I love rivers. They carry ideas
as well as merchandise.... Rivers, like clarions,
sing to the ocean about the beauty of earth,
the cultivation of fields, the splendor of cities,
and the glory of humans.
And of all rivers, I love the Rhine most.
—Victor Hugo (1845)
My Rhine is dark and brooding.
It is too much a river of merchant cunning for me
to believe in its youthful summertime face.
—Heinrich Böll (1960)
he modern Rhine—“Europe's romantic sewer”—is an offspring of the French and industrial revolutions. Conceived by Napoleon and designed by engineers, the river acquired its canal-like profile during the nineteenth century. Three events in rapid succession marked its birth. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna placed the Rhine under an “international regime” designed to accelerate the free flow of trade. In 1816 the first Rhine steamer, Prince of Orange
, chugged upstream from Rotterdam to Cologne, inaugurating the age of coal and iron. Then, in 1817, the Baden engineer Johann Gottfried Tulla began the most ambitious rectification work ever undertaken on a European river. Celebrated as the “Tamer of the Wild Rhine,” Tulla is best known for the simple maxim that guided his work: “No stream or river, the Rhine included, needs more than one bed; as a rule, multiple branches are redundant.”1
Cooperation, coal, and concrete: together they started a riparian revolution that has determined Rhine affairs ever since.
None of the Vienna delegates had any inkling as to the real significance of what they had just created. All they meant to do was foster trade among the riparian states after twenty-five years of war and bloodshed. To this end, they established the Central Commission for Rhine Navigation (the Rhine Commission) and gave it the task of eliminating the river's commercial chokepoints—human ones, such as the innumerable toll booths, and natural ones, such as the Bingen reef and Lorelei cliffs—which had hindered river traffic for centuries. “The Rhine can count more tolls than miles,” went a popular rhyme of the time, “and knight and priestling block its path.”2
Placing the river in the foster care of the Rhine Commission proved a mixed blessing. On the positive side, the new river regime stimulated economic
growth and free trade on its banks. The Rhine is today one of the world's greatest commercial arteries, in volume of traffic second only to the Mississippi. It transports millions of tons of coal, steel, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, textiles, and other goods each year, many of which are produced directly on its banks. The Rhine Commission, now headquartered in Strasbourg, can justifiably lay claim to being the oldest continuous interstate institution in Europe and the first step in the long march of diplomacy that culminated in the Common Market and European Union.
On the negative side, the multinational engineers who took possession of the river in 1815 were strict disciplinarians, whose idea of a well-behaved river was not a river at all: it was a canal, utterly and completely harnessed to the needs of transport. They did not view themselves as custodians of the Rhine's fish stocks and alluvial forests, although salmon and timber were the mainstays of river commerce at the time. Nor did they see themselves as protectors of the Rhine's broad floodplain, although it was an integral part of the river's drainage system and home to a rich variety of flora and fauna. The birth of the new Rhine thus spelled doom for the old one. First, engineers severed the river's arms and braids from its trunk as dictated by the Tulla maxim. Then industries and cities introduced slow-acting poisons into its water system. The result was a truncated river shorn of its biological diversity.
This book traces the life story (or “biography”) of the Rhine from 1815 to 2000. It focuses on how and why the river became a degraded biological habitat, and on the attempts since the 1970s to resuscitate and nurse it back to health. The entire river—from its high headwaters in the Swiss Alps to its muddy delta in the Netherlands—forms the subject of this study. The main channel, tributaries, floodplain, islands, and underground flow are all treated as parts of the Rhine, as are the life forms it sustains. Humans are the principal actors. Sometimes they appear as representatives of one of the riparian states: Switzerland, Austria, Liechtenstein, Germany, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands. More often they are seen in their role as engineers, entrepreneurs, water experts, biologists, fishermen, politicians, or diplomats, since each group tended to think along similar lines despite differences of time and place. Industrialists everywhere on the river spoke the language of economic progress and environmental laissez-faire. Germany's urban planners faced the same clean-water dilemmas as their counterparts in France. Swiss and Dutch fishermen alike lost their livelihoods.
