Danish Dilemmas: South Schleswig after World War II and "Unassimilated" Immigrants Today

Article excerpt

Denmark faces a dilemma today of the first order. It is a victim of its own self-image as a proud, distinctive nation, boasting a thousand-year-old kingdom with the oldest flag in Europe, yet many Danes like to see themselves as ultraliberal and multicultural in all matters pertaining to new immigrants who are racially, culturally, and religiously distinct from them. In referenda, Denmark has already rejected the European Union and then approved it by the narrowest of margins and, most recently, refused to be part of the common Euro currency. On the other hand, many Danes like to assert that their country is an open, tolerant, multiethnic society. There undoubtedly will be an even sharper political debate in the future between the contrasting visions of what the nation is and what the majority and minority expect and demand from each other in the way of equal rights and obligations.


The classic ideal that the nation-state, with its political boundaries, should have a homogeneous ethnic-cultural identity is no longer a reality that can be resurrected. It is dead and buried. The kind of hybrid identity that has been common in the United States for more than a century--Danish American, Italian American, Polish American, and so on--is now visible in Western Europe, along with a sense of a common European heritage.

The age-old ethnic-folk nationalism of "us against them," occasionally still seen in Europe, most recently in Yugoslavia and in the terrorist activity of the Basque ETA organization, is a throwback to a more primitive time. At the same time, many Danes feel that Americanization, in the form of McDonalds or Coca-Cola consumerism, threatens their self-image. The recent success of the patriotic (Denmark for the Danes), aggressively anti-immigrant Danish People's Party (Dansk Folkeparti) in national elections is, therefore, all the more ironic because only a generation ago, right after World War II, the most dramatic offer to reassert Danish identity by a majority of the native-born population of German South Schleswig was rejected by Denmark. A national election in 1947 returned a Social Democratic government firmly against any policy of "adventurism" and refused to even countenance a plebiscite.

Most Danes were war-weary and uneasy at the prospect of absorbing a substantial German minority, along with that segment of the Danish people who had lived under German occupation since 1864 and had reacquired a sense of Danish identity, seeking a "return to their original Homeland."


Today's supporters of asylum-seekers, refugees, and immigrants from the third world who want to reside permanently in Denmark often are unsure of whether this entails any commitment to Danish culture, language, and knowledge of Danish history, society, and government. Many self-proclaimed liberals are fond of recalling the words of the great Danish philosopher and theologian N. F. S. Grundtvig: "All belong to a people who so regard themselves," but tend to forget that they are followed by a conditional clause stating "... and who have an eye for its history and an ear for its language." (1)

In 1945-47, Denmark refused to annex the former Danish territory of South Schleswig with a large German-minded population. The debate has been partially reopened as a result of modern-day Denmark's social problems in integrating the "New Danes," that is, the quite visibly recognizable immigrants of distinctive races, religions, and cultures--many from Morocco, Somalia, sub-Saharan Africa, Turkey, the Arab world, and the Far East. Their social values, customs, languages, sexual mores, and religious practices often marginalize them with respect to Danish traditions and values, especially notions of representative democracy, respect for minority rights, nonviolence, and sexual equality.

More than fifty years ago, Denmark was perhaps the most homogenous society in Europe after Portugal and Iceland. …