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18 February 2021

The renewed relevance of the Schleswig-Holstein question

Europe has always had regions in which cultural and political spheres overlap, and finding lasting solutions for them has never been easy.

By Brian Melican

Anyone looking for an atmospheric read of a blustery late-winter evening could do far worse than a short story by the German writer Theodor Storm (1817-1888), a master of the novella form in whose writing the past is ever ready to resurge, unexpected and forceful. In one particularly ghostly tale called Der Schimmelreiter, dikes built decades beforehand to keep the North Sea at bay fail in a freak storm – with deathly consequences.

While it would be overly-reductive to attribute Storm’s taste for dramatic twists solely to biographical factors, he lived through a time when his native state of Schleswig-Holstein, now the northern tip of Germany, was more of a conflict flashpoint than the popular holiday destination it is today, and he was doubtless influenced by the political turmoil of which he was a part.

Known as the “Schleswig-Holstein question”, the region’s 19th century territorial dispute was long considered intractable: from its first violent appearance in 1848, it would take until 1920 for referendums held after the defeat of Germany in the First World War to settle the issue once and for all.

Yet in early 2020, precisely 100 years after the Schleswig-Holstein question was deemed solved, the Covid-19 pandemic caused its contours to resurface like the outlines of a long-abandoned dike when the tide goes particularly far out. In the process, the dispute’s ghost has shone a light on a number of timely issues related to the difficult relationship between liminal regions, the states they straddle and larger political unions.


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What became known as “the Schleswig-Holstein question” was, at its heart, simple enough: were the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein Danish or German? Schleswig, to the north of the river Eider, was historically Danish and Holstein to the south German. Both had, however, been ruled from Copenhagen since the Middle Ages, which was an unproblematic settlement until the cosmopolitan edifice of the Holy Roman Empire came crashing down in the Napoleonic Wars.

In common with inhabitants of other parts of Europe who shared the unedifying experience of having been occupied by Bonapartist France, German speakers began to demand a country called Germany; and while they had always been in the majority south of the Eider, they were also starting to outnumber Danes in Schleswig. Increasingly, inhabitants of both duchies looked to an ascendant Prussia and the prospect of German unification – a development which did not escape a Copenhagen government unsettled by Denmark’s declining power.

Following an abortive attempt by Copenhagen to make Schleswig an integral part of Denmark in 1848, the German majority in Schleswig-Holstein rebelled and sought military aid from Prussia – whose rapid advance was only halted when Britain, France, and Russia forced a cease-fire in 1849. Local uprisings continued until 1852, when a diplomatic protocol hammered out in London brought an uneasy peace by recognising both Danish rule and Schleswig-Holstein’s independence from Denmark.

[See also: Why Britain matters in Europe]

It was a paradoxical sticking plaster which left the underlying issues to fester: the German-speaking majority was still subject to Danish rule, yet Denmark was unable to govern the territory effectively. In 1863, Copenhagen made another ill-advised attempt to change the status-quo. Prussia, now governed by the wily chancellor Bismarck, used this breach of the London Protocol to unite the German Confederation and resolve the intractable question by force and made a swiftly-defeated Denmark renounce all claims to Schleswig-Holstein in 1864.

This settlement still left a disaffected Danish minority in Schleswig, however, and it was only in the wake of the German defeat in the First World War that a lasting solution was reached: Holstein was unquestionably German and would remain so, while in Schleswig, the choice would be put to the people in a vote and minorities either side of the border given rights of representation. In 1920, northern Schleswig returned to Denmark, while central Schleswig opted to remain German. The lack of appetite on either side to continue disputing the issue was such that even the Nazis, occupying Denmark from 1940-1945, did not revise the border – and nor did the Danes attempt to on liberation, despite the moral authority they could have wielded.

Today, the dispute has become harmlessly proverbial, remembered in London, if at all, in Lord Palmerston’s famous bon mot: “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.” For residents of the region, however, it was once existential: after the London Protocol of 1852 re-established Danish rule, Theodor Storm was forced to leave due to his support for independence.


It has now been almost a year since Schleswig-Holstein’s tortured past unexpectedly resurfaced: in mid-March 2020, attempting to keep coronavirus at bay, Denmark shut crossings to Germany, prompting Berlin to reciprocate a few days later. For the first time since the EU’s border-free Schengen area entered into effect in 2001, the near-invisible border became very real and, suddenly, there was a Schleswig-Holstein question again – or rather: several questions. Would the Danish minority living south of the border be allowed into Denmark to see friends and relatives? And what about German speakers to the north? Or cross-border workers, or farmers chasing errant livestock?

Moreover, the Schleswig-Holstein state government based in the north German city of Kiel soon revived another aspect of the question by shutting itself to all visitors from other German states, thereby re-erecting a border with the rest of the country last policed in the 1870s. The rationale behind this was that the worst outbreaks of Covid-19 were located in Germany’s most populous state, North-Rhine-Westphalia, for whose inhabitants the North Sea coast is a popular get-away, and that the business hub of Hamburg, which borders Schleswig-Holstein directly, would see cases rise.

