Danevirke – protecting the southern border

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The biggest construction in Scandinavia dating back to the Viking age or earlier is found at Danevirke which is Old Danish and translate to earthwork of the Danes. When Denmark was being form as a nation there was a need to protect the southern border against attacks from the Saxon tribe which lived just south of the Danish border. There has been many tales of wars between the Danes and the Saxons. The Saxon lived in what are today Holstein and other parts of northern Germany along the Baltic coast and a bit to the south west in direction of the Dutch border as well.

The walls of Danevirke

The constant wars meant a huge effort was done to create a defensive position which would stretch across the Cimbrian peninsula at the narrowest spot of the peninsula. The fortification took advantage of the natural environment to the east there was Schleswig Fjord which would prevent an army from crossing by land. To the west there was some very swampy land which was pretty much impassable. The earth work is protected the section between these two natural obstacles.

Fortification of 1864

According to legend Danevirke was built under the supervision of Thyra Danebod who was the wife of Gorm the first king in the Danish line of kings. She was a queen during the middle of the 10th century – hence the fortification should date back to this period. This was believed for a long time until there was finally done some research into the history of the fortification.

Danevirke

The research has reviled the construction of the fortification was started much earlier than the reign of Gorm and Thyra. Excavations has reviled some of the fortification dates back to at least year 500. This is a significant revelation since only some sort of state would be able to do such a great construction. Hence there must have been some sort of a kingdom at this area much earlier than what was believed before.

Valdemars Wall

The fortification has been remodeled many times over the years. During the reign of Valdemar I in the second half of the 12th century one of the most important improvements were done in form of a large brick wall called Valdemars Wall. This wall improved the fortifications making them harder to cross.

Valdemars Wall

The last time Danevirke was used in a war was during the Second War of Schleswig in 1864. Back then the Danish army used Danevirke as a defensive line to prevent the Prussian army marching up through Jutland. Unfortunately the fortification had become obsolete and the Prussian army was attacking during a very cold winter. The freezing temperature meant the marshes to the west of the wall were frozen and the Fjord at Schleswig was frozen – making it easy for the Prussian army just to walk around the fortification. As a result the Danish chief general decided to move away from Danevirke to take up position further to the north which could be better defended. The Danish army moved to Dybbøl where they had a disastrous defeat some months later.

After the war the ancient construction of Danevirke became part of Germany and it is still a part of Germany today. Hence the gate to Scandinavia is now found in north Germany. Danevirke never saw military action again after the war of 1864 – but during the latter part of the Second World War the German army wanted to make the old fortification into a modern defensive line. The German army feared a second allied invasion of the European mainland in Denmark. The allied would then make their way south across Danevirke into the German heartland.

Gun from 1864

If the German army had been allowed to reconstruct the ancient defensive line into an antitank wall it would have been impossible to recognize any of the ancient construction. Fortunately there was somebody coming to the rescue – maybe from an unexpected part.

Fortification from the war of 1864

A Danish archeologist called Søren Telling wanted to stop the destruction of Danevirke. He knew the man responsible for all ancient archeological areas in Germany was Heinrich Himmler the head of SS. Søren Telling manage to get in touch with Himmler himself and convinced him that Danevirke was an important Aryan artifact which must be preserved. Himmler issued an order to the German army to stop the creation of the anti-tank wall. Unfortunately the orders took two days to arrive – so in the meantime Telling had to convince the German army that the SS would take revenge if the army continued the destruction of Danevirke. The bluff worked and Danevirke was saved – as it turned out there was never an allied invasion in Denmark so the destruction of Danevirke would have been to no avail.

Road next to the ancient Gate to Scandinavia

We visit Danevirke at a special spot called the gate to Norden or Scandinavia. The gate was a legendary gate which supposedly was the only gate in Danevirke where cars could cross the border between Europe and Scandinavia.

Picture of the excavation of the Gate to Scandinavia

The gate was lost for centuries but finally in 2013-14 a large excavation was done in search of the ancient gate. And the gate was found just next to a little road. The gate was unveiled – but unfortunately it was covered up again so it is not possible to see the gate today.

At the gate there is a small museum which is run by the Danish minority in southern Schleswig. We go in and visit the museum which has a little story of the history of the borderland. There is a the story of how there was a referendum in 1920 after the first world war – during this referendum the people in Schleswig had to decide if they wanted to be Danish or German.

4 comments

  1. I liked reading this. Thanks for sharing. I first learned of the Danevirke from the “History of Denmark” podcast, but you have taught me a lot that the podcast overlooked. I also have to laugh at the Himmler story. History has a funny sense of humour.

    Liked by 2 people

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