The Danevirke or Danework (modern Danish spelling: Dannevirke; in Old Norse; Danavirki, in German; Danewerk, literally meaning earthwork of the Danes) is a system of Danish fortifications in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. This historically important linear defensive earthwork across the neck of the Cimbrian peninsula was initiated by the Danes in the Nordic Iron Age about AD 650. It was later expanded multiple times during Denmark’s Viking Age and High Middle Ages. The Danevirke was last used for military purposes in 1864 during the Second War of Schleswig.
The Danevirke consists of several walls, trenches and the Schlei Barrier. The walls stretch for 30 km, from the former Viking trade centre of Hedeby near Schleswig on the Baltic Sea coast in the east to the extensive marshlands in the west of the peninsula. One of the walls (named Østervolden), between the Schlei and Eckernförde inlets, defended the Schwansen peninsula.
According to written sources, work on the Danevirke was started by the Danish King Gudfred in 808. Fearing an invasion by the Franks, who had conquered heathen Frisia over the previous 100 years and Old Saxony in 772 to 804, Godfred began work on an enormous structure to defend his realm, separating the Jutland peninsula from the northern extent of the Frankish empire. The Danes however, were also in conflict with the Saxons south of Hedeby during the Nordic Iron Age and recent archaeological excavations have revealed that the Danevirke was initiated much earlier than King Gudfred’s reign, around 500 AD and probably well before that even.
With the emergence of national states in Europe during the 1800s, the Danevirke became a powerful symbol for Denmark and for the idea of a unique Danish people and Danish culture. Throughout the nineteenth century, Denmark and Germany struggled politically and militarily for possession of the territory variously known as Sønderjylland or Slesvig by the Danes and Schleswig by the Germans. Two wars were fought, the First Schleswig War (1848–1851) and the Second Schleswig War (1864), eventually resulting in a Danish defeat and subsequent German annexation. In this hostile context, the Danevirke played an important role, at first as a mental cultural barrier against Germany, but soon also as a concrete military fortification, when it was strengthened with cannon emplacements and entrenchments in 1850 and again in 1861.
In the early 1800s Dannevirke was adopted as the title of several Danish nationalist journals dealing specifically with the question of Danish autonomy vis-à-vis Germany, the most notable of these being published by N. F. S. Grundtvig in 1816–19. In earlier times, the Danevirke had indeed defined a cultural and linguistic border between Danish and German fiefdoms, but the cultural and linguistic frontiers had gradually moved north, and by the 19th century territory as far north as Flensburg was predominantly German-speaking, but remained part of Denmark.
New carbon-14 dating in 2013 has revealed that the second stage started around 500 AD, and the oldest fortifications are even older than that. Previous carbon-14 dating had dated some of the early constructions to the second half of the 7th century, and dendrochronology also suggests that the examined constructions began not very long after 737, about 70 years before the reign of king Gudfred.
The Danevirke is about 30 kilometres (19 mi) long overall, with a height varying between 3.6 and 6 metres (12 and 20 ft). During the Middle Ages, the structure was reinforced with palisades and masonry walls, and was used by Danish kings as a gathering point for Danish military excursions, including a series of crusader raids against the Slavs of the south Baltic. In particular, the 12th-century King Valdemar the Great reinforced parts of the Danevirke with a brick wall, which enabled a continued military use of this strategically important structure. The reinforced parts of the structure are consequently known in Danish as Valdemarsmuren (lit: Valdemar’s wall).
In World War II
Following the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II, the Wehrmacht feared that a second Allied invasion might take place through Denmark, and contemplated converting the earthen wall into an anti-tank trench to counter this threat. Had the proposal been implemented, it would have destroyed the structure.
Hearing of the plans, Danish archaeologist Søren Telling – aware that all archaeological investigation was under the ultimate jurisdiction of SS chief Heinrich Himmler – immediately telephoned both the head of the SS’s archaeological department, Amt für Ahnenerbe (“Office for ancestral heritage”), and Himmler himself. Telling argued strongly against the destruction of an important remnant of “Aryan civilization” and Himmler authorized him to stop the construction of the anti-tank trench. He informed Telling that a written order would be dispatched but that it would take several days to arrive. Telling then drove to the site and ordered the commanding Wehrmacht officers to immediately stop the construction process. When the local Wehrmacht commander refused, Telling threatened him with reprisals from the SS. Construction was called off and Himmler’s written order arrived two days later countering the Wehrmacht’s original instructions. Telling later settled near the site and considered himself a custodian of it until his death in 1968.
