Schleswig-Holstein Question

The Schleswig-Holstein Question was the name given to the whole complex of diplomatic and other issues arising in the 19th century out of the relations of the two duchies, Schleswig and Holstein, to the Danish crown and to the German Confederation. Schleswig was a part of Denmark in the Viking Age, and became a Danish duchy in the 12th century. Denmark repeatedly tried to integrate the Duchy of Schleswig into the Danish kingdom. In March 27 1848 Frederick VII of Denmark announced to the people of Schleswig the promulgation of a liberal constitution under which the duchy, while preserving its local autonomy, would become an integral part of Denmark. This led to an open uprising by Schleswig-Holstein's large German majority in support of independence from Denmark and of close association with the German Confederation. The military intervention of the Kingdom of Prussia helped the rising: the Prussian army drove Denmark's troops from Schleswig and Holstein in the First Schleswig War of 1848-1851. The second attempt to integrate the Duchy of Schleswig into the Danish kingdom due to the signing of the November Constitution by King Christian IX of Denmark was seen as a violation of the London Protocol, leading to the Second Schleswig War of 1864.

The central question was whether the duchy of Schleswig was or was not an integral part of the dominions of the Danish crown, with which it had been associated in the Danish monarchy for centuries or whether Schleswig should, together with Holstein, become a part of the German Confederation. Schleswig itself was a fief of Denmark, as the duchy of Holstein was a German fief and therefore part of the German Confederation with the Danish king as duke. This involved the question, raised by the death of the last common male heir to both Denmark and the two duchies, as to the proper succession in the duchies, and the constitutional questions arising out of the relations of the duchies to the Danish crown, to each other, and of Holstein to the German Confederation.

Much of the history of Schleswig-Holstein has a bearing on this question: see history of Schleswig-Holstein for details. Following the defeat of Germany in World War I, Northern Schleswig finally was unified with Denmark after two plebiscites organised by the Allied powers. A small minority of ethnic Germans still lives in Northern Schleswig.

Constitutional problem

Since 1849 more systems of government had co-existed within the Danish state. Denmark proper had become a constitutional democracy. However, Absolutism was still the system of Schleswig and Holstein, with advisory assemblies based on the estates system which gave more power to the most affluent members of society. The three units were governed by one cabinet, consisting of liberal ministers of Denmark who urged economic and social reforms, and conservative ministers from the Holstein nobility who opposed political reform. This caused a deadlock for practical lawmaking, hardened by ethnic tensions, and a complete inability to govern was imminent. Moreover, Danish opponents of this so-called Unitary State ("Helstaten") feared that Holstein's presence in the government and, at the same time, Holsteins membership of the German Confederation would lead to increased German interference with Holstein, or even into purely Danish affairs.

In Copenhagen, the Palace and most of the administration supported a strict adherence to the status quo. The same applied to foreign powers such as Great Britain, France and Russia, who would not accept a weakened Denmark in favour of Germany, nor Prussia acquiring Holstein with the important naval harbour of Kiel or controlling the entrance to the Baltic.

Language and nationality

There was also the national question: the ancient antagonism between German and Dane, intensified by the tendency, characteristic of the nineteenth century, to consolidate nationalities.

Lastly, there was the international question: the rival ambitions of the German powers involved, and beyond them the interests of other European states, notably that of Great Britain in preventing the rise of a German sea-power in the north.

German had been the language of government in Schleswig and Holstein while more-or-less independent Dukes ruled, and stayed so; and had been a language of government of the kingdom of Denmark in several eras. Since the Reformation, German had been dominant in church and schools, and Danish was the dominant language among the peasantry in Schleswig.

Over centuries of development the Slavic languages disappeared and the Germanic languages merged to form a Low German dialect, which became the language of all of Holstein. During the centuries after the Middle Ages, Low German language came to dominate in southern Schleswig, which had originally been predominantly Danish-speaking. Danish language still dominate in Northern Schleswig. Around 1800, areas in the middle of Schleswig were more or less mixed between German and Danish languages.

The German language had been slowly spreading against Danish in recent centuries: for example, Danish was still spoken on the peninsula of Schwansen around 1780 (the last time in the villages near the Schlei), but then became extinct.

The language border in the nineteenth century was approximately where the current border is between Denmark and Germany. The German victory resulted in completely Germanizing the original mixed areas.

