Der Rhein bei Schaffhausen. Foto: TES.

The Rhine

The Rhine was and is a river of borders and connections simultaneously. The significance of the Rhine for politics, trade, culture, language, religion and conflicts is complex.

The Rhine patiently flowed from its source at the Gotthard Massiv to the North Sea for millennia. The peoples and countries on both banks of the Rhine were the complicating factors.

For the Romans, the Rhine was not only part of their waterways and infrastructure and border. It was also a deity, Rhenus. Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) designated the Rhine as the military and natural barrier between Gallia and Germania.

Emperor Augustus (62 BC – 14 AD) crossed the Rhine after conquering the area of present-day Switzerland (15-13 BC). The Romans withdrew after 9 AD after their disastrous loss of three legions in the Varus Battle, called after the Roman general of these legions. The Romans retreated to the left bank of the Rhine.

However, they occupied large territories on the right bank of the Rhine a few decades later. They installed the Rhine fleets and founded cities on both banks of the Rhine. Business and trade flourished, and the free movement of (romanised) Celts and German tribes grew in this period.

The decline after the Roman Empire’s fall continued until the Carolingian kings and emperors (8th-9th centuries). They founded monasteries, churches and cathedrals from the upper Rhine to the Low Countries. The abbeys at St. Gallen (719) and Reichenau (742) are only a few important monasteries from this period.

The ten sovereign states along the Rhine, 17th century.  Image: Dreiländermuseum Lörrach

They also created a new infrastructure for trade, cities and long-distance exchange. Dorestad, Nimwegen (Nijmegen) and towns and settlements in the Netherlands also flourished.

The Holy Roman Empire (from the 10th century onwards) continued to develop the Rhine region. Cologne became one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in the Christian world and an important trading centre.

Cathedrals, churches and abbeys in, among others, Chur, Basel, Constance, Strasbourg, Speyer, Worms and Cologne and Nimwegen (Nijmegen) adorned the river with a band of churches that Emperor Maximilian (1459-1519) called the “Pfaffengasse”.

The cities along the Rhine grew faster and faster from the 16th to the 19th century (despite many wars and epidemics), culminating in the development of Basel in Switzerland, the Ruhr in Germany and Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

At the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), the riparian countries (France, The Netherlands, Switzerland, and Prussia) decided to draw up regulations for navigation on the Rhine. They also founded the International Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine. 

 These countries intervened to change the Rhine’s course, prevent floods, and make the river navigable. The second half of the nineteenth saw many new techniques and machines that allowed the construction of locks, dykes and drainage canals.

The Rhine is still a vital waterway for transporting and shipping goods from Northern to Southern Europe. The river lost its strategic and military function after 1945 for the first time in history.

Much has been written (since the Greeks and Romans) and said (since the first inhabitants) about the Rhine, but this conclusion seems to be an appropriate summary:

Hier kreuzen sich die bedeutendsten europäischen Kulturströme, frühe mediterrane Einflüße, westliche Regionalismen, östliche Neigung zum Okkulten, nördliche Mythologie, preußisch-kategorischer Imperativ, Ideale der französischen Revolution und noch manches andere. (Max Ernst, 1953).

 (Source: Marie-Louise von Plessen (ed.), Der Rhein, Eine europäische Flussbiografie, Bonn, 2016).