European Royalty: Schleswig-Holstein

Figure 1.--.

Although little little known today, the small Danish-German Duchies of Schleswig-Holstein at the base of the Jutland Peninsula once figured prominently in the history of northern Europe. The Duchies were contested by the Danish Crown and various German monarchs. That might seen as a uneven conflict, but Denmark until the 18th century was a major European power and Germany was not united until the 19th century. The eventual resolution of that conflict in the 19th centuries had major consequences in the 20th century.

The Duchies

The duchies of Schleswig-Holstein were located within the Holy Roman Empire south of Denmark between the North Sea and the Baltic. By the 19h centurty the soutern border was with Orussia. The principalities were an issue between the Danish Crown and various German monarchs for centuries. The population of the duchies fluctuated over time as to the German/Danish speakers--the most obvious indicator of national orientation. Holstein by the 29th century was primarily German, but Schleswig more heavily Danish. The two ducies jut out from Germany toward Scandinavia. The area is largely agricultural. Holstein is of course where Holstein cattle familair to many Americans were bread. Although of little strategic importance until the 20th century, when the Kiel Canal assumed some importance in the naval competition between Britain and Germany.

Medieval development

After the fall of Rome and the Germanic and Slavic migrations Holstein was a border area located between Nordalbingia (a region of part of Old Saxony) along the North Seaand the Slavic Wagrians belonging to the Obotrites to the east along the coast of the Baltic Sea. To the north was the Jutland peninsula and Schleswig controlled by the Danes who were to become the Vikings and a major European power. The area that became known as Schleswig-Holstein during the medieval era evolved as small independent duchies called Ostfriesland, Oldenburg, Holstein, and Schleswig (Slesvig). Charlemagne conquered Old Saxony (about 800 AD). This was a the final step in Christinizing Germany. The Emperor of the German Empire appointed feudal lords in the early medieval period. These lords ruled their small principalities coming to see them as their private property and hereditary lines developed. Charlemagne granted land north of the Eider River to the Danes by the Treaty of Heiligen (811). The rest of Holstein was transferred to the Wagrians/Obotrites. The Saxon Western Holstein. The Slavic Wagrians were pushed out of the Limes Saxoniae. A new border was established along the Elbe river near Boizenburg and ran north along the Bille river to where the Schwentine emties into the Kiel Fjord and the Baltic Sea. A new county of Holstein was established (1111). It was at first a fief of the Duchy of Saxony. It was transferred to the Duchy of Saxe-Lauenburg andsubsequently the Prince-Bishopric of Lübeck. The growing German population began expanding east and the Wagrians were finally defeated (1138). Over time they were unified into Schleswig-Holstein. The Grand Duke of Oldenburg was invited to ascend the Danish throne as Christian I, King of Denmark (1460). As he was also the Lord of Holstein this created a created a feudal complication. The principalities were part of the Holy oman Empire, but now they were ruled by the Danish king. Danish influence grew, especu\ially in Schleswig. Denmark at the time was an important power and gradually both principalities becamne seen as Danish--despite being part of the Empire.

Danish-German Conflict

Despite their limited importance, the two duchies were a continuing bone of contention between Danes and Germans. The Danes regarded Schleswig as Danish and the majority of the population until recently was Danish. Holstein was well before the conflict between Danes and Germans began almost completely Germanized. The Duchies of Schleswig-Holstein in 1460 placed themselves under the personal rule of Danish King Christain I. Denmark was at the time a powerful European state and German was divided into a number of large and small states, often at war with each other. At this time Schleswig-Holstein were not united with the Danish Kingdom, but were a personal fiefdom of King Christain. As part of this arrangement, it was decreed that the two duchies would never be seaparted. Denmark was a major European power until the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century. The rising power of Prussia and growing German nationalism in the 19th century, threatened the control of the Duchies by the Danish Crown.

King Frederick

King Frederik VII as soon as he ascended to the throne tried to incorporate Schleswig to the Danish territory. The duchies rebelled against Denmark and together with Holstein, established a provisional government in Kiel, naming Duke Christian Karl of Augustemburg as its heritary ruler. The Duke proceeded to ask for Prussian support. Prussia recognized the rebel government and sent troops to occupy the duchies. King Frederik also sent troops and Prince Christian was with these units. The small Danish Army would have been was no match for the Prussian Army.

