The Historical Text Archive: Electronic History Resources, online since 1990 Bringing you digitized history, primary and secondary sources
HTA Home Page | E-books | World War I | Little Denmark Poses a World Problem

13: Little Denmark Poses a World Problem

<< 12: Armenian Disaster || 14: Rhineland Difficulties >>

December 26, 1918

Pierre Quirielle and several other editors of the Temps took me this afternoon to a meeting of the Schleswig Danes in a salle of the Deux Magots where I found assembled all or nearly all the shepherds of the submerged nationalities. Steed, foreign editor of the London Times, was there and was enthusiastically acclaimed when he said that the failure of England in 1864 to prevent the annexation of Schleswig by Germany was directly responsible for the rape of Alsace-Lorraine in 1871. The first Danish speaker asserted that for a time his people had been confident that the great wrong done them by the Prussians would be righted, honorably and without the shedding of blood. "But after Alsace we knew we were in for a long wait, that only a European convulsion would free us."

He was followed by another young Dane who was introduced as the unofficial envoy of the Schleswig-Holsteiners whose name it was not wise to disclose, his family being still in the clutches of the German invaders. "You must not blame us," he protested, "for our neutral attitude during the hostilities. You should recognize how powerless we were, how close to the claws of the German Beast. Our hatred of him goes back to the Middle Ages and beyond. the legend and the prayer that was inscribed in those days on the golden arrow of the Flensborg Cathedral reads 'Lord, protect us from the German Beast who would devour the world'. That prayer was placed there more than three hundred years ago by a patriotic Dane. For long it was unheeded, but now all the world knows that these are true words."

Another member of the committee insisted that language is not a true test of nationality. In his "circle" (neighborhood) he stated many people spoke German as their umgangssprache their everyday speech who were Danish in blood, in sentiment, and in aspirations. lie went on to say: "The children are made to speak German by the carpetbag schoolteachers who are quartered on us, but whenever they can the children twist the words that are put into their mouths. They are commanded to sing

Ich bin ein Preuss

Bin froh em Preuss su Sein.

But what they really say is

Ich bin kein Preuss

Bin froh kein Preuss su Sein.

He went on to say, "We were promised and indeed for a time received some protection for our language and our schools under Clause 5 of the Treaty of Prague, which Napoleon III insisted upon; but when he fell, and even before, it was ignored and the German wolves, false to their promises, as they always are, sought to devour us.

Several Danes who had been pressed into the German Army now mounted the platform and told how at the earliest opportunity they had passed over to the French, how at first they had been regarded by the Germans with suspicion, which was natural, but how later they had been allowed to fight in the first-line trenches, a dangerous favor which, however, gave them the chance to escape their drill-masters.

The Danish minister to France presided and smiled approval at those who were the most outspoken in their denunciation of the imposed German regime. But for himself he never said a word. So when he called upon me for a few remarks, a message from America, I said I would follow his example that I too had come to listen, to learn, not to talk.

January 10, 1919

My presence at the Danish meeting has brought me many visitors and I find them without exception charming people. They understand that while the Schleswig problem bulks large with them, it is not a major problem (or at least is not so regarded by many of the delegates); that they must halt at my desk and for the present cannot hope to penetrate into the inner sanctum where the Colonel presides and the major discussions are held. Undoubtedly they have had a hard rime during the war years, and they think, doubtless correctly, that their sufferings have been little noted in the outside world. They argue that the Great Powers take a superficial view of their peace and war activities and they insist that they deserve something better than the fame so generally given them as very successful butter and egg merchants. I agree that customers are ungrateful, and they warm up to my memories of the beautiful girls and the handsome dogs I admired in Copenhagen in the tranquil days of long ago. It was on November 28 that the Danes formally presented themselves and filed a bill of particulars setting forth their grievances and their claims. It is a lengthy document and goes back to the Middle Ages. It is too discursive. I think the Conference will not go back farther than the nineteenth century.

