13. October | 2016

Beyond the legends of river Rhine: a transnational environmental history of the Upper Rhine

An essay by Christoph Bernhardt.

In August 1876, Richard Wagner's opera cycle “The Ring of the Nibelung” premiered at the Bayreuth Festival Theatre. The epochal music drama draws on a number of myths and legends. Apart from Siegfried, Brunhilde, Hagen, and Etzel, a river plays a pivotal role: the Rhine, where the legendary Rhine gold starts off the narrative. Similar to Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Heinrich Heine and Victor Hugo, among others, have each presented literary treatments of the Rhine and contributed to a hyperbolic image of the river.

Coincidentally, the year 1876 is an important year for river Rhine in an entirely different context, too. The year in which the “Ring Cycle” premiered also marks the conclusion of one of the largest landscape construction projects in recent European history. From 1817 and 1876, the Upper Rhine was shortened by 80 kilometres (!) between Basel and Mannheim. The river was also straightened, which, while a feat of hydraulic engineering, has ironically given rise to a legend of its own. Johann Gottfried Tulla, an engineer from the German region of Baden, began developing plans to straighten the Upper Rhine in 1809. And to this day, he is revered in this region for taming the wild river and transforming its banks into fertile gardens. Moreover, Tulla's plans for this feat of hydraulic engineering are also regarded as closely connected to the formation of the Grand Duchy of Baden. His deeds are therefore celebrated as acts of great patriotism.

Yet these events are not of interest to the IRS in terms of the legends that they gave rise to. The shortening and straightening of the Upper Rhine is rather an ideal example for environmental history research that is enriched by social and special science based perspectives. This historical feat of hydraulic engineering produced not only significant land gains and allowed large ships to travel along the Rhine, but also lead to fierce conflicts in the second half of the 19th century. The book which I wrote on the basis of research conducted in the context of my habilitation examines not only this major engineering project (which was one of the largest in this time) but also other large-scale projects that were conducted with regard to the Upper Rhine. As such, my book “Im Spiegel des Wassers” also examines the regulation of the Rhine's river bed in the early 20th century, the generation of hydroelectric energy in the 1920s, and the restoration of floodplain meadows in the late 20th century.

It is plain that spatial aspects and contexts are highly relevant to any kind of environmental research. The "river biography" of the Upper Rhine has been the focus of heated historical and contemporary environmental debates. As such, it seemed fruitful to expand established environmental and historical accounts of the river region by drawing on IRS insights to examine it from the perspective of transnational spatial and environmental developments. An analytical framework that focuses on institutions is particularity helpful for studying the various, confusing conflicts that were connected to different ways of using the Rhine's water, and how these conflicts have changed in the long term. Identifying institutional turning points sheds light on and helps explain conflict constellations and their evolution over time. For instance, commercial shipping defined the river region in the mid-1850, whereas the generation of hydroelectric power came to dominate after World War I, which was then superseded by an emphasis on environmental measures from the 1970s onwards. Insights from critical geography are similarly helpful for enhancing the analysis. Taking into consideration the potential local and foreign policy conflicts that may arise from large-scale projects like this one may refine historical research and help answer question of periodisation. Moreover, the critical integration of "scalar" perspectives provides a fresh, social scientific take on historical processes. This integrated perspective helps reveal local conflicts and foreign policy objectives linked to hydrological engineering projects on river Rhine. This is especially insightful as the Upper Rhine also acts as a political border.

My book afforded special attention to spatio-political and spatio-economic issues, and so revealed and helped reinterpret numerous complex historical conflicts connected to the river. For example, elaborate procedures were required in the early 19th century to ensure bordering states would benefit in equal measures from cutting through the river's meanders. This procedure led to far-reaching changes in terms of national borders and ownership structures. In the course of my research, I not only surveyed the existing international literature on the subject but also made use of both German and French sources in order to grasp and critically reflect on the different national perspectives and research paradigms. From this, important spatial insight could be derived. For instance, know-how on and concepts for infrastructural projects were disseminated and shared across national borders. Moreover, analysing German and French sources shed light on different historical narratives, normative interpretations, and nationalist prejudices pertaining to environmental issues in both countries.

The legends and myths, however, have not disappeared from the field of environmental. On the contrary, beside behavioural patterns shared by residents of villages adjacent to river Rhine, the development of hydrological engineering techniques, budgetary debates on hydrological engineering projects, and conflicts amongst cities and governments, the legend of Johann Gottfried Tulla is still very much alive in southwestern Germany and as such resembles a highly interesting aspect of socio-spatial history and development. Evidently, analysing far-reaching transformations of institutional systems requires not only examining physical structures like canals and meanders, but also taking into consideration changes in the social behaviours of actors who are involved both directly and indirectly. In many ways, this book therefore meets the IRS's objective of examining spatial developments from a processual perspective and to reflect on the potential of “history as a resource”. This potential is spectacularly illustrated by the fact that contemporary concepts for the environmental development of the Upper Rhine often refer back to historical times: Recent efforts to restore floodplain meadows can be regarded as undoing changes that were made to the landscape previously. Many spatial developers today draw inspiration from history for identifying future goals and for devising strategies. This means that, in some instances, historical reflection has come to replace or complement utopian visions of the future.

BERNHARDT, Christoph (2016): Im Spiegel des Wassers. Eine transnationale Umweltgeschichte des Oberrheins (1800-2000). Umwelthistorische Forschungen, Band 5. Köln, Weimar, Wien. Böhlau. 569 Seiten.

Photo: from Bernhardt, Christoph (2016): Im Spiegel des Wassers