Schleswig-Holstein German or Danish

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German or Danish?

German or Danish?

How might you determine the nationality of an ancestor whose information came on a printed form in German, but whose dates and places were handwritten in Danish and the issuing administration was located in a city which lies unequivocally in Danish territory? Is he German or Danish because of historical, political, cultural or genetic origins? In the final analysis would you call him Danish or German? Here are a few thoughts:


9th century

The Danish Kingdom borders on the Frankish Empire (roughly modern Holstein)

12th century

Schleswig becomes Danish, Holstein a German duchy

18th century

Under Frederik IV (1773) the two duchies become Danish territories


Denmark loses the war against Prussia and Austria, and so has to relinquish the two duchies. Nordschleswig (Sønderjylland) becomes Prussian property. Holstein falls to Austria. Schleswig-Holstein becomes a Kondominium (joined governance over an area)


Schleswig-Holstein becomes a Prussian province


A vote is taken by the population of Sønderjylland. The majority of the people vote to be part of Denmark. The border between Denmark and Germany changes to present specifications.

Feel free to visit a group of volunteers who transcribe census-records. On this homepage you can find a 'Topographie of Schleswig-Holstein' where the history of all villages is written.

Political History

When Denmark ruled over the two duchies, Schleswig and Holstein, the political fusion was a Personalunion (relationship between separate, sovereign states). Schleswig and Holstein were often parceled between royal lines  However, each ruler would implement the laws and agreements of the Personalunion. They all would adhere to the same person as their head of state, the King of Denmark. The duchies were administered by the “Deutsche Kanzlei” in Kopenhagen.


With the integration of Schleswig-Holstein into the Prussian state, the question of nationality was raised again and became the reason of much dispute. The language of the educated was German. Since the Reformation an education was a German one. The language of the people is "Niedersächsisch" (Low German). In the Frisian districts of Schleswig approx. 28,000 speak Frisian, in the north of Schleswig, except in the cities, people speak Plattdänisch (a form of Danish dialect). Here for approx. 110,000 people Danish is the language in church and school. (see Staatshandbuch für die Herzogthümer Schleswig-Holstein). In 1832 the Danes ordered Danish to be the judicial and administrative language where it was spoken in churches and taught in schools. In Sønderjylland (Nordschleswig) Danish news papers and libraries and an institution of higher learning (Rödding) were established. In 1840 Danish was the official language. By 1848 the border between the Danish and German languages became that of today’s political border between the countries. In 1867 the “language border" between the German and Danish ran roughly north of Viöl to Joldelund and Oeversee, but the political border lay further north.

When Prussia occupied the northern part of Schleswig-Holstein in 1865, Sønderjylland became part of its territory. German became the administrative language, especially in cities like Hadersleben, Apenrade, Tondern and Sonderburg.

With the establishment of the German Reich in 1871 it became obvious that Sønderjylland (Nordschleswig) was to speak German. Beginning in 1878 German was taught in schools. In the 1880s the Danish culture withdrew into the private sector, but not for long. Cultural and material support from Denmark produced more self-assurance and new institutions. The spirit of the popular vote as expressed in paragraph 5 of the Peace of Prague in 1866 intensified in Sønderjylland as the people struggled for a solution to the question of nationality. On June 15, 1920 Nordschleswig became Danish, including the German speaking areas of Hardersleben, Apenrade, Tondern and Sonderburg. Nonetheless, there are to this day German and Danish minorities in both Sønderjylland (Nordschleswig) and Sydslesvig (Landesteil Schleswig).


The historical, cultural and linguistic situation in the geographical area around the present-day border between Denmark and Germany has been so fluid and complex, that it might be difficult to make a definite pronouncement on an ancestor’s nationality. Perhaps additional family records or information reveal which language was used in the home. This might well end up being the most useful criterion for deciding.