Duke of Augustemburg

A great deal was at stake for Denmark. The Prussians were greatly superior in numbers and military power. If the Prussians won, the Duke of Augustemburg could actually claim the Danish crown. He was, as Christian, a direct descendant from Christian III. Unfortunately for the enterprising Augustemburg, the Great Powers (England, Russia, France, and Sweden) advised King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia to retreat his troops from the duchies. While there was support for Prussia throughout Germany, the Prussian King signed an armisice with Denmark. The Duke of Augustemburg was obliged to flee.

Treaty of Londion (1852)

The Great Powers in 1852 signed the Treaty of London which guaranteed the integrity of Denmark. It also recognized Prince Christian as heir to the throne. Schleswig and Holstein were still being property of the Danish King but Denmark was to respect their autonomy by agreeing to make no further efforts to alter the constitution and unite them with Denmark.

Augusta Victoria

The Duke of Augustemburg who sought to break Schleswig-Holstein away from Denmark was disposseded after the Prussians withdrew support. His son Frederick attempted to play a similar role in 1864, but the outcome was that Chacellor Bismarck engineered the eventual annexation of both provinces by Prussia. Crown Prince Frederich and his wife Victoria were horrified by how he was treated. It was thus with some pleasure they received word from their son Prince Wilhelm that he wanted to marry the Duke's daughter, Augusta Victoria. The Duke had worried about her future. The outcome of this was that this daughter of a province dispossed by the Prussians and Austrians was to become a virtual icon as a symbol of German motherhood. She was accepted in a way that her English mother-in-law never was.

King Christian IX

King Frederik died On November 15, 1863. Prince Christian acceeded to the throne as Christian IX. King Christian only 3 days after becoming king signed a new constitution ratified by the Danish Parliament. The constitution had many democratic provisions, but many in Denmark wanted Schleswig Holstein to become part of the Kingdom. The new Constitution incorporated Schleswig into the Danish Kingdom. This violatied the Treaty of London and had inmediate consecuences. The Duke of Augustemburg had died but his son Frederik proclaimed himself Duke of Schleswig Holstein. He was inmediately supported by Prussian King Wilhelm I and Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. The German citizens of Schleswing-Holstein strongly supported the Duke and the Prussians.

War with Prussia and Austria (1864)

The Prussians were not motivated primarily by Schleswig-Holstein itself. These largely agricultural duchies were of only minor significance. More importantly, Prince Otto von Bismarck and King Wilhelm I saw an opportunity to expand Prussia's influence within the German Confederation. By the 1860s, it was clear that Germany would be unified, but the basis of the future union was not yet determined. With Austria as its allie, Prussia declared war on Denmark and an Austro-Prussian army occupied the duchies. King Christian faced the two great German powers alone. Most of Europe agreed with Danish cause, but no other country wanted to risk war by interfering. d in his favour. The small Danish Army was defeated at the battle of Duppel. The entire Jutland penninsula was occupied by the combined German Army. The Germans imposed the humiliating Treaty of Vienna on Demmark in 1864. Both duchies as well as Gastien were ceded to the German Confederation and put under Prussian and Austrian administration. Schleswig was administered by Prussia and Hostein by Austria.


The consequences for Prussia and Germany of the short war with Denmark were incalcuable far beyond the minor significance of the two duchies involoved.

Austro-Prussian War (1866)

The War with Denmark had strengthened the position of Prussian within the German Confederation among German nationalists. The wily Bismarck, however, had much more in mind. He quickly orcestrated a war with Austria in 1866, again using Schleswig-Holstein as a pretext. The defeat of poorly prepared Austria allowed Prussia to annex both Schleswig and Holstein as well as other neigboring states in northern Germany like Hannover and Hesse--ending the royal lines in those states. Some of these states had much more liberal constitutions than Prussia. Thus the influence of liberal constitutional rule within Germany was reduced. The War made Prussia the dominate state in Germany and allowed the unification of Germany around the martial actions of the autovratic Prussian state--a development that was to powefully affect European history.

British opinion

Prussia up until the Danish war had been seen in Britain as a continental ally against their mortal enemy--France. It was the Prussians under Blutcher that had come to Wellington's aid at Waterloo. Prince Albert had hoped that Prussia would unite Germany under a democratic constitution. In support of that aimed, he had promoted the mairrage of his beloved oldest daughter Vicky to Prince Frederick. Prussia's anti-democratic policies and the failure to support the British and French in the Crimea had disturbed Albert. The action against Denmark had disturbed Queen Victoria and her daughter in law, Alix--Christain's daughter. Slowly British attitudes toward Prussia and Germany began to change.

