My Passport Says I’m German, But My Heart Says I’m Danish

By Sara Abbasi, with thanks to Anna Ferrari

“Where do you come from?”

A question that is asked very often by anyone you meet, but one that might be complicated to answer if you have more than one identity. For someone like Jørn Sanne-Wander, who belongs to a minority group, the answer becomes all the more difficult to explain.

“On Facebook, I spell my name using the Germanic umlaut [ö], but officially I write my name using the Danish slashed ‘o’ [ø]”, says the 22-year-old, when asked how his name is spelt.

Jørn belongs to the Danish minority living in Flensburg, Germany. For him, the concept of identity is somewhat blurred: “Identity is the result of all the experiences you have had in your life. It’s hard to say where I belong; when I’m in Germany, I feel Danish. When I’m in Denmark, I feel German. You cannot claim that you are fully German or fully Danish, but you are a combination of both”. For Jørn, this combination is not two identities joined together – on the contrary, it is one complete identity, just as deep as any other national identity.

Yet, the Danish identity he resonates with so strongly is not one he has inherited from his German parents; rather, Jørn was born German, but became Danish-German.

After a plebiscite in the 1920s, German-ruled Schleswig was split in two, with Southern Schleswig, which includes the city of Flensburg, voting to remain a part of Germany, whilst Northern Schleswig became a part of Denmark. This shift in borders created minority groups on both sides.

At first, the minority groups experienced hardships as they were considered as outsiders by the majority. However, the Danish minority population in Germany grew significantly after World War 2: “The German identity was in crisis and people experienced social adversity in the aftermath of the war, yet the Danish minority, which received support such as food aid from the Danish government, was stable. As a result, many people moved to the South Schleswig region to become a part of the more prosperous Danish community”, explains Professor Jørgen Elklit from the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University, who researched into the national minorities in the Danish-German border region in the 1980s.

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Jørn’s parents, originally from Central Germany, moved to Flensburg by chance, and it was only when they were deciding on which kindergarten to send their children to that they got to know about the already-established Danish community. Once they made the decision to send their children to a Danish school, they consciously adopted the Danish identity: “When you as a German parent decide to send your children to the Danish kindergarten, which is the first step, you subscribe to the mindset and the ideals”, says Jørn. Part of the process of joining this unique education system was that Jørn’s parents had to agree to familiarising themselves with the Danish culture, and learning the Danish language too.

Choosing schools is a tough decision for any parent, as a lot of things have to be taken into consideration. For Jørn’s parents, sending their children to a Danish school was a decision based on personal preference: “My father speaks different languages, so he liked the idea of his children starting with a new language from an early age. Also my mother, who is half Arab, always felt that it was important for her children to experience different cultures, in order to ensure that we became open-minded”. In addition, Jørn’s parents preferred the Danish style of teaching over the German one: “They liked the Danish education system, which is not authoritarian. Students and teachers work together, while in German schools the children are under the authority of the teacher”.

Denmark has provided financial support to the Danish minority for decades. The Danish government finances 50 Danish schools and other cultural institutions in Germany, including a daily bilingual newspaper named ‘Flensborg Avis’: “You cannot underestimate the importance of a well-functioning daily news outlet for a minority group. If you compare minorities in Europe, you will see that the ones that are well-established typically have their own media outlets. It is of utmost importance to produce ordinary news about what is going on within the minority as well as in the surrounding majority society, in order to promote the feeling of being united”, says Jørgen Møllekær, editor-in-chief of Flensborg Avis.

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The newspaper, along with the Danish schools, is a sustainable way to maintain the identity of this community: “People don’t just feel that they are Danish; they feel that they are from this region”, believes Jørn.

And he speaks from experience – it was through his Danish schooling that Jørn became deeply influenced by the Danish culture, thus making it an integral part of his identity: “The Danish kindergarten and schools are with Danish teachers and Danish content, so that would make an impact on you. That’s why I value the Danish education system so much. I also relate to the openness with which Danish people approach each other. That’s something I can identify with”.

At the same time, he has strong ties to his German identity too: “I have always been interested in German politics and history, I read the German newspaper, and we’ve always spoken German at home”.

So what exactly does it mean to be a part of this Danish minority, rather than to be a regular German, in Germany?

To Jørn, the distinction is clear: “The fact is that this minority is no longer a standard ethnic group. Physically, you could never distinguish between Germans and Danes. The difference is cultural. Being a part of this minority is a mindset; it’s a choice. That’s also why it is not allowed to quantify the minority”.

Elklit agrees: “Officially, you are German on paper – you have a German nationality. But socially, you are what you feel. So you are Danish, if you feel Danish”.

