September the 26th is the day it happens – Carruthers meets Davies at last, and then he meets the third character in this adventure: Davies’s boat, the Dulcibella. And the location for all these encounters is Flensburg – which means this is also our first encounter with Germany.
We’ll be talking about the Dulcibella and about Germany a good deal over the coming weeks, but for now, here’s an introduction to Flensburg, which for a good many reasons is a particularly interesting location for Childers to choose for this first meeting.
Here’s how the 1911 Enclyclopaedia Britannica described Flensburg:
FLENSBURG (Danish, Flensborg), a seaport of Germany, in the Prussian province of Schleswig-Holstein, at the head of the Flensburg Fjord, 20 m. N.W. from Schleswig, at the junction of the main line Altona-Vamdrup (Denmark), with branches to Kiel and Glücksburg. Pop. (1905) 48,922. The principal public buildings are the Nikolai Kirche (built 1390, restored 1894), with a spire 295 ft. high; the Marienkirche, also a medieval church, with a lofty tower; the law courts; the theatre and the exchange. There are two gymnasia, schools of marine engineering, navigation, wood-carving and agriculture. The cemetery contains the remains of the Danish soldiers who fell at the battle of Idstedt (25th of July 1850), but the colossal Lion monument, erected by the Danes to commemorate their victory, was removed to Berlin in 1864. Flensburg is a busy centre of trade and industry, and is the most important town in what was formerly the duchy of Schleswig. It possesses excellent wharves, does a large import trade in coal, and has shipbuilding yards, breweries, distilleries, cloth and paper factories, glass-works, copper-works, soap-works and rice mills. Its former extensive trade with the West Indies has lately suffered owing to the enormous development of the North Sea ports, but it is still largely engaged in the Greenland whale and the oyster fisheries.
Flensburg was probably founded in the 12th century. It attained municipal privileges in 1284, was frequently pillaged by the Swedes after 1643, and in 1848 became the capital, under Danish rule, of Schleswig.
Those allusions to the battle of Idstedt (Isted in Danish) and the Lion monument should give the reader a clue that Flensburg is not just any city. At the time of The Riddle of the Sands, it is at the frontier of a disputed region: Schleswig-Holstein. For a quick primer on the politics behind this region, see our post on it. Suffice to say that two wars were thought over the region: the first in 1850, which ended with the Danes victorious at the battle of Idstedt; the second in 1864, which saw the Danes defeated by Prussia and Austria, and the whole region absorbed into the German Empire. The relocation of the Lion monument mentioned above from Flensburg to Berlin was a potent symbol of this defeat.
Childers is saying something by setting this scene in Flensburg. He is saying something about Germany’s power and ambition, and he was not the only one to think Flensburg was a potent symbol of this. In 1910, less than a decade after the publication of The Riddle of the Sands, Kaiser Wilhelm II opened a naval academy in Flensburg. In 1945, at the end of the Second World War, Admiral Dönitz was declared President of Germany after the death of Hitler. He and the other surviving admirals and generals set up a government of Germany in the face of the advancing Allies. They did so in the only territory they still held: the Naval Academy at Flensburg. And for twenty days, Flensburg was the capital of Germany.
He knew what he was about, did Erskine Childers.