Dr. Struensee: Dictator of Denmark

S.M. Toyne tells the strange tale of Johann Frederick Struensee, Denmark's 18th century German dictator.

The character of Dr. Struensee, firstly Court Physician of Denmark, then minister and dictator, is perhaps the strangest and the most perplexing in the whole history of European dictators. Historians have not yet reached an agreed verdict on the causes of his rise and the secrets of his short-lived dictatorship, and it is possible that the jury will never reach agreement on even the facts of the case before them.

The public career of Struensee is confined to the four years preceding the 1st Partition of Poland in 1772, the year of his own execution at the age of forty.

Europe in the years following the Peace of Paris (1763) which marked the culmination of the Seven Years’ War, presented a baffling and confused picture—a futuristic canvas of contrasting colours and shapes. Political and religious beliefs had been rudely attacked and state authority had shown many cracks in its structure. Against this garish background Europe seemed to be groping after some ideals to find a remedy for a sick world.

Benevolent despots might bring a cure for some ills; but could the benevolence of Frederick the Great, Catherine II, or even Maria Theresa and her son be trusted? Their actions towards other nations gave the lie to all notions of political morality, which was seemingly at its lowest ebb since the days of Macchiavelli. France, once the ruling power of Europe, was bankrupt and economically stricken. The new Prussia was the dominating power in Eastern Europe, and the traditional influence of France in Sweden, Poland and Turkey found a powerful rival in the Kremlin, more advantageously placed geographically than Versailles. France, however, dominated in another sphere—the writings of Voltaire, Rousseau and the Encyclopaedists were being read and studied in circles beyond her boundaries. Their theories, it is true, had nowhere been put into practice. It was left to an obscure Society doctor in Altona to launch the first experiment of a new order owing its inspiration to their works. 

Johann Frederick Struensee was the son of a strict pietist, who rose to be the superintendent-general of Slesvig-Holstein. The province of Slesvig had been guaranteed to the state of Denmark in 1721, but Holstein which was administered with Slesvig by the Danish king, remained a member of the Holy Roman Empire. By a curious set of chances, Peter Ulric of Holstein, husband of Catherine of Anhalt-Zerbst, better known as Catherine the Great, became Peter III Czar of Russia, and it was the somewhat slender Russian claims on Holstein that assisted the ambitious Struensee in carrying out his plans to oust the great Danish minister Bernstorff at a critical moment of his career.

Struensee, who had chafed against the unbending discipline of his father, studied medicine and in the early sixties settled at Altona, a small but growing town on the Elbe close to Hamburg. The inhabitants of this town, then as now, were mostly strong Evangelicals, a type repugnant to Struensee. Altona was, however, noted for its healthy climate and patronized by a number of influential visitors, as well as many temporary residents, who were out of favour with, if not actual exiles from the court of Copenhagen.

The young doctor soon found himself with a circle of patients and friends, who were attracted by his medical skill, his brilliant conversation and his strange personality. His enquiring and open mind readily absorbed the new ideas of Rousseau and the Encyclopaedists, blended them with the current practices of benevolent despotism, and probed into the latest scientific discoveries. Women found him excitingly dangerous, at times repellent, but irresistible.

This man of thirty began to feel his power in his own small orbit and to cherish wild dreams of his own future and his influence in a larger sphere. He delighted to brood over new experiments—experiments not to be confined to the realms of medicine. As the late Professor W. F. Reddaway remarked, it is impossible to write him off as “a shallow materialist, mediocre in ability and education and untruthful.” Nor can he be described as “merely a brilliant charlatan.” At this early stage ideas were tumbling over themselves in his head ideas, which were to lead him he knew not where, but he would certainly not for ever remain the local practitioner of Altona.

