THE FIGHT FOR GISSELFELD
”Gisselfeld Castle – the place of fairytales” reads the front page of a tourist brochure for the famous land estate in South Zealand, Denmark, where H.C. Andersen is thought to have found inspiration for the fairytale “The Ugly Duckling”. It’s just as well that the brochure is now out of print, because the text is misleading – the fairytale has in fact turned into a nightmare.
Denmark’ s 5th largest land estate is at the centre of a 6-year long, brutal and legally complicated power struggle which started in 1996, and that has led to hundreds of articles in national newspapers and extensive TV coverage.
”We are talking about miscarriage of justice and character assasination of a very devious and premeditated form, along with bullying and personal harrassment of the worst kind”, wrote psycholgist, Lars Maach from the support group, ”Friends of Gisselfeld” (which is campaigning to have the disposed Count of Gisselfeld reinstated), in a letter to the Minister of Justice in April 1999. Even the Count of Gisselfeld, Erik Danneskiold- Samsøe says: ” Without dishonesty and extreme manipulation, the board would never have achieved what they have done. If Christian the Golden Lion (the Count’s forefather and founder of Gisselfeld) arose from his grave and saw this chaos, he would be so confounded that he would move heaven and earth to ensure the old laws of Gisselfeld were heeded”.
Gisselfeld’s hard-tried leader is here referring to the special legal fundament which dictates the inheritance laws of the castle and estate – a fundament which was written in 1701 and 1702. For 300 years now, these special inheritance laws, which were drawn up by the son of the Danish King Christian V, Christian the Golden Lion , have ensured the heirs of Gisselfeld the title of Count and the right to run the estate. However, in the summer of 1996, a new Board was instated at Gisselfeld, with the help of the Ministry of Justice and the Directorate of Civil Rights, and which promptly set about removing the Count from his position as Director of the estate.
On the 16th April 1998, the Count’s lawyer, Christian Harlang served a writ to the Ministry of Justice, Directorate of Civil Rights and the Board of Gisselfeld, and since then, the power struggle at Gisselfeld has raged, a complicated and tiring case, which is now headed for the High Court.
Old family feud
Woven into this fight for Gisselfeld is a very special family feud. Lady Elisabeth Lassen has persistently fought the Danneskiold- Samsøe branch of the family tree, since it came to sit in Gisselfeld’s attractive director chair at the end of the 1960’s, some years after she was forced to leave Gisselfeld under traumatic circumstances.
Elisabeth Lassen is herself a Danneskiold-Samsøe, born at the castle, but her branch of the family was forced to leave Gisselfeld, after having lived there for 31 years, when her father, Count Aage, died in 1945.
”If only you had been a boy”, Count Aage is reputed to have said repeatedly to his only child, little Elisabeth. Only men are allowed to inherit the title and right to run Gisselfeld, and with Elisabeth as the only child, Count Aage’s branch of the family therefore lost the castle and estate.
In the 1960’s, Elisabeth Lassen formed a family council and began a campaign to persuade the Ministry of Justice to establish a board of directors at Gisselfeld which would be responsible for its running, and to introduce new criteria for Gisselfeld. Put another way, Count Erik’s branch of the family is, according to Lady Eisabeth, who lives at the neighbouring Holmegaard estate, not fit for the post and and should be removed.
In 1985 the Ministry of Justice demanded that Gisselfeld draw up a supplement to the old law, commiting the director to establish a board at Gisselfeld. After 8 years, this supplementary law finally came into place. Gisselfeld’s daily administration was now under the control of a board of directors. Yet, the Count retained his position as over-director.
However, 3 years later, in March 1996, the Ministry of Justice suddenley insisted that the board be removed and a new one set in place before 1st May. The explanation for the Ministry’s hasty demand was that the Ministry had been led to believe that Gisselfeld’s debt was twice as large as it in fact was.
It is highly possible that Lady Elisabeth Lassen was behind this development. At the beginning of March, Lady Lassen’s lawyer, Per Harder, had written to the Ministry of Justice, again criticising Count Erik Danneskiold-Samsøe’s running of Gisselfeld. He misleadingly and inaccurately reported the estate’s debt to be at 124 million kroner. In reality, it was only half this amount.
”A few days later, the Ministry informed me that they would forcibly instate a new board if I didn’t do as they said”, claims Erik Danneskiold-Samsøe.
Meanwhile, Count Erik had just met Johan Koed-Jørgensen, and when an aquaintance also recommended Koed-Jørgensen to him, the Count decided to offer him a place on the new board. Koed-Jørgensen accepted, on the condition that his lawyer, Niels Olof Kyed, was also given a place on the board, to, as he puts it, help him lift this responsible and mighty task. The Count did not realise the grave fault he had made when he unwittingly accepted this condition.
