unizeit Schriftzug

100 years of German-Danish border

In a few days, the border demarcation between Germany and Denmark will be 100 years old. The event will be celebrated on both sides of the barrier, which is now closed once again – but the celebrations will be bigger in Denmark than in Germany. Because of the coronavirus, many of the events planned for the anniversary will not take place as planned.

King Christian X of Denmark in 1920
© Archiv der Dänischen Zentralbibliothek für Südschleswig in Flensburg

A historical moment for Denmark: on 10 July 1920 King Christian X of Denmark rides across the old German-Danish border north of Christiansfeld.

It is an image that went into the history books: King Christian X of Denmark rides a white horse majestically across the old German-Danish border into "reunified" Northern Schleswig. Right through the crowd cheering their ruler. It is 10 July 1920. In the days before and after, too, the king and his subjects celebrated the result of the plebiscites, which gave the territory of Northern Schleswig to Denmark. The area did once belong to the Danish unitary state (German: Gesamtstaat or Danish: Helstaten), but became German after the Second Schleswig War in 1864 and was recognised by Denmark as belonging to Germany in 1907. After the plebiscite and the new demarcation of the border, Denmark celebrated the reunification of the former duchy with the motherland with great enthusiasm.

Treaty of Versailles as foundation

"That was an event that is still of very great national importance for the Kingdom of Denmark today, 100 years later," said Dr Oliver Auge, Professor of Regional History at Kiel University. "Not so in Germany. Here a contrary view of the event prevails. In Schleswig-Holstein, therefore, the date of the plebiscites is remembered simply as the moment when minorities were created on the German and Danish side," added historian Caroline E. Weber, who, together with Auge, is researching the circumstances of the plebiscites at that time and the situation in both countries before, during and after the demarcation of the border. In cooperation with various partners, they have also prepared several events for the anniversary.

"The reason for the plebiscites at that time can be found in the Treaty of Versailles of 1919," explained Weber, who is a research associate at the Regional History Department at Kiel University. This peace treaty was negotiated by the victorious powers without German involvement after the end of the First World War. It contains numerous provisions on reparations and the new borders of the German Reich. In some regions, plebiscites were planned to decide the future affiliation of the territory. This was the case in northern Schleswig-Holstein, although Denmark had remained neutral during the war. Here the decision on which country to be part of was to be made by the people themselves.

Disputed result of vote

"What in retrospect can be regarded as the exemplary act of a democratic vote and a fair solution was considered the absolute opposite in 1920," reported Auge. "The German people felt unfairly treated by the Treaty of Versailles. The terms of the plebiscites were not necessarily designed to be favourable to the German side. In addition to this, people were suffering from unemployment, poverty and hunger as a result of the First World War," added the regional historian.

Votes were taken in two zones: in Central Schleswig (Zone Two) the majority voted in favour of remaining in Germany, while in Northern Schleswig (Zone One) local opinion was split. "In one area of towns like Aabenraa (German: Apenrade) or Tønder (German: Tondern) most people wanted keep the existing border demarcation, while the significantly larger rural region wanted its future to be with Denmark," said Auge. "This was the determining factor for the outcome of the plebiscite in Zone One, as the votes here were counted en bloc. As the overall majority of votes were pro Denmark, this area fell to the Danish side. Had the votes been counted by community the outcome of the plebiscite would have been different, especially in south-western Northern Schleswig."

Maintaining relations is still important

The Germans felt unfairly treated by this result of the vote and the Danish minority left in Germany have long struggled with the border demarcation that remains unchanged to date. "The borderline was repeatedly disputed by both sides, which made it harder to foster good relations between the neighbouring countries and minorities. The tone changed with the signing of the Bonn-Copenhagen Declarations in 1955. And yet it took until the late 1970s, early 1980s for the relationship to start to normalise," recounted Weber.

Today the region has a model character thanks to the respectful interaction and peaceful co-habitation of German, Danish and other minorities. "The minorities are an essential part of the culture of the border region," said the historian. The open border between the countries has also helped to ensure good relations. It makes sense to maintain this good neighbourliness. "Each new generation must again endeavour to maintain peace at the border and good cooperation with one another," said Auge, referring to the growing nationalistic tone of the neighbouring country, its reintroduction in 2015 of Danish border controls during what was known as the refugee crisis and its completion in 2020 of the wild boar fence which also separates the countries. "What connects us is all the more important," said Weber. "It makes sense to maintain and strengthen this through talks and meetings – perhaps we will have the opportunity to do this at events to mark the 100th anniversary of the plebiscites, which have been postponed until next year because of the coronavirus. It is not without reason that the motto for the anniversary in Schleswig-Holstein is "Gemeinsam über Grenzen" (together across borders)."

Author: Jennifer Ruske

Celebrations are to be postponed until 2021

100 years ago, the position of the border between Germany and Denmark was decided by two plebiscites. In Denmark celebrations were already well underway for the "anniversary of reunification" as early as January 2020. 4,000 different events by numerous establishments were planned, the majority of which were to be held in May, June and July. Schleswig-Holstein remembers the plebiscites and the border demarcation under the motto "Gemeinsam über Grenzen" (together across borders). In Flensburg, a public festival and a cross-border garden show were to be held in August. This is now to take place at the Flens-Arena on 24 November. Kiel University’s Regional History Department had planned an exhibition and a lecture series on the subject, as well as an international conference in Berlin and a summer school for German and Danish students. While it was still possible to open the exhibition at Förde Sparkasse in Kiel in February and celebrate with a great crowd of visitors, the last dates of the lecture series and the conference had to be postponed until 2021. The conference is now likely to be held on 11 and 12 May 2021 at the state representative offices (Landesvertretung) in Berlin. (JR)