Ultimately, Danish dominance in Schleswig was vulnerable. With its vigorous trading economic activity, the ethnically German area to the south expanded its geographic domain. Linguistically Low German immigrants arrived, and previously Danish-speaking families often came to find it convenient to change languages. The Low German language, rather than Danish, had become typical of Holstein and much of south Schleswig.

The best solution, which afterwards had the support of Napoleon III, would have been to partition Schleswig on the lines of nationality, assigning the Danish part to Denmark, the German to Holstein. This idea, which afterwards had supporters among both Danes and Germans, proved impracticable at the time owing to the intractable temper of the majority on both sides. See "La Question de Slesvig", p. 135 seq., "Historique de l'idée d'un partage du Slesvig".

Treaty of Ribe

German Schleswig-Holsteiners often cited a clause from the Treaty of Ribe of 1460, stating that Schleswig and Holstein should "always be together and never partitioned ("or" separated)". Although this treaty played a minor role at the more formal level of the conflict, its proclamation "Forever Inseparable" "(Up ewig ungedeelt)" became proverbial status during the German nationalist awakening, both among those wishing an independent Schleswig-Holstein, and in the German unification movement in general.

In Denmark it was granted less significance, and the citing widely regarded to be out of context, as it could either hint at the duchies not being separated from each other, or their not being partitioned into smaller shares of inheritance. This had happened many times anyway, leaving a confusing pattern of feudal units. Danes also brought forward rulings of a Danish clerical court and a German Emperor, of 1424 and 1421 respectively, stating that Schleswig rightfully belonged to Denmark, because it was a Danish fief and Holstein was a German fief, wanting Schleswig and Holstein to separate from each other.

The major powers appear to have given the Treaty of Ribe little notice in comparison to the ethnic conflict and worries about the European balance of power.


The Second Schleswig War resolved the Schleswig-Holstein Question violently by forcing the king of Denmark to renounce (on 1 August 1864) all his rights in the duchies in favour of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and King William I of Prussia. By Article XIX of the definitive Treaty of Vienna signed on October 30 1864, a period of six years was allowed during which the inhabitants of the duchies might opt for Danish nationality and transfer themselves and their goods to Denmark; and the right of indigenacy was guaranteed to all, whether in the kingdom or the duchies, who had it at the time of the exchange of ratifications of the treaty.

In the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 Prussia took Holstein from Austria and the duchies subsequently became the Province of Schleswig-Holstein.

The Schleswig-Holstein Question from this time onward became merged with the larger question of the general relations between Austria and Prussia; its later developments are a result of the war of 1866. It survived, however, as between Danes and Germans, though narrowed to the question of the fate of the Danish population of Schleswig. This question is of great interest to students of international law and as illustrating the practical problems involved in asserting the modern principle of nationality.

For the effect on the Danes of Schleswig and events afterwards, see History of Schleswig-Holstein#Danes under German rule.

chleswig-Holstein Question in Literature

Elements of the Schleswig-Holstein Question were fictionalised in Royal Flash, the second of George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels.

Its potential solution (or lack thereof) also forms part of the solution to the mystery at the centre of Kim Newman's short story 'Tomorrow Town'.

Danish author Herman Bang wrote of life on the island of Als in the aftermath of the Battle of Dybbøl in the Second War of Schleswig in his novel "Tine", published in 1889.

"Only three people understood the Schleswig-Holstein Question. The first was Albert, the Prince consort and he is dead; the second is a German professor, and he is in an asylum: and the third was myself - and I have forgotten it." - Lord Palmerston.

Dostoevsky refers to this as "The farce in Schleswig-Holstein" in "Notes from Underground".

ee also

* History of Schleswig-Holstein


Further reading

The literature on the subject is vast. From the German point of view the most comprehensive treatment is in
* C Jansen and K Samwer, "Schleswig-Holsteins Befreiung" (Wiesbaden, 1897).See also
* HCL von Sybel, "Foundation of the German Empire" (Eng. trans., New York, 1890-1891)
* Bismarck's "Reflections and Reminiscences"
* L Hahn, "Bismarck" (5 vols., 1878-1891).The Danish point of view is ably and moderately presented in "La Question du Slesvig", a collection of essays by various writers edited by F de Jessen (Copenhagen, 1906), with maps and documents.

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