Peter Rochegune Munch

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Peter Rochegune Munch

Peter Rochegune Munch (in Danish usually referred to as P. Munch) (1870–1948) was a leading Danish historian and politician. He was a leading member of the Radikale Venstre, and represented Langeland in parliament.

As Foreign Minister of Denmark from 1929 to 1940, he greatly influenced Danish foreign policy well beyond his own time in office. However, his role in the years leading to the German occupation of Denmark has ensured that his legacy remains controversial.

Background and private life[edit]

Peter Munch was an illegitimate child, growing up without a father in a small provincial town. The family was quite poor, and from an early age he had to work to help out his mother. He quickly showed great skill in school, and his mother decided to put him through high school, although this placed a great strain on their finances.

After having completed national service Munch attended studies at University of Copenhagen. Being without private means he worked in several jobs to support himself throughout his study time. He graduated with a first-class degree in history in 1895, and achieved a doctoral degree in 1900, writing a thesis on Danish local government in the 16th Century.

Around this time he married the well-known feminist Elna Sarauw with whom he would had one son. By nature Munch was very introvert, and not one who would easily connect with other people. He insisted on always using the most formal forms of address, and even with friends he didn't use first-names. This is also the reason why he became known only as P. Munch. His work ethic was, however, second to none, and his output in terms of books, pamphlets, articles (both academic and for newspapers), letters, diaries and other notes, is immense.

Ideas and influences[edit]

As an historian Munch was an advocate of the inclusion of social sciences in primary school history lessons [1]. He was also the author of several textbooks on Danish and World history, some of which were published in more than 15 editions, and remained in use well into the 1960s. As an academic historian Munch belonged to the positivist tradition, which held sway in Denmark during his lifetime. The income from his vast production of textbooks and other academic works finally lifted him out of poverty, and allowed him to pursue a political career.

P. Munch had been deeply influenced by the thinking of Viggo Hørup, especially on matters of foreign and security policy. Hørup had been deeply shaken by the ease of the German victory in the Second War of Schleswig, and had once famously remarked during a parliamentary debate on the Danish armed forces: "What's the use of it all?" ("Hvad skal det nytte?").

Following from this kind of thought Munch thus considered a territorial defence of Denmark impossible, and illusions about this downright dangerous. All Denmark could hope for would be to maintain good relations with the great powers, Germany first and foremost among them, and to avoid confrontation at all cost. These ideas stayed with him throughout his political career, and he would manage to stamp them quite firmly on Danish Foreign Policy.

It was thus natural for him to be one of the founders of Det Radikale Venstre the (Danish Social Liberal Party), which has always had a strong pacifist streak, and to be one of the authors of the new party's Odense Program in 1905. Due to his intellect and work capacity Munch soon rose to be one of the leading members of the new party. He was elected to parliament (Folketinget) in 1905, and would retain his seat until 1943.

Early career 1905–1929[edit]

In 1909 Radikale Venstre formed its first government, and Munch became Minister of the Interior. He didn't have much impact in this position, as the government was ousted already after 10 months in office.

The second time the party formed a government, again under the leadership of Carl Theodor Zahle, Munch became Minister of Defence. His long period in this office coincided with World War I. Denmark remained neutral throughout, which was entirely in accordance with the views of P. Munch and the foreign minister, Erik Scavenius. However many, including the King Christian X, considered Munch to be too soft on defence to hold this position during a time of crisis. But Munch stayed put, and loyally - indeed ironically, given his own bleak assessment of the feasibility of any territorial defence—oversaw the largest peacetime mobilisation in Danish history, as it had been envisaged in the Defence Bill of 1909.

Munch's influence in the government reached beyond his brief as defence minister. Because of his seemingly endless stamina in negotiations with other parties, his mastery of even the most complex brief, and his ice-cold temper, he often represented the government when difficult compromises had to be reached over both normal legislation and matters relating to the war.

The government was finally pushed out of office during the Easter Crisis of 1920, and over the following years most of the leading lights of the Zahle government retired from politics. Munch on the other hand remained active, and by 1926 he had become the party's undisputed leader. During this time he worked to prevent any rapprochement between Radikale Venstre and Venstre, the party they had originally split from. Instead he gave tacit support to the first social democratic government, which sat from 1924 to 1926.

