Eminent Victorian Prime Minister, Lord Palmerton, once remarked on the thorny issue of the so-called Schleswig-Holstein Question:
‘Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business: the Prince Consort, who is dead; a German professor, who has gone mad; and I, who have forgotten all about it.’
Schleswig-Holstein were duchies that bordered both Denmark and Germany. In the middle of the century they became coveted by a growing and strengthening Prussian state. In 1848 the two states – Denmark and Prussia – went to war over them, resulting in a Danish victory (in what is now known as the First Schleswig War). However, after this date Prussia became transformed: moving away from the liberal nationalism of 1848 – the year of revolution – to the ‘iron and blood’ militaristic nationalism led by their influential Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Perhaps this was Prussia continuing on its long established path of military might; a popular statement attributed to them is that they weren’t a country with an army, but rather an army with a country.
During the 1860s Prussia undertook a series of wars that resulted in the unification of Germany in the form an empire. The wars undertaken were the Second Schleswig War in which the Danish humiliation was avenged, then war against their former allies the Austrians, before concluding with a complete victory over the French. It was a dramatic decade that brought about a new power-player on the world-stage.
Like many succeeding German wars, Bismarck made heavy use of a diplomatic situation in order to push Prussian interests to the top of the agenda. It all revolved around the confusing Schleswig-Holstein Question and particularly in Denmark’s new constitution and how it affected ethnic Germans living within the duchies. These Germans asked for assistance from the other German powers existing within the Confederation, with Prussia and its allies Austria stepping into the fray. As would happen with the outbreak of the First World War, and Hitler’s seizing of power in the late 1930s, the two powers issued an ultimatum to the Danish to remove their “liberal” perceived constitution and make a U-turn on their policy within the duchies – an ultimatum with a ridiculously small time limit.
War broke out in 1864, with the Prussian and Austrian armies invading and occupying the duchies. Throughout the summer diplomatic talks took place in London in an attempt to bring about a cease-fire, however, no agreement was forthcoming. The allies set the tempo of the war, demonstrating their force of arms. By the summer the Danish had accepted the terms of peace: separation of the duchies from Danish territory. Such was the manner of defeat that Denmark would never engage in war again until involving themselves in NATO in the 1990s.
Prussia and Austria were the victors in alliance, however, within two years the two would be at war with one another in a squabble over their new possessions and position within the leadership stakes of the German Confederation. The country of ‘iron and blood’ was on the rise, and Bismarck’s unifying of Germany was on an unstoppable rise.