The people’s right to self-determination

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The people’s right to self-determination

During the First World War, Woodrow Wilson, the American President, outlined a new principle for drawing up national borders, which he termed ‘the people’s right of self-determination’. In October 1918, the German government adopted this principle for a reorganisation of the country’s borders, thus paving the way for a referendum in Schleswig.

On 16 – 17 November 1918, immediately after the cessation of hostilities, representatives of the pro-Danish population of North Schleswig attended a meeting in Aabenraa under the leadership of H.P. Hanssen, who was a member of the German parliament. At this meeting, it was decided to demand that North Schleswig be permitted to vote en bloc, while separate, municipal votes could be held in the neighbouring regions of Central Schleswig.

This demand received the backing of the Danish government and was accepted at the Versailles peace conference in 1919. Under the watchful eye of international observers, two referendums were held in 1920, one on 10 February in North Schleswig (Zone 1) and the other on 14 March in Central Schleswig (Zone 2). A proposal for a referendum in the southernmost part of Schleswig (Zone 3) was rejected.


The people’s right to self-determination

The concept of “The right of peoples and nations to self-determination” is one of the most quoted concepts in international politics. It originates from the United States Declaration of Independence (1776) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1793). These documents lay down the right of citizens to choose their own leaders and form of government.

In the 20th century, the ‘Right of peoples to self-determination’ was acclaimed by statesmen so diverse as US President Woodrow Wilson and the Russian head of state, Wladimir Lenin. Wilson saw this concept as the key to a more peaceful world, whereas Lenin had the idea that he could use it as a central element in his struggle against reactionary empires. The principle was widely applied when Europe was redesigned at the peace negotiations in Versailles after World War I.

After World War II, decolonialisation moved ahead under the banner of  ‘the right of self-determination’. In the last forty years, large numbers of dissatisfied regions and national minorities have called upon this principle – the Basques, for example, and the Tamils in the north of Sri Lanka.

So when the cry of nations for the right of self-determination is heard throughout the globe, from East Timor to Kurdistan, one might surmise that theirs is a reasonable demand, but matters are not as simple as they seem!

In 1920, if a plebiscite had been held in the whole of the old Duchy of Schleswig, from the River Kongeå to the River Ejder, there would have been a German majority. The size of the area in which the plebiscite is held is a decisive factor.


Redesigning Europe 1919-21

On 8 January 1918, the US President Woodrow Wilson made public his famous ’14 points’.  The right of nations to self-determination was a salient feature of these points, but was only realised to a limited degree.

In 1915, the Allied powers in Europe – Great Britain, France and Russia – had agreed that if Italy entered the war on their side, she would in return be allowed without hindrance to annexe the Tyrol south of Brenner, Trieste, Istria, the northern Dalmatians, Rhodes and Kos.

This promise was indeed consistent with the contemporary practice of power politics, but it was clearly at odds with the new principle of the right to self-determination which was at this time being introduced.

In 1919, at the end of World War I, Europe was territorially redesigned. Four great empires bit the dust, and their rulers disappeared: the Romanov dynasty in Russia; the Hapsburg dynasty in Austria-Hungary and the Hohenzollern dynasty in Germany.

Only the reduced states remained, now as republics: Soviet Russia, Turkey, Austria, Hungary and Germany.

On the other hand, a number of new states emerged in Central and Eastern Europe: Poland was resurrected after more that a hundred years of non-existence, and Czechoslovakia arose as a completely new state. An independent West Ukraine existed for a short transition period, and the three Baltic States appeared on the scene.

At the same time, Finland became an independent country for the first time ever, and in the Balkans Croats and Slovenes were each given their monarchy. Finally, in many cases, adjustments were made to the borders between existing states, for example between Denmark and Germany.


H.P. Hanssen takes up the fight

H.P. Hansen sat in the German Reichstag as the representative of the Danish-minded community in North Schleswig. In the autumn of 1917, when a German defeat seemed likely, he began paving the way for demanding a plebiscite and reunification with Denmark.

On 22 December 1917 there was a meeting of the executive committees of the major Danish associations. They passed a resolution that a statement be read to the Prussian State Diet setting out their demand for the right to self-determination.

There were some who doubted the possibility of reunification. To them, H. P. Hanssen replied: “The final defeat of Germany is inevitable … I do not doubt that when peace is made we may achieve our goal, if only we keep our wits about us and be ready boldly to intervene when the moment is right”.

In January 1918 US President Woodrow Wilson made public his ’14 Points’ for the coming peace. The right to self-determination was a central element in this document, but North Schleswig was not mentioned as an area where self-determination might apply. So it was still too early for the Danish-minded Southern Jutlanders, led by H.P. Hanssen, to move into action.

Two major German offences in the spring of 1918 (March-April and May-June) seemed for a while to be successful, but a third offensive in July-August failed, and a major allied counter offensive was launched.

The allies broke through on 8 August – ‘The black day of the German army’. On 13 August, the German generals, Hindenburg and Ludendorff advised their government to seek an armistice.

H. P. Hanssen now knew that the German collapse was imminent. He made an agreement with representatives of the Polish minority in the Reichstag that they together would put forward their demand for the right to self-determination.

On 9 October 1918, H. P. Hanssen reached an agreement with the two Southern Jutland members of the Prussian State Diet to the effect that they would work for a border south of Tønder and north of  Flensburg. Their proposal was accepted at a meeting in Flensburg on 12 October.

Then, on 23 October 1918 in the German Reichstag, H. P. Hanssen stated his demand for the reunification of North Schleswig with Denmark. The armistice came into force on 11 November, bringing the World War to an end.

The claim for the right to self-determination could now be made. The final formulation of this claim on the part of the Danish Southern Jutlanders took place at a meeting of Electors Association at the ‘Folkehjem’ in Aabenraa on 16-17 November 1918.

At the close of the meeting, H. P. Hanssen spoke from the balcony of the Folkehjem to the assembled crowd of 3,000 people, assuring them that the likelihood of reunification with Denmark was very strong indeed.


H.P. Hanssens speach 1918

H.P. Hanssens speach on the 17. November 1918 (Danish)