His opportunity came suddenly and from an unexpected quarter. Frederick V, King of Denmark, had died in 1766, probably from cirrhosis of the liver. He was succeeded by a pathetic boy of seventeen, Christian VII, whose health had been ruined by the brutal treatment meted out to him by his custodian Count Reventlow. He had been deliberately debauched and cruelly beaten, until he was so sunk in depravity and vice, that he was hardly responsible for his actions. His inherent good nature rarely showed itself and at times he bordered on lunacy. Fortunately for Denmark, its chief minister was Bernstorff—a model of virtue and sagacity—who was supported by a band of faithful and able men such as A. G. Moltke and Reverdil. Denmark was an absolute monarchy and the ministers felt that the only hope of regenerating the young king, who would soon have complete control over the affairs of state, would be marriage. With this end in view, it was proposed he should wed the charming young sister of George III, who himself was anxious to cement the friendship of the two countries. This innocent young girl of fifteen, Caroline Matilda, was sacrificed to the interests of England and Denmark.

To us the proposed marriage seems as repugnant as it did to the unfortunate princess who was to go down to history as the “Queen of Tears” and “The Prisoner of Celle.” Caroline Matilda was married by proxy and the marriage was consummated in November, 1766, on her arrival in Denmark.

The Danish people were wild with joy; they saw in her another Philippa, the adored English wife of a former Danish king. For a few weeks it seemed that the king was going to recover. In his short honeymoon he was attentive to his young wife and on his return evidence of his old good nature showed itself in a desire to better the lot of the peasant both on the Crown estates and in the rest of Denmark. The recovery was shortlived. With his favourite companion, Count Hoick, he plunged once more into the wildest excesses. They would give themselves up to drunken orgies, visiting the taverns and brothels of Copenhagen and in the company of the dissolute friends of his youth smash windows and create disturbances which disgusted the inhabitants and drove Bernstorff to despair. Meanwhile, the poor Queen was left in lonely confinement, treated with ignominy and often with cruelty. After the birth of the Crown Prince, a sickly infant who was scarcely expected to live, the king grew worse and his periods of lucidity less frequent. Occasionally his good nature would reappear, but towards his queen he developed a fierce and growing hatred. Early in 1768, during one of his lucid periods, the King started on a tour of the courts of some German princes, but on his way he fell ill near Altona and a doctor was summoned in haste. That doctor was Johann Struensee. He managed to allay the malady for the moment. His skill made such an impression on the King and his advisers that Dr. Struensee was summoned to Copenhagen, so that he could be within easy call of the King.

So much better did the king seem, that he desired to visit the courts of Paris and London, in order to restore his reputation, which was far from high. The politicians of France and England were anxious to secure the friendship of Denmark, which had a strategic importance in the Baltic and North-Eastern Europe. So the tour was duly arranged, not without some apprehension on all sides.

The King insisted that Struensee should accompany the entourage as his private physician. Bernstorff—the only minister of his original body of advisers who had not been dismissed — was more  than willing that Struensee should go and restrain the King from excesses which would disgrace Denmark and bring the Anglo-Danish marriage into still further disrepute. The tour lasted from May, 1768, to January, 1769, and proved an outstanding success. The young King showed himself a charming and amusing guest. At parties and state functions he was the centre of gaiety. In England, where his visit had been viewed with misgiving and in some quarters with distaste, it was agreed that he was a much maligned person: Caroline was to be envied not pitied. Never would the illuminated procession down the Thames with the two kings on the Royal Barge be forgotten.

So it appeared to the outside world, which did not see the King on his return to Copenhagen—a poor wreck, his will gone, his mind enslaved, the creature of his beloved Court Physician. What is the clue to this mystery? Dr. Struensee had ministered to him and been in constant attendance throughout the tour. The King had always appeared in public in the best of spirits and his following periods of depression had not been seen. Whether this result had been procured by drugs or hypnotism will in all probability never be known. A medical friend has advanced the theory that the doctor administered doses of concentrated coca bean, the use of which had by this time penetrated to Europe from Peru. Its effects would be exactly as they appeared in this case—elation, and momentary brilliance, followed by depression and total loss of willpower. Struensee was the type of doctor who would have known about the effects of this drug, and have made personal experiment with it.

