themenflüsseflow of history

DRUCKVERSION The flow of history

Europe’s rivers long served as symbols of the continent’s frontiers. This was not always the case, however. A space of international collective memory is required in order to highlight the role rivers once also played as connecting elements


Windows to faraway places

At the general assembly of the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe (IDM) the great Hungarian essayist György Konrád confessed that in Budapest his favourite activity is gazing at the Danube. He admitted that wanderlust has something to do with this. "Maritime nations are always cosmopolitan, but we Bavarians, Austrians, Hungarians, and Serbians have no ocean," he lamented. "For us, the Danube symbolises the promise of the ocean. The river allows us to reach distant shores; it runs through us and releases us from our isolation."

The river as a window to faraway places. This is the optimistic view that Konrád dares to espouse. The other view, the more pessimistic one, was a sad reality not long ago. "Bridges are the first casualties of war," stated the essayist. But the Balkan war is now history and the Danube is now faced with the challenges of the future. The river should no longer serve to divide Europe, but instead become part of efforts to increase cooperation.

The river as a compass

The metaphorical potential rivers have is nearly endless. They have been a symbol of man’s coming and going since ancient times. A river’s course tells an entire life’s story, beginning with a young creek that slowly gathers strength and swells, then stretches and expands, finally joining other streams until, as a river, it rushes towards its mouth, where it disappears into an eternity of time and space. This simultaneousness of transience and eternity was one of the reasons that Christianity’s first baptisms were carried out in rivers – as a promise of resurrection.

In these confusing times of globalisation and hyphenated identities, rivers evidently offer a degree of orientation that has been lost in everyday life. Rivers have a beginning and an end, and the routes along them are older than we are, as the river cleaved its course through the earth’s surface thousands of years ago. And finally, rivers provide a moment of reflection that is otherwise quite rare: We look back upon the past, and, full of hope and a little trepidation, look forward to that which lies ahead. Travelling along a river is a special experience of time and space.

From natural frontiers...

It is all the more surprising then, that our view of Europe’s rivers is particularly influenced by the 19th century, when they were considered to be natural frontiers between countries. This has especially made Europe’s largest rivers more an object of history than one of its most important protagonists.

Natural frontiers” was the slogan with which the French hoped to extend their border with Germany to the Rhine River during the Rhine Crisis in 1841. On the opposing side the German nationalist movement had Nicolaus Becker’s anti-French battle song, "They shall not have it, the free German Rhine".

The architectural heritage of this kind of thinking can still be found today on the banks of the Rhine. The Deutsches Eck (German Corner), a monumental equestrian statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I built in 1897 at the confluence of the Moselle and Rhine rivers, is one example. This was how Germany celebrated the founding of the German Reich in 1871 and the subsequent German victory over France. Kurt Tucholsky once referred to this monument as a "blow made of stone".

The Oder River was long a synonym of a frontier as well. And yet the 162-kilometre section of the river that serves as a border is only a small part of the river’s 860-kilometre length, which begins at its source in the Moravian Jesenik Mountains and ends at its mouth in the Szczecin Lagoon. Just how much the river has influenced thinking on both sides is evidenced by the numerous memorials and monuments that still recall Polish victories over Germany in Cedynia, Siekierki, and Gozdowice. flowing spaces

Rivers, as indicated by György Konrád’s emphatic relationship with the Danube, were never simply geographic locations on maps or in atlases. They were always borders, waterways, business routes, cultural areas, and places of longing. And they were not only objects of those in power, but often subjects of history as well, according to Christof Mauch and Thomas Zeller. In their book Rivers in History the two historians from the German Historical Institute in Washington write, "Can one think of China without imagining the Yangtze, of ancient Egypt without recalling the Nile, Caesar’s Rome or Dante’s Florence without picturing the Tiber or the Arno?"

The nation-building role rivers have had was recently investigated by Peter Ackroyd, using the River Thames as an example. He wrote; "It (the Thames) is history, the river of history, along which most of the significant English events of the last two thousand years have taken place. (…) The destiny of England is intimately linked with the destiny of the river."

In this context the Erfurt historian Susanne Rau talks of "flowing spaces," and up to the 19th century rivers were, in effect, often "creators" of cultural landscapes.