In 1929 Munch and Radikale Venstre delivered the crucial votes to bring down Thomas Madsen-Mygdal's Venstre government during the debate on the state budget. In the following election the Social Democrats and Radikale Venstre achieved an outright majority, and subsequently entered into one of the most successful and durable coalitions in Danish political history.

Foreign minister 1929–1940[edit]

A commonplace saying during the long rule of the Social Democratic/Radical coalition was that Prime Minister Thorvald Stauning handled domestic policy, while P. Munch was solely in charge of foreign policy. This was simplified, of course, as a high degree of agreement existed between the two in both spheres of policy.

In domestic politics the government tackled the world economic crisis by introducing currency controls, and through a comprehensive economic crisis package agreed with Venstre in the early months of 1933. At the same time a series of social reforms were carried out, which laid the earliest foundations that today's welfare state would be built upon. These reforms created a rudimentary social safety net, and did much to lessen the appeal of totalitarian and anti-democratic political movements during the crisis years. The government also enacted a new criminal code in 1930, which abolished capital punishment and de-criminalised homosexuality, and which, although amended many times, remains in force today.

The coalition was re-elected with solid majorities in 1933, 1936, and 1939. However an attempt in 1939 to modify the Constitution failed in a referendum.

However, Munch's influence was arguably greatest on the conduct of Denmark's foreign relations.

Munch's main political goal was (unilateral) disarmament and the preservation of Danish neutrality. He served as a delegate to the League of Nations from 1920 to 1938. [2]

Last years[edit]

P. Munch's last years were not happy ones. As the occupation wore on, and especially after the liberation in 1945 his record as foreign minister came under severe attack from many sides. In late 1945 he had to subject to the indignity of prolonged interrogation by a Parliamentary Committee set up to investigate the circumstances surrounding the occupation. Up until his death in 1948 there were repeated suggestions that he should be put on trial for negligence (and even treason). However, when the parliamentary commission delivered its final report in 1953, Munch was largely exonerated.

This did not, though, stop the continued blaming of Munch for the situation Denmark had been in. His policies were largely disowned by the political elite (his own Radical party the only exception). 'Never again a 9 April' ('Aldrig mere en 9. April') became a mantra for Danish politicians, and gradually a new bipartisan consensus emerged between the Liberals, Conservatives and Social Democrats regarding Danish foreign and security policy, which would lead to membership of NATO in 1949.

The Rostock Myth[edit]

A point of lasting controversy about P. Munch is a visit he allegedly paid to the German town of Rostock just a few weeks before the German occupation. During this visit he would have met with several Nazi dignitaries, Heinrich Himmler among them. According to the myth, Munch had been warned in advance about the German intentions towards Denmark, and had agreed to making the occupation happen as peacefully as possible. This would supposedly account for the limited Danish response on April 9, 1940, and Munch's own willingness to surrender once the invasion was under way.

Munch's refusal to be drawn on this topic while he lived fed this version of the story. Later historical research has conclusively shown, however, that the accusations are completely without foundation, and it has not been proven that such a meeting in Rostock even took place. Most historians classify the Rostock myth as a mere conspiracy theory. But that has not stopped the 'Rostock myth' from surfacing with regular intervals.[who?]

One of the proponents of the Rostock myth was the controversial Danish historian Jon Galster. His accusations against war-time Prime Minister Thorvald Stauning, foreign minister Munch and a number of civil servants led to his being sentenced to 8 months of prison for libel in 1958.[1] In 1990 Galster published the book 9. april - en sand myte ('9 April, a true myth').

References[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Klaus Berntsen
Interior Minister of Denmark
October 28, 1909 – July 5, 1910
Succeeded by
Jens Jensen-Sønderup
Preceded by
Klaus Berntsen
Defence Minister of Denmark
June 21, 1913 – March 30, 1920
Succeeded by
Henri Konow
Preceded by
Laust Jevsen Moltesen
Foreign Minister of Denmark
April 30, 1929 – July 8, 1940
Succeeded by
Erik Scavenius