From the very beginning of what is called in all the diplomatic anthologies "the Schleswig-Holstein question," Bismarck appears as the master mind. He knew what he wanted and what he meant to get. He may have expressed an academic interest in the discussion through long decades as to the intricacies of the Augustenburg- Sonderheim-Holstein line and who was and who was nor the legitimate Stamm-Herr of the dynasty; one of the pretenders, indeed, he put out of the running with a money payment, a big round sum which must have shocked his colleagues who believed in "Preussiche Sparsamkeit." But, it is clear that throughout the discussions and the interminable negotiations he kept his eyes on the ball and in his garrulous old age he set down in his Reflections with the frankness which Theodore Roosevelt later emulated ("I took the Isthmus") these words: "From the beginning I kept annexation steadily before my eyes." Indeed, from the very beginning he had his plan for the Kiel Canal and fully appreciated the advantages that would accrue to a war-waging Germany through this unhindered outlet to the Atlantic world and beyond.

Tiring of negotiations which only cloaked his real purpose, Bismarck sent his goose-stepping Prussians over the border and the stout resistance of the Danes was overwhelmed on the bloody field of Duppel in 1864. Austria as the "brilliant second" tagged along, but naturally enough she was overlooked when the booty was distributed. M. Cambon, the French delegate, loses his diplomatic calm as he describes how Napoleon III by his silence gave his consent to this aggression and how Queen Victoria, infatuated with the cousins of her beloved Albert, turned a deaf ear to the suggestions of her wise ministers. Napoleon at least had an idea," explains Cambon. "He saw that, given the ocean frontage and the naval bases, the brigands might develop into a sea power capable of balancing if not of disputing Britannia's supremacy of the seas. While shortsighted, how right Napoleon was. At Jutland it proved to be a very near thing."

Cambon is more outspoken than any of the other delegates in favor of restoring the stolen territory to the Danes but he admits he is talking to deaf ears. He holds that the international control of the Kiel Canal is necessary to future peace and tranquillity, of which we are all in such great need. "But do not misunderstand me. I would not 'bilk' the Germans; I would credit the amount they spent in building the canal to our reparation bill. It would prove, I think, the only substantial payment we are at all likely to receive, and that as it were by indirection." More, perhaps, than anyone else Cambon is pessimistic as to the future of reparation payments.

April 26, 1919

While I am frequently told that I exaggerate its importance, that the future of Schleswig and above all the canal is a local problem and one that should be left to the Danes to cope with, I persist in thinking that its future is vital to the peace of Europe and indeed to world security. The Kiel Canal and the surrounding districts that control it should be returned to the Danes from whom the land was stolen in 1866 and their possession of it should be guaranteed by the Powers. Clearly, like Alsace which is to be returned to its rightful sovereignty, the canal and the southern district of Schleswig is a tempting springboard of invasion. It should not be left in the possession of men who are pirates on land as well as on the seas.

But I must admit that many of the Danes here, notably their minister to France, M. Bernhoft, who is their principal delegate, are not ardent supporters of this plan, at least not without certain reservations and conditions. Today the minister called and these are some of the things he said:

"Undoubtedly in 1866 the population of these regions was largely, perhaps overwhelmingly, Danish. Certainly our claim is more fully justified than the claim so often advanced that the population of Alsace in 1871 was exclusively French. The region where the canal was built, and its advanced post and sentinel, the island of Heligoland, had been under our sovereignty (although England seized it a century ago) for many generations, and the people were contented with our rule.

"But we should not lose sight of the actual situation today. Our people have been expelled from the annexed territory in great numbers and others have left of their own accord. As a result, it cannot be denied that the racial complexion of South Schleswig has undergone a radical change in the last sixty years. The prolific Germans have come in in large numbers and the few Danes who remained on their ancestral farms have suffered great hardships. Perhaps another complication of the situation is that many of the inhabitants today who are really Danes, for self-protection pretend to be of German stock; but be this as it may, many, very many Germans are there. We know we cannot assimilate them and most certainly we do not want them within our territory. The Germans outside our frontiers give us trouble enough. We have no desire to come in closer contact. That would be disagreeable for us and undoubtedly most unwelcome to them."

