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The Schleswig-Holstein Question refers to a complex of diplomatic and other issues arising in the 19th century from the relations of two duchies, Schleswig and Holstein, to the Danishmarker crown and to the German Confederationmarker. Schleswig was a part of Denmark during the Viking Age, and became a Danish duchy in the 12th century. Denmarkmarker 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-Holsteinmarker's large German majority in support of independence from Denmark and of close association with the German Confederationmarker. The military intervention of the Kingdom of Prussiamarker supported the uprising: 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 Denmarkmarker was seen as a violation of the London Protocol, leading to the Second Schleswig War of 1864.

Though Schleswig, Holstein and Denmark all had had the same hereditary ruler for some centuries, the inheritance rules were not quite the same. The Dukedoms of Schleswig and Holstein were inherited under the Salic law which ignored females: the Kingdom of Denmark had a slightly different inheritance law which in some circumstances would consider female heirs. In the nineteenth century this slight difference in inheritance law meant that when the childless King Frederick VII of Denmark died the Kingdom of Denmark would be separated from the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein because two different people would inherit the Kingship and Dukedoms. This finally happened on the death of Frederick in 1863.

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 Confederationmarker. Schleswig itself was a fiefdom 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 disparate 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 Kielmarker 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 Slavic languages slowly disappeared and Germanic languages merged to form a Low German dialect, which became the language of all of Holstein. During the centuries following the Middle Ages, Low German had come to dominate in southern Schleswig, which had originally been predominantly Danish-speaking. The Danish language still dominates in Northern Schleswig. Around 1800, German and Danish were spoken in approximately equal proportions throughout what is now Central Schleswig.

The German language had been slowly spreading at the expense of Danish in previous centuries: for example, Danish was still spoken on the peninsula of Schwansenmarker around 1780 (the last known use of Danish was in the villages near the Schlei), but then became extinct.

The language border in the nineteenth century conformed approximately to the current border between Denmark and Germany.

It was clear that Danish dominance in Schleswig was vulnerable and weakening. Through its vigorous economic activity, the ethnically German area to the south expanded its geographic domain. Linguistically Low German immigrants constantly 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.

One 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. (this solution was subsequently implemented by plebiscites in 1920 as a condition of the treaty of Versailles, and as a result Northern Schleswig was returned to Denmark).

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 Warmarker 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.

Schleswig-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 Alsmarker in the aftermath of the Battle of Dybbølmarker in the Second War of Schleswig in his novel Tine, published in 1889.

The English statesman Lord Palmerston is reported to have said: "Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it."

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

The question appears in the first volume of the Reminiscences of Carl Schurz as an issue of concern in the Revolutions of 1848 and also as the farcical recollections of his friend Adolf Strodtmann regarding his (Strodtmann's) participation in the conflict (see Chapter 5, pp. 130–132, and Chapter 6, pp. 141–143).

See also


  1. La Question de Slesvig, p. 135 seq., Historique de l'idée d'un partage du Slesvig
  2. Lytton Strachey, Victoria, 1921.
  3. Carl Schurz, Reminiscences (3 vols.), New York: McClure Publ. Co., 1907

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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