graves of German soldiers.
The man in the middle, was ‘a British seaman of the Great War’, his body presumably washed up somewhere on the long, empty, stretches of beach that mark the western edge of Fanø, this island off the Jutland coast. The islanders – like other Danes, not soldiers in that ‘Great War’ – must have seen a certain logic in burying these enemies together, but away from the farmers and fishermen.
There are still farms on Fanø today, but most of the island’s earnings come from tourism. Visitors arrive by ferry at the main town of Nordby. When they went to sea, the men of Fanø went far: returning with sea-shanties that still influence the island’s folk music, and a souvenir which might seem a surprising choice for tough guys descended from Vikings. The island’s 19th century seafarers were much taken with Staffordshire pottery, especially fireside dogs. They brought home so many as gifts for wives and sweethearts that they became a symbol of the island. An outsize pair overlooks the start of the road from the ferry. Island tradition says the dogs are turned to look out when the man of the house is at sea; inwards when he is home. These show a Scandinavian willingness to compromise: one looks either way.
This part of Denmark has known peace since 1945. In the century before, it learned to fear the military might of its southern neighbour. In 1864, a reckless attempt to include part of the mainland in constitutional reforms introduced across Denmark (the Schleswig-Holstein question) provoked a Prussian invasion. The Danish army, bragging and foolhardy, was quickly crushed by vastly superior weapons technology and tactics. Denmark was afterwards wary of the world beyond its borders. Danish troops would not fight another combat mission until the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 1864 is remembered as a seminal moment in Denmark’s history story. In 2014, Danish TV marked the 150th anniversary with a drama – also shown on BBC4 – designed to retell the story for a new generation.
Still scarred by memory of national disaster, Denmark did not put up much of a fight as Hitler’s forces poured north in 1940. On Fanø, they still tell the story of a group of polite hotel guests who suddenly came down for breakfast one morning dressed in German uniforms. In the guise of tourists, they had been mapping the island. The Danes decided there was little point in delaying the inevitable, and accepted defeat. Resistance was left to a brave few who took up arms against the occupiers.
To see Fanø now, though, is to see an island marked forever by the Second World War. There may not have been a battle here, but the Germans, fearing invasion, built huge defences along Denmark’s west coast. Fanø, lying across a narrow sound from the strategically valuable port city of Esbjerg, was heavily fortified. The sand dunes which ring the island’s coastline conceal bunkers which housed gun emplacements; ammunition stores; eating and sleeping quarters; even an underground field hospital. They are easily found today: damp and gloomy inside, but generally in excellent condition. The Allies never tested them. The German troops fled south as defeat loomed in early May 1945. Decades of North Sea storms seem to have made little impression.
The Germans did not stay away for long. By the 1950s, they were returning as visitors. They make up the overwhelming majority of tourists today, passing under the gaze of the Staffordshire pottery dogs as they head for hotels and holiday houses. Denmark has not forgotten the bloody humiliation of its and Germany’s shared history. You can go on a guided tour of the bunkers. Yet this corner of Europe remembers war as something which must not be repeated; peace something which is celebrated with every German purchase in cafe, shop, or pub (although sadly the sign which used to stand outside one bar in Nordby’s pretty, cobbled, main street ‘Coffee No, Food No, Smoking Yes’ seems to have gone – at least its disappearance might discourage Nigel Farage).
As a Brit about to lose his European citizenship, this can be a hard place to visit. For there is something here which we seem to have missed – or at least not valued enough when we voted to leave the EU. We may never really have bought into much more than the single market. Most of us never accepted European harmony as an ideal worth the expending of political effort. You can’t help thinking, seeing other Europeans making things work to their mutual benefit, that we are about to start missing out massively.
Like us, the Danes are relatively reluctant Europeans. They are in the Schengen Area – staying outside probably not realistic for a country of this size – but not in the euro (although the currency is pegged to the euro). Unlike us, though, they seem to have understood that, whatever you think of it, being in the EU is better than being outside. In this, we have truly isolated ourselves – and not even the most unhinged Brexiteer would claim today that our folly is going to inspire a Europe-wide revolution. Our options – selling the NHS to US health companies in exchange for chlorinated chicken, or enjoying Jezza’s socialism in one country – are not attractive to our erstwhile European partners.
Fanø is flat. Its seaward side is flat, white sand which darkens with the rising tide. The sea is remarkably shallow here. You can walk a mile out at low tide, and even when that part of the sand is covered at high water, it will be less than two metres deep. The weather can change treacherously quickly, though – mist suddenly making it impossible to find your way. Tourists walking out to watch seals on the distant sandbanks are warned against heading out alone. At least there are no cliff edges to fall over.
In the summer sunshine, the island thronged with tourists, it’s hard to picture the day when the body of the unknown sailor was washed up on the beach. A century after his death, he lies a long way from home: remembered, even anonymously; respected. There aren’t many Brits who make it to Fanø, so I always pass by his grave when, as now, I visit on holiday. As a BBC correspondent, I reported on war in Chechnya, Gaza, Iraq, and Georgia. The fact that I was lucky enough never to have to fight makes me respectful of those who did. The point of remembering wars, I believe, is not to glorify the killing but to value the peace which followed.
Brexiteers raving about past military glory would probably not agree with me, but I think the sailor, and the Germans who lie next to him, might. As hardcore Brexiteers celebrate us ‘breaking free’, saner heads might wonder if 2016 will come to be seen as a disaster for the UK as 1864 was for Denmark.
James Rodgers (@jmacrodgers) is the author of three books on journalism and war. He lectures in International Journalism at City, University of London