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Europe

German-Danish Border Serves as Model for Europe

Germany and Denmark can be proud of their post-war solutions to minority issues along their shared border. Their success story influences governmental policies throughout Europe.

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Flensburg is home to both Germans and Danes

For the 20,000 Germans in the south of Denmark and the 50,000 Danes in the north of Germany the border between the two countries has a different meaning than for most people. The ties that bind the two countries are particularly bloody and the ethnic minorities have felt the brunt of it.

"It was difficult for the German minority during the war," recalls Dieter Wernich, who experienced the Nazi occupation of Denmark as a member of the German minority in southern Jutland. "As a citizen - we were Danish citizens too - you try to be loyal to the state in which you live and then to your people, to whose culture you still feel drawn to," he told DW-RADIO.

The wounds have largely healed now - in no small part thanks to the 1955 Bonn-Copenhagen Declaration which allowed the minority communities on both sides of the border equal cultural rights to members of the respective majority cultures in Germany and Denmark.

Now the balance created over the last 50 years on the German-Danish peninsula serves as a model for border regions throughout Europe.

Peaceful co-existence

Representatives from both sides praise the work of the state government in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany's most northern region. Many years ago the parliament there created a commission to deal exclusively with both minorities. Not only do parliamentarians and minority representatives meet twice a year to discuss relevant issues, but the state's premier is also advised on issues concerning minorities and ethnic groups by a commissioner for minority affairs.

Germany's Danes have developed their own infrastructure, which ranges from a German-Danish newspaper to Danish-language schooling, libraries and pastors. Three members of the German-Danish political party exercise mandates in the current Schleswig-Holstein government.

"It took a long time, but now it's been set up so that these minorities can maintain their independence..." says Dieter Küssner, a member of the Danish Secretary General in Germany and the rector of a Danish school in Flensburg. "Actually everything was set up so that you can lead a cultural life from the cradle to the deathbed according to your own terms," he explains, referring to the Danish-speaking community in Germany.

In Denmark, the country's constitution guarantees the German minority the right to maintain its culture. But conflicts do arise again and again. The "Bund Deutscher Nordschleswiger," which represents Germans in southern Jutland, for example, is quick to explain how a German teacher was greeted with "Heil Hitler" in a Danish school. The organization, however, is largely satisfied with Danish governmental policies towards minorities.

A model for Europe

The German-Danish success story has become a model for other European border regions. Hungary and Rumania, both fairly progressive countries when it comes to dealing with minorities, have looked to the northern European example to improve their own policies. Hungarian politicians oriented themselves on Schleswig-Holstein when they passed a law on minorities, considered to be the most modern in southeastern Europe.

Border regions everywhere in Europe are meeting points for different cultures, which are often even marked by a unique border culture reflecting a mixture of the different national or ethnic groups who live there. The cross-border minorities have the opportunity to act as bridges between the two countries.

A positive influence

According to Dieter Küssner, the implications of minorities' roles cannot be underplayed: "This bridge function - because we can move around in both or more cultures - is very, very important and is a positive element. You have to say to these border regions have a potential that's significant, also for the future of Europe."

Hans Heinrich Hansen from the "Bund Deutscher Nordschleswiger" goes even further. He believes that minorities have a lot to teach the dominant cultures within a united Europe, particularly when it comes to national identity and the EU. "That is something that the majority populations in Europe still have to learn. They are in the midst of the learning process. The minorities are much further. And that's where the majority populations could learn from the minority populations what double loyalty means."

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