Borgen: Opening quotes explained

Members of the cast of TV seriesBorgen

At the beginning of every episode of the Danish TV political drama series Borgen, there is a quote or epigraph.

Here they all are with some background on the people who said them and some thoughts about their relevance to the episode.

Season One Episode 1:

A prince should have no other aim or thought but war and its organisation and discipline. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 – 1527)

Machiavelli was a diplomat, civil servant, political philosopher and writer from

Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli
Niccolò Machiavelli

Florence in Italy from whose name the adjective ‘Machiavellian’ is derived. He served the powerful Medici family for many years. Most famously he wrote The Prince, which may be described as a practical guide to the ‘new’ political rulers of that time who gained their position through their own efforts rather than heredity. His description of the amoral way in which a leader needs to operate in order to succeed led to his name becoming synonymous with being ruthless and underhand. This is probably an unfair legacy since, although he did say ‘the end justifies the means’, much of the end he has in mind revolves around republicanism, democracy and rule of law. Despite the co-operative nature of Danish coalitions, the makers of Borgen see politics as a form of warfare.

Season One Episode 2:

The Prince knows that it is far safer to be feared than loved. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 – 1527)

Some commentators believe that there is a degree of comic irony behind Machiavelli’s detached realism. Fear may be used to control but is not considered the best way to inspire or to gain loyalty from colleagues or the population as a whole.

Season One Episode 3:

Democracy is the worst form of government, except all others that have been tried. Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965)

Photo of Winston Churchill at Yalta conference in 1945
Winston Churchill

Churchill was a British politician and Prime Minister. Despite many setbacks and failures, his qualities of leadership came to the fore when he led Britain to victory in the Second World War. His political and military experience, his knowledge of history, his sense of humour, and his great oratorical skill combined to make him a historical giant, and eminently quotable. Borgen illustrates the qualities and failings of democracy.

Season One Episode 4:

Denying the existence of a ghost will only make it grow bigger. Greenland Proverb

Greenland is an autonomous country within the kingdom of Denmark, mainly populated by Innuits. It has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. The proverb makes the point that problems have to be faced head-on, whether in politics or business.

Season One Episode 5:

Hence it comes that all armed prophets have been victorious and all unarmed prophets have been destroyed. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 – 1527)

Another quote from The Prince. Despite his own skill and success as a writer and diplomat, Machiavelli’s observations of successful leaders led him to conclude that, when you can’t persuade someone with words, you need to be able to use force. The US overseas policy encapsulated by President Theodore Roosevelt as ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick’ and Mao Zedong’s aphorism ‘Power grows out of the barrel of a gun’ both seem to support Machiavelli’s point. Some, like Ghandi, would argue that, without conquering hearts and minds, gains are short term.

Season One Episode 6:

Politics is war without bloodshed. War is politics with bloodshed. Mao Zedong (1893 – 1976)

Photo of Mao Dezong
Mao Dezong

A politician and military leader, Mao led a communist revolution in China that resulted in the establishment of The People’s Republic of China in 1949. Despite his success in modernising China, making it a world power and generally improving the welfare of the population, he is also remembered for abuse of human rights and a disastrous move from agriculture to industry that resulted in famine and over 40 million deaths. Mao was a prolific writer on politics. This quote dates from 1938.

Season One Episode 7:

Trust is good, control is better. Vladimir Lenin (1870 – 1924)

Photo of Vladimir Lenin
Vladimir Lenin

Vladimir Lenin led the communist revolution in Russia in 1917. His philosophy based on the theories of Karl Marx and known as Marxist-Leninism was hugely influential in the 20th century, inspiring leaders like Mao Zedung, Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh. The central control of communist states is one of the reasons for their ultimate failure. In modern democratic countries, trusting people is seen as leading to more economic success than attempting to control them or, perhaps, considering all the data governments now acquire on their populations, it’s just that today’s methods of control are more subtle.

Season One Episode 8:

History is a nightmare, from which I am trying to wake. James Joyce (1882 – 1941)

Photo of James Joyce
James Joyce

Joyce was an Irish writer. His works include Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake, Dubliners and A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man. He pioneered modernism in literature with his use of stream of consciousness and varying styles within the same book, and was a major influence on 20th century writing. Even though it is set in 1904, Ulysses was written immediately after the First World War and the quote was probably a consequence of the horrors of that event. Entrepreneurs and politicians might feel that the nightmare of the past and the dream of the future are both essential to learning and moving forward.

Season One Episode 9:

You won’t know what hit you before it’s too late. American Arms Producer

Unclear whether this is a genuine quote or one made up for the arms procurement video that is shown during the episode. It certainly describes many things that happen to us in life as well as when attacked by modern weaponry.

Season One Episode 10:

A Prince never lacks legitimate reason to break his promise. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469- 1527)

The first season ends as it began with a quote from Machiavelli’s The Prince. The Borgen scriptwriters seem to share Machiavelli’s view of politics as amoral and pragmatic.  However breaking promises is not a template for success in life or polirics unless, like Machiavelli’s Prince, you can find a way of spinning the reasons to give yourself legitimacy.