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History of Schleswig-Holstein
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The Jutland Peninsula is a peninsula in Northern Europe with modern-day Schleswig-Holstein at its base. Schleswig is also called Southern Jutland (Sønderjylland). The old Scandinavian sagas, perhaps dating back to the times of the Angles and Jutes give the impression that Jutland has been divided into a northern and a southern part with the border running along the Kongeå River.
Taking into account both archeological findings and Roman sources, however, one could conclude that the Jutes inhabited both the Kongeå region and the more northern part of the peninsula, while the native Angles lived approximately where the towns Haithabu and Schleswig later would emerge (originally centered in the southeast of Schleswig in Angeln), the Saxons (earlier known apparently as the Reudingi) originally centered in Western Holstein (known historically as “Northalbingia“) and Slavic Wagrians, part of the Obodrites (Abodrites) in Eastern Holstein. The Danes settled in the early Viking ages in Northern and Central Schleswig and the Northern Frisians after approximately the year 900 in Western Schleswig.
After many Angles emigrated to the British Islands in the 5th century, the land of the Angles came in closer contact with the Danish islands — plausibly by partly immigration/occupation by the Danes. Later also the contacts increased between the Danes and the people on the northern half of the Jutish peninsula.
Judging by today’s placenames, then the southern linguistic border of the Danish language seems to have been (starting at the west) up the Treene river, along the Danevirke (also known as Danewerk), then cutting across from the Schlei estuary to Eckernförde, and leaving the Schwansen peninsula, while the West coast of Schleswig had been the area of the Frisian language.
As Charlemagne extended his realm in the late 8th century, he met a united Danish army which successfully defended Danevirke, a fortified defensive barrier across the south of the territory west of the Schlei. A border was established at the Eider River in 811.
This strength was enabled by three factors:
- the fishing,
- the good soil giving good pasture and harvests
- in particular the tax and customs revenues from the market in Haithabu, where all trade between the Baltic Sea and Western Europe passed.
The Danevirke was built immediately south of the road where boats or goods had to be hauled for approximately 5 kilometers between a Baltic Sea bay and the small river Rheider Au (Danish, Rejde Å) connected to the North Sea. There on the narrowest part of southern Jutland was established the important transit market (Haithabu, also known as Hedeby, near modern Haddeby), which was protected by the Danevirke fortification. Hedeby was located on the inlet Schlei opposite to what is now the City of Schleswig.
The wealth of Schleswig, as reflected by impressive archeological finds on the site today, and the taxes from the Haithabu market, was enticing. A separate kingdom of Haithabu was established around year 900 by the Viking chieftain Olaf from Svealand. Olaf’s son and successor Gnupa was however killed in battle against the Danish king, and his kingdom vanished.
The southern border was then adjusted back and forth a few times. For instance, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II occupied the region between the river Eider and the inlet Schlei in the years 974–983, called the March of Schleswig, and stimulating German colonisation. Later Haithabu was burned by Swedes, and first under the reign of King Sweyn Forkbeard (Svend Tveskæg) (986-1014) the situation was stabilised, although raids against Haithabu would be repeated. Haithabu was once again and ultimately destroyed by fire in 1066. As Adam of Bremen reported in 1076, the Eider River was the border between Denmark and the Saxon territories.
From the time Danes came to Schleswig from today’s eastern part of Denmark and Germans colonised Schleswig migrating from Holstein, the country north of the Elbe had been the battleground of Danes and Germans, as well as certain Slavic people. Danish scholars point to the existence of Danish placenames north for Eider and Danevirke as evidence that at least the most of Schleswig was at one time Danish; German scholars claim it, on the other hand, as essentially “Germanic”, due to the fact that Schleswig became an autonomous entity and a duchy (in the 13th century) since it has been populated and been dominated from the South. The Duchy of Schleswig, or Southern Jutland (Sønderjylland), had been a Danish fief, though having been more or less independent from the Kingdom of Denmark during the centuries, similarly to Holstein, that had been from the first a fief of the Holy Roman Empire, originating in the small area of Nordalbingia, in today western Holstein, inhabited then mostly by Saxons, but in 13th century expanded to the present Holstein, after winning local Danish overlord. Throughout the Middle Ages, Schleswig was a source of rivalry between Denmark and the nobility of the duchy of Holstein within the Holy Roman Empire. The Danish position can be exemplified with an inscription on a stone in the walls of the town of Rendsburg (Danish: Rendsborg) located on the border between Schleswig and Holstein: Eidora Romani Terminus Imperii (“The River Eider is the Border of the Holy Roman Empire”). A number of Holsatian nobles sought to challenge this.