The Oder, for example, was never merely the border it was degraded to at the end of the Second World War, when a line of demarcation was drawn along the Oder and Neisse. As the exhibition Poland – Germany. 1000 Years of Art and History showed, it was also a place of exchange and communication between Germans and Poles – making Silesia a bridge between the continent’s east and west.

The Rhine, on the other hand, is not only the German Vater Rhein or a symbol of French geopolitics. As Lucien Febvre has shown in his famous book about the river, it has long served as an important economic corridor. By writing an account of the Rhine as an element of economic history, he made the supposed border the centre of attention. And rightly so, as we now know, for the Rhine River is one of the most dynamic economic areas in the European Union.

The same is even true for Konrád’s Danube, Europe’s most recent battleground. In Kakanian times the river was the lifeline of Austria-Hungary and its Danube monarchy, while today it is once again central to the thoughts of Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, the Ukraine, and Moldova. The Danube Strategy is considered to be one of the European Union’s strategic planning axes.

The flow of history

Rivers that cross borders, as shown by these examples, have their own history. They tell a different story than the history of the nations through which they flow, or that of the people that live in them. But when one tries to explain that rivers not only divide, but also connect, the limits of national perspectives are quickly reached. Rivers always oblige people to have multiple perspectives, a European view of things. For this reason they are Europe’s best ambassadors. They are the best remedy for an increasing nationalism in Europe, which will especially please György Konrád, that great Hungarian and European essayist.

Rivers as a topic of a European dialogue: This is also the reason the Federal Agency for Civic Education has published its online dossier The Flow of History. Using the Oder, Rhine, Neman, Elbe, Vistula, and Danube as examples, authors from Poland, France, Lithuania, Belarus, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Germany and other countries have established a variety of European memorial sites. In so doing, they have initiated a European dialogue about borders and border crossings, which is particularly important in times of crisis.

On the banks

This new orientation to the history of rivers coincides with the rediscovery of rivers as a topic of urban development. Brownfield areas awaken to new life as cultural centres, riverbanks are turned into local recreation areas, new urban neighbourhoods are built along the water, and passenger ships are overflowing. Cities and people everywhere are once again beginning to focus their attention on rivers.

At the same time, however, this new orientation cities have with regards to their rivers is equally as limited as the view history took of rivers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Everyone is concentrating on what they consider to be their own, forfeiting the chance to use rivers to make contact with other cities and regions that lie along their banks.

In Hamburg, for instance, a series of signs belonging to the outdoor exhibition Museumskai (Museum Pier), which was created in the late 1990s on behalf of Hamburg’s museums, tell the city’s history along the banks of the Elbe. One sign is missing, however: an acknowledgement of the Moldauhafen (Vltava Port). This extraterritorial area in the free port, which was granted to the young Republic of Czechoslovakia by the Treaty of Versailles in 1918, is not mentioned in Hamburg’s memories of the Elbe. Hamburg keeps its attention firmly focused on its local identity, and on the sea. It ignores its hinterland, which extends up the Elbe and Vltava all the way to Prague. And thus, the Elbe in this exhibition remains a local entity, and is not considered a European river at all.

Why not take advantage of the metaphorical potential, i.e. the power to connect, that rivers have in order to link the rediscovery of river banks with the rediscovery of their history? An initial step has actually been taken at the Oder, and Poland now has a network of museums pertaining to the river, and a common exhibition entitled Oder Panorama that travels along the river from town to town.

And why don’t Hamburg’s museums come together with their partner cities Dresden and Prague and tell the history of the Moldauhafen? Or that of the word ‘ahoy’? During the 1920s Bohemian boatmen along the Elbe brought this utterly maritime greeting home with them, and it is still widely used today in the Czech Republic. Ahoy stands for cosmopolitan Czechs; Bohemians who are connected to the sea by the Elbe.

Or, as György Konrád once said, “He who respects a river also respects his neighbours.”

Uwe Rada is an editor at taz as well as an author. He coordinates the German Federal Agency for Civic Education’s online dossier “The Flow of History”. In March his book “Die Elbe. Europas Geschichte im Fluss” will be published by the Siedler Verlag.

nach oben