Historical Tales: 9—Scandinavian - Charles Morris

The Dismemberment of Denmark

The time once was when, as we have seen, all Scandinavia, and England also, were governed by Danish kings, and Denmark was one of the great powers of Europe. Since that proud time the power of the Danish throne has steadily declined, until now it is but the shadow of its former self.

A great blow came in 1814, when it was forced to yield Norway to Sweden. All its possessions on the Baltic had vanished and its dominion was compressed into the Danish peninsula and its neighboring islands, with the exception of the duchies of Holstein and Lauenburg lying south of the peninsula. The time was near at hand when it was to lose these and more and be reduced to a mere fragment of its once great realm.

The new trouble began in 1848, when the French revolution of that date stirred up all the peoples of Europe to fresh demands. North of Holstein lay the duchy of Sleswick, occupying the southern half of the peninsula, its inhabitants, like those of Holstein, being nearly all Germans. These duchies had long chafed under Danish rule, though for centuries they had formed part of Denmark, and now they made an eager demand for union with what they termed their true "Fatherland."

A new king, Frederick VII., ascended the Danish throne in January, 1848. In February the French revolution broke out. Almost instantly the duchies were in a blaze of revolt, and on the 23rd of April a Danish army of eleven thousand men met one of nearly three times its strength, composed of the insurgents and German allies, and was defeated after a hard fight and forced to take refuge on the little island Als, where it was protected by Danish ships of war.

This was the beginning of a struggle that continued at intervals for nearly three years, the great powers occasionally intervening and bringing about a truce. In 1849, the Danes gained some important successes, followed by a second truce. The most severe battle was that of July 24, 1850, when a Danish army nearly forty thousand strong attacked the insurgents and battle went on amid mist and rain for two days, ending in the triumph of the Danes.

New successes were gained in September, Sleswick being fully occupied and Holstein invaded, when a strong Austrian army marched into the latter province and again the war was brought to an end. Sleswick was left under the Danish king, but a joint commission of Danes, Austrians, and Prussians was formed to govern Holstein until its relations to Denmark could be determined.

For the thirteen years following all remained at rest. But in that year King Frederick VII. of Denmark died and immediately the eldest son of the Duke of Augustenburg, who claimed the duchies, hastened into them and proclaimed himself as ruler, under the title of Duke Frederick VIII., of the united and independent province of Sleswick-Holstein.

[Illustration] from Historical Tales - Scandinavian by Charles Morris


This impulsive act led to most important results. All the German powers to the south, large and small alike, supported the pretensions of the self-styled Frederick VIII., and before the end of the year Austrian and Prussian armies entered the province, which they proposed to hold until the claims of the house of Augustenburg should be definitely settled.

This threw Denmark into a difficult position. If she wished to avoid dismemberment she must fight, and to fight against these two great powers seemed madness. Yet Prussia and Austria pressed one condition after another upon her, each more galling than the last. England, however, offered herself as umpire between the parties, strongly favoring Denmark. In consequence, fully expecting aid from England, a Danish army of forty thousand men crossed the border and attacked the Prussians.

But England sent no aid and the Danes were forced to retreat and once more take refuge upon Als Island. As England showed no intention of helping them with armed assistance, despair followed the patriotic effort of the Danes, who were left single-handed to oppose their powerful foes. Yet in spite of their greatly inferior power they made a gallant defence, their courage and endurance winning the sympathy of those who looked on.

Yet to struggle against such fearful odds was hopeless. The Prussians occupied one strong point after another until they had penetrated to the most northerly point of the peninsula. Then, to save his kingdom from utter destruction, Christian IX. gave way and accepted the terms offered him, agreeing to renounce all claims on the duchies of Sleswick-Holstein and Lauenburg and to abide by the decision of Prussia and Austria as to the future fate of these provinces.

Thus were the weak dealt with by the strong, in the rude old fashion, and of its once proud dominion Denmark was left only the northern half of the peninsula, consisting of Jutland and its neighboring islands, a pocket kingdom of some 15,000 square miles extent in lieu of its once great and proud dominion.

Yet it was not without satisfaction that the despoiled Danes looked on when their two powerful enemies, quarreling over the division of the spoils, sprang at one another's throats like two dogs snarling over a bone, a great war arising between Austria and Prussia over this question, at a cost far greater than the value of the provinces fought for.

Prussia being the victor, the rights of Denmark and the claims of the Duke of Augustenburg alike were quietly laid aside and the matter settled by the absorption of the provinces into the German empire, Denmark being left to thank God that Bismarck did not decide to take the rest.