The Potential of a German Denmark in the 19th Century

In the 21st Century, a Denmark under German rule seems inconceivable. The Danish identity is distinct from the culture of its colossal neighbor to the south and has sought to retain this distinctiveness at least since the establishment of a German-Danish defensive border with the building of the Danevirke in the Nordic Iron Age in the 7th Century AD. In this paper, I will illustrate the Danish-German situation in the mid 19th Century and reveal how the incorporation of Denmark into a German entity was far more likely than most know.

The Kingdom and the Whole State

An important contestation spanning much of the 19th century was the question of sovereignty over the territories of Schleswig, Holstein, and Lauenburg. Schleswig, in the mid 19th century, was a fief of the Kingdom of Denmark and therefore not officially part of the kingdom itself. Holstein, as well as Lauenburg, were duchies inside the German Confederation that were ruled directly by the King of Denmark. Holstein had a long history of personal union with Denmark while the tiny territory of Lauenburg, which is not even part of the Jutland peninsula, was given to the Danish monarch by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. These duchies inside the German Confederation held no official political connection to the Kingdom of Denmark itself.

This German map of the region right before the Second Schleswig War shows the geography of Schleswig, Holstein, and Lauenburg.

These territories south of the Kingdom of Denmark had significant historical and economic significance to Denmark but were populated mostly by Germans, with Holstein and Lauenburg being the most German. German nationalists residing in Schleswig wished to unite with the Holstein duchy so that they could also be part of the German Confederation and leave behind Danish influence.

19th century Danes often distinguished between the Kingdom of Denmark itself and what they called Helstaten, or in English, the Whole State or the Unitary State. The Whole State was composed of the Kingdom of Denmark itself, the monarch’s southern duchies — both Schleswig and those in the German Confederation — and often its colonies both within the North Atlantic and elsewhere. The rise of Danish nationalism in the 19th century inspired Danes to wish for a cohesive Helstat: one with the more equivocal territories becoming more connected to the Kingdom itself as well as to Danish, or sometimes, Pan-Scandinavian culture.

The Schleswig Wars

Eventually, a rebellion formed within these German-speaking territories. Local south Jutlandic German militias, as well as the German Confederation, fought the Danes with mixed success. The German fear of foreign influence is ultimately what halted the First Schleswig War (1848–1851). The London Protocol of 1852 was agreed upon by Austria, Prussia, France, Russia, Britain, and Sweden-Norway. The southern territories were held to be rightfully controlled by the Danish monarchy at the moment by the London Protocol. The London Protocol was one that wished to only reestablish the status quo. The Danish monarch was also expected to not change the status of any one of its duchies, whether German or Danish or to bring any of them under official influence of the Kingdom of Denmark. The Danes eventually suppressed the German secessionists, ending the First Schleswig War.

Soldaternes Hjemkomst Til København (Danish Soldiers Return to Copenhagen) (1894) by Otto Bache — Unlike the following war, the end of the First Schleswig War enlarged the spirit of Danish Nationalism.
Portrait of Christian IX.

More than a decade after the London Protocol, by the end of 1863, Christian IX was crowned Denmark’s new king. One of his first actions was his decision to attempt to tie Schleswig even closer to the kingdom through the November Constitution in 1863. This was done to avoid the prevailing potentiality of Schleswig uniting with Holstein, which German nationalists pushed for until the end of the Second Schleswig War. A new shared parliament was created to address both the affairs of the Kingdom of Denmark as well Schleswig. Both entities, however, would still retain their own parliament. This was his attempt to ignore the possibility of separation of Schleswig and to solidify at least part of the Helstat while softly disobeying the agreements made during the London Protocol.

Battle of Dybbøl (1864) by Wilhelm Camphausen.

The German Confederation, with Prussia and Austria being the dominant actors in that order, fiercely responded to the trespassing of the international agreement and viewed Christian IX’s actions as provocative. Schleswig, even though not part of the German Confederation like the other two duchies, was now legally closer to the kingdom. Once again, local Germans and the German Confederation fought the Danes in the Second Schleswig War (1864). This time both Prussia and Austria decided to work independently of the Confederation to invade Schleswig. In 1865, Prussia and Austria took joint control of all of the territories of southern Jutland. German Jutlanders were liberated in all three duchies.

