So far in 2019 this series has concerned itself with the wars of Bismarck and the rise of Prussia in the 1860s: from regional power to the unification of Germany by 1871. The three wars – against the Danes in 1864, the Austrians in 1866, and the French in 1870-71 – highlights a phenomenal rise of a brand new war power. However, the first war against Denmark – the Second Schleswig War – almost begged the series to find out information about the First Schleswig War. This earlier conflict was a less resounding event for the Prussians than the wars of the 1860s.


First Schleswig War: 1848-52

The First Schleswig War was a conflict in northern Germany in the middle of the 19th Century. It is often overlooked in favour of the more popular Second Schleswig war, but yet it provides an interesting snapshot into the state of the German states at this time. The focus was rooted in resolving the so-called Schleswig-Holstein Question: two duchies that were positioned in-between the kingdom of Denmark and the German Confederation.

The context of the conflict lays in the Danish possession of the duchies; due to the various peaks and troughs of centuries of European warfare the Kingdom of Denmark had possession of lands that held a majority of ethnic Germans. During the 19th Century nationalism was rampant and there was an urge to repatriate regions to the “mother-country”. However, the duchies in question were significant bases of Denmark’s power: they comprised 30% of their population and almost 50% of their economic basis. The death of Danish king Christian VIII in 1848 brought out a change in the status of the “Question”: the Danish attempted to change the succession law to allow the duchies to pass through the female line, rather than the male, in order to maintain control of them.

1848 is an integral year in the study of European history: the so-called “Year of Revolutions” across the continent. Sparked off by a wave of change, representatives from the duchies demanded to secede in order to join the German Confederation. The Confederation is a peculiar institution: it was formed after the Napoleonic Wars and was later dismantled in the 1860s, culminating in the establishment of the German Empire in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian War (more of which available here). Such a request was denied, which led outright war in 1848. It sparked off support from the bigger German states who were eager for the admittance of the duchies into the Confederation, with the Prussians notably becoming involved. The sight of the Prussians fighting for the nationalist determination of the duchies is an oddity in history; the Prussian king Frederick William had not been sympathetic to the revolution stirrings and words of some of the people under his own protection.

The war did not lead to a wider, European conflict – as had happened in other wars of the period – although the other major powers were more eager to preserve the established status rather than see the German states grow in power. Furthermore, there were periods when both forces attempted to negotiate a solution, with a conference held in London in 1849. The Prussians themselves threw in the towel by 1850, fearing the meddling input of other powers, and by August 1850 a protocol was signed by Britain, France, and Russia to restore the power of the Danish crown. Such pressure led to a decline of fighting by 1851, and in 1852 the London Protocol was signed that re-affirmed the position of Denmark before the conflict began.

Ultimately, neither the war nor the peace settled anything for too long: by the 1860s Denmark was at war once again with the German states, which led to them ceding control of the duchies. Denmark would not be as fortunate again in terms of their firmer backing from the other European powers, and the loss of such rich and prosperous areas firmly cemented them as a junior player in wider continental politics.