Skip to main content

Breaking up the Boulder of Unemployment

In the 1930s, The Oxford Group, which later became MRA, sparked off a spiritual revival in Scandinavia.

Unemployment dominated everything in Denmark throughout the 1930s. It created an immense amount of human misery, sapped the Danish economy and set back social improvements. Reforms passed by the Social Democratic government in 1934 granted the unemployed some financial assistance. But the sum was far too small to support a family, so unemployment remained a real disaster for all those affected by it.

In 1935 Valdemar Hvidt was a High Court advocate, married with two small children. In spite of his apparent success, he felt that his life was falling apart, and he was giving up hope of ever becoming really happy. He and his wife were devoted to each other, but their relationship seemed one big struggle, with their attempts to communicate constantly missing the mark.

That year the Oxford Group (later MRA) held a series of meetings in Copenhagen, on the theme of personal renewal. Over 35,000 people attended in eight days and the radio and press carried enthusiastic reports. Hvidt decided to go and see what was happening. The core of the message was a challenge to put right what was wrong and to listen to God with a willingness to follow his will. Change in people, the speakers asserted, could lead to change in their environment.

Hvidt was still sceptical at the close of the meeting, but he made a deal with himself. He recognized a couple in the crowd who had recently asked him to arrange their divorce. If the Oxford Group's message had an impact on them, he thought, he would reconsider it. The next day they turned up at his office to call off the divorce.

So, along with many other Danes, Hvidt decided to experiment with the Oxford Group's approach and take time every morning to be quiet and listen in his heart for inspiration. If it worked, it could be revolutionary, and if it did not - well, at least he would have given it a try.

As time went by, Hvidt noticed changes happening in and around people who had adopted this practice of listening. They started not only to take responsibility for their own lives, but to respond to the problems around them, including unemployment.

One example was Alfred Nielsen, the proprietor of the largest sawmill combine in Jutland. In 1936 he had refused to grant his employees a wage rise on the grounds that the firm could not afford it. A year later, after coming into contact with the Oxford Group, Nielsen admitted to his workers that the real reason for his refusal had been that his private pocket would have suffered. He went over the firm's finances in detail with his employees, and together they agreed upon adequate provision for everyone. Because of their new working relationship, Nielsen and his employees decided that they should do something for those less fortunate than themselves. The firm took on more workers. In spite of the increased wages and manpower, the firm's finances held up - because the workforce were more satisfied and more productive.

Hvidt featured this and other examples in an article he wrote in 1938 for the daily newspaper Politiken about the effects of personal responsibility. The article was published shortly before a visit by Frank Buchman, the Oxford Group's initiator, to Copenhagen, where he spoke to several hundred people in the Phoenix Hotel and asked them what they were doing about Denmark's 200,000 unemployed - a third of the industrial workforce in what was still a largely agrarian country.

Valdemar Hvidt left the meeting in the Phoenix Hotel convinced that there was no shortage of jobs that needed doing in industry and agriculture, but uncertain how to translate these needs into employment. As he sought inspiration in a quiet time he suddenly realized that if you have a boulder that is too big to carry, you can break it down into pieces. Unemployment might be too big a problem to be solved by the government alone. But it could be dealt with at the local level, bit by bit.

He got together a working party made up of people who had taken to heart Buchman's challenge at the Phoenix Hotel. They included Alfred Nielsen and HAV Hansen, a former farmer who was now a colonel in the Danish army. They decided to implement Hvidt's idea by encouraging everyone they could think of to ask themselves whether they were doing all they could to improve the situation.

Hansen went to see a farmer he knew and asked him what he would do with the unemployed in his area if he were responsible. The farmer retorted that the unemployed were the government's responsibility, not his. 'How many unemployed do you have here?' Hansen asked. The farmer replied that there were 14 unemployed people in the parish. Then he added, 'Of course, I could have my barn painted.' He gathered his neighbours and told them of his intentions. By the end of the evening, they had found work between them for all 14 people.

In Vejle on the Jutland peninsula, where there were 25 unemployed painters, Henry K Andersen, an employee of Danish Railways, went to ask the leaders of the painters' union why they accepted this situation. The result was a home-refurbishment drive. The 25 painters soon found work, and joiners and carpenters had to be brought in from other towns.

Similar private initiatives began to ripple out all over the country and led, in 1939, to the creation of the National Association for Combating Unemployment (LAB) to mobilize voluntary initiatives to deal with unemployment. It also provided research, training and advice.

Most of the LAB's work was based in local communities. In Silkeborg, for instance, the chair of the housewives' association, Grethe Madsen, realized that much of the rubbish that was thrown away could be re-used: the rags and iron in factories and the food waste as pig-feed on farms. The thought caught the imagination of other communities, and waste-collectors with their bicycles became a regular feature of town life.

Alfred Nielsen also recognized the potential of waste. On a trip to the forest to buy wood for his sawmills, he noticed the tree stumps and waste wood lying around and realized that clearing them could provide work for many people. He persuaded Danish Railways to buy the wood as fuel for their steam engines. Hundreds of people were employed in this way.

Denmark was occupied by Germany on 9 April 1940. A few weeks later, the LAB organized a national waste collection scheme which employed several hundred people. Some 30,000 pigs were fed with the kitchen waste that they collected.

Under Hvidt's enthusiastic leadership, the LAB became well-known. Some 50 local committees were set up around the country to create jobs.

In the autumn of 1943 the LAB turned their minds to the risk of substantial unemployment after the war, which might impede Denmark's recovery. They launched a major campaign to encourage farmers to take on extra workers to do repairs, build silos, drain fields and maintain roads. They visited 100,000 farms and some 30,000 jobs were created. LAB continued its work into the 1960s, by which time unemployment had ceased to be a problem.

Article language


Article type
Feature type
Article year