Prince Wilhelm

The future German Kaiser Wilhelm II, was only a small boy during the wars with Denmark (1864), Austria (1866), and France (1870-71). These wars must have had an enormous impression on him. One has to wonder if his subsequent interst in the military was not inspired by boyhood memories. Certainly he must have felt the need to follow the example of his grandfather who used the military to expand Prussia and create the German Empire by force of arms. Wilhelm was a great dissapoinment to both his parents. One has to wonder if the dazzling military victories of his boyhood were just too much for his liberal parents to compete with. Interestingly, after being rebuffed by the daughter of his Aunt Alice, Wilhelm chose a daughter of Danish King Christian VIII as his wife.


As a result of the Danish-German War (1864), Holstein was taken by the Austrians nd Schleswig by the Prussians (1864). Prussia subsequently acquired Holstein as well as a result of the Austro-Prussian War (1866). Holstein had a largely German-speaking population, so the transition there was was relatively uneventful. The situation in Schleswig (German) or Slesvig (Danish) was different. There population was a mixed German-Danes peoples, although separated to a substantial degree along a nnorth South basis. The Prussian authorities expected the Danes to become Germans overnight. Authorities prohibited the Danes from speaking Danish in public. Newspapers could only be published in German. The schools were taught in German. Children caught speaking Danish at school were punisdhed. Even their parents were punished. The Danes despite the pressure, continued to feel Danish and preserved their traditions at home. Schleswig-Holstein only a few years after the Danish war was absorbed and then German unification passed into the German Empire as part of the Kingdommof Prussia. Over time the German authorities relaxed the langusage rules somewhat.

World War I

Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries managed to remain neutral in World War I. After World War I, as part of the Versailles Peace Treaty, a plebecite was held in Schleswig concerning their political status. North Schleswig with its Danish population voted to unite with Denmark and south Schleswig with its German population voted to remain with Germany.

World War II

When the NAZIs invaded Denmark (1940) during World War II they could have reannexed North Schleswig to the Reich. They did annex areas of other occupied countries (Belgium, Czecheslovakia, France, and Yugoslavia). With Denmark, however, they refrined from territorial actions. In their wish to convince the world they were protecting Denmark and not as they really were occupying it and showing it off as a model-protectorate they made no land claims as such. [Mortensen] Of course had the NAZIs won the war, this probably would have been different. Given the racial make up of both Denmark and the Netherlands, it is likely that both would have been annexed to the Reich in their entirety.

Current Status

After NAZI Germany's defeat in World War II, there was some agitation in Denmark to annex South Schleswig which was in the British zone of occupation, but the border remained unchanged. Holstein remains a part of Germany today. Another reader writes, "Schleswig-Holsteint is Germany's most northern 'Land' [state]. The southern part, Holstein, always felt German, which became evident in several plebiscites. A few years ago I made a trip through Schleswig-Holstein. Most towns in the Danish northern section have two names, a Danish and a German one: Haderslev/Hadersleben, Aabenraa/Apenrade. Family names appear to be more Danish than German (Hansen, Jensen, Christiansen), but that could be misleading. People are Lutherans and church services are held in both languages in the same church, at different hours of course. Famous people from this area were the expressionist painter Emil Nolde (who's real name was Hansen) and Hjalmar Schacht, Hitler's financial wizard. [Schacht was Reichsbank President and Minister of Economics before the War. He was tried at Nuremberg, but exonerated.] It is interesting that there are many descendants of immigrants from Schleswig-Holstein in Sonoma County, California, the county where I live. These people used to have turkey and chicken farms." [Stueck]

Reader Comments

A German reader writes, "The border was shifted very often. In the medieval times this was already common, everywhere, the nobles married and inherited some area: The border shifted, sometimes the population had even to change their religion (roman-catholic versus reformed and vice versa. Then, in the 18th and 19th century, the nationalistic states came up fighting around. This happened also between the German Imperial State, Prussia, and Schlewig-Holstein on one side and Danemark at the other side The people living at the border had rather similar languages (the "Friesisch" in the northern German islands and Danish are not much different) and also married across the border. The states sent administration people (and military people) to the border areas, difficult to integrate. Well, this is the case anywhere I suppose. Yes, there were plebiscites also between nothern parts of Schleswig-Holstein and Denmark, border up, border down. The actual status is that in this part of Germany: There is a Danish minority; they have a political party which gets about about 2 percent of votes, not restricted by the normal 5 percent limit of seats for the parliament in Schleswig-Holstein, usually not much problems." [Mortensen]


Mortensen, Troels N. K. E-mail message, April 12, 2003.

Stueck, Rudi. E-mail message, October 14, 2010.


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Created: June 6, 1998
Last updated: 4:16 AM 10/14/2010