Ninety years ago yesterday, the Conference heard the claims of the Danish government to a piece of Germany—the northern strip of German territory from the North Sea to the Baltic. The area was called either Nordschleswig (North Schleswig) and Sønderjylland (South Jutland), depending on whether one was looking at the region from the German or the Danish perspective.
We have to work through some details here. And it is significant that this was a region whose complexities were prominent in European politics. The famous British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston once said that only three individuals in Europe had ever fully understood the Schleswig-Holstein Question, adding that one of those was dead, one had gone mad, and that he himself had forgotten about it.
The disputes over Germany's northern border stemmed, in a sense, from the late Middle Ages, when the dukes of two duchies, Schleswig and Holstein, attached themselves to Danish king. These duchies were essentially German polities, and the southern duchy, Holstein, belonged to the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Yet in this age before nationalism, or indeed, before the modern state, such issues as ethnic identity were not issues at all. But in keeping with the Medieval ideas of legality and constitutions, the duchies made the deal with Denmark that they would part of the kingdom, but, in their brand of Medieval German, "op ewig ungedeelt," forever undivided, and moreover, with basic autonomy. As modern sensibilities made ethnic identity more important in the nineteenth century, the populations of the two duchies were certainly aware that Holstein was mostly German-speaking, and that Schleswig, the northern duchy, was partly German-speaking, partly Danish-speaking.
This was still fine until the Danish state started a program of centralization at the time of the general European upheaval of 1848 and in the decade afterward. The Danish crown increasingly violated the autonomy of the duchies, at the same time that the German population felt increasingly German. This issue and a dynastic problem allowed Bismarck to arrange a war in 1864, a war of Austria and Prussia against Denmark. This Danish War turned out to be the first of the three wars that set up German Unification in 1871. To skip many interesting events, let me say that Denmark lost the 1864 war.
As a result, Denmark lost both duchies, Holstein to the Austrians and Schleswig to the Prussians. The northern duchy of Schleswig was ceded to Prussia without regard to the strong Danish majority of the population in the north of the region.
In the peace settlement ending the Danish War, the Prussians were obligated to hold a plebiscite in the northern districts before they took over. The treaty language was clear that a Danish referendum victory would mean that this northern territory would remain Danish.
Yet in 1865/66, the Prussians quickly carried out annexation without a plebiscite. The Danish government protested, and Prussia went through the motions of arranging for a plebiscite after the fact, but the vote was eventually postponed indefinitely. About a hundred thousand ethnic Danes were thus brought under the Prussian state and later (when Prussia became the unifying core of the German Empire in 1871) Germany.
Just after Prussian takeover, some 60,000 Danes opted to emigrate either to Denmark or elsewhere, many of them young men avoiding the Prussian military draft. Many contemporary observers viewed this episode as a shabby one. This ethnic injustice was compounded from the 1880s onward by Prussian policies of Germanization. Yet to tell the truth, Germanization related mostly to school policies. Compared to, say, Russianization in Finland, Germanization in Schleswig was fairly soft, or tolerant. No violence marred any of these events. No Danes lost their property; indeed, because of German economic development, property values of even the Danish farmers tended to rise.
Yet, the Danish farmers of Schleswig (and they were predominantly farmers) would undoubtedly have preferred being a part of Denmark, even before Great War conscription and privations, even more so afterward.
Denmark had been neutral in World War I, of course, but this didn't stop the Danes from seeing a great chance at "righting the wrong" of 1864/5. Why would the Allies worry about the claims of a country which had not fought in the war?
Well, as we shall see in coming discussions, delegation had its own agenda. Certainly the Danes were banking on the "self-determination" theory that Wilson had forwarded so prominently in the Fourteen Points. But the Danes also understood that French thinking about territory was really still stuck in an earlier, almost dynastic, mode. Clemenceau, Poincaré, Tardieu, and others seemed to equate greater territorial extent and higher population with greater power. Though this equation had long since ceased to hold in Europe, the French doggedly stuck to the idea.
Hence, they hoped to shear off as much territory from Germany as possible—literally, to cut Germany down to size. The adjacent map may be seen in a larger version at Wikimedia and shows a huge "South Jutland" from a Danish conception of 1918, no doubt in preparation for the peace settlement. The French worked very closely with the Danes to work out claims for Schleswig that were in fact, a kind of wish list—not just North Schleswig, but most of Schleswig, including sections that were in fact 100 percent German-speaking.
OK. That's enough for now. We will have to follow this and a dozen other intricate issues. The Devil was most definitely in these details.