Military clashes in Schleswig/Slesvig
secessionist movement of the large German majority in Holstein and southern Schleswig was suppressed in the
First Schleswig War (1848–51), but the movement continued throughout the 1850s and 1860s, as Denmark attempted to integrate the Duchy of Schleswig into the Danish kingdom whilst proponents of German unification expressed the wish to include the Danish-ruled duchies of Holstein and Schleswig in a
Greater Germany. Holstein was a part of the
German Confederation and before 1806 a German fief and completely ethnically
German, whereas Schleswig was a Danish fief and was linguistically mixed between German, Danish and
North Frisian. The northern and middle parts of Schleswig spoke Danish but the language in the southern half had shifted gradually to German. German culture was dominant among the clergy and nobility; Danish had a lower social status and was spoken mainly by the rural population. For centuries, while the rule of the king was absolute, these conditions had created few tensions. When egalitarian ideas spread and nationalist currents emerged about 1820, identification was mixed between Danish and German.
Furthermore, there was a grievance about tolls charged by Denmark on shipping passing through the
Danish Straits between the
Baltic Sea and the
North Sea. To avoid that expense, Prussia planned to construct the
Kiel Canal, which could not be built as Denmark ruled Holstein.
Schleswig, Holstein and Lauenburg before the war
Much of the dispute focused on the heir of King
Frederick VII of Denmark. The Germans of Holstein and Schleswig supported the
House of Augustenburg, a cadet branch of the Danish royal family but the average Dane considered them too German and preferred the rival
Glücksburg branch with Prince
Christian of Glücksburg as the new sovereign. Prince Christian had served on the Danish side in the
First Schleswig War (1848–1851). At the time, the king of Denmark was also duke of the duchies of Holstein and Schleswig. In 1848, Denmark had received its first free constitution and at the same time (and partly as a consequence) had fought a civil war with the Germans of Schleswig-Holstein, in which Prussia had intervened.
The peace treaty stipulated that the duchy of Schleswig should be treated the same as the duchy of Holstein in its relations with the Kingdom of Denmark. During the revisions of the 1848 constitution in the late 1850s and early 1860s, Holstein refused to acknowledge the revision, creating a crisis in which the parliament in Copenhagen ratified the revision but Holstein did not. That was a clear breach of the 1851 peace treaty and gave Prussia and the German union a
casus belli against Denmark. The German situation was considerably more favorable than it had been fifteen years before, when Prussia had to give in due to the risk of military intervention by Britain, France and Russia on behalf of Denmark. France had colonial problems, not least with Britain.
Otto von Bismarck had neutralized Russia politically and succeeded in obtaining cooperation from Austria which underlined its great power status within the German union.