Season Two Episode 1:

War is just when it is necessary. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 – 1527)

And Season Two begins as Season One began (and ended) with yet another quote from Machiavelli. This quote continues ‘arms are permissible when there is no hope except in arms.’ Machiavelli does not see war as a first resort but, dismissing the question of what constitutes a ‘just war’, argues that a leader is justified in using weapons and waging war if there is no alternative.

Season two episode 2:

Keep your friends close to you, but your enemies closer. Sun Tzu (594 – 496 BC?)

Famously quoted in The Godfather II but originally articulated  by Sun Tzu, a Chinese military general, philosopher and author of The Art Of War. This is a work popular with both military and business people. Sun Tzu believed that war was best avoided but if it had to be fought, make it quick. The quote used relates to his advice that knowing your enemy is key to victory. Another relevant quote from Sun Tzu is ‘All warfare is based on deception.’ So, for example, you pretend to be weak when you are strong, or far away when you are near.

Season Two Episode 3:

Ours is a hollow victory. Thomas Nielsen (1917 – 1992), former leader of the L.O.

The LO (Landsorganisationen i Danmark) is The Danish Confederation of Trades Unions, an umbrella organisation for 18 blue collar unions. Nielsen was its Chair from 1967 to 1982.  It’s not the first time the phrase hollow victory was used and certainly not the last. The term Pyrrhic victory has been used for centuries and dates back to the victories over the Romans by the Greek king Pyrrhus which were gained at huge cost. An outright victory comes at a cost and a negotiated ‘win-win’ situation is usually better.

Season Two Episode 4:

If an injury is to be done to a man, it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 – 1527)

Back to Machiavelli’s The Prince and the exhortation not to do things by halves. But note the ‘if’: Machiavelli thinks it best to avoid injuring at all if possible and  praises the conqueror who absorbs a defeated country through colonisation over the one who attempts to destroy it. In politics, it’s very difficult to ‘destroy’ an enemy, so it’s better to win them over.

Season two Episode 5:

Much that passes as idealism is disguised love of power. Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970)

Bertrand Russell

Russell was a British thinker and pacifist who developed Analytical Philosophy in which the object of philosophy is the clarification of thoughts through logic. Greatly respected, he was on speaking terms with a number of world leaders so may have formed his view of idealism and power from first hand experience. His opposition to many wars from the Second World War to Suez and Vietnam and his support of nuclear disarmament can be seen as idealistic but he might have described his position as pragmatic.

Season Two Episode 6:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Matthew 5:44

Jesus Christ

A lurch away from the ruthlessness and cynicism of previous quotes. This is Jesus talking, as reported by Matthew in the New Testament, and is a game changer from the Old Testament commandment which limits our obligation to ‘love thy neighbour’. He continues, ‘that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.’ Understanding your enemy and your common ground may lead to reconciliation.

Season Two Episode 7:

The Dane is a skeptic, because Denmark’s history is the story of the downfall of a powerful tribe. Johannes V Jensen (1873 – 1950)

Major Danish author who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1944. Perhaps we have here a clue to the writers’ cynicism. Denmark was the home of the Vikings who dominated Western Europe in the 8th to 10th centuries. Jensen’s novel The Fall Of A King describes the ten year reign of King Christian II, the last King to rule Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Literary critic Martin Seymour-Smith describes it as an ‘indictment of Danish indecision and lack of vitality, which Jensen saw as a national disease.’ Like many Danes, he was a great admirer of the English: ‘Were one to determine the degree of maturity of each nation according to its capacity for reasoning and comprehension, England would come out on top for her sense of realism.’

Season Two Episode 8:

Take up the white man’s burden / The savage wars of peace / Fill full the mouth of Famine / And bid the sickness cease. Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936)

Photo of rudyard kipling
Rudyard Kipling

Kipling was a British author born in India, who wrote extensively about the experience of the British Empire. Among his best known works are The Jungle Book, Kim, The Man Who Would Be King and the poem If… This quote from his poem The White Man’s Burden, written when the USA took over the Philippines from Spain, lays out Kipling’s imperialist white establishment view of the necessary but ‘thankless’ task of ruling ‘sullen peoples, half-devil half-child’. Despite wanting to follow in the footsteps of Britain and the Netherlands, Denmark never managed to establish an empire in other continents. Its ‘colonies’ remain close to home- the now autonomous countries of the Faroes and Greenland.

Season Two Episode 9:

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965)

Churchill becomes only the second person to be quoted more than once. Here he speaks from his personal experience of success and failure: he was agovernment minister in the 1920s, in the political wilderness in the 1930s, prime minister of Britain during World War Two, rejected by the elctorate in the subsequent general election and back again as Prime Minister in 1951. A lesson for all politicians.

