1864 und die Folgen, Teil 2 |’This here Schleswig-Holstein rumpus’. British public opinion, 1863–1866

A guest contribution by David G. Kirby.

 

‘This here Schleswig-Holstein rumpus/han’t bin brought about by much/
all, for aught I can compass/speakin Danish for High Dutch’.

This piece of doggerel, published in Punch in the spring of 1864, may be seen as a typical reaction of the British ‘man in the street’ to the crisis in the duchies in 1863–64. What even the Times referred to as the ‘miserable’ question of the duchies puzzled readers of the British press, in spite of lengthy articles seeking to explain the intricacies of the various claims. There was also a great deal happening elsewhere in the world – the Risorgimento in Italy, the Polish revolt, and the civil war in the United States, to name but three major events which claimed the attention of newspaper readers. Nevertheless, the Schleswig-Holstein question was rather more than a troublesome minor issue that might afford what one provincial newspaper dismissed as ‘materials for amusement’ for English readers. For a start, British foreign policy and its concern for the European balance of power was involved. The statements and actions of the Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell came in for heavy criticism, particularly after he appeared in autumn 1862 to propose that Denmark and the three duchies should each have separate governments. ‘Such restless and impotent meddling’, in the view of the Times had proved disastrous in the past for British foreign policy.

Britain was also a signatory of the 1852 London Protocol, about which there was much confusion. On the whole, the provincial press tended towards a sceptical view of the agreement, ‘a dangerously dirty piece of business’ in the opinion of the Dundee Courier and Argus. In radical circles, the hand of autocratic Russia was clearly behind the London Protocol. It was nothing more than the transcript of a protocol concluded by the Danish minister and two Russian emissaries a year earlier in Warsaw, the wealthy industrialist and prominent radical George Crawshay told a packed meeting in Gateshead in February 1864, and the whole purpose of a highly complicated series of appended reservations to the protocol was to bolster the Russian claim to the throne of Denmark in the event of the failure of the Glücksburg line. The major Scottish newspapers were markedly more hostile than their English counterparts towards the Glücksburg claim. In the opinion of the Dundee Courier, it was based solely on the 1852 agreement, forced on all parties as a ‘European necessity’. Prince Christian, the Glasgow Herald informed its readers, was despised by the Danes as a foreign intruder and hated in the duchies for deserting their cause in 1848. The fact that Christian’s daughter Alexandra had only recently married the Prince of Wales seems nowhere to have prompted sympathy for the house of Glücksburg. This may reflect the gross inability of the Danes to pursue their argument in the British press, where German propagandists such as Karl Blind were very successful in having their views published, but it might also be an indication of the rather low esteem in which the British royal family was held at the time.

If the British press was lukewarm at best to the claims of Prince Christian, it did not evince much enthusiasm for the Augustenburg claimant either. The Times believed that the revolutionary implications of duke Friedrich’s claims were feared in Berlin and Vienna and would thus dispose the Prussian and Austrian governments to adopt a moderating position. As late as the end of November 1863 the Times could confidently assert that ‘there is no reason to complain of the conduct of Prussia and Austria on the question of the Danish succession’, and it continued to believe that Prussia and Austria ‘are more sincere than Denmark believes’ (20 Jan 1864). The renowned ‘Thunderer’1 was palpably shocked when the two powers decided a week later not to suspend operations against Schleswig in spite of concessions made and promised by Denmark. Within a fortnight of the invasion of Denmark, the Times could only counsel the Danes to concede defeat whilst lamenting the fact that Prussia and Austria had openly repudiated the 1852 agreement.

Düppeler Schanzen. Nach dem Sturm der preussischen Truppen am 18. April 1864. Schanze Nr. 5

The Fortifications at Dybbøl.
After the storming by Prussian troups on April 18th, 1864.
Sconce no. 5
Wikimedia Commons, German Federal Archive Collections, public domainpicture no. 146-1972-055-50     

The notion that the war was simply a continuation of 1848, an attempt by German nationalism to drag the sovereigns in its wake, encapsulated in the words of one of the special correspondents of the Times that ‘the attack is made upon Denmark, but the blow is aimed at Prussia and Austria’, did not find favour in much of the provincial press, where there was deep suspicion of Prussian designs. The conclusion of the piece of doggerel verse published by Punch was that ‘Their true object and endeavour/is a navy to create’, and the port of Kiel was singled out in a number of newspapers as the desired object of Prussian intervention. In contrast to the Times, which tended to see the conservative great powers as the guarantor of peace in Europe in the face of revolutionary upheaval, newspapers of a more liberal persuasion expressed some understanding and sympathy for the aspirations of the German speakers of the duchies.