National rivalries and warfare enter the story only when they make a palpable difference to the fate of the river, most obviously in Alsace and Lorraine, the two contested provinces situated on the Rhine's left bank. Alsace and Lorraine, however, were the exception. The international river idea has survived remarkably well for nearly two hundred years, even if it was (until 1945) mauled occasionally between the jagged teeth of France and Germany. That General George Patton publicly urinated in the Rhine to display his contempt for Nazi Germany meant nothing to the river's health. That millions of Europeans, before and after Patton, regularly flushed their raw sewage down the river meant everything. Round-the-clock Allied aerial bombing during World War II had a relatively short-term impact on the river's life, for the Rhine bridges and harbors were quickly repaired at war's end. But continual assaults from Rhine-based coal, steel, and chemical industries have left the river's ecology crippled and disfigured.
Anyone familiar with the Danube, Mississippi, Hudson, Donets, and other major “industrial rivers” will instantly recognize the general outlines of this story: the Rhine Commissioners set out to manipulate and control the river as fully as possible (to “tame,” “train,” “rectify,” “ameliorate,” “straighten,” and “improve” it in their terminology), only to find themselves caught in a long war of attrition. When engineers closed off the Rift valley floodplain in an effort to protect the upstream cities of Strasbourg and Ludwigshafen, the river began to inundate the downstream cities of Koblenz and Nijmegen instead. When humans in their folly depleted the Rhine's savory salmon, shad, and sturgeon stocks, the river served up the less palatable roach, bleak, and bream in their place. When industries overwhelmed the riverbed with heavy metals, the Rhine spat them back undigested into drinking water supplies and onto irrigated agricultural fields. Not until the 1970s did the riparian states begin to comprehend the extent of the damage they had wrought in a war they did not want to win. The vast sums of money now being pumped into salmon repopulation, floodplain restoration, toxic-waste cleanup, and water purification are really nothing but reparation payments for two centuries of inadvertent ecocide.
The notion that a river is a biological entity—that it has a “life” and a “personality” and therefore a “biography”—is not altogether out of step with scientific or commonsense notions of rivers. Rivers seem alive to us—restless, temperamental, fickle, sometimes raging, sometimes calm. They are
forever on the move, collecting atmospheric precipitation and transporting it back to the earth's basins as part of the global water cycle. Gravity and sunlight lend energy to rivers, making them active sculptors of the landscape. They chisel away at mountains, grind boulders to sand, and etch floodplains through the Earth's crust as they transport rock and sediment downstream. On occasion, they also overspill their banks and pour into shops and cellars, wreaking havoc like vandals in the night.
Many descriptions betray an underlying sense that rivers etch their own signatures on the landscape, that they carve out unique profiles. Scientists use terms such as “young,” “mature,” and “senescent” to depict a river's life cycle. “Dead river” refers not to a stream that has dried up but to a flowing stream that supports no life. Rivers have a kind of “metabolism.” A century ago, most Europeans still believed that the “self-cleansing” capacity of rivers—their astonishing ability to absorb and neutralize vast quantities of toxins and wastes—derived from the mechanical cleansing action of underwater rocks and cliffs. Now it is well known that rivers remain clean primarily through the biological activity of bacteria. Rivers, of course, are not actually alive. That is but a literary conceit. But they do carry the single most important substance for the maintenance of life on earth: water.