Season Two Episode 10:

To be or not to be. That is the question. William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)

Portrait of William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare

This quote from the great English playwright and poet is so familiar as to be almost a cliche but Hamlet‘s dilemma over what to do remains potent. Initially he appears to be considering whether to end his own life but as the soliloquy progresses, he moves on to consider whether he should put aside his good nature and end the life of his father’s murderer. Hamlet is a Prince of Denmark and the action is set in the Danish court. The play is based on the Norse legend of Amleth.

Season Three Episode 1:

Halfway on my journey through life, I found myself in a dark wood. Dante (c 1265 – 1361)

Dante Alighieri was an Italian poet who wrote Divine Comedy, an epic poem describing a journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory and Paradise, which is an allegory for the soul’s journey towards God. This line, in which he speaks of having strayed from the straight path, marks the beginning of the narrator’s journey. The original Italian word ‘selva’ may be translated as ‘wood’ or ‘forest’.

Season Three Episode 2:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers… William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) Henry V

Shakespeare is quoted for the second time, on this occasion the famous line in which the King exhorts his small group of soldiers to do great things in their forthcoming battle against the mighty forces of the French. He uses his speech is to create a ‘them and us’ situation, not as regards the French but regarding those other English who were not present on that momentous day.

Season Three Episode 3:

Some men change their party for the sake of their principles — others their principles for the sake of their party. Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965)

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill speaking in front of a portrait of Abraham Lincoln

Churchill is quoted for the third time. Churchill himself twice changed parties, first leaving the Conservatives to become a Liberal on principle, because he was in favour of free trade, and then rejoining the Conservative Party for the pragmatic reason that he was finding it difficult to get himself re-elected into Parliament.

Season Three Episode 4:

Danish pigs are healthy — they’re bursting with penicillin. Mikael Witte (born 1952)

Witte is a Danish artist who produced a notorious poster in 1978 featuring the slogan quoted. Many attempts were made by the Federation of Danish Bacon to censor it, initially supported by the courts. Over the 1980s and 90s Witte produced several versions of the poster in a number of languages. Danish Bacon is world renowned for its taste. The country slaughters around 25 million pigs a year or 5 for every Dane. 75% are exported and account for 6% of Denmark’s exports. The Danish Crown co-operative is responsible for 90% of pork and bacon production.  Much of the curing and processing is now done more cheaply in other countries and even some Danish pigs are actually reared elsewhere.

Season Three Episode 5:

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Old saying

There is some debate as the meaning of the saying. It could be that we intend to take action but don’t which leads to a disaster, or that we take action for good reasons but the result is a disaster. The originator of the saying or at least the sentiment is thought to be Saint Bernard of Clairvaux who said in the middle of the 12th century, ‘Hell is full of good wishes and desire.’

Season Three Episode 6:

I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past. Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826)

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson was US President from 1801 -1809. He was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. His principles regarding government may be enshrined in these words, ‘Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.’ Among other things, he favoured separation of Church and State and decentralised government. His disagreements with Alexander Hamilton are featured in the musical Hamilton.  He is one of the four presidents depicted in stone at Mount Rushmore, although reputation has been tarnished by the fact that he was slaveowner. The epigraph echoes the one from James Joyce’s Ulysses at the beginning of Season One Episode 8.

Season Three Episode 7:

You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865)

Abraham Lincoln

No quotes from American presidents for 25 episodes then two come in rapid succession. Lincoln became President in 1861 and was in charge at the time of the Civil War. His victory preserved the United States and led to the abolition of slavery and the modernisation of the economy. The quotation is attributed to Lincoln in a speech made in 1858 but there is no direct record of him having said those words, good advice as they may be. Lincoln’s three minute speech in 1863, known as the Gettysburg Address, set out the American nation’s principles of equal rights, liberty and democracy. It included the words, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.’

Season Three episode 8:

Know well what leads you forward and what holds you back— and choose the path that leads to wisdom. Buddha (c563 – c483 BC)

Gautama Buddha was an Indian wise man on whose teachings Buddhism was founded. He taught that there are Four Noble Truths about human existence and that our suffering can be alleviated by following the Noble Eightfold Path to enlightenment. The words immediately preceding this quote are ‘Meditation brings wisdom; lack of meditation leaves ignorance.’

Season Three Episode 9:

To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself. Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855)

Hard to believe it’s taken until the penultimate episode to quote Denmark’s greatest philosopher. Kierkegaard is the inspiration of Existentialism, the philosophy that proposes that each individual gives meaning to their own life. The quote suggests that to succeed in life one needs to take risks.

Season Three Episode 10:

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power. Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865)

Given the adversity and the power that Birgitte Nyborg has experienced over the three seasons, this is an appropriate quotation from America’s most revered President with which to end the series . We have seen her tested and watched her pass with flying colours. Centuries before Lincoln, the Greek philosopher Plato said, ‘The measure of a man is what he does with power.’ A few years after Lincoln, Lord Acton pronounced, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ This is why most democracies and sensible workplaces have limitations placed on those in power. Borgen has shown us all about the effects of power on the people who strive for it and on those who achieve it.

A version of this article previously appeared on the Hampshire Workspace website

IMDB entry for Borgen