Historical Review of the Dithmarschen Region of Schleswig-Holstein

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            Historical Review of the Dithmarschen Region of Schleswig-Holstein

     The history of the Dithmarschen region has been shaped by the continuous fight of the coastal inhabitants against the sea and the forces of nature. Place names in this region help us visualize man's labor intensive and time-consuming fight to reclaim the sea. Koog, also called Groden, Heller, or Polder, denotes marshland or lowland, reclaimed from the sea or other body of water, and protected by dikes. The Dammkoog is mentioned as early as the year 1362 when it was damaged by the catastrophic storm tides in that year. . Places ending in -donn describe the sandy dunes near the sea; Moor land is fenny, or marshy soil; and –deich is a dike, dam, or embankment. (Note these and other descriptive place name suffixes in names of places in this region).
     In 1908 Henning Oldekop prepared a brief history of Holstein, including district and parish histories. His Topographie des Herzogtums Holstein, published in Kiel provides this overview of the Dithmarschen region.

Ancient History

     The Thiatmarsgau region is mentioned by name as early as the end of the 8th century. It was conquered by Charlemagne and converted to Christianity in 804. After 936 it was under the rule of the Counts of Stade. However, the farmers--always ready for an altercation--could not be satisfied with their lack of independence, thus they often fought against their rulers and defeated Count Rudolf (1145) and razed the Böckelnburg, his fortress near the town of Burg. For three years they were independent, then Heinrich the Lion (represented by Adolf II of Schauenburg) brought the ravages of war to the area again, conquered the inhabitants, and kept strict rule from his seat at the Stellerburg near Weddingstedt. They were forced to recognize as their governor the brother of the deceased Rudolf, the Archbishop Hartwig of Bremen. Thereafter the Dithmarschen region was ruled from Bremen.
     As a reward for his services in the conflict, Adolf II received an annual payment of grain that had to be contributed by the farmers. In 1195 this payment was specifically confirmed in writing to Adolf III by Emperor Heinrich VI. However, the people of the Dithmarschen were quite unhappy with this status; they maintained a hostile relationship with the knights and destroyed their fortresses. Finally, they even appealed to the Danes for support, specifically to Schleswig Bishop Waldemar, who was a member of the royal house of Denmark. Thus emerged a relationship with Denmark and this resulted in independence over time. Nevertheless, over the years this situation apparently became burdensome to the people of the Dithmarschen. History tells us that by turning against Waldemar II (they turned about and held their shields backwards toward their oppressors) they contributed to a successful outcome for the allies at the battle of Bornhöved in 1227. Then they again had to pay some homage to the archbishop in Bremen, but to an almost inconsequential degree. The archbishop received only a so-called "welcome" of 50 Marks and an annual tax from the governors. The region could claim a special kind of autonomy.
     There were several changes over the years; the old knightly families disappeared and there emerged among the residents of the region a separation into clans and families. This had marked effects in the legal realm. The members were required--as were the members of an individual family in days of yore--to provide legal assistance to the accused. They had to avenge the victim and demand reparations. There were five districts (Döffte) and these answered to governors (Vögte). Judges and jury members were responsible for legal decisions in the church parishes.
The general regional assembly (at Meldorf) had only limited powers. These institutions were not sufficient to maintain internal peace. Indeed, all acts of violence were common--robbery, pirating on the Elbe and at sea, were daily occurrences. In the 15th century it became necessary to take serious steps against this problem, and additions to the constitution were in order. A committee of 48 judges or councilors was installed and given the highest powers in all instances, e.g., to secure the peace internally and to represent the region externally. The committee provided for its own successors and took on an aristocratic air. The committee met each week on the heath where the boundaries of two parishes met and at that location a new center of public life and commerce emerged. Here it was in subsequent years that the general public sessions took place, where the parish leaders, the governors, judges, and jurors met. The great seal of the territory bears the picture of the Virgin Mary with the Christ child as well as St. Oswald.
     For years the Holstein rulers tried in vain to conquer the Dithmarschen. In 1319 the farmers were conquered and locked up inside the church at Wöhrden. However, the fire burning over their heads caused them to panic, whereupon they broke out of the church and beat up on Count Gerhard the Great and began to battle anew. Gerhard IV and 300 knights were defeated in 1404 at the so-called Süderhamme by Oster- and Westerwohld. On the other hand, Christian I, King of Denmark and Duke of Schleswig-Holstein, was successful in motivating Emperor Friedrich III on 14 February 1474 to officially annex the Dithmarschen to the Duchy of Holstein. Initially there were no practical effects of this action. Christian's sons and successors, the Danish King Hans and Duke Friedrich I of Gottorp, tried to conquer the region again, but were dealt a devastating defeat at the battle of Dusenddüwelswarf south of Hemmingsted on 17 February 1500. The defeat meant the end of the golden age of the North German knights. This victory of the farmers over the nobility was celebrated in song and story both within and without the region and brought the land an external peace lasting fifty years. However, the Reformation caused internal conflicts. Heinrich Moller, called Heinrich von Zütphen, lost his life at the stake on 11 December 1524 as one of the first martyrs of the Evangelical Church. Eventually the new faith gained the upper hand.

Decisive battle

     The year 1559 became a key date for the republic. The hatred that the princes and noblemen had long secretly harbored flared up again. In May of that year King Friedrich III, Johann the Elder, and Adolf von Gottorp founded an alliance that was joined by many other German nobles. The veteran Johann Rantzau was again at the head of the troops. Meldorf and Brunsbüttel were conquered and from there they advanced over the Tiele bridge and the Norderhamme to Heide, where the decisive battle was fought. Friedrich II was in danger of perishing while Duke Adolf incited the flagging foot soldiers to increased courage but was severely injured by a spear in the process. However, the knights of the Count of Oldenburg attacked the flank of peasants and the victory was gained by the alliance. The bodies of 3,000 farmers covered the field and their freedom was destroyed.

Division of Dithmarschen

     As a memento of this victory and the conquest of the Dithmarschen, the princely house of Schleswig-Holstein(Oldenburg line) added a silver-armored knight with drawn sword on a red field to their coat of arms. Thereafter the towns actually retained many of their rights as practiced before. The three conquerors divided up the region and following the death of Johann the Elder in 1581 there were two halves: South Dithmarschen with its capital in Meldorf went to King Friedrich II and North Dithmarschen with its capital in Heide went to Duke Adolf von Gottorp. As a result of the exchange contract of 1773, North Dithmarschen with the remaining Gottorp territories became the property of the Danish king.

Prussian Rule

     After the events of 1864/1866 Dithmarschen was assumed by the Kingdom of Prussia. The region was divided into the two counties Norderdithmarschen and Süderdithmarschen.   The Dithmarschen region is now a part of the modern state of Schleswig-Holstein, Germany.


Oldekop, Henning. Topographie des Herzogtums Holstein, 1908