A Peaceful Settlement for Minorities: The Danish-German Model

by Laura Pelzmann

Europe has recently seen a surge of nationalism-inspired conflicts and disputes, such as the Crimean crisis between Russia and Ukraine, as well as the Basque and Catalan independence movements. Conflicting identities spark nationalistic clashes, and as the number of irredentist claims increases, the question of life after the conflict becomes ever more important. One successful example is the border region between Denmark and Germany that has by now seen almost 100 years of stability after years of friction.

The two nations have succeeded in managing bilingualism, cross-border education, and special taxation laws for commuters through efforts from both the German and the Danish governments, as well as from the people inhabiting the region. Emphasis was put on the implementation of minority rights to enable better interconnection by continuous focus on the border region and its minority groups since the drawing of the new border.

The bordering regions of Denmark and Germany share a substantial common history that has shaped identities, thus the regional developments to date seem a fitting consequence. However, this entailed many constructive years of work. Both nations are still focusing on the border region and continue to support the minorities extensively, which explains why it is very unlikely for the conflict to re-emerge. The question is whether other border regions in Europe could possibly do the same.

Uninterrupted focus on the border region and its people in the past century is the major difference between this region and others. The continuous efforts of both sides contribute greatly to the successful solution of the border conflict. In contrast, the recent conflicts in, for example, former Yugoslavia, still need more time and effort to heal the old hurts. More than 20 years after the breakup of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the legal status of minorities is regulated. However, the legal implementation varies. In comparison to the Danish-German example, it can be seen that even long-time rivalries can be resolved. However, it also highlights the necessity of long-term commitments and willingness to compromise. Only then, peaceful coexistence and room for mutual growth may be fostered.

Today, the German minority population in the whole of Denmark amounts to about 20,000 members. The Danish minority throughout Germany comprises of about 50,000 people. Although the border conflict is buried in the past and both minorities are now fully integrated in their respective countries, communal identities continue to play an important role in the region. Minority parties, cross-border education and joint economic projects remain the pillars of the region’s success.

Recent projects include the establishment of a common borderland in the Sønderjylland-Schleswig region within the Euroregions framework. Reaching beyond the border, the region aims to create more cross-border projects and networks between the municipalities on both sides of the border. Since 2007, the European Union INTERREG South Denmark-Schleswig-K.E.R.N. program further intensified integration of the two regions by supporting economic, social and cultural cross-border development and cooperation. However, it has not always been this way.

In the nineteenth century, Schleswig Wars took their toll and lead to hateful mobilization, injustice and repression of one people against the other. Geographically at the forefront of the conflict, habitants of the border region used their respective nationalisms to set themselves apart from the peoples on the other side of the frontier.

Before 1920, the borders between Denmark and Germany frequently shifted back and forth spanning up to 100 km. The Schleswig referendum made up of two plebiscites finally put an end to this and gave the border its current look.

Drawing a boundary between the two nations was difficult, because it had fluctuated so much in previous years that, however it was set, large minority groups of either nation would be left on the “wrong” side.

The two referendums held in 1920 were successful in including minority rights that satisfied all parties. When Danes and Germans went to the ballots to vote on their future nationality, the trust in a successful solution was already broadly shared. Thus, the new border went smoothly into force.

Despite this vast majority outcome, large minority groups were left on both sides of the borderline. However, their official establishment along with all concessions had already been promised in advance. On this legal basis, a unique cross-border cooperation has since then contributed to maintaining cultural traits and a harmonic cohabitation between the communities on either side. The transformation of these two historically divergent, yet interlinked regions in Denmark and Germany into a common borderland reaching across national boundaries is remarkable and can serve as an example for other regional conflicts.

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