The Scandinavian Case of Sibling Rivalry: Sweden vs. Denmark

By Berdichevsky, Norman | The World and I, April 2007 | Go to article overview

The Scandinavian Case of Sibling Rivalry: Sweden vs. Denmark


Berdichevsky, Norman, The World and I


Psychiatrists use the term "sibling rivalry" to denote the frequent sense of competitiveness of siblings for the love of their parents, the affection of friends and relations and the relative success in their chosen careers and personal lives. The same characteristics and traits may be found among closely related nations that have had a long intertwined history, have often been united for a time in a long-lasting union, and speak closely related languages or regional dialects. Such pairs of nations that exhibit feelings of competitiveness, jealously and alternating phases of superiority and inferiority complexes are England/Scotland, the Czech Republic/Slovakia, and most notably, Sweden/Denmark and Spain/Portugal, which share the Scandinavian and Iberian peninsulas, respectively. These two pairs of nations present a striking symmetry of parallel cultural and political developments, marked by national rivalries and competitiveness to such a degree that no "victory" in competitive team sports such as football is regarded so highly as against the near neighbor and "sibling" rival.

Scandinavia and Iberia are the two maritime peninsulas fronting on the Atlantic Ocean and respectively guarding the entrances to Europe's two great inland seas--the Baltic and the Mediterranean. Each of these regions has witnessed both a struggle between a unifying cultural-linguistic and religious heritage, and a bitter national envy and rivalry that for a time encompassed union and threatened absorption of the "lesser" or "younger" sibling. This was followed by a renewed independence and sense of distinct identity and the identification of the "older" or "greater" rival with imperialist ambitions, and indelibly stamped as an arrogant and hypocritical usurper. In both peninsulas, the originally unified and ascendant powers of Denmark and Portugal achieved independence as a distinct nation-state, regional hegemony and a far flung overseas empire--only to lose out and suffer a long period of hurt feelings of inferiority vis-a-vis the newly dominant rival "big brother" (Sweden and Spain).

The "minor siblings" (Denmark and Portugal) increasingly relied upon their Atlantic coasts and overseas orientation to establish vast colonial empires in the mid-Atlantic (the Azores, Madeira, Brazil) and the North Atlantic (the Faeroes, Iceland and Greenland, and the Virgin Islands), and even further in Africa, India and Asia. One of the most fascinating and as yet incomplete studies of an episode in the history of exploration is the brief but fertile period of Portuguese-Danish cooperation (1425-1476).

Few neighboring countries were at war so often with each other from the Middle Ages until the end of the Protestant reformation as Sweden and Denmark--in much the same way as France and Germany from Napoleonic times until World War II. For most Americans this comes as a surprise, since both countries along with the rest of Scandinavia enjoy a modern image of peaceful states that enjoyed neutrality throughout most major modern European conflicts. The many similarities in culture, language, religion, the common reputation as "welfare states" with advanced social legislation and a social security net to prevent outright deprivation have obscured much of the same differences in outlook that distinguish Americans and Brits in spite of a long common history and shared institutions.

Like the differences that led to the American Revolution and the final separation from England in spite of the presence of a large contingent of loyalists who remained loyal to their king and oath of allegiance, Danes and Swedes could not agree on the form of the union between them. The differences separating them did not constitute an ocean but a common land boundary and narrow stretches of water. What we call Southern Sweden today is known by the regional name of Skane (with its own flag). It was both in terms of physical geography, landscape, soils, vegetation and climate a part of the Danish Kingdom from the earliest appearance of a state embracing Jutland (Jylland), Skane across the Oresund and the main Danish islands Funen, (Fyn) and Zealand (Sjaeland), lying amidst the two "Belts" in the Kattegat.

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