This was to prove the crucial year of his career. Finding his patient completely under his domination, it is impossible to resist the theory, that from early in 1769, Struensee determined to make himself something more than court physician to a crazy King. At this period one cannot fail to see in him something of a Rousseau, a Macchiavelli, a Dr. Faustus and a Cagliostro. He was ambitious to gain power—a power which would give him the opportunity to carry out his schemes of experiment in human government. What better guinea-pig could be found than a state with a crazy ill-balanced man as its absolute monarch?

He moved warily, being too shrewd not to realize the obstacles which lay in the path of a German doctor aspiring to be the dictator of the Danish kingdom. His trump card was the King. The monarch was absolute; no law could be passed without his consent, and any law he chose to make required no other sanction. The King must, therefore, be kept sane enough to sign anything Struensee desired, but not sane enough to initiate proclamations on his own or at the bidding of another. The obstacles were obvious enough—the Queen, who feared and disliked him, abhorred his atheism, yet found a strong attraction in this elegant and unusual physician. Bernstorff, for twenty years the great man of Denmark— upright, virtuous, trusted by Danes and foreign statesmen alike—then finally Count Hoick, a man of no great ability or political insight, but the favourite of the imbecile King.

Struensee tackled his problems singly. First the Queen. She began to meet Struensee, a daily visitor to the Palace, more and more and she had reason for gratitude to him; under his influence the King had ceased to treat her with his previous contempt. The next step was Struensee’s cure of the Crown Prince. He saved his frail life by a “double inoculation” (not vaccination as sometimes recorded), considered in those days a most daring operation. For these two boons the Queen was genuinely grateful and began to think she had misjudged the doctor. Finally, Struensee used all his powers of fascination on her. He showed his pity for her loneliness, his sympathy, his understanding, and finally his admiration. She succumbed and became his mistress and their alliance continued till the year of his death and her divorce.

Bernstorff was a difficult problem. In his worst moments the King seemed bound to him and could not shake off his influence. Yet he did not like Bernstorff, any more than Charles II liked Clarendon. The Queen had never liked him, indeed, she had little cause to do so, but on what grounds could he be dismissed? As regards Hoick, the opportunity came in an unexpected manner and his dismissal could be regretted by no one. The Queen hated him, the nobility despised him and Bernstorff shared the general view that he was the evil genius of the weakminded King.

It had become the common talk of the court circle that Struensee was the Queen’s lover, but when in May, 1770, she gave birth to a fine baby girl, rumours of their liaison spread through the land. At first the King backed by Count Hoick refused to recognize the child as his, but the Queen, aided by Struensee, overcame his effort to show a will of his own. An open rupture ensued between Hoick and the Queen strongly supported by Struensee. The King had been allowed to fall into a worse state than ever before and on Struensee’s instructions signed the decree for the banishment of the favourite.

By this time Struensee was firmly established in the Palace as secretary to the Queen and “reader” to the King. The latter post meant more than the title might imply. Every document to and from the King passed through his hands and those far outside the royal circle began to realize that a new power had arisen in Denmark. The climax came when every Cathedral and Church throughout the land was ordered to sing a “Te Deum” to celebrate the baptism of Princess Louise Augusta proclaimed as the legitimate daughter of the King. Many congregations walked out as a protest against the morals of the new regime, but this did not annul the legitimacy law. The baby grew up to be a beautiful girl and married to the Duke of Augustenberg, whose notorious grandsons—Duke of Augustenberg and Prince Nor played so big a part in the Slesvig-Holstein dispute in the next century.

