Denmark: Uffe Elbæk

Uffe Elbæk

Arti­cle by Uffe Elbæk, Culture Minister of Denmark:

At first look, this seems to be an unremarkable image. Three men in front of a brick wall, quite ordinary, except perhaps for their very fine and well-groomed moustaches. But just behind this façade, the image tells of epoch-turning events in European history. The three men are in fact Russian prisoners of war from World War I, photographed in a camp in Denmark.

Selected Item from Europeana

Three Russian prisoners of war

If you know a little of Danish history, this will strike you as odd, since Denmark was neutral during this war. But due to the harsh conditions that prisoners of war faced in countries impoverished by war, the Red Cross managed to transport some of them to neutral countries, where they were in fact still prisoners of war, but lived under better conditions – and in fact the three men in the image seems to be in reasonably good shape.

These three men were among 1.200 Russian prisoners who were transported to the Horserød Camp in Denmark. Among the Danish people that they met there was Ingeborg Stenmann, the 27 year old daughter of a Danish official. She was educated in French, Italian and Latin from the University of Copenhagen and had later taught herself Russian and Polish, and now became a volunteer in the camp to help the prisoners, most of whom were sick when they arrived.

But she did not limit herself to working for the day-to-day benefit of the Russian soldiers, she was also deeply interested in their fate, and her diary and the many photographs that she took, which are now found at the Danish Royal Library, tells the story of many soldiers. In 1917 she was also translator and co-publisher of the book “Russian Soldier’s Letters” which aimed at introducing to Danes the lives and thoughts of ordinary men caught up the Great War.

Such stories as the story of this photograph seem small on the scale of that war, but also hugely valuable in presenting to us the extraordinary diversity of lives and fates at this turning point in history. No individual historical work can include all this, but through Europeana all these many, many small individual specks of history, unremarkable in themselves, can be brought together and bring the rich kaleidoscope of history to life.

That is the extraordinary potential of bringing Europe’s heritage online, and that is the potential that we cannot afford to miss out on.

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