The border region youth that volunteer to be part of the program travel in groups to schools in the rest of Denmark to tell about their situation and their identity: what it is like to live as part of a national minority. / Photo: Gunvor Vestergaard

Youth show the way to combine nationalities

Reportage. It has been a scenery of wars, conflicts, and changing borders. Now the youth from both sides of the German-Danish border tour to tell fellow youth about living together and being Both/And instead of Either/Or.

16.12.2016

COPENHAGEN. Most of the day, Ronja Hallmann and Paul Mossner, 17 and 18 years old have been on their way. Hallmann from the southern part of Denmark; Mossner from the northern part of Germany. It is early afternoon, and now they and 40 other high school students from the German-Danish border region called Slesvig gather in an empty hall at Zahle High School in central Copenhagen.

After a brief introduction by organiser Gunvor Vestergaard, from Danish Border Association (Grænseforeningen)  to a two-day program, The high school students from the border region divide into groups of five to six. No chairs available in the hall, they sit on their floor.

Each group prepare their upcoming task: to explain to young students from Copenhagen what it is like to live as part of a national minority in a border region. How to handle being bi-lingual, bi-cultural, and bi-national.

But their ambitions go further than that. They also want to engage their host friends at Zahle in debates and reflection on nations, cultures, and traditions.

How do we get everybody in the Copenhagen class to say something and state their opinion? Will everybody in our group tell their personal story? How do we start, and can we fit in all our ideas to a 45 minutes’ lesson?

These are some of the questions that are discussed in one the groups during preparation.

Student ambassadors share their experience of being minority

The Slesvig students either belong to the Danish minority in Northern Germany or to the German minority in Southern Denmark, called Southern Jutland.

Before going to Copenhagen, they have participated in courses about national identities, but also about how to present their knowledge, their experiences and their feelings to other young people. As part of the student ambassador corps of the Danish Border Association, most of them have already experienced school visits in other parts of Denmark before.

The student ambassadors run the class room session with a class of Copenhagen students entirely on their own. The Zahle teacher stays completely in the background.

Each of the ambassadors tells a personal story about their relation to the border region. Ekaterina Khristoforova happens to be tri-national:

– I remember how insecure I felt, when at eleven I for the first time entered a German school in Denmark, where I live. I had no previous relations with German language and culture, but my parents, who are Russians of birth, chose this school for me. That decision will affect me for the rest of my life, she tells.

The Copenhagen students listen with great interest. They hush at each other, if somebody talks to the guy next to them or make a noise. In the small breaks of the program, they approach the ambassadors with questions that they don’t like to ask in plenum.

Following the crowd or defending own position

– Let’s move the tables to create some free space, says student ambassador May Sønnichsen.

She instructs everybody – hosts and guests – to grab a card, read the question printed on it and pair with another one to discuss the statement for a minute or two.

– But only two minutes, then you move on to another person, she continues.

The questions vary from “What do you know about the German minority in Denmark?” and “Can you tell about a silly prejudice you have come across?” to “How do you spend your free time outside school?” and “How do you celebrate Christmas?”

The brief face-to-face debates are intense, and Sønnichsen has some trouble stopping it again before instructing the next part of the session, called “Agree/Disagree”.

Sophie Hoffmann, one of May Sønnichsen’s fellow ambassadors, reads a statement, and asks all those who agree to move to one end of the room, and those who disagree to move to the other end. Then they ask a couple of people at each end to explain why they chose that side. This is repeated 7 or 8 times with different statements.

More than one cultural and national identity

The Zahle students tend to follow the crowd, and most of them end up at the same side of the room for most statements. They are also a little less inclined to argue their case in front of the whole class, than when they just had to do it to one other person.

Nevertheless, some hot issues come into the open, when they are asked to react to statements like: “You cannot have more than one identity”, “You become a Dane if you are born in Denmark”, “I don’t like the German language” or “You must support the national sports teams of the country where you live”.

It turns out that the Zahle students do not have trouble relating to the double identity idea. One student tells, that she feels half Irish, because she spent all her childhood in Ireland. Another one is a daughter of Ukrainians, and a young man is half Danish half Swedish.

The negative connotations of German vary from “ugly language” and the Nazi history.

In this class room, all of those, who speak up, agree that you can have more than one cultural and national identity, and that it is not defined only by birth place or by passport.

It is a feeling, says a Zahle student.

– When I am in Germany, I feel Danish, and when I am in Denmark, I feel German, says one of the ambassadors.

“I don’t like the German language”

The language question raises some disagreements. While the ambassadors would like German to stay obligatory in Danish schools, it is not important to the Copenhagen youth. “It is just one of many languages and not the most important. It should be optional,” says one of them.

A few courageous Zahle students move to the side of the room that agrees with the statement “I don’t like the German language”.

–  It sounds aggressive, says one, and he is immediately opposed by another one saying “Danish is ugly, too!”

And then the ghost of the past appears in the room, when a Zahle student says that “some people” think that the Germans are “Nazis”. But this is a one-off remark, and it is the only time that the Nazi-issue and the occupation of Denmark during World War II is brought up.

Or in fact, in other class rooms at Zahle that day the ambassadors use a debate card saying “Arbeit macht frei”, the infamous inscription at the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp – well known by several generations. But this card only creates confusion, because no one in the class knows what it is all about.

