Academic journal article Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE

The Breakup of a Composite State and the Construction of a National Conflict: Denmark and the Duchies in the 19th Century

Academic journal article Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE

The Breakup of a Composite State and the Construction of a National Conflict: Denmark and the Duchies in the 19th Century

Article excerpt


Meiner Gesinnung nach bin ich so gut Schleswiger oder Holsteiner als Däne [...] Wir lebten lange friedlich beisammen, klagten gemeinschaftlich über Druck und schwere Zeiten, aber ohne mißgünstigen Groll; in den späten Jahren aber hat dies Unkraut fruchtbaren Boden gefunden, was allerseits sehr zu bedauern ist, denn nur durch Einigkeit gewinnt man Kraft und Stärke.1

In the vast literature on the conflict in Schleswig that occurred in the middle of the nineteenth century, opinions like those of the 80-year old miller Hans Wulff from Nebel Mølle, close to the border between the Danish kingdom and the Duchy of Schleswig, have been largely absent. In his letter of 12 January 1844 to the editor of Itzehoer Wochenblatt, the most widely read Holsteinian newspaper of the time, Wulff rejected a call from the prominent Holsteinian politician and landowner Neergaard for people in Schleswig and Holstein to organize their own regional associations and institutions. Wulff's dissenting position appealed to the traditional sentiments of unity and respect that existed among the different ethnic groups of the composite state. Instead of confrontation and strife, national organization and indiscriminate hatred he advocated compromise and cooperation in order to maintain the old societal balance that had enabled Danes, Schleswigers and Holsteinians to live peacefully together over centuries.

Wulff was far from alone in adopting a loyal position towards the king and the government of the composite state. However, in the end, he and like-minded defenders of the old order could not hold back the tide of nationalism. The small empire of the Oldenburg dynasty fell apart in two bloody wars (1848-1850 and 1864) and gave way to the nation state, where the past was reinterpreted through national ideologies and a nation state-based understanding of history. By this reading, the breakdown of the composite state had been inevitable, and historians of the triumphant nation state ignored the arguments of those representing the lost cause. The latter were silenced and practically excluded from the work of national historians, who would not admit the slightest doubt that the multiethnic composite state had been almost unanimously rejected. They adopted a very effective strategy of damnatio memoriae: today we can hardly think of an argument in favour of the ancien regime, and the idea of a composite state including the Danish kingdom and the partially German-speaking regions north of the Elbe seems obsolete.

However, the miller's letter leaves us with the impression that the national conflict, which resulted in the construction of a sharp national border, was perhaps not the only possible outcome after all. This paper will discuss some aspects of the end of the composite state.2 It presents a critical and, in some respects, alternative reading to the traditional nation state-biased way of describing the development that led to the breakdown of the Gesamtstaat in the nineteenth century, and suggests that the composite state was not inherently destined to fail. We should be aware that the ancien regime lost out by only very small margins, and should not uncritically accept the view propagated by adherents of national ideology that different nations cannot live together in peace and harmony within the same state.

The miller's conviction that a solution could be found, and his unwillingness to admit that the subjects of the monarchy could no longer agree, was a sign that there were different perspectives within the national conflict. It lies beyond the scope of this paper to discuss in detail why the national ideologies succeeded in breaking the old order, but my research on political developments in Denmark and the duchies during the first half of the nineteenth century points towards the king's and the government's failure to adopt a more progressive line with respect to the constitutional question and win the liberal elites at an earlier stage when they would still have been able to take the initiative. …

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