The area of Schleswig (Southern Jutland) was first inhabited by the mingled West Germanic tribes Cimbri, Angles and Jutes, later also by the North Germanic Danes and West Germanic Frisians. Holstein was inhabited mainly by the West Germanic Saxons, aside Wends (such as Obotrites) and other Slavic peoples in the East. The Saxons were the last of their nation to submit to Charlemagne (804), who put their country under Frankish counts, the limits of the Empire being pushed in 810 as far as the Schlei in Schleswig. In 811 the river Eider was declared as borderline between the Frankish Empire and Denmark. Then began the secular struggle between the Danish kings and the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, and in 934 the German king Henry I established the March of Schleswig (Limes Danarum) between the Eider and the Schlei as an outpost of the Empire against the Danes.
South of this raged the contest between the Empire and Slavs. The Slavs, conquered and Christianised, rose in revolt in 983, after the death of the emperor Otto II, and for a while reverted to paganism and independence. The Saxon dukes, however, continued to rule central Holstein, and when Lothair of Supplinburg became duke of Saxony (1106), on the extinction of the Billung line, he enfeoffed Lord Adolphus of Schauenburg with the County of Holstein, as a Saxon subfief, becoming Adolphus I, Count of Holstein with the Saxon, later Lower Saxon dukes as liege lords.
The Earl (jarl) Knud Lavard (known in English as Canute Lavard), son of a Danish king, became Duke of Jutland or Southern Jutland. His son ascended the Danish throne, and the main branch continued as Kings, and a cadet branch descended from Abel of Denmark received Southern Jutland (Slesvig) as their appanage. During the rule of the dynasty Southern Jutland functioned as the Duchy which provided for the expenses of Royal Princes. Rivalry of royal succession and particularly the tendency of autonomy led to long-lasting feuds between the Dukes of Schleswig and the Kings of Denmark 1253–1325.
At that time, the Holy Roman Empire expanded northwards and had set up the Schauenburg family as counts of Holstein, under German suzerainty, first located in Nordalbingia, the Saxon part of the region, in what now is western Holstein. Knud Lavard had also gained awhile parts of Holstein, and thereby came in conflict with Count Adolphus I (Schauenburg) in the part of Holstein within the Empire, as they both were very keen on expanding their influence and pacifying the Wagrian tribe (see: Wends). Count Adolphus II, son of Adolphus I, succeeded and established the County of Holstein (1143) with about the borders it has had since then. Holstein was Christianised, many of the Wagrians were killed and the land was inhabited by settlers from Westphalia, Friesland and Holland. Soon the Holsatian towns, such as Lübeck and Hamburg, became serious trade competitors on the Baltic Sea.
The connection between Schleswig and Holstein became closer during the 14th century as the ruling class and accompanying colonists intensely populated the Duchy Schleswig. Local lords of Schleswig had already early paid attention to keep Schleswig independent from the Kingdom of Denmark and to strengthen ties to Holstein within the Holy Roman Empire. This tradition of autonomy showed itself in future politics for centuries to come.
Gradual Germanification of southern Schleswig became more intense following the Protestant Reformation, promoted by Duke Christian III in the duchies after his ascension there in 1523 as co-ruling duke with his father King Frederick I. After Christian had succeeded to become also King of Denmark and Norway in 1534 and 1537, respectively, he enforced Lutheranism in all his realm in 1537 (see Reformation in Denmark-Norway and Holstein). The Duchy of Holstein adopted its first Lutheran Church Order in 1542 (written by Bugenhagen). The Counties of Holstein-Pinneberg and Schaumburg remained Catholic until 1559.
With Lutheranism the High German liturgy was introduced in churches in Holstein and the southern half of Schleswig (although the vernacular of more than half of this area was Danish). Whereas at the west coast North Frisian prevailed, about the other half of the South Schleswigers used Low Saxon, which had developed from Middle Low German, as their mother tongue, also prevailing in Holstein. High German started superseding the Danish, Low Saxon and Frisian vernaculars in the area.
Main article: Schleswig-Holstein Question
The Schleswig-Holstein Question was the name given to the whole complex of diplomatic and other issues arising in the 19th century out of the relations of the two duchies, Schleswig and Holstein, to the Danish crown on one side and the German Confederation on the other.
In 1806–1815 the government of Denmark had claimed Schleswig and Holstein to be parts of the monarchy of Denmark, which was not popular among the German population in Schleswig-Holstein, who had traditionally the majority in Holstein and had gradually increased its dominance in Schleswig as well. However, this development sparked a German national awakening after the Napoleonic wars and led to a strong popular movement in Holstein and Southern Schleswig for unification of both with a new Germany (see German unification), turning out to be Prussian-dominated, as it was.
