Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Mads Rosendahl Thomsen reviews Human Rights and Oppressed Peoples

Georg Brandes. Human Rights and Oppressed Peoples: Collected Essays and Speeches. Trans. and ed. William Banks. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2020. 350 pp.

Review by Mads Rosendahl Thomsen

The Danish literary historian and public intellectual Georg Brandes (1842–1927) is best known for his work in comparative literature, most notably Main Currents in Nineteenth Century Literature (1872–1875). However, in the last three decades of his life, he showed a strong interest in advocating for the rights of suppressed people. This carefully edited collection of writings, mostly written and published in the first decade of the twentieth century, has an uncanny and sad actuality. Brandes writes, among many issues, on the suppression of the Ukrainian people, the disagreements on what would be best for the Jewish people, and the imperfect democracy of the United States. A Dane of Jewish ancestry, Brandes faced a lot of adversity, not least when people felt entitled to tell him what to think, which in turn forced him to sharpen his argument on how identity should be construed. That goes both for his own position as well as the empathy-laden response to conflicts in his day.

Many of the texts were initially published in a leading Danish newspaper, Politiken, edited by Brandes’s brother, Edvard—also a politician and a scholar of East Asian culture. The sad actuality of many of the pieces makes them age well despite being written for contemporary debate. Brandes’s wide range—he had traveled through Poland and Russia in the 1880s and written on his impressions at length, and he was a friend of the French prime minister Georges Clemenceau—and his care for addressing more than a dozen conflicts in European identity politics in his commanding and engaging prose makes the volume a fascinating read.

In his thorough, well-crafted introduction and succinct presentation of each text, William Banks does not try to oversell Brandes’s influence or contribution but shows how Brandes develops his thinking—on principle positions on human rights and the right of people to have conditions for letting their culture flourish—from concrete conflicts. These include the conditions of Danish and German minorities in the borderlands of the two nations. If there is some optimism to be taken from this case in hindsight, it would be that despite the occupation of Denmark in World War II, something Brandes could, of course, not foretell, the respect for minority cultures is prevalent, and the characterization of Germans that they “have gradually been transformed into a warlike folk” does not hold true anymore (p. 54).

Yet, other passages read, sadly, as if they were reports from 2024: “Officially, of course, no one dares to speak the language on Russian soil” (p. 135). That was 1904, and so much more is there every reason to dive into the multifaceted lens of cultural conflict that Brandes presents, which is colored by his eminent literary background and high awareness of the ruthlessness of war on cultures.