Jacob Christensen

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1864. If…

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Before 1940, there was 1864: The war which nearly destroyed Denmark. Among historians, the consensus these days is that Denmark was – if not the guilty, then the stupid part which paid for its mistakes with the loss of two fifths of its territory. The emphatic defeat in the 1864 war left deep marks in Denmark – most notably the view of Denmark as a fundamentally vulnerable state and the impression that They are out to get us, something which may help explain the xenophobia in present-day Denmark and on a minor scale the regulation which bans foreigners (Germans, in particular) from buying a holiday home in Denmark.

Today’s surprising news is that King Christian IX three times during the war contacted Prussia with the offer that Denmark (with the duchies Schleswig and Holstein) join the German Confederation. In that way, Christian hoped, the problem with the different status of Denmark, Schleswig and Holstein could be managed and the entities be kept together under one crown.

Otto von Bismarck, the realist politician’s realist politician, would have none of it. Not out of a wish to humiliate King Christian and the Danes but rather because including Denmark in the Confederation could create unnecessary problems with France – Bismarck was wise enough only to engage in necessary wars which Prussia had a reasonable chance of winning – and because it would include a rather large Danish minority in the Confederation.

While Christian’s proposal may be difficult to understand by today’s standards, it did make some sense when you consider that he was brought up under pre-democratic rule in Denmark and that he for most of his life saw himself as a monarch in the classical European tradition. His task was to defend the interests of the State of Denmark, not the Danes as a nation, and he never really understood the idea of constitutional rule in the meaning that the Monarch should stand back and let politicians run the affairs of the state. On the other hand, the initiative also showed the desperation of the Danish situation and possibly the lack of understanding of the changing ways of 19th Century European politics among the Danish political elite.

But what if Denmark had joined the Confederation? This is a complicated piece of counterfactual (and alternative) history. One problem is if the Confederation had accepted the State of Denmark as one member or if Prussia had insisted on the four constituent parts1 joining separately. Denmark would have lost its autonomy in foreign policy and would have had the same status as Norway (in union with Sweden) and Finland (a Russian Grand Duchy) but this might have been less of an issue given the country’s descent into international irrelevance. The fortification of Copenhagen would have been a non-issue and this might have eased internal conflicts in Denmark but on the other hand, the political system would have been dominated by the conservative forces. Parliamentarism would not have been introduced in 1901 but only after World War I. Then there is the question of the development of trade relations (especially in agriculture) and so on.

I will offer one guess, though: If Denmark had been a member of the German Confederation from 1864 and later a state in Imperial Germany, the House of Glücksburg would have been swept away by the upheavals following World War I and Denmark – likely to revert to full sovereignty in 1919 – would have been a republic.

  1. The Kingdom of Denmark, Duchy of Schleswig, Duchy of Holstein, Duchy of Lauenburg []

Written by Jacob Christensen

August 18th, 2010 at 5:44 pm

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