Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Johann Holtorf – German or Danish?

Flags in Bad Bramstedt - Left to right: Holstein, Bramstedt, Germany

Flags in Bad Bramstedt – Left to right: Holstein, Bramstedt, Germany

Johann Holtorf was born in Bimöhlen, a tiny village in the Duchy of Holstein, on April 6, 1828. He left Holstein in 1856 when he was 28 years old. He was unmarried and travelled alone to Australia where he subsequently built a life for himself. He died in 1898 at the age of 70, father of 10 children, one of whom was my great grandfather. But what of the land he left behind him, and the life he lived there?

The Duchy of Holstein was established in 1474 when King Christian I of Denmark had his County of Holstein-Rendsburg elevated to a duchy by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. It remained a vassal of the Holy Roman Empire until 1806. However, throughout this time it was actually ruled by the Danish monarch, who was therefore also the Duke of Holstein, though the actual administration of the duchy was delegated to a statholder, who was a prince of Denmark. Holstein was ruled jointly with the Duchy of Schleswig (to the north) by members of the Danish house of Oldenburg for its entire existence.

Although officially ruled by Denmark, the majority of the population of Holstein spoke a dialect of German called Plattdeutsch, in contrast to the neighbouring Duchy of Schleswig where many more spoke Danish. In 1815, after the Napoleonic wars, and as a result of the Congress of Vienna, the Duchy of Holstein became a part of the German Confederation. It remained a duchy under the Danish monarch, but this loose association with 38 other German speaking states was a harbinger of what was to come. Nationalism was a driving force in the Europe of the nineteenth century, not least in the German speaking areas, and there was a growing desire for unification, with the big and powerful lands of Prussia and Austria keen to pull the smaller states into their control. There were many Germans in Schleswig and Holstein who would welcome unification with Prussia but it is possible that the Holtorf family, despite their language, were not part of this group, more committed to maintaining the status quo with Denmark.

In 1848 a war broke out between Denmark and Prussia over Schleswig-Holstein, and after three years of fighting the Danish gained the upper hand, retaining control of the region. However, in 1864 a second Schleswig war would break out and this time the Germans triumphed over the Danes. Initially Holstein was given to Austria but the Prussians and Austrians ended up quarrelling leading to the Austro-Prussian War, with a Prussian victory. Prussia triumphed and subsequently annexed Schleswig and Holstein in 1866, bringing to an end over 400 years of duchy status under Denmark. Schleswig-Holstein became a state of Prussia. It remains a state of present day Germany.

By 1866, of course, Johann had left Holstein never to return. He sailed from Hamburg in 1856 and would only have read of the situation in his homeland in newspaper reports and letters from his family. Its hard to know what Johann thought of the situation back home. What I do know is that two of his Australian born sons, Charles Holdorf (my great grandfather) and Lewis Holdorf, would later return to Europe to fight against the Germans in WWI, and this is the source of my suspicion that Johann was no German nationalist. There is an interesting reference to Charles and Lewis in a book by Australian author, John Williams, German Anzacs and the First World War, which casts light on this question. According to Williams’ understanding, Johann and his wife, Caroline,

like many from that borderland region at the northern extremity of the Reich… had no great love of Bismarckian Germany, and their sons appear to have become ardent empire loyalists. Both Lewis and Charles subsequently decided to anglicise their names by the displacement of two letters, with Holdorf being transformed into the very English Holford. (p97)

So though Johann Holtorf spoke German, if he had any nationalistic loyalty it would appear to have been to Danish Holstein, rather than to Prussia, which became the leading state after German unification. During Johann’s early life three successive kings of Denmark held the position of Duke of Holstein: Frederick IV, Christian VIII, and then Frederick VII. Of course Johann was not a part of the nobility, and political questions may have been of little significance to him, but questions of nationalism were growing in everyone’s mind, and the First Schleswig War brought such issues very close to home. Whether he was involved in the military, or had any friends or relatives involved, I don’t know, but he must have known that the outcome of the war would have a bearing on his future and the future of any children he might have. Though Denmark triumphed initially Johann may have seen the writing on the wall, and the prospect of a future dominated by Prussia may have influenced his thoughts about leaving.

There were no doubt other reasons to depart, but in the end he decided not to be German or Danish, and relinquished the ancient national identity of his family when he emigrated to New South Wales, where in 1861 he became naturalised as a British subject. Though in our day this might sound as if he was going over to the enemy, in the 1800s England, Germany and Denmark were friends, almost family in a sense, despite their occasional quarrels. The bitterness between Britain and Germany that would result from two world wars was far in the future and could hardly be imagined in the 1850s. Nevertheless Johann chose the English branch of the European dynasties for his future, and his descendants would be that particular offshoot of Britain that became the Australia of today.

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2 thoughts on “Johann Holtorf – German or Danish?

  1. Wow. That’s fantastic that you found a reference to the Holdorfs in the book by Williams. I wonder what his source was.

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