A statue of Hans Christian Andersen and the Ugly Duckling in Central Park, New York City. Photo: Wikipedia

Who knew that Hans Christian Andersen’s 19th-century fairytales would anticipate 20th- and 21st-century issues about groupthink, media, education and envy and mob rules, Harvard and Yale included?

Alexander Gerschenkron (1904-78), a Russian-born Harvard economic historian, did.

On April 11, 1968, Gerschenkron delivered a lecture at the university in which he quoted at length Andersen’s The Most Incredible Thing in explaining a campus riot two days earlier – relevant for both the Harvard students’ recent demand about closing down a police station, and the Yale law students’ intolerance toward a debate in a recent session organized about debating … free speech, that both would make Russian President Vladimir Putin proud.   

On April 9, 1968, hundreds of students and professional activists carried “Fight Capitalists – Running Dogs” banners, shouted “Sieg heil,” demanded the abolition of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program, occupied University Hall and renamed it “Che Guevara Hall,” and shoved faculty and administrators down stairs while shouting expletives.

Harvard’s president called the local police. The mob ignored their warnings and attacked officers, who made 200 arrests at University Hall.

Those events prompted an emergency meeting of the Harvard faculty, where Gerschenkron delivered his unprepared speech, which was broadcast uncensored on the radio.

“Force and crime must be met by force,” Gerschenkron said, giving full support to Harvard’s president and the police.

“I hear all this talk about the imperialist war machine, but any man in reasonable possession of his reasonable powers must understand that this is all bunk, this is mendacious low, political talk….

“This faculty is not the proper guardian of academic freedom…. Sixteen, 17 years ago, when academic freedoms were threatened brutally and viciously” by Senator Joe McCarthy, “it was not the faculty who stood up against the threat. The faculty was subdued, scared.

“There are many reasons for that,” he continued. “Let us take once a candid look at ourselves, at this faculty.”

Some are buried in research and don’t want anything to do with the wider world. But “there are the middle-aged popularity kids who have done considerable damage to the university. In addition to popularity seekers, they are fearers of unpopularity,” especially “in the atmosphere of terror – fear of boycotts, of reduction in election in their courses.”

These harsh words were only the introduction to the most devastating part of his speech, in which he cited Andersen’s The Most Incredible Thing tale. 

The story is about a king’s promise that whoever does an incredible thing will win his daughter’s hand in marriage and half his kingdom. The contest’s judges, ranging from children to old men, promptly agree that a young, decent entrepreneur had earned the prize by devising a clock that had 12 different performances, one for each hour.

The 12 performances reminded the audience about the myths and foundations of Western civilization, from Moses’ commandments to Christianity and basic pleasures of everyday living.

As the prize is about to be awarded, a new young man appears, swinging an ax and smashing the clock. By so doing, he claims, he has done the most incredible thing. The judges and the people agree, and award the princess and half of the kingdom to the lout.

But this is a fairytale, so it has a happy ending. On the wedding day, the clock reappears. The characters in the 12 performances come to life and send the lout into oblivion. The innovative, good young man gets his rewards.

Andersen optimistically concludes that a work of art doesn’t die. Its solid incarnation may be shattered, but its spirit can’t be broken.

Although the people at the wedding declare that they lived to see the most incredible thing, the story ends with an observation about what made the ending of the tale incredible (though Gerschenkron omits mentioning this ending). The most incredible thing was that nobody in that crowd was envious of the young man who built the clock and married the princess.

As Gerschenkron observed, “the spirits of the faculty will [have to] rise and smash up all this criminal nonsense that is going around in this country.” The university, he added, is a fragile creation that can be destroyed by louts as the clock was destroyed in Andersen’s story. Sometimes it takes a fairytale to remind us how thin is the veneer of civilization and how delicate the complex of institutions that uphold it.

This is not the only Andersen tale that resonates strongly these days. Others shed light on features of the society within which such academic complacency happens – the media no longer being a reliable source of information in particular.

The Snow Queen starts with the devil inventing a mirror which, when looked at,  reflects everything good and beautiful as being ugly.  Beautiful landscapes look like wrinkled spinach and the best people appear hideous monsters. The devil’s disciples trained in using the mirror infest the land and turn people’s hearts into lumps of ice, preventing justice from being done.

This tale too has a happy ending – but it is conditional on a skeptical ruler’s intervention, about whom the tale says: “In the kingdom where we are now, there is a Princess who is uncommonly clever, and no wonder. She has read all the [infected] newspapers in the world and forgotten them again – that’s how clever she is.”

In 1968, a century after publication of this tale, in the midst of Europe’s youth rioting and the timing of Gerschenkron’s speech, Rudolf Augstein, the founder of Der Spiegel, made observations similar to Andersen’s, noting: “I feel that the confidence in the institution of the ‘press’ is decreasing.

“If my fears are justified, then this crisis is worse than a crisis of parliament; because it is simpler to reform parliament – a clearly outlined institution – than to reform a system of information that is as diffuse as society itself.” 

Augstein added: “The crisis of newspapers and magazines is nothing but the emergence and consciousness of the crisis of the democratic system itself.” 

Fifty years later, it does appear that history is rhyming. 

Whereas in fairytales a deus ex machina, a decent ruler or an innocent child – in Andersen’s better-known fairytale about this child shouting what no adult dared to that the emperor wore no clothes – restore common sense and civil behavior, discarding crowds’ follies.   

Although my historical detective work suggests that only when society is being leapfrogged by others and on the edge of default are commonly held bad ideas more likely be discarded – though not without some tragic bumps in the roads. 

I say “more likely,” since such events can be “stepmothers of deception” too, and not only mothers of invention – as Western Europe’s history over the last century, including these days’ conflict, so clearly demonstrate. 

Reuven Brenner’s books include History: The Human Gamble, World of Chance and Force of Finance, upon which this article draws.

Reuven Brenner

Reuven Brenner is a governor at IEDM (Institut Économique de Montréal). He is professor emeritus at McGill University. He was the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, was awarded the Canada Council's prestigious Killam Fellowship Award in 1991, and is a member of the Royal Society.