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Denmark - 1815-1864 - The Schleswig Issue

The Duchy of Holstein had been a part of the Holy Roman Empire, while Schleswig had belonged to the Kingdom of Denmark since medieval times. After the dissolution of the Empire, the German confederation (Deutscher Bund) was established in 1815 - including Holstein, but not Schleswig. Debates among the Danish government, the ruling elites and intellectuals arose how to create an appropriate constitution for the Duchies within this fragile framework.

The position of the duchies within the monarchy was a central issue from the beginning of the century until 1864. In 1815, almost a third of the total population of Denmark and the duchies was German, and Holstein was by then better developed in economic terms than the kingdom.

Holstein and Lauenburg were both part of the German Confederation and were both German in linguistic and cultural terms. Schleswig was more divided; the majority of the landowners, town-dwellers and peasants in South Schleswig were German-speaking, whilst the North Schleswig peasants mostly spoke Danish.

In 1830, the liberals in the duchies called for a liberal constitution for a united Schleswig-Holstein. Their demands were ignored by Frederik VI and his autocratic government, and the most prominent of the Schleswig-Holstein supporters, Uwe Jens Lornsen, was imprisoned. The consultative agreement of 1831 sought to preserve the unity of the kingdom; the question of a consultative assembly for Holstein was resolved and the two duchies remained separate.

The differences between Danish and German persisted, however, and the idea of a Schleswig-Holstein found support in Duke Christian August of Augustenborg’s hereditary claim to the two duchies, should the male Oldenburg line as expected die out.

In November 1842, the national issue gave rise to open conflict when the right to speak Danish at the consultative assembly in Schleswig was insisted on. Separate Danish and Schleswig-Holstein movements quickly formed. In Denmark, the National Liberals took on the Danish cause in Schleswig. In 1842, Orla Lehmann demanded that Schleswig be incorporated into Denmark; Lehmann wanted the southern border of Denmark to coincide with the River Ejder between Schleswig and Holstein. Faced with increasing demands for German unification, Danish nationalism found further support in a new Scandinavian movement which furthered Nordic unity.

The government tried to mediate between Danish and German, but had to reject the hereditary claim of the Duke of Augustenborg. In The Open Letter of 1846, Christian VIII upheld the hereditary claim of the Oldenburg line and the continued existence of the united monarchy, but rejected the National Liberals’ demands for a closer alliance with Schleswig, known as the Eider Policy. Following Christian VIII’s death in January 1848, the government promised a change of constitution which would maintain the division between the kingdom and the duchies.

The February Revolution in Paris that same year triggered a revolutionary movement across Europe, and nationalists on both sides became more radical. At a meeting in Rendsborg, demands were put forward for a free Schleswig-Holstein constitution and for Schleswig’s incorporation into the German Confederation.

Accounts of the meeting led the National Liberals to demand the resignation of the government, and on 22 March a new cabinet with National-Liberal members came to power under the leadership of A.W. Moltke; the Schleswig-Holstein demands were rejected and Schleswig’s connection with Denmark was upheld. A provisional German Schleswig-Holstein government was set up in Kiel the night between 23 and 24 March and on 24 March the Rendsborg fortress was captured and the civil war had broken out.

Two weeks after a victory over the Schleswig-Holstein army at Bov on 9 April, the Danes were defeated near Schleswig by a united Schleswig-Holstein-Prussian army, and the troops were subsequently recalled to Als and Jutland. After pressure especially from the Russians, Prussia then withdrew and agreed to a cease-fire with Denmark in July. The cease-fire did not extend to Schleswig-Holstein, and in September the duchies introduced a democratic constitution. With the exception of Dybbøl and Als, the Schleswig-Holstein government had control of Schleswig.

In April 1849, war broke out once again; the Danish navy suffered losses in an attack on Eckernförde, and after intense fighting at Kolding the Danish troops had to withdraw northwards. On 6 July, however, Denmark won a decisive battle at Fredericia, and Prussia signed a new cease-fire agreement. In July 1850, Prussia agreed to peace both on her own behalf and on behalf of the German Confederation. But Schleswig-Holstein continued to fight and the Battle at Isted that same month was a dearly bought victory for the Danes. It was only at the very beginning of 1851 that the Schleswig-Holsteiners finally put down their weapons.

Despite Schleswig-Holstein’s defeat, the Three Years’ War was not a victory for Denmark. The united monarchy survived but was plagued by a bitter national conflict, and the pro-German population increasingly saw the Danes as an occupying force. The Language Edicts, which introduced Danish as the language of the Church and the schools in Central Schleswig in 1851, were seen by the pro-German population as a infringement of their rights. The peace agreement was dictated by the big powers, in particular Russia, and in 1851-1852 Denmark had to agree that Schleswig would not be more closely tied to the kingdom than Holstein; at the same time prince Christian (IX) of Glücksborg was acknowledged as the hereditary heir to the entire monarchy. A common constitution for the whole kingdom never proved successful, and it was formally annulled for Holstein and Lauenburg in 1858.

As a result of the agreements which had been reached with the great powers in 1851-1852, Denmark was forced to accept German intervention in matters relating to the duchies. In 1857, however, Denmark tried once again to get Schleswig tied to the kingdom. In 1863, the Danish government finally took decisive action: Holstein was separated from the kingdom and a common constitution for Denmark and Schleswig, known as the November Constitution, was passed on 13 November. Frederik VII died two days later, but Christian IX signed the new constitution. It was an open challenge to the German powers, and on 1 February 1864 Prussia and Austria declared war on Denmark.

The Danish army evacuated the old Dannevirke defences in the south and took up a position near Dybbøl, which was captured on 18 April by the Prussians. A cease-fire, during which the German troops occupied Jutland, was broken by Denmark, and at the end of July the German troops took Als. The war had been irretrievably lost. At the Peace of Vienna in October, Denmark had to cede Schleswig, Holstein and Lauenburg.

The Danish-German conflict had dominated Danish politics for a generation. The great powers had imposed serious limits on Denmark’s freedom of action, and after 1864 the country’s foreign policy was determined by the relationship with Germany, which was far superior in military terms, a relationship which was further complicated by the remaining Danish population in Schleswig. After 1864, successive Danish governments maintained a policy of strict neutrality in their dealings with the outside world. The defeat emphasised the powerlessness of Danish foreign policy, but it also stimulated a national regeneration.

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Page last modified: 21-11-2018 12:19:11 ZULU