If in the run-up to the outbreak of hostilities in 1864 British liberal opinion took a dim view of the Prussians for abandoning their own struggle for constitutional liberty and flinging themselves into the hands of the man whom the liberal MP Charles Buxton denounced as ‘that wretched charlatan Count Bismarck’, it did not markedly warm to the Danish cause either. Danish policy in the duchies since 1850 was widely criticised. In ‘A letter to one of his constituents’ the liberal MP Harry Verney adopted an analogy beloved of the Victorian mind. ‘When we see two big schoolboys beating a little boy, and the little fellow sticking up bravely in the unequal contest, we are delighted with the pluck of the little hero, and long to take part for him in the fray. But when we learn that the little boy has been a sad bully to a child smaller and weaker than himself … we feel a painful regret; and then if, on enquiry, we find that the two big fellows are interfering on behalf of a child whom they promised to protect — our warmest sympathy is transferred to the least and weakest victim in the affair.’

Sympathy for Denmark did increase once hostilities commenced in earnest. Typical is the editorial comment of the Bradford Observer on 4 February 1864 which thought that success for the Danes ‘would be a victory for humanity, while the triumph of Germany would only prove that might is right’. However, in common with other provincial newspapers, the Bradford Observer was alarmed by the bellicose articles carried by the London press. There was much concern that Lord Palmerston was contemplating intervention on the Danish side, and worries that the peace party led by the radical MP John Bright would not be up to the task of controlling the wily British prime minister. In words which have an uncomfortable echo at the present moment, the Observer concluded that although sympathy for Denmark is strong, ‘we love peace, and with our nice little balance at our bankers, we are naturally very loth to let ourselves be dragged into war. Technically, we are not bound to go to war for the integrity of Denmark. Is it not natural therefore, that we should, as a people, feel irresolute?’

The crisis did not end with the defeat of Danish forces. Coverage of the Schleswig- Holstein question in the national British newspapers was, if anything, more intense during the Austro-Prussian occupation, with special correspondents regularly filing lengthy reports from Kiel or Flensburg. The tone of these reports is generally the same: all hopes of local independence are being crushed by Prussia. ‘Complaints are heard on all sides that the country is treated as a conquered province’ commented the special correspondent of the Morning Post at the end of January 1865, whilst the York Herald declared in April that Bismarck’s aim from the first was not the liberation and independence of the duchies, but their severance from Denmark in order to enable Prussia to increase its territory and become a maritime power.

It was indeed the role of Prussia that proved to be a turning-point in British attitudes. Hitherto, there had been a fairly common British perception of Germans as dreamy folk, fond of beer and cloudy philosophising. The policy over Schleswig-Holstein pursued by Bismarck changed all that. In the run-up to the final crisis, the British newspapers frequently looked to see what the emperors of France and Russia would do. Prussia was seen either as a restraining influence upon the quasi-revolutionary tendencies of the German Confederation or as still enmeshed in its own internal political struggles.

Bismarck emerged only gradually as the decisive arbiter, but, as the Dundee Courier and Argus reminded its readers in January 1866, the history of the past few years had revealed him as a ‘bold, able and dangerous man’. The British press still expected him to stumble against the forces of liberty, whether in the person of the heir to the Prussian throne or simply public opinion: ‘happily for the world’, the Courier assured its readers, ‘even a Prussian Count in these days cannot expect to found on a solid and stable basis a lasting system of absolutism and reaction.’ Here, as in many other instances, the liberal British press displayed a jaunty optimism that was to be rudely shattered over the next decades.


David Kirby is one of the most prolific experts on the history of Finland, Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea Region in the English-speaking world. As a Reader and later Professor, he taught Modern History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at the University of London until his retirement in 2005. He is best known for his two-volume history of the Baltic World (published 1990 and 1995) and has published widely on Finnish history, his Concise History of Finland  being his latest monography on this field. He has been a guest contributor once before on NordicHistoryBlog with a piece on Finnish constitutional development and political culture in the aftermath of independence.


  1. A formerly much more widespread nickname for the Times. []

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