They lie at the conflux of the physiochemical and biological worlds, providing a living space for fish, snails, insects, birds, trees, and people. Richard White's memorable tag for the Columbia is applicable more generally: every river is an “organic machine.”3
Humans live on rivers for much the same reason that other organisms do. Rivers provide a ready supply of nourishment and a convenient mode of transport. And any river with human inhabitants is much more than just a physical and biological entity: it is also the site of political, economic, and cultural activity. The Rhine's historical identity is inexorably intertwined with thousands of years of human culture, human labor, and human manipulation. Its earliest known inhabitants include Heidelberg man, named after the Rhine city closest to the first excavation site, and the Neanderthals, named after the Rhine's Neander Valley (near Düsseldorf) where the first skull was found. It was the ancient Celts who bequeathed the river its name, Renos
, from which all subsequent variations are derived: Rhenus
(English). By the time the Romans arrived, more than two thousand years ago, the Rhine was already a densely populated, multicultural basin: “The Rhine rises in the land of the Lepontii, who inhabit the
Alps,” wrote Julius Caesar in the oldest known historical text discussing the Rhine, Commentarii de bello Gallico.
“In a long swift course it runs through the territories of the Nantuates, Helvetii, Sequani, Mediomatrices, Triboci, and Treveri, and on its approach to the Ocean divides into several streams, forming many large islands (a great number of which are inhabited by fierce barbaric tribes, believed in some instances to live on fish and birds' eggs); then by many mouths it flows into the Ocean.”4
Of all the cultures of antiquity, Rome's legacy is still most visible today, mainly in the form of city names and vine-clad towns, such as Chur (Curia Rhaetorum), Basel (Basilia), Bacharach (Bacchi Ara), Mainz (Mongontiacum), Cologne (Colonia), and Nijmegen (Noviomagus). But the “Roman Rhine” is only one of the river's many cultural overlays. By the Middle Ages, the Rhine was better known as “Priest Street,” a derisive tribute to the importance of the Mainz, Cologne, and Trier archbishoprics in the election of Holy Roman Emperors. When the Dutch revolted against the Habsburgs in the sixteenth century, the Rhine became infamous as the “Spanish Road,” the military supply route that linked Spain to its possessions in the southern Netherlands (Belgium). And castle ruins, strewn everywhere on the hillsides between Strasbourg and Cologne, serve as testimonies in stone and mortar to the battles between French and German-speaking peoples—the Thirty Years' War, the campaigns of Louis XIV, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, World Wars I and II—that have punctuated European history over so many centuries.
The “Romantic Rhine”—the stretch between Mainz and Cologne full of quaint villages, terraced vineyards, and winding gorges—is one of the most enduring of the river's many images. Ostensibly rooted in the Rhine's hoary past, in truth it was the invention of Dutch and British “ecotourists” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Traveling to and from Italy, notebook and paintbrush in hand, they were seduced by the river's rich symbolic geography—the Mouse Tower, Sankt Goar, Drachenfels, the Lorelei—and collectively they etched the words “sublime” and “picturesque” in indelible mist and fog across the Rhenish Slate Mountains. “The Rhine nowhere, perhaps, presents grander objects either of nature, or of art, than in the northern perspective from Sankt Goar,” wrote the Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe after hiking up to the Rheinfels castle. “There, expanding with a bold sweep, the river exhibits, at one coup d'oeil
, on its mountain shores, six fortresses or towns, many of them placed in the most wild and tremendous situations; their ancient and gloomy structures giving ideas of
the sullen tyranny of former times.”5
So firmly did Radcliffe and others fix the word “Romantic” in the mind's eye that subsequent generations felt free to wax poetic about the river, whether they had bothered to visit it or not. “It was like a dream of the Middle Ages,” wrote one famous non-visitor, Henry David Thoreau, after glimpsing a Rhine painting in 1862. “I floated down its historic stream in something more than imagination, under bridges built by the Romans, and repaired by later heroes, past cities and castles whose very names were music to my ears, and each of which was the subject of a legend.”6