Being a minority is special

Paul Mossner, 18, and Ronja Hallmann, 17, are student ambassadors who share their experience of being minority. / Photo: Michael Voss.

At the end of the day, I ask Ronja Hallmann and Paul Mossner to stay back a while and tell me, why they are student ambassadors:

– When I joined the first ambassador course, I was so fascinated by the personal stories of the other participants. It helped me understand what is special about being a member of the German minority in Denmark, Hallmann says.

– I want other young people to understand the benefits and potentials of being part of two cultures and having two mother tongues.

– My first experience in front of a Danish high school class was really great. There were good questions and statements, and it was not only about informing and explaining to the others. We, the ambassadors, also learned a lot, Hallmann says.

Mossner defines his motivation as a political aim:

– A lot of people in Denmark think that all this talk about the Danish minority in Germany is just out-dated and nostalgia and about remembering the wars and the kings and the reunification in 1920. But I think that the way that the German and Danish minorities have dealt with the minority question can be a role model for other countries and other border regions, he says.

Mossner is also a member of an organisation called Youth of European Nationalities.

– I have learned that other national minorities are discriminated against. I want to spread the good message of Slesvig.

Traffic signs reflect the past

But it is not all brotherhood and happiness in the border region.

– I have met animosity from other children and youth, because I am German. It was only due to ignorance, says Ronja Hallmann.

– Opposition and animosity between the national minorities and majorities was a much bigger issue in the generations of our grandparents and even our parents, she reflects.

Sometimes still, it becomes a public issue. Like recently, a strong opposition has been voiced among Danes in Southern Jutland against a proposal for traffic signs in both Danish and German language. Even references to the Nazi-occupation have appeared in that debate.

– These sentiments are on their way out, but there is still some work to do. That is also one reason why the student ambassadors project is important, she says.

Gaining self-confidence

Paul Mossner agrees that the way out of the remnants of these conflicts is information and education.

– Many Danes do not accept that I am also German. Maybe, it is not a conflict between nationalities but between being in majority and being in minority. To me, it is not an either/or, but a question of where to place yourself between completely German and completely Danish. By participating in this project, I have become more comfortable with my own position, and I have gained a lot of self-confidence, he says.

Afterwards, I tell Gunvor Vestergaard from The Danish Border Association about my conversation with Ronja Hallmann and Paul Mossner.

– That is exactly what we want to accomplish with the project. It is supposed to be a double learning experience, both for the youth of the minorities and for Danish youth in the rest of the country. To challenge the Either/Or way of thinking and promoting the Both/And is so important.

Gunvor Vestergaard agrees with Hallmann and Mossner that there is not much animosity between the youth of national minorities and majorities.

– If you want to look for animosity in that group, it is rather their common opposition to Berlin and Copenhagen, she says.

– We don’t want to impose a specific identity on the participants, but we will like them to reflect on it. And then they come up with different conclusions. Some of them define what we call a hyphen-identity: German-Danish. Other end up realising that they are basically Danish or basically German.

And then again, some of them, Vestergaard explains, want to be Neither/Nor.

– They define themselves as Slesvigians and Europeans.

Slesvig – historical background

The border region between Germany and Denmark is called Slesvig. Historically it was composed of several duchies with different forms of relations to the Danish kings over time.

From the beginning of the 19th century national mobilisations of both German-minded and Danish-minded communities developed.

Two wars between Denmark and Prussia about the power over Slesvig took place in 1850 and 1864. Denmark lost the 1864 war, and the whole of Slesvig became part of Prussia.

In the period between 1864 and World War I the Danish minority organised around churches, schools and associations.

When Germany lost World War I reunification of Slesvig with Denmark became an issue. As part of the Versailles treaty two referenda took place, one in Northern Slesvig and one in Middle Slesvig. In the northern part 75 % voted for Denmark, while 80 % voted for Germany in Middle Slesvig. The border between Denmark and Germany was drawn accordingly.

After World War II the Danish minority in Middle Slesvig wanted the area to be part of Denmark. The minority was supported by some politicians in Denmark, but a political majority closed the issue.

In 1955 the Danish and the West German government made the Bonn-Copenhagen declaration. The declaration guaranteed both minorities certain rights, including dispensation from the formal barriers at regional and national elections. For a couple of decades, the party of the German minority held representation in the Danish Parliament, now only in municipal councils. Still today the party of the Danish minority is represented in the parliament of the German federal state Schleswig-Holstein, even as part of coalition governments in periods.

What is the Danish Border Association and the Student Ambassador Corps?

The Border Association is a national civic education association with the aim of informing about the Danish minority in Germany and of supporting the minority. The slogan of the association is “For an open Danishness”

The Student Ambassador Corps is organized by the Danish Border Association in cooperation with two Danish language schools in Northern Germany (Duborg School and A.P.Møller School) and the German language high school in Aabenraa, Southern Denmark.

The corps consists of about 50 high school students who all volunteer. At the website of the Danish Border Association they present themselves like this:

“We travel to Danish youth educational educations. We see ourselves as “living texts”, and via the personal meeting and understanding and insight develop. The starting point is our personal stories, which creates knowledge about and insight into the Danish minority in Southern Slesvig. At the same time, the stories is a good way to create a dialogue about meeting of cultures, identity, prejudices, minority rights, democracy and much more.”

Most of the funding comes from the Slesvig Commission of the Danish Parliament. The participating schools co-finance the work.