Prince Henrik, who passed away yesterday, was a dividing figure, as well as a unifying one. He was ahead of his time and opened Denmark to the world before we were ready for it.
A French noble and diplomat, he came to Denmark from France in 1967 to marry Crown Princess Margrethe, renouncing his career, nationality, and religion, and even changing his name from Henri to Henrik.
Clearly in love with the popular and soon-to-be-queen Margrethe, his eccentricity was well-received at first. But despite his sincere efforts to become Danish, in the public eye he remained, to his death, different.
A man of the world
He was cosmopolitan and well-educated, with a degree from Sorbonne and a budding career in the French Foreign Service.
He had spent his childhood in Vietnam, had a passion for East Asia in general, and spoke Mandarin. While on many people’s radar today, Asia was far away back then.
He unashamedly enjoyed life, the arts, food and wine in a manner perhaps uncommon in Denmark in the 70’s. Also that has changed, with the Copenhagen dining scene among the best in the world, and indulgence a national pastime.
For these things, and for his work as ambassador for Danish business and cultural interests, he was celebrated by politicians, the business community, and international relations.
Don’t stand out
In the gossip magazines, however, these things were ignored, or even seen as a liability. In little Denmark, equality rules, and you’re not supposed to stand out. To the masses, he primarily rode on the popularity of his wife, children, and grandchildren, and challenging the glossy image did not go down well.
Henrik was also traditional in his views on family, and never came to terms with his role. Which, in all fairness was never defined. As the first-ever prince consort in Denmark, he was expected to support his wife the Queen, but it was his own nightmare to consolidate that with his role as husband and father.
Most fatally, however, he never shed his accent, notwithstanding his sincere efforts to integrate, and his foreign language skills in general. Prince Henrik himself has admitted this regret, that he did not learn to speak Danish better, and more quickly.
Assimilation, not integration
This illuminates an important, and sad, point about Denmark. Despite our own language skills, to really become one of us you need to master the language perfectly. Which is not exactly easy. Any hint of an accent, and we’ll forever think of you as coming from somewhere else. Perhaps it is our smallness which makes us feel threatened by outsiders and defend the well-known. Or perhaps it is our social democratic culture and tall-poppy syndrome (jantelov) which seeks to cut down anything different, whatever the reason.
The obituaries for Prince Henrik are rightfully positive, lauding the man’s efforts, but all commenting on the fact that he was both loved and criticized by the people he tried to serve.
In the public debate in Denmark there is much talk of integration of immigrants. But if Prince Henrik is any measure – and mind you, he came into privilege, starting on a wave of popularity – what we want is not integration, but assimilation.
Prince Henrik died in peace, surrounded by family, and the press had backed down on their criticism of him after the announcement of dementia last year. But I believe it’s morbid stroke of luck that he did not survive his wife: had the Queen been the first to die it would have made his role even more difficult.
Rest in Peace, Prince Henrik.