Even at the first board meeting, 1st May 1996, Koed-Jørgensen demanded another change to the board. The landowner from Jutland proposed the discharge of Hans Bjerrisgaard, who has a farming education and is a personal friend of the Count. Koed again got his way and Bjerrisgaard was replaced by the retired army general and Koed’s personal friend, KGH Hillingsø.
This left Erik Danneskiold-Samsøe as the last farming-educated member of the board, but more importantly, with Hillingsø’s entry, Koed-Jørgensen established a majority on the board. Soon after, the Count’s last ally came to betray him too; Bertel Brinck Eliassen stabbed his old school friend in the back and, in this way, Koed Jørgensen had achieved total control of Gisselfeld.
The Count was now totally powerless and in his isolation, not able to legally give witness for the way in which , between 1996 and 1998, the new board set about stripping him of all his power and rights. According to Count Erik, he was exposed to shocking injustice. According to the other four allied board members, shocking injustices occured, yes, but they came exclusively from the ”incompetent Count”.
At the 4th board meeting on the 10th July, Koed & Co. presented a new business agenda, to be signed by all board members.
Erik Danneskiold-Samsøe recounts: ”I was completely shocked when I saw that business agenda, for with it went my competence in many areas. I felt as if I lost all my authority, and was to be put under administration, and I informed the rest of the board that I would not sign it before I had spoken to my lawyer. The others signed the document, and eventually I was persuaded to also sign, but with the condition that it be recorded that I had signed under protest! Why did I sign at all? Because I was under great pressure already from the Ministry of Justice, that had threatened to force their own board upon Gisselfeld. But I clearly asked that my reservations regarding the new business agenda be noted in the minutes of the meeting. When the meeting was over, and the other board members had left, I asked the estate manager and who had been secretary for the meeting, Jan Borre Bjødstrup, to read back the minutes of the meeting to me.”
It appeared that Bjødstrup had written nothing. This gave Erik Danneskiold-Samsøe his second shock of the day, and he asked for an explanation. ”But a visibly shaken Bjødstrup could give me no explanation”, describes the Count. ”It ended with me saying: right, so let’s sit down and reconstruct the whole meeting, which we did.”
Bjødstrups working conditions were not to be envied, and half a year later after the new business agenda was in place, he resigned. Several other employees were to follow him including the economy manager, Jan Sunke, and the farming manager, Peter Trolle – both resigning at the start of 2001.
The day after this meeting, Erik Danneskiold-Samsøe rang Koed and said, ”Koed-Jørgensen, if you continue to treat me as badly as you did yesterday, we will end up with a severe conflict”. Koed’s reply was as follows; ” You have to understand, that if you don’t do precisely what I say, we will go to the Ministry of Justice and say that you are totally impossible to co-operate with and have you thrown out of Gisselfeld!”.
The Count can mow the lawn
Via his expensively-bought personal experience, Danneskiold-Samsøe today now understands why Koed-Jørgensen is disliked in certain circles. As soon as all the board members had signed the new business agenda, Koed abruptly changed his friendly tone towards the Count to a rude and threatening one.
”They wanted to fire the park gardener. Who was to look after the park? I asked, after which Koed spitefully replied: ”Why don’t you make yourself useful and go and mow the lawns?”
Count Erik adds: ”What I have been through since the new board came to power has nothing to do with sensible board administration. It has been exclusively about removing me from power. They put me in a completely hopeless situation and I have had no other alternative than to take legal action.”
Koed cancels all organic farming
When the Count protested at Koed’s intentions to cancel Gisselfeld’s organic and environmentally-friendly farming developments and intensify and rationalise the running of the estate, Koed put the Count in his place by telling him that he no longer ran the estate. ”Everything you have done at Gisselfeld is only fit for the dustbin”, commented Koed-Jørgensen in the same breath. Together with Hillingsø and Kyed, Koed has a majority on the board and they interpret this majority as superior to the Count’s over-director post.
What has been impossible for 300 years – to remove Gisselfeld’s highest authority from power – was quickly and coldly executed by Koed-Jørgensen and his two faithful allies in the summer of 1996. Nobody at that time had any idea of how violent and far-reaching the power struggle that was to follow would be.
1200 side-long indictment
By the end of 2001, the archives of the Directorate of Civil Rights had accumulated approx. 5000 sides on the case. And in the wake of the initial conflict between the Count and the board, have come countless police reports and approximately 10 smaller court cases.
