What was the Schleswig-Holstein Question anyway?
Or: Okay, let’s see if I can become the fourth.
“Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business,” occasional British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston is reputed to have said. “The Prince Consort, who is dead; a German professor, who has gone mad; and I, who have forgotten all about it.”
I do wonder sometimes whether there’s at least a little bit of self-aggrandisement going on in that quote. The Schleswig-Holstein question was messy and complicated, but hardly incomprehensibly so. By making it a byword for impenetrability, perhaps the man who dominated Britain’s foreign policy for a generation was just trying to make his work sound Very Difficult and himself sound Very Clever Indeed. Nonetheless, understanding and explaining complicated bits of European history is my idea of fun, so let’s get on with it.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0.
Schleswig and Holstein are a pair of territories which between them make up the southern part of the Jutland peninsula. The question, which hung over northern European politics for 70 years or so, was whether they should be Danish or German.
This question was unexpectedly hard to answer for a whole series of reasons. Problem number one was that they were, sort of, both. Schleswig had been a part of Denmark during the Viking era, but by the later medieval period had become a duchy, attached to the state but annoyingly independent of it. Holstein, by contrast, had never been a proper part of Denmark at all, and was instead a fief of the Holy Roman Empire, the precursor to Germany which covered a vast swathe of central Europe.
In 1460, their own lines having died out, both came into the possession of the kings of Denmark. This, though, was a mere personal union, not a unification – a situation one might summarise as “different territories, same king”. Schleswig remained annoyingly independent; Holstein remained annoyingly Holy Roman.
That brings us to problem number two: the fact that they were meant to be indivisible. The Treaty of Ribe, which Christian I of Denmark signed when he took the gig, said that he would rule as both Duke of Schleswig and Count of Holstein – but to protect the political and financial interests of the regions’ intertwined nobility, the two territories would remain “Forever Undivided”. Significantly, this treaty was written in German – the language that everybody in Holstein, and at least a few people in Schleswig, spoke – and not Danish.
This situation – Holstein firmly German, Schleswig half-heartedly Danish, and the two, despite this difference, an indivisible whole – persisted for a surprisingly long time. But then, the 19th century arrived, Napoleon spent two busy decades tearing around the place and messing up the map, and problem number three emerged: nationalism. Suddenly, in a break with much of previous European history, everyone thought it sounded kind of cool to be in polities with other people who spoke the same language, and were of the same ethnicity, as themselves.
And so the equilibrium was broken. The German majority in Schleswig-Holstein wanted the two to stay together, but to join the German Confederation; the Danes, in both Schleswig and Denmark itself, wanted the two broken up, even though that would mean custody of a substantial minority of grumpy Germans. By the 1840s, the Danish National Liberal Party was campaigning under the slogan, “Denmark to the Eider!” – a reference to the river that marked the traditional boundary between the two territories.
Things are about to get war-y, but before they do, let’s sum up. Denmark and Schleswig wanted to stay together; Schleswig and Holstein wanted to stay together; Holstein and Germany wanted to be together; but Germany and Denmark absolutely could not be together. A=B, B=C, C=D, but A=/=D.
This, fans of giggling helplessly at British politics may recall, is the same impossible equation the UK conjured into being through Brexit, in which there could be no borders between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and no border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but absolutely had to be a border between the UK and EU, which meant a border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. In other words, once again, A=B, B=C, C=D but, oh look, A=/=D. The Conservative party has managed to create a situation as messed up as the Schleswing-Holstein Question through sheer incompetence. Well done there.
The resolution of the problem on the Danish German border offers little help to anyone hoping to sort any similar problems today. First came 1848, with its revolutions across Europe, bringing an uprising by Holstein’s German majority, a Prussian invasion to support it and a three-year war. Denmark won; but under pressure from the great powers, a resulting treaty, the London Protocol, stated that, while both territories would be ruled from Copenhagen, Denmark would never attempt to force Schleswig into a closer relationship with itself than Schleswig had with Holstein.
“Never”, on this occasion, turned out to mean “for the next 11 years”.
That’s because, in 1863, problem number four popped up, in the form of the famously unhelpful Salic Law of royal succession. (You thought we were done with problems, did you? Bless.) In mid November, Frederick VII of Denmark died, taking the male line of the House of Oldenburg with him. Denmark’s rules of succession, in this sort of emergency, generously allowed for those descended from the female line to inherit; Holstein, though, followed a stricter Germanic interpretation, under which girls don’t count under any circumstances.
That led to a bloke who was very much not the Danish king going around claiming to be the duke of both Holstein and, thanks to that 1460 treaty I mentioned a few paragraphs back, Schleswig too. And so, in something of a panic, the liberal government in Copenhagen changed the constitution to make Schleswig an integral part of Denmark. This, you might recall, was a breach of the London Protocols agreed just 11 years earlier, and so helpfully provided Prussia with a pretext to invade. Again.
The Second Schleswig-War didn’t go quite so well for the Danes. With Austrian help, the Prussians – by now led by Otto Von Bismarck, who was doing a lot of this sort of thing – defeated them in just nine months, resulting in three things:
1) Denmark losing the entirety of Schleswig-Holstein, even though parts of it contained almost no German speakers and had been Danish for about as long as there had been a Denmark, which was a very long time;
2) A 2014 prestige TV series to mark the 150th anniversary of the war, full of people you recognise off Borgen or The Killing;
3) A massive row between Prussia and Austria over how to run their new, jointly controlled territories. That gave Prussia a pretext for yet another war, this time against its former ally. All this, one invasion of France later, led to the unification of Germany under its first chancellor, the aforementioned Otto Von Bismarck. Germany, which had barely existed for centuries, was suddenly the big power in Europe. Denmark, which had existed for longer than almost anywhere else, suddenly looked pretty small.
That wasn’t quite the end of the Schleswig-Holstein question. It took German defeat in World War I before anyone bothered to ask the inhabitants what they wanted. When they did, the northernmost third of Schleswig voted overwhelmingly to join Denmark, and the middle part overwhelmingly to remain German. (The southernmost third and Holstein were both so Germanic that no vote was felt necessary.)
And so the German Danish border was finally set, and after 70 years of intermittent fighting hasn’t bothered anybody since.
After researching this, I find myself wondering two things. One is whether the whole mess could have been avoided if anybody had simply asked the locals what they wanted back in 1848, although, to be fair, asking people what they wanted wasn’t really a big thing back then, which is probably why there were so many revolutions in 1848.
The other is whether Lord Palmerston might have had another motive for talking up the complexity of the Schleswig-Holstein question. Back in 1863 he had promised that, if the Germans used force, “it would not be Denmark alone with which they would have to contend”. But when push came to shove, Britain was nowhere to be seen. Denmark fought, and lost, alone; and Britain’s failure to show up weakened the hand of the liberals that provided the main German opposition to Bismarck’s Prussian militarism.
Perhaps it wasn’t merely that Palmerston was trying to make himself look clever. Perhaps he also wanted to discourage anyone from looking too closely at a situation in which he had made rather a big mistake.
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