A controversy in the 19th century raged round the ancient indissoluble union of the two duchies, and the inferences to be drawn from it; the Danish National Liberals claimed Schleswig as an integral part of the Danish kingdom; Germans claimed, besides Holstein, being a member state of the German Confederation, also Schleswig. The history of the relations of Schleswig and Holstein thus became of importance in the practical political question.
The childlessness of King Frederick VII of Denmark worked in favour of the movement for the German unification, as did the ancient Treaty of Ribe, which stipulated that the two duchies must never be separated. A counter-movement developed among the Danish population in northern Schleswig and (from 1838) in Denmark, where the Liberals insisted that Schleswig as a fief had belonged to Denmark for centuries and that the Eider River, the historic border between Schleswig and Holstein, should mark the frontier between Denmark and the German Confederation or a new eventually united Germany. The Danish nationalists thus aspired to incorporate Schleswig into Denmark, in the process separating it from Holstein. The movement for the German unity conversely sought to confirm Schleswig’s association with Holstein, in the process detaching Schleswig from Denmark and bringing it into the German Confederation.
For forty years Germanism, backed by all the weight of the empire and imposed with all the weapons of official persecution, had barely held its own in North Schleswig; despite an enormous emigration, in 1905, 139,000 of the 148,000 inhabitants of North Schleswig spoke Danish, while of the German-speaking immigrants it was found that more than a third spoke Danish in the first generation, although from 1864 onward, German had gradually been substituted for Danish in the churches, the schools, and even in the playground.
After World War I
After Germany had lost World War I, in which Denmark had been neutral, the victors offered Denmark a chance to redraw the border between Denmark and Germany. The sitting government of Carl Theodor Zahle chose to hold the Schleswig Plebiscite to let the inhabitants of Schleswig decide which nation they, and the land they lived on, should belong to. King Christian X of Denmark, supported by various groups, was opposed to the division. Using a clause in the Danish constitution that the king appointed and dismissed the Danish cabinet, and using the justification that he felt the Danish population was at odds with Zahle’s politics, the king dismissed Zahle and asked Otto Liebe to form the Cabinet of Liebe to manage the country until a parliamentary election could be held and a new cabinet formed. Since Zahle’s cabinet had support from a small majority in the Folketing, his Social Liberal Party and the allied Social Democrats felt that the king had effectively staged a state coup against the Danish democracy. A general strike was organised by Fagbevægelsen to put pressure on the king and his allies. As Otto Liebe was unable to organise an election, M. P. Friis replaced him after a week, and succeeded in holding the election, and as a result the Social Liberal Party lost half their electoral support and their rivals the Liberal Party were able to form the minority cabinet led by Niels Neergaard: the Cabinet of Neergaard II. The whole affair was called the Easter Crisis of 1920.
The Allied powers arranged a referendum in Northern and Central Schleswig. In Northern Schleswig on February 10, 1920, 75% voted for reunification with Denmark and 25% voted for Germany. In Central Schleswig on March 14, 1920 the results were reversed; 80% voted for Germany and just 20% for Denmark, primarily in Flensburg. While in Northern Schleswig some smaller regions (for example Tønder) had a clear majority of voters for Germany, in Central Schleswig all regions voted for Germany. No vote ever took place in the southern third of Schleswig, because the result for Germany was predictable. On June 15, 1920, North Schleswig officially returned to Danish rule. Germany continued to hold the whole of Holstein and South Schleswig, remaining within the Prussian province of Schleswig-Holstein.
The Danish-German border was the only one of the borders imposed on Germany following World War I which was never challenged by Hitler.
World War II
In the Second World War, after Germany occupied the whole of Denmark, there was agitation by local NSDAP leaders in Schleswig-Holstein to restore the pre-World War I border and re-annex to Germany the areas granted to Denmark after the plebiscite, as the Germans did in Alsace-Lorraine in the same period. However, Hitler vetoed any such step, out of a general German policy at the time to base the occupation of Denmark on a kind of accommodation with the Danish Government, and avoid outright confrontations with the Danes.
After World War II
After Germany had lost World War II there again was a possibility that Denmark could reacquire some of its lost territory in Schleswig. Though no territorial changes came of it, it had the effect that Prime Minister Knud Kristensen was forced to resign after a vote of no confidence because the Folketing did not support his enthusiasm for incorporating South Schleswig into Denmark.
Because of the expulsion of Germans after World War II the population of the state of Schleswig-Holstein increased by 33% (860,000 people).
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Denmark in WWII
Read about WWII here
The Schleswig Wars and the Potentiality of a German Denmark.