The case’s legal flagship is a indictment document of 1200 pages, drawn up by the suspended over-director’s lawyer, Christian Harlang. It was first brought before a judge on the 16th April 1998. This comprehensive case, that both accuses the board, the Directorate of Civil Rights and the Ministry of Justice for having broken the law, according to Gisselfeld’s unique legal foundation from the 1700’s. The Count lost his court case in January 2002, but has appealed, and the case now will be heard in the High Court probably sometime in 2003.
As the details of this immense and strange power struggle are gradually revealed in the media, the case looks like a ticking bomb ready to go off, the consequences of which will be alarming and far-reaching, affecting amongst others, the Minister of Justice. Suffice to say, it is not the first time that the Ministry of Justice has interpreted the law wrongly.
Behind the gallery of prominent figures involved in the fight for Gisselfeld, there also lies an idealogical battle between profit and sustainable use of the earth. Sustainability and organic farming has so far been the loser in this battle, together with Count Danneskiold-Samsøe. The winners have been the board, the Ministry of Justice and profit – not forgetting a fair amount of lawyers,that have earned millions from this bitter power struggle.
What is the situation today at Gisselfeld at the start of 2002? Despite their recent significant victory, the board are facing several serious problems. First and foremost, it has been a severe setback for the board that the Count has even been able to run this huge and complicated case against them. The media coverage is also damaging, as public opnion has slowly warmed in favour of the Count. Additionally, despite a massive propaganda campaign designed to show the Count as incompetent, and that he was about to drive Gisselfeld to bankruptcy, this has not been proven. In fact, the Count has appointed independent experts who have proven the opposite; that the estate was doing acceptably well under the Count’s leadership.
Nor have they been able to cut his entire salary or remove him from his castle, despite appealing to every possible authority to back them up.
Isolated in his castle, his car confiscated, over half of his salary taken (6.400 kr after tax and extra payments), with his telephone disconnected by the board, daily bombarded with unpleasant letters, tyranised with hundreds of threatening faxes, that on several occasions have streamed into his office non-stop for several hours, and so on and so forth, Count Erik survives miraculosly through this conflict. He has been helped by an idealistic lawyer, an expert in precisely this area of the law, who has offered his services, to a large extent freely, because he is so certain of winning this case when it reaches the High Court. He has also found help in a group that has formed to support him, Friends of Gisselfeld, chaired by psychologist Lars Maach, plus a small group of green local people, who would like to see Gisselfeld administered in a more environmentally-friendly manner. In August 2001, a new supporter appeared in the form of an anonymous millionaire who offered to pay to take the case to the High Court.
For many view the methods of the new board as dishonourable and destructive. It seems as though they have consciously set about psychologically breaking the Count, so that he might never reach the court with his case. Christian Harlang, the Count’s lawyer, has recorded 40 instances of unlawful personal harassment on his client.
”The closed board meetings were very unpleasant. They threatened me with all manner of things if I didn’t co-operate, made a fool of me, and in many situations did not record my protests and comments in the minutes. I don’t think people can begin to imagine how badly I have been treated.”
The four allied board members have again and again underlined that they, purely for moral reasons, have worked to save Gisselfeld from bankruptcy. This, despite the fact that before 1996, the new board members had nothing whatsoever do do with the estate. The public has been led to believe that the board members, from the very kindness of their hearts, work for a pitiful reward of 20,000 kroner per year. Johan Koed Jørgensen has however, repeatedly shown that he is far more worldly than that. According to documents in the Directorate of Civil Rights, he has requested close to one and half million kroner as payment for his ”consultancy” for Gisselfeld from 1996 and 1997 and another 850,000 kr for 1998. It is likely that Koed-Jørgsensen considered his consultancy-work at Gisselfeld worth 3-4 million kr. But the end of 2001 he has so far “only” been paid approx. 900,000 kr, plus 100,000 kr for his attendance at the monthly board meetings -altogether around one million kroner (120,000 US dollars)!
In the meantime, Koed has been under suspicion for lining his pocket in another way from his position at Gisselfeld. Count Erik and his lawyer in 1997 accused Koed-Jørgensen for having sold Gisselfeld’s corn together with corn from his own estates to achieve a higher price. Even though they could document this illegal trading, Koed–Jørgensen denies it. When the Count confronted Koed with this, Koed replied ”So, you are accusing me of being a swindler, well piss off and mind your own bloody business!” and slammed down the phone.
”Later Koed-Jørgensen declared several times that my interfering in the matter had cost Gisselfeld 385,000 kroner,and he threatened to take the amount out of my salary”.
Here at the start of 2002, the battle still rages on at Gisselfeld. Here, where HC Andersen is reputed to have found inspiration for his story ”The ugly duckling”. Only the future will tell if the nightmare will transform itself from an ugly duckling to a beautiful swan as in a real fairytale.
Journalist, Jesper Petersen