1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Oldenburg (grand-duchy)

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OLDENBURG, a grand-duchy of Germany, with an area of 2479 sq. m. It consists of three widely separated portions of territory—(1) the duchy of Oldenburg, (2) the principality of Lübeck, and (3) the principality of Birkenfeld. It ranks tenth among the states of the German empire and has one vote in the Bundesrat (federal council) and three members in the Reichstag.

I. The duchy of Oldenburg, comprising fully four-fifths of the entire area and population, lies between 52° 29′ and 53° 44′ N. and between 7° 37′ and 8° 37′ E., and is bounded on the N. by the North Sea and on the other three sides by Hanover, with the exception of a small strip on the east, where it is conterminous with the territory of the free city of Bremen. It forms part of the north-western German plain lying between the Weser and the Ems, and, except on the south, where the Dammergebirge attain a height of 478 ft., it is almost entirely flat, with a slight inclination towards the sea. In respect of its soil it is divided broadly into two parts—the higher and inland-lying Geest, consisting of sandy plains intermixed with extensive heaths and moors, and the marsh lands along the coast, consisting of rich but somewhat swampy alluvial soil. The latter, which compose about one-fifth of the duchy, are protected against the inroads of the sea by dikes as in Holland; and beyond these are the so-called Watten, generally covered at high tide, but at many points being gradually reclaimed. The climate is temperate and humid; the mean temperature of the coldest month at the town of Oldenburg is 26° F. of the warmest 66°. Storms are numerous, and their violence is the more felt owing to the almost entire absence of trees; and fogs and ague are prevalent in the marsh lands. The chief rivers are the Hunte, flowing into the Weser, and the Hase and Leda flowing into the Ems. The Weser itself forms the eastern boundary for 42 m., and internal navigation is greatly facilitated by a canal, passing through the heart of the duchy and connecting the Hunte and the Leda. On the north there are several small coast streams conducted through the dikes by sluices, the only one of importance being the Jade, which empties itself into the Jade Busen, a deep gulf affording good accommodation for shipping. The duchy also contains numerous small lakes, the chief of which is the Dümmer See in the south-east corner, measuring 4 m. in length by 21/2 in width. About 30% of the area of the duchy is under cultivation and 17% under pasture and meadows, while the rest consists mainly of marsh, moor and heath. Forests occupy a very small proportion of the whole, but there are some fine old oaks. In the Geest the principal crops are rye, oats, potatoes and buckwheat, for which the heath is sometimes prepared by burning. Large tracts of moorland, however, are useful only as producing peat for fuel, or as affording pasture to the flocks of small coarse-woolled Oldenburg sheep. The rich soil of the marsh lands produces good crops of wheat, oats, rye, hemp and rape, but is especially adapted for grazing. The cattle and horses raised on it are highly esteemed throughout Germany, and the former are exported in large numbers to England. Bee-keeping is much in vogue on the moors. The live stock of Oldenburg forms a great part of its wealth, and the ratio of cattle, sheep and horses to the population is one of the highest among the German states. There are few large estates, and the ground is mostly in the hands of small farmers, who enjoy the right of fishing and shooting on their holdings. Game is scarce, but fishing is fairly productive. The mineral wealth of Oldenburg is very small. Woollen and cotton fabrics, stockings, jute and cigars are made at Varel, Delmenhorst and Lohne; cork-cutting is extensively practised in some districts, and there are a few iron-foundries. Trade is relatively of more importance, chiefly owing to the proximity of Bremen. The agricultural produce of the duchy is exported to Scandinavia, Russia, England and the United States, in return for colonial goods and manufactures. Varel, Brake and Elsfleth are the chief commercial harbours.

II. The principality of Lübeck has an area of 209 sq. m. and shares in the general physical characteristics of east Holstein, within which it lies. On the east it extends to Lübeck Bay of the Baltic Sea, and on the south-east it is bounded by the Trave. The chief rivers are the Schwartau, a tributary of the Trave, and the Schwentine, flowing northwards to the Gulf of Kiel. The scenery of Lübeck is often picturesque, especially in the vicinity of the Plön See and the Eutin See, the most important of the small lakes with which it is dotted. Agriculture is practised here even more extensively than in the duchy of Oldenburg, about 75% of the area being cultivated. The population in 1905 was 38,583.

III. The principality of Birkenfeld, 312 sq. m. in extent, lies in the midst of the Prussian province of the Rhine, about 30 m. W. of the Rhine at Worms and 150 m. S. of the duchy of Oldenburg. The population in 1905 was 46,484. (See Birkenfeld.)

