Danish minority never so visible

By Karoline V. M. Hansen, Michael Huguenin and Bart de Bruijn

Who do you love the most, your mum or your dad? It’s a question that most people find very difficult to answer. It’s a question not asked very often. But for the children of South Schleswig it is a question they meet quite often, although it is rarely so explicit.

Children from just south of the Danish-German border are asked many times “are you German or are you Danish?” For them it is like choosing between their mum and dad, because many families in South Schleswig include one German and one Danish parent.

Living in South Schleswig is all about identity, particularly for the fifty thousand strong Danish minority. To be a part of this minority is a choice that members of the mindretal make every day.

“Fundamentally, being part of the mindretal is an active choice,” explains Lisbet Mikkelsen Buhl, school consultant for the Dansk Skoleforening for Sydslesvig (DSF), the Danish school association in South Schleswig.

“There are some that choose to join and there are some that choose to leave. That’s the way it is.”

Identity can grow

Because of this identity can wax and wane. Right now, the Danish minority is facing one of its biggest challenges in recent years. And that’s brought them closer together. Much closer.

“The Danish minority has never ever been so visible as it is today,” explains Jørgen Kühl, principal of A. P. Møller Skolen.

Danes under attack

The reason for this change is a decision by the government of Schleswig-Holstein last year to cut funding to the Danish schools from 100 percent to 85 percent per student. The Danish minority believes this goes against the Bonn-Copenhagen Declarations of 1955, which protects the rights of the respective minorities on each side of the Danish-German border.

The A.P. Møller Skolen

This led to large demonstrations around the region of South Schleswig against that decision. The Danish minority came out in force.

This example shows that certain elements of identity can grow or shrink. The members of the Danish mindretal can feel more or less Danish at different times in their lives, in different situations and in different groups.

It also means that work can be done to strengthen the identity.

Some members of the Danish minority believe that more could be done.

German undercurrent

In 2005, students at Danish schools in South Schleswig were interviewed to find out their sense of identity. A small percentage considered themselves German.

The general secretary of the Sydslesvigsk Forening (SSF), Jens A. Christiansen believes that is a problem.

Jens A. Christiansen - SSF General Secretary

“If you’re going to the Danish schools for thirteen years and you felt you were German then something’s wrong.

“Then some of the teachers thought, ‘can we strengthen the opinion about being Danish and Danish identity’? Can we make some discussion for the young people so that they are more focused on this matter?”

Northern migration

That change in mentality seems to be having an effect. Around 70% of graduates from the Danish school system leave South Schleswig to study in Denmark each year. Many never come back.

“That choice is an example of one thing, that the socialization of the Danish minority schools has been very effective,” argues Jørgen.

Despite this enrollment figures at Danish schools have remained fairly constant over the years. The mindretal is attracting Germans to join.

Jonas Knickmeier is an example of a German who was attracted to the Danish society.

The 20 year old student moved with his parents from Hamburg to South Schleswig just after he was born. His father decided after living in the region that he would like his son to grow up in the Danish minority and so he sent Jonas to a Danish kindergarten.

“Which I am very, very thankful to him for,” explains Jonas.

German or Danish? Or both?!

Jonas is a student at A. P. Møller and is a member of the youth division of the Südschleswigscher Wählerverband (SSW), the political party that represents the minorities of South Schleswig. He prefers to call himself South Schleswigan.

“It is something special and it is definitely has nothing to do with being one or the other, Danish or German but more about being both,” says Jonas.

The mindretal is keen to make it clear, however, that their schools are only for the minority. If Germans decide that they would like their children to attend they must agree to become a part of the Danish society of South Schleswig.

“You can’t just choose…because it is a nice school,” Lisbet points out.

School requirements

The most basic requirement of the DSF is that the parents encourage their children to learn Danish. In fact the DSF believes the parents should also at least try. Lisbet believes Danish is the perfect window into Danish culture and eventually Danish identity.

“It is difficult to work with the culture and the most difficult is to work with the identity but they hang together,” the school administrator explains.

“So if you take the easy and the concrete and work with the language and think about the culture, then the young people can develop the identity themselves.”

Get them started early

Danes and Germans side by side

Jonas agrees.

“In that context it is also very important to learn Danish,” he says.

“The language is one of the most important parts of the culture.”

Jørgen believes that process must start early.

“95 percent of students at A. P. Møller Skolen have gone to a Danish kindergarten,” says the school’s principal.

“So they learn the traditions early with Danish songs, Christmas, fastelavn and so on.”

The school funding issue has been the biggest challenge to the Danish minority in decades. Ironically, this has led to a strengthening of Danish identity south of the Danish-German border.

“Maybe we can expect, some might hope, that the identification that has taken place (over the last year) has given the minority a certain kick start,” says Jørgen.

To read more about how it is to be a student in a Danish school in Germany read this.

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