The Fortunes of Germany's Rhineland Flow Through the Ages

9 MINS READMay 18, 2014 | 13:05 GMT
The Fortunes of Germany's Rhineland Flow Through the Ages
Spanning the Lower Rhine, Cologne's Hohenzollern bridge leads to the city's landmark Cathedral.
(OLIVER BERG/AFP/Getty Images)

Editor's Note: This essay, reflecting on the historical and geopolitical factors that have shaped Germany and determined its position at the core of the European Union, is drawn from the personal travel notes and recollections of Europe analyst Adriano Bosoni.

This is a story of three beautiful bridges in Germany: the Hohenzollern Bridge in Cologne, the Kennedy Bridge in Bonn and the Eiserner Bridge in Frankfurt. The first two are located on the impressive Rhine, while the third is on the Main, one of the Rhine's principal tributaries. These bridges tell us much about Germany's history, revealing key elements of its politics and economy that influence the country's behavior to this day.

The Hohenzollern Bridge is a good place to begin. Watching cargo ship after cargo ship pass under this tied-arch structure, it's impossible not to think about the significant role that the river plays in Germany's economic development. One cannot overstate the political and economic importance of the Rhine. The river flows north from the Swiss Alps, connecting some of the wealthiest areas in central and northern Europe on its way to the North Sea via the Netherlands. Along with the Danube and the Elbe, the Rhine is at the very heart of Germany's economic power, which has historically depended on exports.

Spans Across History

The countless castles and fortifications along the Rhine are a reminder of its importance as a waterway. Today they are part of a tourist circuit called "The Romantic Rhine," which attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. But behind their fairy-tale charm, these strongholds reveal something else: the states and regions with access to the Rhine became very wealthy very quickly, by trading as well as by collecting tolls.

This is one of the reasons Germany developed so many wealthy cities with so little political unity. One of the defining characteristics of the Holy Roman Empire was the existence of free imperial cities; places that were so rich that they could finance and protect themselves without depending on larger political entities, responding directly to the emperor. Not surprisingly, many of these cities were by the Rhine or its main tributaries. Cologne was a free imperial city, and so were Hamburg, Bremen and Frankfurt, among others. To this day they remain the economic engine of Germany, just as they were 10 centuries ago.

Many of these cities were part of the Hanseatic League, a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds that flourished between the 14th and 16th centuries, spanning well beyond modern-day Estonia. It eventually became so powerful that it imposed its conditions on German emperors and British kings, waging war against countries such as Denmark and Norway.

The League formally disappeared by the 16th century, unable to compete with its rivals in Italy and on the Atlantic coast, but has managed to survive in subtle ways. In Germany's 21st century federal state, Bremen and Hamburg remain city-states. Many former members of the league define themselves as Hanseatic (Bremen's full name is actually "Free Hanseatic City of Bremen"), as if there were some ancient virtue in their austere, hard-working and largely Protestant identity.

The multiplicity of battlements along the Rhine also speaks of a condition of permanent internal stress, with the imperial cities, principalities, duchies, counties and kingdoms constantly changing their alliances. Governing these cities must have been extremely demanding. For their rulers, the decision of who to support and who to fight was a matter of life and death — as was making the wrong alliance, which often led to destruction or annexation, as Frankfurt learned the hard way when it was annexed by Prussia after it supported Austria during the Austro-Prussian war.

A Tale of Two Cities

Cologne's little sister, Bonn, is an interesting example of the competition between German cities. As the name suggests, the Electorate of Cologne (an ecclesiastical principality of the Holy Roman Empire) had its seat in the cathedral city. But when Cologne gained its freedom in the late 13th century, tensions with the church became so strong that the Electorate had to move to Bonn, some 30 kilometers (19 miles) south. This started a competition between the two political centers that lasted until the early 19th century, when Napoleon found these trifling rivalries too annoying and decided to reorganize the whole map of Germany, abolishing the Holy Roman Empire in the process.

Yet Bonn would have one more moment of glory after World War II, when it was unexpectedly chosen as the provisional capital of West Germany. The choice may seem random on the surface, but it actually makes sense from the German perspective. Other West German cities such as Frankfurt and Hamburg had the infrastructure and the resources to become the new capital, but West Germany's first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer (who happened to be a former mayor of Cologne), had other plans. He thought that if a major German city were elected as the temporary capital, it would be very difficult to recognize the definitive capital in Berlin once Germany was reunited. This illustrates the extent to which competition among cities and regions was significant, well into the 20th century.