Just as humans have stamped their own cultural templates onto the Rhine, so too have they projected human features onto it, more so than on any other river in the world except perhaps the Nile. “Your Highness Rhine, my sweet dreams / How can I sing your praise?” began Joost van den Vondel's poem “De Rynstroom” (1629), progenitor of a whole genre of modern Dutch river elegies.7
“A poet's dream,” declared Heinrich von Kleist about the Rhine, “which now opens, now closes, now blooms, now is desolate, now laughs, now alarms.”8
For Friedrich Hölderlin, the “free-born” Rhine was the fluvial incarnation of Rousseau, and he asked rhetorically:
But where is the man
Who can remain free
His whole life long, alone
Doing his heart's desire,
Like the Rhine, so fortunate
To have been born from
Propitious heights and sacred womb?9
Lord Byron imagined he saw the “castled crag of Drachenfels” as it “Frowns o'er the wide and winding Rhine.”10
Heinrich Heine conjured up a nymph on the cliffs of the Lorelei, who lured boatmen to their death with her siren's song.11
For Victor Hugo, the greatest of the Rhine Romantics, the river possessed all riparian virtues rolled into one: “It is rapid like the Rhône, broad like the Loire, encased like the Meuse, serpentine like the Seine, limpid and green like the Somme, historical like the Tiber, royal like the Danube, mysterious like the Nile, spangled with gold like an American river, and abounding in fables like an Asian one.”12
Many rivers serve as political borders—boundaries that mark and reinforce cultural differences. The Rhine, however, has never served well as a frontier, despite a centuries-long attempt by the French to make it one. (Even today only 350 kilometers, less than one-third of its length, form a national border.)13
It is true that the ancient Romans generally settled on the left bank, Germanic tribes on the right bank—a fact that Louis XIV used as a legal fig leaf when he seized the Alsatian capital of Strasbourg in 1681 as part of his campaign to extend France's eastern frontier “jusqu'au Rhin.”14
But the boundaries of old—as Albert Demangeon and Lucien Febvre so brilliantly showed in 1935—were far too fluid for later generations of propagandists to apportion according to their own whims.15
There were plenty of Roman settlements on the Rhine's right bank, especially south of the “limes” (the fortifications linking the Rhine and Danube), which Roman legions held for an extended period. By the fourth century A.D.
, moreover, the roles had reversed and it was the Germanic tribes that were crossing the river in successive waves, pushing out the Romans and taking over—permanently—their left-bank cities and territories.
Yet if the Rhine has never functioned well as a political or cultural border, it also never came under the exclusive suzerainty of any linguistic grouping—Latins and Germans included—at least not long enough to have left an indelible ethnic
stamp on the river. It has, in other words, always been an international stream. Anti-French sentiment in the nineteenth century, however, did transform the river into a potent symbol of German cultural and political unity, adding yet another layer to the Rhine's complex identity. “Germany's river, but not Germany's border,” trumpeted Ernst Moritz Arndt as Germans rallied to defeat Napoleon in 1813.16
“Dam the Rhine with [French] corpses, cram it full of their broken bones,” echoed Kleist in even more militant tones.17
When war loomed anew in the 1840s, German poets and songwriters helped bring the French to the negotiating table with a volley of verse, mustering some four hundred patriotic Rhine tunes in the span of a single decade, a production rate that has never been surpassed. “They shall not have it / The free German Rhine” went the refrain of Nikolaus Becker's famous Der freie Rhein.
“Dear Fatherland, have no fear / The watch on the Rhine stands fast and true,” proclaimed Max Schneckenburger's equally famous Die Wacht am Rhein
(a poem so inflammatory that after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71 Bismarck claimed it had done the work of three divisions).18
In 1877, Kaiser Wilhelm I even
commissioned the emplacement of a mammoth statue, Germania
, high above the Rhine near Rüdesheim. Forged in part by melting down captured French cannons, it stands today as a grotesque reminder of Germany's nationalist pretensions on the Rhine.
This book begins in 1815, at the moment when the Congress of Vienna gave the Rhine yet another identity: that of...