A Crippled Kingdom

Disagreements in administration of these confiscated lands were one of the key factors which led to the Austro-Prussian War in 1866: a conflict responsible for the growth of Prussia as well as the establishment of the Prussian controlled North German Confederation, the precursor to Imperial Germany. The importance of the Second Schleswig War is often only viewed exactly as that: one of the steps toward German Unification. But to the Danes, the war was a monumental national trauma.

The loss of southern Jutland was perhaps the most significant event in all of Scandinavia in the 19th century. By 1855, the population of the German duchies ruled by the Danish monarch was almost 1 million. The Kingdom itself only consisted of a million and a half. This means that when the duchies were taken away, two-fifths of the population left the possession of the Danish monarchy. Two hundred thousand out of the million people in this lost population were ethnically and culturally Danish. On top of this, the duchies accounted for forty percent of the monarchy’s non-colonial landmass and a large portion of its agriculture and industry.

German occupation after the Second Schleswig War.
William I and Otto von Bismarck

These losses within the Danish realm are only emphasized to demonstrate the certain desperation of King Christian IX. As recently as 2010, letters have been discovered which expose Christian IX’s correspondence with Wilhelm I of Prussia in order to admit Denmark to the German Confederation. Christian’s attempt to sway the would-be-emperor of the German Empire came from his desire to gain back control of the lost duchies. When Chancellor Bismarck was presented with the idea, he declined, likely for the fear of ethnic tension and instability within the confederation.

The Danish-German Connection

Regardless of Bismark’s decision, how was it that such a sincere proposal could have been proposed in the first place? A look into German-Danish relations shows that the addition of Denmark to the German Confederacy may not be as improbable as many may instinctively think. A long history of Germanness within the Kingdom could explain Christian’s proposal to Bismarck.

Christian, as the king of Denmark, was a disruption of the monarchy’s House of Oldenburg which lasted from 1448 until the death of Frederick VII. Christian was originally a prince of several culturally German territories in southern Jutland; there, he had spent the early years of his life and was known to have a thick German accent which was somewhat off-putting to Danish nationalists. This is not necessarily to say that Christian favored German nationalism over Danish but that southern Jutland was of a personal significance to him and that the loss of this territory may have significantly affected his psyche.

Christian IX perceived that the potential consequences of Denmark joining the loose confederacy with the Helstat was preferable to losing those three duchies.

As mentioned earlier, the German Confederation, before the resolution of the Second Schleswig War, included duchies controlled by the Danish monarchs. In this way, the Danish monarchy was subordinate to the German Confederation and part of the German Federal Diet. A relatively similar dynamic was seen with the Holy Roman Empire and the Danish monarch’s control of the duchy of Holstein. At least minorly, Denmark’s head of state had long been accustomed to being legally subordinate to their powerful southern neighbor.

Map of the German Confederation. Holstein and Lauenburg (HLB) can be seen in a light green indicating that they are in a personal union with Denmark.
An ethnic map of the Austrian Empire at 1855.

The population of the Danes hardly made up a significant amount of Europe: in total, they were not even one percent of the continent’s population. 19th Century Danes lived in a world where European empires subjugated stateless ethnic and cultural groups. More than likely, many Danes held such a subjugation coming from Sweden or Prussia as an undesirable possibility. This was one of the reasons for the rise of Danish nationalism. After all, there were far more Hungarians, Czechs, Serbs, Poles, Romanians, and even Ruthenians than Danes, and they were all subjugated by the Austrians at that time. Danes and Germans undeniably had closer cultures than, for example, the Austrians and Romanians. Prussia or the German Confederation doing something similar with the Danes was not unimaginable especially considering the ongoing Prussian subjugation of the Poles.

On the other hand, Prussia’s imperial model was not like Austria’s. Prussians often took pride in their ethnic cohesion and considered it a reason for their success. The extra responsibility of putting down Danish minority rebellions was likely the primary reason for Bismark’s rejection of the proposal.

An expectation of possible Danish subjugation under German rule was solidified by the notion of German culture being superior to the Danish in a few ways. German was the primary language of the Danish royal court as well as it was for local nobles throughout the Kingdom, as it was in many northwestern European kingdoms. In Lauenburg, Holstein, and even the northern part of Schleswig, the Danish language had a lower social status, and German culture dominated clergy before the loss of the territories to Prussia and Austria.