The total population of the grand-duchy of Oldenburg in 1880 was 337,478, and in 1905 438,856. The bulk of the inhabitants are of the Saxon stock, but to the north and west of the duchy there are numerous descendants of the ancient Frisians. The differences between the two races are still to some extent perceptible, but Low German (Platt-deutsch) is universally spoken, except in one limited district, where a Frisian dialect has maintained itself. In general characteristics the Oldenburg peasants resemble the Dutch, and the absence of large landowners has contributed to make them sturdy and independent. The population of Oldenburg is somewhat unequally distributed, some parts of the marsh lands containing over 300 persons to the square mile, while in the Geest the number occasionally sinks as low as 40. About 70% of the inhabitants belong to the “rural” population. The town of Oldenburg is the capital of the grand-duchy. The war-harbour of Wilhelmshaven, on the shore of the Jade Busen, was built by Prussia on land bought from Oldenburg. The chief towns of Birkenfeld and Lübeck respectively are Birkenfeld and Eutin.

Oldenburg is a Protestant country, and the grand-duke is required to be a member of the Lutheran Church. Roman Catholicism, however, preponderates in the south-western provinces, which formerly belonged to the bishopric of Münster. Oldenburg Roman Catholics are under the sway of the bishops of Münster, who is represented by an official at Vechta. The educational system of Oldenburg is on a similar footing to that of north Germany in general, though the scattered position of the farmhouses interferes to some extent with school attendance.

The constitution of Oldenburg, based upon a decree of 1849, revised in 1852, is one of the most liberal in Germany. It provides for a single representative chamber (Landtag), elected indirectly by universal suffrage and exercising concurrent rights of legislation and taxation with the grand-duke. The chamber, which consists of forty members, one for every 10,000 inhabitants, is elected every three years. The executive consists of three ministers, who are aided by a committee of the Landtag, when that body is not in session. The local affairs of Birkenfeld and Lübeck are entrusted to provincial councils of fifteen members each. All citizens paying taxes and not having been convicted of felony are enfranchised. The municipal communities enjoy an unusual amount of independence. The finances of each constituent state of the grand-duchy are managed separately, and there is also a fourth budget concerned with the joint administration. The total revenue and expenditure are each about £650,000 annually. The grand-duchy had a debt in 1907 of £2,958,409.

History.—The earliest recorded inhabitants of the district now called Oldenburg were a Teutonic people, the Chauci, who were afterwards merged in the Frisians. The chroniclers delight in tracing the genealogy of the counts of Oldenburg to the Saxon hero, Widukind, the stubborn opponent of Charlemagne, but their first historical representative is one Elimar (d. 1108) who is described as comes in confinio Saxoniae et Frisiae. Ehmar’s descendants appear as vassals, although sometimes rebellious ones, of the dukes of Saxony; but they attained the dignity of princes of the empire when the emperor Frederick I. dismembered the Saxon duchy in 1180. At this time the county of Delmenhorst formed part of the dominions of the counts of Oldenburg, but afterwards it was on several occasions separated from them to form an apanage for younger branches of the family. This was the case between 1262 and 1447, between 1463 and 1547, and between 1577 and 1617. The northern and western parts of the present grand-duchy of Oldenburg were in the hands of independent, or semi-independent, Frisian princes, who were usually heathens, and during the early part of the 13th century the counts carried on a series of wars with these small potentates which resulted in a gradual expansion of their territory. The free city of Bremen and the bishop of Münster were also frequently at war with the counts of Oldenburg.

The successor of Count Dietrich (d. 1440), called Fortunatus, was his son Christian, who in 1448 was chosen king of Denmark as Christian I. In 1450 he became king of Norway and in 1457 king of Sweden; in 1460 he inherited the duchy of Schleswig and the county of Holstein, an event of high importance for the future history of Oldenburg. In 1454 he handed over Oldenburg to his brother Gerhard (c. 1430–1499) a turbulent prince, who was constantly at war with the bishop of Bremen and other neighbours. In 1483 Gerhard was compelled to abdicate in favour of his sons, and he died whilst on a pilgrimage in Spain. Early in the 16th century Oldenburg was again enlarged at the expense of the Frisians. Protestantism was introduced into the county by Count Anton I. (1505–1573), who also suppressed the monasteries; however, he remained loyal to Charles V. during the war of the league of Schmalkalden, and was able thus to increase his territories, obtaining Delmenhorst in 1547. One of Anton’s brothers, Count Christopher (c. 1506–1560), won some reputation as a soldier. Anton’s grandson, Anton Günther (1583–1667), who succeeded in 1603, proved himself the wisest prince who had yet ruled Oldenburg. Jever had been acquired before he became count, but in 1624 he added Knyphausen and Varel to his lands, with which in 1647 Delmenhorst was finally united. By his prudent neutrality during the Thirty Years’ War Anton Günther secured for his dominions an immunity from the terrible devastations to which nearly all the other states of Germany were exposed. He also obtained from the emperor the right to levy tolls on vessels passing along the Weser, a lucrative grant which soon formed a material addition to his resources.