One of Bonn's highlights is the beautiful Kennedy Bridge, which got its current name in 1963, shortly after the assassination of the American president. With this gesture, Bonn's authorities sought to correct a series of uncomfortable historical episodes, including the renaming of the bridge to honor an agent of the Nazi paramilitary Sturmabteilung, or SA, in the 1930s and its destruction by the Nazis in 1945 to slow the advance of the Allies. Like rivers, the evolution of the names of German bridges, squares and public buildings also tell us much about the country's turbulent history.

Finally, the Eiserner Bridge in Frankfurt is emblematic of yet another feature of Germany: the role of private initiative. In the late 1860s, a group of local businessmen called on the Frankfurt city government to build a new bridge linking the north and south of the city, because the only existing bridge was insufficient to support the growing trade between the two banks of the river. When the municipality refused to finance the project, the businessmen decided to raise the money on their own. Just to confirm the importance of trade for Frankfurters, the bridge is crowned with a Greek phrase from Homer's Odyssey that reads "sailing over the wine-dark sea to men of strange speech." A century and a half after the inauguration of the bridge, this epigram perfectly describes the city's multicultural landscape and its role as Germany's financial core and the seat of the European Central Bank.

The Battle for the European Union

Understanding Germany's history and geography is essential when it comes to comprehending its present and thinking about its future. Germany was built out of a multitude of small states and free cities whose livelihood depended on their ability to trade, cooperate and compete with each other and the world around them. The Germans produce much more than what they consume domestically, and these strong exports mean employment and social stability. In the 21st century, the eurozone is a key part of Germany's strategy because it locks its main trade partners in Europe into a common currency, and prevents them from returning to their old ways, i.e., applying competitive devaluations. The eurozone is also helpful for Germany in the sense that the euro is in all probability cheaper than what a German-only currency would be. This explains why, despite bailouts that are sometimes controversial and small parties that threaten to leave the eurozone, Berlin will keep pushing to preserve the common currency. To some degree, Germany's imperatives also help explain why some members of the eurozone are increasingly uncomfortable with the status quo and are demanding a redesign of how the eurozone works.

On top of Germany's historically fragmented political landscape, the experience of Nazism added yet another layer of complexity to the federation, as the post-war political model was designed to favor consensus, distributing power among several levels of government. The notable power of Germany's Constitutional Court (which often challenges Berlin's decisions, even on EU-related issues) is one of the best examples of this decentralized framework.

Officials at the federal level have only limited influence over the myriad institutions, companies and interest groups that define German political culture. Interest groups and regional powers also exist in unitary countries such as France, but unlike Paris, which mediates between conflicting interests, Berlin often finds itself dealing with internal powers that consider themselves to be as important as the federal government itself.

The European Union is entering a new stage, in which it must consider issues that it avoided during the early stages of the financial crisis. The debate over the role of the European Central Bank is one such matter. The conflict between those who want to deepen the process of continental integration and those who want to reverse it will intensify as Europe slowly starts discussing what to do now that the financial side of the crisis is relatively calm, even though its political implications remain largely unaddressed.

During these negotiations everyone will be looking at Germany, though Berlin cannot be expected to react quickly. Institutional complexity means that Berlin has to engage in extensive negotiations at home before it can move at the European level. In the coming years, the German government will discuss the future of Europe with one eye on France and the other on the demands and needs of German companies, democratic institutions and regional governments. Some German-inspired policies to deal with the European crisis have been described as irrational or selfish by other governments and economic analysts. Some have accused Berlin of being too slow to respond. In truth, many of the policies, along with their time frames, are a result of the country's political climate and its strategic needs as an export-based nation.

We often tend to forget that a unified Germany with an effective central government has been the exception rather than the norm for the past thousand years. This doesn't mean that Angela Merkel is weak — quite the opposite, she is probably the most powerful leader in Europe. But it must be kept in mind that, like the construction of the Eiserner Bridge in Frankfurt or the creation of the Hanseatic League, the decision-making that shapes the future of the European Union will most likely be a bottom-up process, and not the other way around.

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