The State of Europe

The acceptability of a German Denmark to foreign powers is difficult to decipher. Foreign powers, despite minor threats to involve themselves in the war, ultimately did not interfere with the German conquest of Schleswig, Holstein and Lauenburg. Russia and Britain were among the top states that preferred an independent Denmark in order to influence trade in the Baltic. Russia had guaranteed Schleswig to Denmark in the late 18th century but after its catastrophic defeat in the Crimean War, it hardly posed a serious threat. Britain, interestingly, was one of the nations which pushed the most for the preservation of Denmark and the monarch’s southern territories but hardly hesitated when Prussia and Austria took them after the Second Schleswig War. Britain, as well as Russia, France, and Sweden-Norway, did not go to war with Prussia because they co-signed the London Protocol with Austria and Prussia and there was a common recognition that Denmark ultimately broke the agreement.

Europe in 1860.

The view of Denmark as a small, unruly, and disobedient nation was only solidified after its departure from the London Protocol. Britain, Russia, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, and other European states already held this particular view of the tiny nation because of Denmark’s alliance with the French Empire during the Napoleonic Wars. By the time of the Second Schleswig War, it was only fifty years since the Congress of Vienna punished and humiliated Denmark by taking away the entirety of Norway and redistributing it to Sweden.

After Denmark’s defeat at the end of 1864, many Danes did not anticipate the nation’s survival as an independent nation-state. A popular survival strategy circulating within the Kingdom was a proposed unification with Sweden-Norway: a completion of political Scandinavism. Less popular, but still present with the Danish populace was the proposal to join the new Germany: the very region that just conquered forty percent of the Danish Helstat.

In summary, some of the larger European powers benefited from an independent Europe. A German Denmark would not benefit any state except Germany itself but the perception of Denmark as a continuous troublemaker made foreign powers less sympathetic during the Second Schleswig War than the first. Britain, Russia, and France exhausted themselves throughout the Crimean War which ended only about a decade before the Second German-Danish War. No nation would have a substantial reason or casus belli to declare war on Germany for the incorporation of Denmark, especially if it was a voluntary one.


A German-Denmark often evades the realm of possibility to 19th-century historians but the two regions have a complex, interwoven, and sometimes shared history. The lost Danish dream of a unified Helstat emphasized the devastation felt after the loss of the Second-Schleswig War. This desperation felt in Denmark, along with the recognition of its delicate status as a nation-state, its connections with the German cultural world, and its indefensible international status forced the kingdom closer to becoming completely politically submissive to the German powers.

On the surface, the incorporation of Denmark into the German Confederation did not occur simply because of Bismark’s lone decision to reject the offer made by Christian IX. The true potentiality though is likely far more nuanced. The possibility of a German-Denmark could be further explored by looking at the opinions of other high-ranking leaders of the German Confederation. This change in world politics would undoubtedly stir up controversy within Denmark, Germany, and the rest of the world. This paper though, explains the relevance and interrelation, rather than the differences, between the German and Danish worlds. History is not inevitable and for this reason, explaining what did not happen is sometimes just as important as explaining what did happen.

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Recommended Reading / Bibliography

  • Ahlers, Christian Anthony, “The Importance of the Schleswig-Holstein Conflicts in German Unification: A Primordial Case Study, 1839–1871 ”(thesis, 2018).
  • Carr, William, The Wars of German Unification 1864–1871, ed. Harry Hearder (New York, NY: Taylor & Francis Group, 1991).
  • Greßhake, Florian, Contested Cultural Heritage Contested Space. Discourses on the Museum Landscape in the Danish-German Border Region (Linköping University Electronic Press, 2011).
  • Østergård, Uffe, “Danish National Identity: A Historical Account,” in Global Collaboration: Intercultural Experiences and Learning, ed. Martine Cardel Gertsen, Anne-Marie Søderberg, and Mette Zølner (London, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
  • Raagaard, Ingrid, “Der Dänische Autor Deckt Historischen ‘Verrat,’” Hamburger Abendblatt, August 19, 2010.
  • Trap, Jens Peter, Statistisk-Topographisk Beskrivelse Af Kongeriget Danmark, vol. 1 (Commission Hos GEC Gad, 1860).

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