Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Looking for another Johann Friedrich Struensee

by Gary Berg-Cross

As the House Republican argue for prosecute journalists for reporting on leaks Freedom of the press is in the news again.  It is not widely known that Denmark was the first country officially to declare freedom of the press. This small step for freedom came about through the influence of an interesting Enlightenment and atheist figure, called Johann Friedrich Struensee. Along with Hume and Voltaire, Struensee is given credit for an early role in the freedom of the press battle in the late 18th century when banning books was in high season.  His Shakespearean-flavored, but true story of early Enlightenment battles against ignorance and entrenched power remains one for our times because it shows how a person of vision, skill and fortitude can marshal progressive forces.

The full story of enlightened ups and downs (he was executed by reactionaries) is told in books like Per Olov Enquist ‘s THE ROYAL PHYSICIAN'S VISIT (Translated by Tiina Nunnally  & Reviewed in the NYT) and by  the book and movie A Royal Affair (En kongelig affære) nominated for the Best Foreign film Oscar, based on the novel by Bodil Steensen-Leth. The film allows one to feel the changing times of 18th century Europe filled with possibilities and obstacles.
In the late 1760s Denmark was nominally ruled by Christian VII, but a strange childhood and apparent mental illness made for erratic rule as factions of advisers struggled for influence. All this changed when he came under the care of doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee, his personal physician.


The ambassador was however, alarmed by Struensee’s disdain for religion and established authority. - ‘It cannot easily be determined whether his talents are more formidable, his principles more relaxed or his address more seducing’.

Altona was the right place for reform. It had attracted some influential freethinkers who had fallen out of power with the King’s court in Copenhagen. Through them Struensee was introduced to the King becoming his personal doctor, and through this executive he was able to provide wise advice. Medical advances that worked, like vaccinating the elite's children gained him an audience and following. (NB while also ministering to the poor in times of Smallbox). Radical medicine was part of Enlightenment and what you could do with the human body (such as dissection for autopsies.)

Brilliant and brave he steadily rose in power & influence. In 1768 Struensee was described by then British ambassador as having: ‘carried freedom of thinking as far as any man’

Struensee eventually gabbed enormous power, becoming "de facto" regent which allowed him to  introduce widespread progressive reforms such as the abolition of torture. Of course the irony is that he seemed to act as a benign dictator, a role that his enemies could use against him. The paradoxes are well captured in the film A Royal Affair viewable on instantly Netflicks.

Still many reforms were enacted and set a tone that was to prevail after some decades of reversal later on and the torturing of Struensee as one of many ironies. 

A notable achievement was King Christian VII's declaration of freedom of the press in his territories  Norway and Denmark and the Duchy of Schleswig-Holstein) on 4 September 1770. It was in the form of a Cabinet Order to his Danish Chancellery, in the following words:

We are fully convinced that it is as harmful to the impartial search for truth as it is to the discovery of obsolete errors and prejudices, if upright patriots, zealous for the common good and what is genuinely best for their fellow citizens, because they are frightened by reputation, orders, and preconceived opinions, are hindered from being free to write according to their insight, conscience, and conviction, attacking abuses and uncovering prejudices.

And thus in this regard, after ripe consideration, we have decided to permit in our kingdoms and lands in general an unlimited freedom of the press of such a form, that from now on no one shall be required and obliged to submit books and writings that he wants to bring to the press to the previously required censorship and approval, and thus to submit them to the control of those who have undertaken the business until now of inspecting them; so have we graciously revealed and made known this our will concerning our kingdoms to our Danish Chancellery.

Given at Friedrichsberg, the 4 September 1770. Christian.

These are principles and values worth conserving. The Enlightenment atmosphere gave Europe a chance to overcome the chill of entrenched authorities including sacred spaces and intrusions into private lives.  We may face a new treat based on a security state mentality. We can only hope for some small chance that we will also have champions like Johann Friedrich Struensee.

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