Don’t worry. We’re not going to try to explain the Schleswig-Holstein question in detail here. This is a fun blog about a great book, not a historical treatise. And we do rather subscribe to Lord Palmerston’s view:
The Schleswig-Holstein question is so complicated, only three men in Europe have ever understood it. One was Prince Albert, who is dead. The second was a German professor who became mad. I am the third and I have forgotten all about it.
It’s almost impossible to imagine today that two modern European democracies like Germany and Denmark could be at each other’s metaphorical throats over a territorial dispute. But at the end of the 19th century, Germany – or, more accurately, Prussia – had spent three decades establishing the borders of its state. In the north, this had meant decades of squabbling over what came to be called the Schleswig-Holstein question.
It’s not that complicated really. This is about land, and about expansion, and about two empires, the Danish and the German, crashing into each other. Schleswig and Holstein were two ancient duchies. Holstein in the south was entirely German-speaking. Schleswig in the north included a good many Danish speakers. The question came down to this: would the two duchies be part of Germany, or part of Denmark, or would they be split?
In 1864, a year before Lord Palmerston’s death, the question was answered in the traditional way: with a war. The Second Schleswig War, to be precise, between Denmark on the one hand and Prussia and Austria on the other. Not surprisingly, Prussia and Austria were victorious, and two years later, Prussia defeated Austria in yet another war, and the whole of Schleswig-Holstein was subsumed into Germany.
That’s the state of affairs that was in place at the time of The Riddle of the Sands. The question was finally, and permanently (we trust) answered after the First World War, when a plebiscite saw Schleswig split into two, the northern part going to Denmark, the southern remaining with Germany.
For our purposes, though, remember this: Childers is, we believe, making a point by starting the German part of the book here in Schleswig-Holstein. And the audience for his book would, we believe, have understood the point he was making. It would be like starting a book about modern Russian realpolitik (to use a relevant Prussian term) in the Crimea.