‘1864’ – background

I was out of the country on the 6th June, so I couldn’t watch the last two episodes of the Danmarks Radio 8-part series television series ‘1864’ on BBC4. It actually spanned the period from 1851-1866 in Danish history, which resolved, until 1920, the ‘Schleswig-Holstein Question’. So I made it my business to watch it on BBC iPlayer before it left that medium after a week. It didn’t quite go right – it was not possible to work out which episode was which in the listings, so I saw Episode 8 before Episode 7, but no matter.

I first became aware of this issue in the 1970s. We had been having a camping holiday, which started from the ferry to the Hook of Holland, followed by several days in a camp site near Bremen. We then proceeded toward Denmark. However, our small daughter was then taken ill, and we took the emergency decision to spend the next night in a motel in Hadeslev, the first sizeable town in Denmark we came to. A morning walk in the local park revealed a war memorial of the First World War and I puzzled out that the soldiers had died in places such as France and Russia. This didn’t at first make sense – Denmark was neutral in World War I – so why were Danes dying in it? Then I worked out that Hadeslev was in what to Germans is North Schleswig and to Danes is South Jutland. From 1866 to 1920 it was part of Prussia, and became Danish after a plebiscite in 1920. Later I read the board outside the Lutheran Cathedral where it became clear that they held services then in both Danish and German.

The series started at the conclusion in 1851 of the First Schleswig War – perhaps as the Danes won that, I should say the First Slesvig War! For a long time up to 1863, the King of Denmark was also Duke of Schleswig-Holstein. Such personal unions were not unusual. From 1714 to 1837, the King of Great Britain (later United Kingdom) was also Elector or King of Hanover. And from the treaty that established Belgium in 1839 until 1890, the King of the Netherlands was also Grand Duke of Luxembourg. The complicating factor in all three cases was that each of the two realms had different rules of how the succession was passed on and when a King or Grand Duke died this could lead to the splitting of the personal union, as happened when Victoria became Queen here in 1837 and Wilhelmina became Queen in the Netherlands in 1890.

Something similar happened when Frederik VII of Denmark died in 1863. Schleswig-Holstein counted as a German state, in spite of the fact that the people in the northern part were ethnic Danes. After 1848, Danish nationalism and liberalism wanted to integrate the whole Duchy with Denmark and give the whole realm a liberal constitution, whereas German states at the time had a more authoritarian bias. The First Slesvig war was won by Denmark, over the troops of the Duchy, but different men would inherit the thrones of Denmark and Schleswig-Holstein, leading to the crisis of 1864.

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