The Danube rises in the Black Forest in the Fürstenberg Park at Donaueschingen where a plaque reminds visitors that Hier entspringt die Donau. The river in its various guises as the Donau, Dunaj, Duna, Dunav, Dunârea, and Dunay flows for 2,850 km to its mouth in the Black Sea. On its journey it flows through ten countries, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine. The river has played a vital role in the settlement and evolution of central and southeastern Europe and has long been a vital artery of trade.
The Ancient Greeks knew it as the Ister and were trading on the river in the 7th century BC. Trajan’s (53-117 AD) successful military expansion saw the Roman Empire achieve its maximum territorial extent and Danubius became its northern frontier. A fleet patrolled its waters and the forts built along its length became important centres of settlement such as Vindobona-Vienna, Avanum- Štúrovo, Aquincum-Budapest, and Singidunum-Belgrade.
Limes, (Latin: “path”), plural limites, in Ancient Rome, originally a path that marked a boundary between plots of land. The meaning evolved over time and later came to mean a frontier. A network of forts, roads, and watchtowers were concentrated along the limes and in many places a continuous barrier was constructed. British readers will be most familiar with the stone built Hadrian’s Wall between the Tyne and Solway, and the turf built Antonine Wall between the Forth and Clyde. The Saxon Shore, a series of fortifications along both sides of the English Channel, were constructed in the 3rd century AD and though their original purpose is open to debate, by the 4th Century the forts were employed in operations against Frankish and Saxon pirates. On the continent the Limes Germanicus connected the Lower Rhine at Katwijk to the Danube, while the Danube itself, together with the Limes Moesiae, formed the line of the limes between Germania and the Black Sea. The limes were a vital feature of Imperial defence and provided a cordon which deterred casual incursion and would trigger counter-measures against more serious attacks. The limes marked the lands which were subject to Roman authority from those were not, and to cross the limes one had to pay portaria and accept the Empire’s authority. Their most important characteristic was their continuity, running without a break whether as a continuous wall, stockaded earthworks, or string of fortified points, along the entire length of the Imperial frontier. Ultimately they proved inadequate defences with the coup de grace in the fall of Rome being delivered in 476 with the deposition of the last of the Roman Emperors, Romulus Augustus, by the German Odoacer.
In Germany it flows past the Schloss Sigmaringen, seat of government of the Hohenzollern’s and home to the Vichy government in exile after the Allied invasion of France in 1944. Further downstream it passes Ulm and Regensberg, chief cities of the Holy Roman Empire, before entering Austria after Passau. Hitler’s formative years were spent in Linz where Johannes Kepler discovered his third law of planetary motion in 1619. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand is buried at Arnstetten Castle while Vienna was, in 1529 and 1683, twice the scene of Ottoman defeats that arguably determined the course of European history. For several centuries the Danube, as the northern boundary of the Ottoman Empire, formed one of the great dividing lines of European history.
In Slovakia it flows through Bratislava where the inhabitants bombarded the advancing Turks as they sailed up the river to besiege Vienna in 1529. In Hungary Eztergom is the seat of the Primate of the Catholic Church in Hungary and was the capital of Hungary before Bela IV (1206-1270 AD) moved the royal seat to Buda. Croatian Vukovar reminds us of Europe’s long history of bloody strife as the site of the 1991 massacre of 263 Croatians by Serb soldiers led by Veselin Šljivančanin and Mile Mrkšić.
The Danube Commission
International agreements regulating navigation on the Danube date to at least 1616 when an Austro-Turkish Treaty granted the Austrians the right to navigation on the Ottoman controlled lower and middle Danube. Following the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774 the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca allowed Russia to use the lower Danube. Russian quarantining of shipping at the mouth of the Danube from 1829 led to international tensions, and following the Crimean War (1853-1856) the Treaty of Paris of 1856 formulated the principle of free navigation along the entire river and established the European Commission of the Danube. Its initial function was to prepare regulations for navigation and policing of the river, carry out works to improve navigation, and maintain the mouths of the Danube in a navigable state. Originally intended to exist for two years, political expediency led to the extension of its life on several occasions. The Commission was the first international organisation that had extensive legislative powers for drawing up regulations, executive powers for carrying them out, and the judicial power to carry out sentences in its own name. It even had its own flag, was under no compulsion to fly any other on its vessels, and enjoyed diplomatic immunity. The disruption of the First and Second World Wars halted free international navigation and in 1940 Germany unilaterally announced the dissolution of the Commission. The Danube River Conference of 1948 established the Danube River Commission with powers to manage the maintenance and improvement of navigation and establish a uniform system of traffic regulations. It’s opening article states
“Navigation on the Danube shall be free and open for the nationals, vessels of commerce and goods of all States, on a footing of equality in regard to port and navigation charges and conditions for merchant shipping.”
Convention Regarding the Regime of Navigation on the Danube.” Belgrade, August 18, 1948, Art. 1
Entering Romania beyond the Iron Gates sees a transition across one of the great dividing lines in European history and culture between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. In Bulgaria, Nikopol was the birth place of Eve Frank, who in 1770 was declared Shekinah, the female aspect of God, and the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary. She remains the only female known to have been declared a Jewish Messiah.
In Ukraine Izmail was the scene of the storming of Izmail fortress and the massacre of 40,000 of its inhabitants by Russian forces under the command of Alexander Suvorov, one of the few generals in history who never lost a battle. The river reaches the Black Sea in the Danube Delta, Europe’s second largest delta after that of the Volga. Sulina is the last town on the Danube and is only accessible by boat, having no road access.
Research from the Defence Studies Department, King's College London
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