When Count Anton Günther died in June 1667 Oldenburg was inherited by virtue of a compact made in 1649 by Frederick III., king of Denmark, and Christian Albert, duke of Holstein-Gottorp. Some difficulties, however, arose from this joint ownership, but eventually these were satisfactorily settled, and from 1702 to 1773 the county was ruled by the kings of Denmark only, this period being on the whole one of peaceful development. Then in 1773 another change took place. Christian VII. of Denmark surrendered Oldenburg to Paul, duke of Holstein-Gottorp, afterwards the emperor Paul of Russia,[1] and in return Paul gave up to Christian his duchy of Holstein-Gottorp and his claims on the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. At once Paul handed over Oldenburg to his kinsman, Frederick Augustus, bishop of Lübeck, the representative of a younger branch of the family,[2] and in 1777 the county was raised to the rank of a duchy. The bishop’s son William, who succeeded his father as duke in 1785, was a man of weak intellect, and his cousin Peter Frederick, bishop of Lübeck, acted as administrator and eventually, in 1823, inherited the duchy. This prince is the direct ancestor of the present grand duke.

To Peter fell the onerous task of governing the duchy during the time of the Napoleonic wars. In 1806 Oldenburg was occupied by the French and the Dutch, the duke and the regent being put to flight; but in 1807 William was restored, and in 1808 he joined the Confederation of the Rhine. However, in 1810 his lands were forcibly seized by Napoleon because he refused to exchange them for Erfurt. This drove him to join the Allies, and at the congress of Vienna his services were rewarded by the grant of the principality of Birkenfeld, an addition to his lands due to the good offices of the tsar Alexander I. At this time Oldenburg was made a grand duchy, but the title of grand-duke was not formally assumed until 1829, when Augustus succeeded his father Peter as rulec Under Peter’s rule the area of Oldenburg had been increased, not only by Birkenfeld, but by the bishopric of Lübeck (secularized in 1802) and some smaller pieces of territory.

Oldenburg did not entirely escape from the revolutionary movement which swept across Europe in 1848, but no serious disturbances took place therein. In 1849 the grand-duke granted a constitution of a very liberal character to his subjects. Hitherto his country had been ruled in the spirit of enlightened despotism, which was strengthened by the absence of a privileged class of nobles, by the comparative independence of the peasantry, and by the unimportance of the towns; and thus a certain amount of friction was inevitable in the working of the new order. In 1852 some modifications were introduced into the constitution, which, nevertheless, remained one of the most liberal in Germany. Important alterations were made in the administrative system in 1855, and again in 1868, and church affairs were ordered by a law of 1853. In 1863 the grand-duke Peter II. (1827–1900), who had ruled Oldenburg since the death of his father Augustus in 1853, seemed inclined to press a claim to the vacant duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, but ultimately in 1867 he abandoned this in favour of Prussia, and received some slight compensation. In 1866 he had sided with this power against Austria and had joined the North German Confederation; in 1871 Oldenburg became a state of the new German empire. In June 1900 Frederick Augustus (b. 1852) succeeded his father Peter as grand duke. By a law passed in 1904 the succession to Oldenburg was vested in Frederick Ferdinand, duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, and his family, after the extinction of the present ruling house. This arrangement was rendered advisable because the grand-duke Frederick Augustus had only one son Nicholas (b. 1897), and his only brother George Louis (1855) was unmarried.

For the history of Oldenburg see Runde, Oldenburgische Chronik (Oldenburg, 1863); E. Pleitner, Oldenburg im 19 Jahrhundert (Oldenburg, 1899–1900); and Oldenburgisches Quellenbuch (Oldenburg, 1903). See also the Jahrbuch für die Geschichte des Herzogtums Oldenburg (1892 seq.).

  1. His father, Charles Frederick of Holstein-Gottorp (1700–1739), a descendant of Christian I. of Denmark, married Anne, daughter of Peter the Great, and became tsar as Peter III. in 1762.
  2. To this branch belonged Adolphus Frederick, son of Christian Augustus bishop of Lübeck (d. 1726), who in 1751 became king of Sweden.

    Another branch of the Oldenburg family, descended from John, son of Christian III. of Denmark, is that of Holstein-Sonderburg. This was subdivided into the lines of Sonderburg-Augustenburg and Sonderburg-Glücksburg. Prince Christian, who married Princess Helena of Great Britain, belongs to the former of them. To the latter belong the kings of Denmark, Greece and Norway.