Between two worlds

Published : Oct 24, 2003 00:00 IST

As Europe stands on the threshold of greater integration, peace achieved on the Danish-German border shines as an outstanding example of maturity and far-sightedness.

Text and photographs: MAHALAKSHMI MAHADEVAN recently in Flensburg and Husum

A STRANGE sight greets people travelling to Denmark through the German borderland of South Schleswig - a memorial consisting of two black horns wreathed in a ring of flowers. A South Schleswigian would tell you that you are about to enter ochsenweg or the way of the cattle. The opening up of this old country road through which Scandinavian cowherds walked their cattle into the German Reich since the Middle Ages symbolises the new outlook in the border region of South Schleswig and the changes sweeping the continent.

In a reflection of these changing times, borders within Europe were thrown open with the incorporation of the Schengen Agreement into the legal and institutional framework of the European Union (E.U.) in May 1999. It has resulted in greater freedom of travel within E.U. territory as a result of the abolition of checks at common borders. The empty check-posts and run-down control towers along the Danish-German border tell their own tale.

But burdened by the vicissitudes of history, change has happened over time. The peaceable countryside of South Schleswig has been witness to more rebellious times. Couched between the Danish border in the north and the Eider river in the south, the tiny province of South Schleswig has been home to a Danish minority since 1920, when a plebiscite united the northern half with Denmark, which had suzerainty over the land until 1864. Denmark lost its southern dutchy of Schleswig to Prussia in 1864.

After the capitulation of Germany in the Second World War, the memories of discrimination and Nazi persecution re-ignited the yearning for a Danish homeland. In the words of Anke Spoorendonk, representative of the Danish minority in the State Parliament of Schleswig-Holstein, the people discovered their Danish roots and a movement was born. The "Again-Danish" movement of 1945 culminated in the formation of several cultural and more significantly, political organisations, foremost among them being the South Schleswig Association of Voters (SSW). Founded in 1948, the SSW and its sister organisations set about forging a Danish brotherhood by helping establish schools and other educational institutions and above all promoting Dansk or the Danish language. Said Spoorendonk: "The Danish minority grew in the years after 1945. People wanted to learn Danish and wanted to send their children to Danish schools... "

But discrimination was widespread in the social and political spheres. The situation changed drastically after the Bonn-Copenhagen declarations of March 1955, in which the Danish and German governments in two identical declarations gave the same cultural, educational and political rights to the two minorities - the German minority in Denmark and the Danish minority in Germany. And over the years, the Danish educational system has well-served South Schleswig's small, but close-knit community of 50,000 Danes. Today, the Danish School Council has 49 schools and 57 kindergartens under its umbrella.

The history of the Danes in South Schleswig is a story of success, said Spoorendonk. Today, they are at home with their special status as a national minority. Unlike in other parts of Europe, the Danes here do not have to prove their Danish identity. To be recognised as a Dane, one need not produce proof of permanent residence or evidence of knowing the language, she said.

Anti-Danish sentiment is almost history. Ulf V. Hielmcrone, Member of the State Parliament of Schelswig-Holstein and Deputy-Chairperson of Grenzfriedensbund, a German organisation working for peace in the border region, sums up the experience thus: "To live apart, to live together and finally to live for one another. We are reaching a stage where we feel responsible for each other."

But the picture is far from complete. Despite the reconciliation, for the Danes, their Danish identity is foremost. Outside Germany, a Dane from South Schleswig is likely to describe himself as a Dane with a German passport or as a Danish South Schleswigian, but never as a Danish-German or still less a German. The Danish minority continues to see German nationality as nominal. The differences between a Dane and a German are underlined. "The difference is in how you are together. The Danish society is not hierarchic as the German," said Spoorendonk.

It is in this context that the possibility of an overriding European identity becomes problematic. Said Bernd Engelbrecht, public relations officer of the Danish cultural organisation, the South Schleswig Association (SSF): "There is no European identity. There will never be a European identity." Outlining the German perspective, Hielmcrone, who is also a spokesperson for the German minority in Denmark said: "There is a Danish identity, a German identity and a European identity. We have the same intellectual, scientific, historic and cultural roots". Evidence for this is not hard to find, even in the small South Schleswigian town of Husum. In the main market square stands the St. Marienkirche or the St. Mary's church, the town's hallmark. The church, built by C.F. Hansen, the 19th century Danish architect, is an awe-inspiring example of northern European classicism, which drew mainly upon Roman and Greek traditions of architecture.