Two problems remained for Struensee to solve:—how to keep his hold over the King and yet preserve him from becoming so totally incapable that a Regency would have to be appointed, and how to find plausible grounds for the dismissal of the respected Bemstorff. The first he solved by bringing from Altona an old acquaintance, the sinister Enevold Brandt. Brandt was an unscrupulous sadist, but he had a veneer of good manners which made him presentable in court society. He became virtually the King’s Keeper and although Christian VII hated him, he could not get rid of him. Once in a fit of rage he ordered Brandt to be flogged, but it was the Keeper who locked the King in his room and beat him instead. At Brandt’s trial, evidence was given that on another occasion he had bitten His Majesty’s person!

Shortly after Brandt’s arrival came another of Stmensee’s friends, the exiled Count Rantzau-Asheberg. After some negotiations, Bernstorff had consented to the Count’s return on the assurance that he would not oppose the Russian pact. This was to cede Oldenburg and Delmenhorst to Russia on condition that the Czarina, Catherine II, would renounce all pretensions to Holstein. It is outside the scope of this article to discuss the merits of this arrangement, initiated by Bernstorff in 1767 and, finally, signed by his nephew in 1773. Suffice it to say that to many Danes an alliance with Russia was repugnant, for they had not forgotten that in 1762 a Russian army 80,000 strong, had threatened the invasion of Denmark through Mecklenburg. It is probable that Count Rantzau fomented this opposition but historians are not in agreement as to the precise reasons which caused the King to dismiss the great Bernstorff in the autumn of 1770. He retired with dignity into a voluntary exile after refusing an invitation to become adviser to the Kremlin.

By the autumn of 1770 Struensee was supreme. He lost no time in beginning his experiments for reforming Denmark and creating a new state of freedom modelled on the principles of Rousseau. He was handicapped in several ways. He did not know a word of Danish and was unacquainted with Danish customs and prejudices. His association with the Queen and his patronage of the disreputable Brandt made his most salutary measures suspect before they were ever published; even the abolition of torture to extract evidence met with opposition.

Perhaps the most serious difficulty was that while professing to voice the will of the people, Struensee had no method of finding out what that will was. The Council was quite unrepresentative and definitely hostile to this “German beast.” Even his elegant manners and persuasive tongue could not win over the nobility. The state machinery was rusty, its officials in many cases were corrupt, and so at the outset he had to rely solely on using the absolute power of his slave—the King—and the support of the Queen who had become an ardent admirer of his schemes to reform the State of Denmark.

On the day after Bernstorff’s fall, Struensee abolished the Censorship of the Press, in spite of the opposition of Bishops and University Professors. By a stroke of the pen he had established the Freedom of the Press and in due course he received the congratulations of Voltaire. He found himself hampered by the Council, and so in December, 1770, he abolished it and had himself created “Maître des requêtes”; even so he found his work was progressing too slowly. There was obstruction in the state departments which were unaccustomed to dealing with such a whirlwind of new enactments. A commission was appointed to enquire into the condition of the peasants, and there is no doubt that Struensee began to gain popularity among them as well as among the bourgeois and the artisans. On 14th July, 1771, the King created him “Geheime-Kabinets-minister,” a term whose equivalent is strictly speaking “Confidential Cabinet Minister,” but in reality he was sole dictator, with power to affix the cabinet seal to any law, which then became as valid as a royal ordinance. When it is realized that he promulgated 1,069 laws in sixteen months, his energy and zeal cannot be denied; but the confusion caused by this vast and varied volume of legislation was one of the contributing causes of his downfall.

The laws touched every phase of public and private life. In his attempt to purify the public departments and establish an orderly and efficient system of finance the old members of the staff were dismissed en bloc without pensions. The new “Colleges” and departments were directly responsible to Struensee, but there were not sufficient men capable of filling the official posts and carrying out the new laws. The people, expecting to have some share in the government, discovered that, except in the case of the Municipal Borough of Copenhagen and to a lesser degree in the law courts, their position was no better than before. There was no democratic government. The “will of the people” was whatever Struensee conceived it to be.