As such, the Schleswig-Holstein state constabulary was suddenly charged with policing the border to Hamburg, a wiggly line drawn by urban planners in a 1930s boundary reform and entrenched as an interstate delineation on the creation of the Federal Republic in 1949. In March 2020, joggers in the Hamburg suburbs were suddenly made aware by armed patrols that their weekend round took them across state lines, while many workers needed hurriedly-drafted “border passes” for their commute.

Meetings between Hamburg’s mayor and the President of Schleswig-Holstein were ill-tempered, and it wasn’t until mid-May that free travel was reinstated; Denmark remained unwilling to fully reopen its border until September, straining relations between Berlin and Copenhagen. Nearly one year on, only a handful of border crossings between Germany and Denmark are operating as normal and Schleswig-Holstein, which has had a relatively low case-load thus far, retains border controls as an infection-containment option.


For all the force of its resurgence, the torrid history of Schleswig-Holstein no longer represents a uniquely complex challenge; it now finds itself subsumed into wider considerations about borders between German states or indeed Schengen members generally and about coordinated European responses to public health emergencies. French geographer Élisée Reclus is remembered for saying that “history is nothing but geography in time, and geography is nothing but history in space”. While the geography of Schleswig-Holstein hasn’t changed, time has moved on.

History, however, has a habit of repeating familiar patterns. To anyone attuned to them, echoes of the Schleswig-Holstein question have been audible in London, Dublin and Brussels since 2016: a contiguous territory split into two parts drawn towards opposing power poles; a long-term demographic shift in favour of the larger southern half; the potential for violent uprisings in favour of unity and independence in cases of modifications to a fragile status quo; a wounded post-colonial power with a habit of overplaying its hand and underestimating its ascendant rival; the interest of foreign powers with cultural ties to the region. It is hard, in 2021, to read about the Schleswig-Holstein question without being constantly reminded of another part of Europe known for the emerald hue of its countryside and its blustery coastline.

Ireland in the wake of Brexit doesn’t transpose neatly onto Schleswig-Holstein in the 1850s, but the issues at play are strikingly similar. Like its northern German equivalent, the Irish question has actually never been complicated to phrase: should there be a united Ireland and should it be independent of London? The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, the 1937 Constitution, the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and now the Withdrawal Agreement and EU-UK Trade Deal: all of these have created workable settlements which have nonetheless not answered the question. Indeed, they have all – for very good reasons; primarily to avoid violence – knowingly postponed the answer.

As a new cultural and political pole has appeared in the shape of the European Union, so Dublin has found a geopolitical destination: European integration. Until the 2016 Brexit referendum, if only on paper and to a tangibly lesser degree, this was also London’s destination. The reversal in the UK’s official direction of travel highlights the fact that the Irish question was only ever deferred, not answered. A charitable assessment might liken the coalescence of the EU to the emergence of the German Confederation in 1815, which opened up to Schleswig-Holstein the prospect of a new political union; paranoid Eurosceptics would probably calque it onto Bismarck’s Prussia in this analogy. Regardless, Britain’s departure from the EU now casts England, more clearly than at any time since the Thatcher years, into the early-19th-century-Denmark role of a declining colonial power struggling to keep dominions close to home (Norway, Schleswig-Holstein; Scotland, Ireland) within its orbit.

Above all, it is the dichotomy between the simplicity of the central question on the one hand and the complexity of the solutions on the other which looks especially familiar: the fiendishly intricate and short-lived Irish backstop, for instance; or the blatantly contradictory final Brexit settlement, which leaves Britain having de facto ceded sovereignty over Northern Ireland, which remains in the EU Customs Union, while not altering anything else about the status of the provinces within the UK Union.

This compromise – and the speed with which both London and Brussels have already called it back into question, most notably with the first readings of the Internal Market Bill and the European Commission’s Article 16 threat respectively – is, in Schleswig-Holstein terms, more redolent of the 1852 London Protocol than the final 1920 plebiscite. Meanwhile, Dublin, with all the wiliness of Bismarck but none of his appetite for “blood and iron”, is playing the long game, going for hearts and minds as it finances popular EU benefits like EHIC cards and Erasmus exchanges for Northern Ireland – and waits for demographics and the inevitable London slip-ups to do the rest.

As for the 19th century Storm, things eventually took a happier turn. Although he would have preferred independence to annexation by Prussia in 1864, was then able to return to his homeland. He lived the rest of his life there as the district judge, spending many a cold, stormy evening on his tales of the resurgent past.

[See also: A tale of three cities: the places transformed by pandemics across history]

Brian Melican is a journalist and the author of Germany: Beyond the Enchanted Forest: A Literary Anthology.

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