December - undated, 1920

The plebiscites in the disputed districts of Schleswig, which Bismarck promised by the Treaty of Prague as long ago as 1866, were carried out by the victorious Allies in the spring of 1920 after a moratorium of more than fifty years, and apparently with a minimum of rioting and disorder. They were divided into three zones and separate elections were ordered held in each of them. The northern zone voted almost unanimously to return to Denmark, the mother country. The vote in the middle zone revealed a large and very vocal German population in favor of remaining with the Vaterland; in the third zone, which commands the Kiel Canal and the new German naval bases, the recent German colonists or settlers were clearly in an overwhelming majority and so no election was held. The Danes might have claimed both these districts but they let them go, and probably they know what is best at least for their domestic peace.

When in 1866 this territory was annexed by Berlin in its early predatory mood the inhabitants were Danish, but effective measures were taken to move them out. Many indeed left willingly, but those who clung to their old homes and what they call their "ancestral farms" were soon forced out. Even before the recent "free and fair" elections were held, and most observers agree that they were both, two at least of the Danish delegation told me that they would not he sticklers for their historic rights. The river Eder may have been the racial frontier one hundred years ago but they said, "We face quite a different situation today, and frankly we do not want any districts that reveal a large and vocal minority of Germans. We want none of them within our borders. Our kinsmen who have been submerged by the influx of the prolific invaders may return to their mother country and we will welcome them with open arms. The presence of even a German minority within our borders would mean chronic agitation, later perhaps civil war, and then probably another European conflagration."

Doubtless from the domestic standpoint of the Danes this moderation was wise, but for the future peace of Europe I fear it is disastrous.

December 4, 1943

This tactful behavior, however, did not save the Danes from the midnight aggression which they suffered in the midst of World War II. Once again the Germans showed they had not changed their spots. They were still the wild beasts of the prophecy inscribed on the church tower of Flensborg four hundred years ago. The Kiel Canal and the districts that command it consequently remained in German control. It should of course have been returned to the Danes from whom it was taken by right of conquest as was Alsace from the defeated French. The result of this shortsighted policy is glaringly apparent today. If, as many assumed in 1919, the Danes did not want to take on this responsibility unless a police force under the League of Nations was established, the canal should have been internationalized. I and a few others, notably M. Cambon, the French delegate, at the time were in favor of ousting the Germans from the canal but at the same time of repaying them the construction costs. One of the admirable features of this plan was that it would not have cost the civilized nations a penny nor would it have enriched the robbers by a farthing. It should have been credited, as M. Cambon suggested, to the Germans as a payment on the reparations account, perhaps the only substantial payment they were ever to make.

Another flagrant omission from the Treaty of Versailles was the fact that Heligoland remained in the possession of the Germans. It should be recalled that, as an appeasement gesture in the nineties of the last century, it was ceded to the Berlin government by Lord Salisbury. There was some talk at the time that the Hamburgers wished to make of this mist-ridden island an international bathing beach. It was a graceful gesture, but it failed signally of its purpose. Had His Lordship suffered from an uneasy conscience, the island should have been restored to the Danes from whom it was rudely taken about 1810 when the English admirals were on the prowl for desirable naval bases. Once in their possession, the island, sought as a bathing beach in which all trippers were to disport themselves, was converted by the Germans into a military zone, and in a very short time it became the Gibraltar of the North Sea.