The puzzling contradictions of the minister began to be evident to the populace. While on the audit of public expenditure, he rigorously punished dishonesty, bribery and peculation, he allocated 60,000 riksdaler apiece to himself and his friend Brandt, who successfully prevented any direct approach to the imbecile King. The salaries of officials were cut to starvation level, while the sumptuous expenditure of the dictator’s court entertainments dazzled friends and foreigners alike.

In his social enactments Struensee displayed a curious irresponsibility—a genuine feeling for the unfortunate, a desire to bring happiness and gaiety to the working classes and a total disregard for the susceptibilities of “the respectable.” He simply did not care what people thought of him—he could create a state in accordance with his own ideals, which were in his opinion for the benefit of the Danish people. Space only allows mention of a few outstanding examples of Struensee’s acts, many of which had their good points, though they were hardly within the comprehension of the Danes of the time.

Legitimate and illegitimate child alike was given an equal status—there was no bar to bastardy. “Free Love” was no crime. Foundling hospitals were established, and a chapel was converted into a clinic for the treatment of venereal diseases. The project was praiseworthy, the choice of building unfortunate. Brothels were thrown open to all and were no longer for the privileged classes under police supervision. The gardens of Rosenborg were made public and used for dancing and concerts, but unfortunately they were kept open on Sundays and masquerades of a doubtful character were not uncommon. Sabbatarians and many others were shocked in the extreme and the new Council of Copenhagen chosen by election was chagrined to find that certain matters, such as the above, were considered to be affairs of the State, not of the Municipality.

An attempt to depress wages and fix a maximum in spite of the steep rise in prices brought discontent to the working classes. Even a dole in the form of free grain failed to allay the growing unrest. The nobles were already in revolt and were waiting for an opportunity to overthrow their German master, without weakening the monarchy on which they themselves would have to rely. A secret plot was organized by the King’s stepmother, Queen Dowager Juliane Marie, her son Frederick and Guldberg, the Commander of the Guards. All of them hated Struensee and the Queen and determined that when an opportune moment arose, Struensee and Brandt should be arrested and the Queen denied access to the King, who could then be forced to sign the dismissal of the minister.

On 17th January, 1772, after a bal masqué, the conspirators seized Struensee, Brandt and the Queen, and then had no difficulty in persuading the King to sign the order for arrest. Next day the inhabitants of Copenhagen found Guldberg’s guards posted at various parts of the city; later Christian VII drove down the main streets and was acclaimed a liberator.

Struensee and Brandt were brought to trial on charges of lèse majesté to the King’s person. In spite of a brilliant defence of his acts and policy, Struensee was found guilty; privately he confessed his illicit relations with the Queen, who had strenuously denied the accusation in an attempt to save her lover. On hearing that Struensee had admitted his guilt on this point, which was not in the case before the judges, she abandoned him.

Struensee and Brandt were condemned and publicly executed in a barbarous manner on 28th April, 1772. The Queen was divorced, condemned to imprisonment by a Commission and for a while was in great peril of her life. George III, however, sent an English warship to her rescue and the Danes were not sorry to be relieved of an awkward problem. By agreement the young “Queen of Tears,” who still had many admirers and sympathizers, was brought to Celle in Hanover. Here she died, greatly beloved by all around her, at the early age of twenty-four. So ended the strange history of Dr. Struensee and his royal lover— “The Prisoner of Celle.”

What is the verdict of posterity on this intriguing genius of a man? Psychologists alone can offer plausible explanations of his career and as yet they have been silent. We are left to regard him, as our inclinations lead us—a man, unscrupulously using any means to gain his ends, impervious to the opinions of others and with the springs of his actions uninfluenced by the normal codes of human conduct. Did Denmark owe nothing to this German Doctor? Without him would the peasants of Denmark have received their emancipation in 1792? Would the slaves in the Danish West Indies have been the first to enjoy freedom? Would there have been a Golden Age of Danish literature had not this dictator, who could neither read nor speak the Danish tongue, in brave contrast to all other dictators conferred on the liberty-loving Dane—the Freedom of the Press?

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