The reluctance to see Danish identity as a harmonious constituent in a larger European identity was felt even as the initiative for securing peace on the border was on. According to Hielmcrone there was tremendous Danish opposition over terming South Schleswig a "European Region". Ultimately, a consensus was reached to call it Region Sonderjylland-Schleswig; in former times South Schleswig was part of the Danish territory of Sonderjylland or Southern Jutland.

This inability, perhaps, to cope with multiple identities is not confined to this little Danish country in north Germany. Even as Europe breaks down internal barriers, there are mounting fears of a dilution of identity as a consequence of European integration and immigrant influx. In Denmark, Pia Kjaersgaard, leader of the rightist Danish People's Party echoed popular sentiment when she said that a common European currency was likely to erode Denmark's national authority and identity at a time when the country was becoming multi-ethnic and globalised. According to Spoorendonk, in a globalised world, national identities will become more important.

In tandem with the rising tide of national reassertion is the growing European anathema to immigration. The Schengen regime is being criticised in liberal quarters as a firm step in the direction of consolidating the `Fortress Europe' mentality. On June 14, 1985, Germany, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands agreed through the signing of the Schengen Agreement - Schengen being a place in Luxembourg - to abolish checks and controls at their common borders. Over the years, the cooperation expanded to embrace 15 European countries.

Immigration has become the new European nightmare. There is a whole new immigrant language in which terms such as new minority or new immigrant are commonplace. In Denmark's political circles, immigrants are euphemistically referred to as Ny Danskere or New Danes.


In Germany, there are fears that there could be a problem at hand with regard to the growing numbers of Turkish immigrants. According to figures released by the German Federal Statistics office in March 2003, the country is home to around two million Turks, who constitute 26.1 per cent of the population. In the city-state of Hamburg alone, as of December 2002, there live at least 74,000 Turks, of whom over 66,000 have permission to stay on, said Ulrike Nehls-Golla, Immigration Officer, Central Immigration Office, Hamburg. Said Hielmcrone: "You can't call them immigrants. Many of them have been born here. There is a problem and we are just beginning to realise it."

Asked whether the SSW saw itself as a future voice of the Turks in Germany given that at present it stands up for the rights of Germany's other "national minorities" such as the Frisians and the Romas and the Sintis, Spoorendonk said: "There is a difference between national minorities or traditional minorities and new minorities because this has to do with immigrants and what is going on in the world." Elaborating further, she pointed out why the Danes and the Turks could not come on a single platform. "We see ourselves as members of this society where we live. We are not guests here. We can understand that they want to have the possibility to speak Turkish but they came to Germany because they want to be here. We have always been here," she said. One fact that is conveniently forgotten in this context is that in post-War Germany, Turkish immigrants offered a cheap source of labour and were more than welcome as construction workers. On May 9, 2003, 45 years after the first Turkish "temporary guest workers" came to Germany, the country's Parliament approved a comprehensive immigration Bill brought in, in the face of tremendous opposition, by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Left-Centre coalition.

These are pointers to the distance that has to be traversed before any `absolute' European cohesion is achieved. But as Europe stands on the threshold of greater integration, peace achieved on the Danish-German border shines as an outstanding example of maturity and far-sightedness. It is, above all, a tribute to the modern German spirit of reconciliation.

Today, the Germans and the Danes can work together knowing that they had a contentious past. And as Spoorendonk said, "Now there is a new situation where you can speak about European integration". In the past, the Danish minority was looked upon as ambassadors of Danish culture in Germany. But today, "it has to do with European integration that there is a coming together that has not always something to do with the minority (status)," she said. And Danish schools teach not just the Danish way of life. "Our children must be prepared to live here. They must know what is going on in society. We live in between."

So, is Ochsenweg the way to go? Perhaps. Both Danes and Germans agree that the word model might not be the right one. But for unquiet borderlands across Europe and beyond, it does show the way.

This article is the result of an individual research trip that was undertaken as part of a Summer Academy for young journalists organised recently by the International Institute for Journalism in Hamburg.

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