Jørn’s views echo this notion of identity construction: “My parents don’t belong to the Danish minority at all and half of the students at Danish schools actually have this kind of background. Some of my friends’ parents also went to Danish schools so they would identify with the Danish culture even more than me, because it has deeper roots for them. For me, it’s more of a choice, but one with a very high path dependency”.

He emphasises that the choice his parents made when they decided to engage with the Danish minority is one that can’t be reversed: “I cannot undo the impact of our minority community on me, or the impact the Danish culture has had on me, nor can the process of identification be reversed. I may not be able to reason for my identity with reference to familial connections or ancestry, but it is who I am”.

Nevertheless, aside from the cultural appeal, being a part of the Danish minority has its financial and educational benefits, a major advantage being that it opens doors across the border: “My sister also went to a Danish school and now she lives and works in Denmark. Being a part of the Danish minority gives us more opportunities as we can study and work in Germany or Denmark. For me, it is the same to live or work in either of the two countries, but of course Denmark has a special place”.

Many students who attend Danish schools in Germany go on to pursue their university education in Denmark. Both Germany and Denmark provide students with financial support, but whilst study grants are means-tested in Germany, in Denmark this is not the case. In fact, the Danish government is far more generous, providing university students with a state grant for up to six years.

But for Jørn, the decision to study at a Danish university goes beyond financial reasons: “I chose Denmark over Germany so that I could maintain my knowledge of the Danish language and culture. I have been learning Danish since a young age, but I wouldn’t have been able to use it very often if I had chosen to study in Germany. A language may come naturally to you as a child, but as an adult you really need to practice it”.

Despite there being no language barrier due to his Danish schooling, Jørn realised that some of his Danish phrases were considered outdated in Denmark: “I would use certain words or sentences, and my Danish friends would tell me that no one uses these words anymore. When you don’t learn a language in the country it’s spoken in, you miss out on the everyday phrases and idioms”.

So is there a sense of expectation for students to continue with the Danish education system and keep in touch with their Danish identity, after attending Danish schools in Germany? Jørn thinks otherwise: “I wouldn’t say there is an expectation, but rather, there is a feeling of obligation to Denmark, which is more personal than external. You have to ask yourself: what do you owe to Denmark?”

This feeling of obligation seems to come from acknowledging that the Danish minority has been well-supported by Denmark ever since its birth: “After the war, the Danish government said: ‘we hold on to you as long as you hold on to us”. So we continue to honour the Danish culture, language and traditions. In my family, we even celebrate Christmas the Danish way, because we love the traditions”.

But in Denmark, Jørn is oftentimes reminded that he is not ‘fully’ Danish. Socially, there are nuances that he is still trying to become acquainted with: “The Danish humour is so different; I’m not always sure how to make jokes. I came to university with some friends from my Danish school in Flensburg, and we hang out a lot. With them, it’s like being at home. We have the same humour and understand each other’s jokes. In fact, I think that even our humour is specific to our region”.

The Danish minority in Flensburg thrives on community spirit, and at the same time it is also well-integrated within German society. The state of Schleswig-Holstein exempts Südschleswigscher Wählerverband (SSW), the regional political party for the Danish minority, from the rule that parties need at least 5% of the votes to win seats in the legislature. This exemption prevents the possibility of splinter-parties, ensuring that the Danish minority is represented fairly in German politics.

However, things weren’t always so smooth for the Danish minority, who were initially faced with repressive German policies: “It was only after the Copenhagen-Bonn Declarations in 1955 that both countries agreed to promote peaceful relations between the populations on both sides of the Danish-German border, and mutually settle on solutions to a number of minority problems”, explains Elklit.

Despite its strong allegiance to Denmark, the Danish minority is content in Flensburg, so much so that even if, hypothetically, it was given the opportunity to have another referendum, the outcome would be the same as in 1920 – to remain a part of Germany, believes Jørn: “We are very used to our dual-identity and way of life. We wouldn’t argue for separatism”.

For Jørn, his Danish identity is embedded so deep within his German one, that it would seem counter-intuitive to claim that one is more significant than the other. Nevertheless, he remains confident about the specificity of his identity: “People tend to simply put other people in boxes, but there is no box for the Danish minority in Germany. I can switch from one language to the other instantaneously, I even think and dream in Danish or German, depending on who I’ve interacted with on that day”.

Could this essentially be a case of a constructed Danish identity across the border?

“It was a constructed identity, that eventually became real”, claims Elklit. The Danish minority in Germany is established and secure. Unlike the German minority on the other side of the border, there is no sign of its population diminishing.

And Jørn gives weight to this claim: “I’m not sure if I’ll work and live in Germany or Denmark, but I would want to send my children to a Danish minority school in Germany”.

It seems that the next generation of dual-identity Danish-German citizens is just a few years away.

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