According to the Treaty (1919) these fortifications were condemned and the island demilitarized. But was it? I do not know the answer to this one. The control commissions may have reported what was done, and the Great Powers who were pledged to see that the treaty was carried out may have told their agents not to bother them with their disturbing reports. I do know this was the reception that was given by them to many other reports demonstrating that military and naval clauses in the treaty were honored in the breach but not in observance. But one thing is crystal clear: demilitarized or in the full panoply of its armor, the lonely island jutting out into the North Sea and protecting the entrance to the canal and threatening the insular security of Britain was a great asset to the Germans when once again they went on the rampage. It is a safe harbor for the sinister submarines and the piratical cruisers which, in the early stages of the war, ravaged the seas where once, in war as in peace, civilized practices were observed. When the conference assembles that will terminate this war and prevent the possible outbreak of others in the years to come, it is to be hoped that the canal and the island fortress will be placed in safe hands and not filed away in the dormant files of the United Nations as "unfinished business." Today I am not alone in thinking that in the face of this and other problems presented at Paris we were infatuated with formulas and disregarded realities. It would have been wiser to have returned the Schleswig districts to their legitimate owners after cleansing them of the alien intruders. This would have entailed some hardship and a few, a very few, decent people would have suffered. But it is a solution, perhaps the only one, to the problem of mixed nationalities who cannot or will not live together as good neighbors. Today it is quite plain that, had this course been pursued, a more stable peace would have resulted than has followed upon the lame plebiscite.

Some thought at the time, and more are convinced now, that plebiscites do nor always reveal true conditions and even less that they are an infallible corrective to domestic and international ills. A few days after the orderly proceedings in Schleswig, which I did not witness, I was informed by some observers who were present that the vote was not indicative of the thought and the real wishes of the electorate. Information came to me from sources I regarded as reliable and unprejudiced that many Germans, masquerading as Danes, voted in favor of the return of the districts where they were intruders so that they might escape the heavy taxes which the Weimar government would have to exact to meet the reparation bill and the other imposts which the new people would have to impose if they were to survive. It was also maintained that these Germans masquerading as Danes reserved to themselves the right to show their true colors when the favorable moment struck. No one who is at all conversant with what has happened in the disputed districts since the Prussians marched back in 1941 can deny that these gloomy prophecies were without foundation in fact.

The lesson is that plebiscites are prickly functions and do not always work our as they should. While in 1920 there may have been something "rotten in Denmark," yet even with us, the traditional home of the free and fair election panacea, the results are often disappointing even at times amazing. The crux of the difficulty seems to be that it is difficult for the voters to concentrate on the main issue and not to be diverted from it by side questions or by personal prejudices. Even with us and with an electorate which we admit is far above the average, here in the land where free and fair elections are sacrosanct, they have been known to result in a fiasco although the expression "in a national disgrace" would seem more fitting.

Let us look at what happened in our own fair land only a few months later in the same year. Let us recall the words with which, on Jackson Day (January 8, 1920), President Wilson, pointing out the anarchic conditions that prevailed throughout the world, called upon our people through the medium of a solemn referendum to take a stand for righteousness. His trumpet note was: "We must give the next election the form of a great and solemn referendum. A referendum as to the part the United States is to play in completing the settlement of the war and in the prevention in the future of such outrages as Germany attempted to perpetrate."

I low little heed was given to this solemn warning - this call to the plain path of duty! By overwhelming majorities the electorate voted for Mr. Harding, not knowing what he had in mind - little caring that, as was obvious, he had nothing in mind. The solemn referendum came to this ridiculous and distinctly discreditable conclusion because, for three years, the voters had been inconvenienced by war conditions - by what in those soft Arcadian days were regarded as hardships and they turned out in millions to get away from what they had endured, to give the bewildered manikin who preached "a return to normalcy" an overwhelming majority.

Of course the false Danes, the true-blue Germans in Schleswig, were actuated by very different motives. Looking forward to the day when it would be safe for them to show their true colors, they avoided the immediate hardships they saw were awaiting them in the war-torn Reich. When the Prussians came back in 1941 they shouted with joy in many districts. It is true their days of jubilation have been few, but it must be confessed that these clandestine Nazis who masqueraded as true Danes have played a sad role in the army of occupation.

<< 12: Armenian Disaster || 14: Rhineland Difficulties >>