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Danes in Germany

  • Profile 

    There are approximately 50,000 ethnic Danes in the Federal State of Schleswig-Holstein of Germany, which means that the Danish minority constitute 8 to 10 per cent of the population on the border region. The population is mostly concentrated on the city of Flensburg (Flensborg) at the border with Denmark, where it has a historic presence in the shipbuilding industry. Now Danes are mostly employed in service industries. Standard Danish, Rigsdansk, is the main version, with some speaking South Jutish, Sønderjysk 

    The Danish minority maintains its own cultural and educational facilities, while on the Danish side of the border, the German minority benefits from similar arrangements; these facilities are funded by both the Danish and German authorities. The Danish minority has its own religious organizations, media, libraries and museums. 

    There are an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 Frisians. There are two branches of the language, North Frisian and Sater Frisian. North Frisian is spoken by around 9,000 people on the North Frisian Islands in the North Sea and on the west coast of the state of Schleswig-Holstein. In the past North Frisians were mostly involved in farming but this has changed to tourism, especially in the islands and increasingly on the mainland. Just over half work in services, a quarter in manufacturing, one-fifth in transportation and trade, and 3 per cent in farming and fishing. 

    Sater Frisian or Saterlandic is spoken by 2,000 people of the Saterland community in the Cloppenburg district of the state of Lower Saxony. Its main dialects are those of the villages of RamslohScharrel and Strücklingen. It is an endangered language. 

    Historical context

    Schleswig and Holstein were ruled by Denmark from the eighth to the nineteenth centuries. However, nation-building processes in the region were characterized by a number of conflicts between Denmark and Prussia, accompanied by border changes and assimilatory policies towards minorities. In 1864, after war broke out between Denmark on the one hand and Prussia and Austria on the other followed by Danish defeat and the occupation of nearly the whole of Jutland, the Danish government was forced to cede most of Schleswig and Holstein to the two victors. After the Seven Weeks’ or Austro-Prussian War of 1866 which resulted in Austria defeat, Schleswig-Holstein was annexed by Prussia as a single province.  

    The current border between Germany and Denmark was established in 1920 by a plebiscite as an outcome of the First World War: the public of Northern Schleswig voted to return to Denmark, while those in Central Schleswig voted to remain with Germany. Despite these arrangements, it was not possible to draw a clear ethnic and linguistic line between the Danes and Germans, which resulted in a situation where some parts of the population found themselves on the ‘wrong’ side of the border and, thus, became minorities. The border remained a source of tension in Danish-German relations, however, and during the 1930s there were calls from some minority representatives on both sides for the territorial boundaries to be redrawn.  

    However, West Germany’s application to join NATO was conditional on the successful conclusion of a bilateral agreement with Denmark covering the issue of minority rights. Thus, in 1955 the Bonn-Copenhagen declarations appeared in parallel, dealing with the situation of the Danish minority in the Federal Province of Schleswig-Holstein and the German minority in the region of South Jutland respectively. These declarations included a number of minorityspecific issues, such as the removal of a five per cent vote threshold for the Danish minority at the election at the Schleswig-Holstein level, or reinstatement of private secondary education for the German minority in Denmark. 

    As a result of these governmental arrangements, the region and its minorities were able to gradually achieve reconciliation, develop mutual trust, and maintain fruitful cooperation at the various social and political levels in the Danish-German borderland, so that it is currently seen as a model of bilateral cooperation between two bordering states. 

    The Constitution of the Land of Schleswig-Holstein safeguards the rights of the Danish and Frisian communities, and both groups have German citizenship. The state of Lower Saxony recognized Sater Frisian as a minority language and is committed to its preservation and promotion, following Germany’s ratification of the European Framework Convention on National Minorities (FCNM). 

    Current issues

    The umbrella organization of the Danish minority in Germany is the South Schleswigian Association (Danish: Sydslesvigsk Forening or SSF). It was founded in 1920 and currently gathers together around 16,000 members in some 70 local branches.  

    The South Schleswig Voters’ Association (SSW, Danish: Sydslesvigsk Vælgerforening; North Frisian: Söödschlaswiksche Wäälerferbånd) is a political representative of the Danish minority, although it also acts on behalf of the Frisian community. The SSW is exempt from the 5 per cent minimum electoral threshold which a political party typically requires to enter legislative bodies at state and federal levels in Germany. Thus, to be represented in the Landtag of Schleswig-Holstein the party needs to obtain the number of votes that will at least be equal to the lowest result required to gain a parliamentary seat according to the proportional representation system (which is around 20,000 votes). Thus, the party has been regularly represented in the Landtag since 1947, except for the period of 1954-58. It also delegated ministers to the government of the Federal State of Schleswig-Holstein and has its representatives in over 70 municipal and district councils throughout Schleswig-Holstein. The SSW is a regional party, as it has not participated in the German federal elections since 1965. 

    Both SSF and SSW are involved in the work of the Minority Council of the four national minorities of Germany as the representatives of the Danish minority.  

    The Danish School Association (Danish: Dansk Skoleforening for Sydslesvig) is responsible for the organization of the system of private schools as well as for adult education for the needs of the Danish minority. The border town of Flensburg is home of a Danish language daily newspaper Flensborg Avis and the Danish Central Library for Southern Schleswig. With some 6,000 members, the Evangelical-Lutheran Danish Church in Southern Schleswig (Danish: Dansk Kirke i Sydslesvig) serves the needs of the Danish minority. There are also various other Danish associations and clubs with sector– or group-focused activities.  

    The economic profile of the region of Southern Schleswig where the Danish minority is concentrated has clear cross-border dimensions and knowledge of Danish is often considered an asset. 

    One of the most important issues for the Danish minority is the equal financing of Danish schools. In 2010, the plans of the authorities of the Federal State of Schleswig-Holstein to reduce subsidies for the minority schools from 100 to 85 per cent mobilized the Danish minority to campaign under the slogan ‘Our children are also worth 100 percent!’ The Danish organizations argued that these measures were discriminatory and ultimately the full subsidies for pupils were reintroduced in January 2013. In January 2014, new regulations on alternative school financing in Schleswig-Holstein became effective which provide that the Danish minority schools shall be funded at the same level as the state schools.  

    Additionally, the Danish minority strives for a wider public use of the Danish language. Thus, as a result of amendments of the Federal State Administration Act in 2016, representatives of the Danish minority in the town of Flensburg and the districts of Nordfriesland, Schleswig-Flensburg and Rendsburg-Eckernförde are entitled to file their applications, petitions and other documents in their mother tongue. A similar provision pertinent to legal proceedings may be introduced in the future.

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