Der Rhein rises in two headstreams in the Swiss Alps, the Vorderrhein and the Hinterrhein, which meet at Reichenau above Chur. The river in its various guises as the Rhein, Rhin, or Rijn flows 1,230 km from its source to its delta on the North Sea . On its journey it flows past or through Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, France, and the Netherlands. Culturally and historically it is one of the great rivers of Europe and today remains among the world’s most important commercial river routes.
To the Romans it was the Rhenus and formed part of its northern border with Germania. It’s length is dotted with Roman settlements, many of which continue as modern day town cities. It’s first known urban settlement, Oppidum Ubiorum, was established by the Germanic tribe, the Ubii. Under the Romans it became known as Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, and today is known by the bastardized version of colonia as Köln or Cologne.
Konstanz, situated on the western end of Lake Constance (German: Bodensee) was the site of the Council of Constance (1414-1418) which sentenced Jan Hus as a heretic and brought an end to the Great Schism by deposing Pope John XXIII, receiving the resignation of Gregory XII, and dismissing the claims of the Avignon Pope, Benedict XIII. French Strasbourg was the scene of a communist revolution which proclaimed a soviet government on November 11, 1918. The rising was brutally suppressed 11 days later by forces under General Henri Gourard.
The city of Worms is responsible for many a history teacher’s poor joke about the Diet of Worms, the city being the scene of several Imperial diets, the most famed of which issued the Edict of Worms, declaring Martin Luther a heretic in 1521. Worms also lays claim to the title of oldest town in Germany, a claim that is hotly disputed by Trier and Cologne. Mainz was the home of Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the movable type printing press, perhaps the single most influential invention of all time. In the field of music seminal electronic band Kraftwerk were formed in Düsseldorf, their music a far cry from the 1840 jingoistic, martial dirge, Die Wacht am Rhein, popular among patriotic Germans during the Franco-Prussian War and Great War.
Nijmegen lies on the Rhine distributary, the Waal, which carries sixty-five percent of the Rhine’s total flow, the remainder being carried by the Ijssel and NederRijn. Nijmegen lays claim to being the oldest city in the Netherlands. In 1981 it was the scene of the forcible removal of squatters by 1200 policemen and 750 members of the Dutch armed forces supported by three Leopard tanks, three armoured personnel carriers, a helicopter, and 200 riot vans.
With the completion of the Delta Project in 1986 all main branches of the Rhine are now closed off. Sluices and lateral channels now take Rhine water to reach the sea, while major sea defence works such as the Afsluitdijk and the Haringvlietdam prevent major flooding of the Rhine Delta area.
The Delta Works are a giant flood control project that has closed off the Rhine, Maas, and Schelde estuaries with dykes linking the islands of Walcheren, Noord-Beveland, Schouwen, Goeree and Vorne, creating several non-tidal freshwater lakes. Originally envisaged in the early years of the twentieth century it was not until the North Sea flood of 1953, which killed 1,853 people, that work began in seriousness. Four barrier and six secondary dams were built to close off the mouths and inner reaches of the major inlets. The final barrier dam to be completed was the Ooosterscheldekering the gates of which allow tidal water to ebb and flow but can be closed in the event of a storm surge. The project was declared complete in 1997 but work continues today with reinforcement of dyke revetments along the Oosterschelde and Westerschelde. In 2008 the Delta Commission concluded that a regional sea level rise of 0.65 to 1.3 m by 2100, and of 2 to 4 m by 2200 should be taken into account and recommended a programme of sea defence construction, mainly through beach recharge to extend the coastline out by 1 km in a seawards direction, dramatic increases in the flood level protection of existing dikes, and further management of the Rhine-Meuse discharge areas. The estimated cost of the envisaged works involves a cost of 1.2 to 1.6 billion euros per annum until 2050, and 0.9 to 1.5 billion euros per annum in the period 2050–2100.
Rivers tend to have either a unifying effect on the regions through which they flow, or form a political boundary. Throughout its history the lands surrounding the Rhine have fluctuated between both states. Most significant has been the French claim to the Rhine as a natural border, resulting from the river’s historical significance as a boundary between Roman Gaul and Germania, and the eastern boundary of the Middle Frankish Kingdom of Lotharingia. Franco-German rivalry has seen the border fluctuate on the line of the Rhine, or on either side on several occasions. The current Franco-German Rhenish border running from the Port du Rhin near Lauterberg in France to the Franco-German-Swiss border at Basel was not finalised until the reunification of the French controlled Saar Protectorate with West Germany in 1957, and technically not until 1990 when France, together with the United Kingdom, Soviet Union, and United States, signed the, Treaty on the Final Settlement With Respect to Germany, whereby all four powers renounced all rights they held in Germany under the terms of the Potsdam Agreement.
Research from the Defence Studies Department, King's College London
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