Last year I marked the end of my years of teaching European history by taking a cruise along the Elbe River from Prague to Magdeburg, then by bus on to Berlin. The trip was wonderful – and my timing was great, because if I’d gone back to teaching afterwards I would have had to rewrite most of my lecture notes.
It is easier to travel by water than any other way, which is why river cruises are booming at present, especially amongst the chronologically challenged. The end of the Cold War has helped, too. Many European rivers – Danube, Elbe, Oder, Vistula, Volga – flow roughly east/west, while the Iron Curtain split Europe roughly north/south, so these rivers and their towns and valleys were once out of bounds to us in the west.
My journey took me through contested territories, starting in Prague, the old capital of Bohemia, where the Habsburg Emperors retreated at the end of the 16th century, after their capital of Vienna came under threat from the Ottoman Empire. Prague lies on the Vltava River, a tributary that was once more widely known by its German name, the Moldau.
The Vltava joins the Labe at Melnik, and flows through lands that once formed part of the old Sudetenland, the German speaking areas of interwar Czechoslovakia that were handed over to Germany under the Munich Agreement in 1938. A year later the war began anyway. Nobody, it seems, speaks German there anymore, least of all at Terezin (German: Theresienstadt), the Nazi concentration camp. This began life as a fortress built in the 1780s on the orders of Emperor Joseph II, who named it after his mother, Maria Theresa. It was a prison long before the Nazis made it notorious.
The border where armies have marched to and fro for hundreds of years is marked today only by a changing sequence of numbers on the railway line that runs beside the river. The line starts again at 0 as we enter Germany. But the porous boundary line between Slav and Germanic languages is a deep one. The languages are very different. I don’t speak German, but can often make sense of speech and signage, whereas in the Czech lands, I haven’t a clue.
Marking the language shift, the Labe now has a German name, the Elbe. Locks tame the river, but the scenery is wild, with rocky outcrops, ruined castles and sudden gorges down to the river. Saxony was once a European centre of mining, coal mining in the 19th century, but before that silver, crystals and cobalt. Cobalt provides the blue pigment that colours the Virgin’s robes – and the blue of Meissen porcelain. When elemental cobalt was isolated in the 19th century, it was named after the kobald, a goblin who lives in the mines, and poisons unwary miners. Cobalt was a monopoly of the Dukes of Saxony, and illegal traders in cobalt were hanged.
Then to Dresden, best known today for the notorious air raids and consequent firestorm of February 1945. Dresden was an important industrial city, and exports travelled down the Elbe to the port of Hamburg at its mouth. Our over-enthusiastic guide lists the many products of Saxon industrial ingenuity – toothpaste is one of the few I remember. Like the more famous Frauenkirche, the palace of the Electors of Saxony has been lovingly restored, and in the Green Vault, where the Ducal treasures are kept, I get an inkling of why Saxons might have warmed to the redistributive aspects of Communism. The Vault is an enormous treasure house of stuff, a coffee service in enamelled gold, carved ivory and coral objects d’art, musical toys and jewels galore.
Frederick the Wise, the Duke who protected Martin Luther in the early 16th century, was a collector too – he collected saints’ relics, and didn’t stop, even after the Protestant Reformation. Thank goodness none of them discovered eBay.
After Dresden we float on towards Meissen, where they’ve been making porcelain since the beginning of the 18th century. We tour the factory and see the labour-intensive work that – perhaps – justifies its high price. But I suspect these days they make more from tour groups than from the stuff they sell. We all pay for an overpriced coffee, just for the experience of drinking from a Meissen cup.
Further west, at Torgau, we see the monument marking the point where the Russian and American armies met in 1945 – and also see horrifying photographs of terrified refugees scrambling across the river, along the twisted remnants of the railway bridge that crossed the Elbe at this point, trying to get away from the Russian troops.
Just downstream we reach Wittenberg, where we are in the heartland of a much earlier conflict, when one of Wittenberg University’s academics, Martin Luther, precipitated the Protestant Reformation in 1517. Abandoning his vow of celibacy, the former Augustinian monk married a former nun, the redoubtable Katharina von Bora. They had 6 children. Margot Honecker, the wife of the last Chairman of East Germany, was a direct descendant – and she apparently helped to keep Wittenberg’s heritage intact through the impoverished days of the GDR.
Luther’s first sermon beyond the confines of Saxony was at Magdeburg, further downstream, and the town paid heavily for the presumption of inviting him there, and for its general reputation for being bolshie. It was besieged during the religious wars in 1551, then sacked in 1631 during the Thirty Years War – and only Dresden suffered more from firebombing in World War II. Downstream lies Hamburg, and with only rudimentary navigational aids, bombers followed the river upstream to these industrial towns.
We leave the river at Magdeburg and drive north to Potsdam, where the Prussian kings built their palaces in gardens modelled on Versailles. Margot Honecker helped keep these going during Communist times, too. At Potsdam we cross the Havel River at the Glienicke Bridge, which once marked the boundary between East and West. This is where spies were swapped, walking across the bridge into the waiting arms of their controllers. In the middle of the bridge, there is a line in the road where the maintenance crews changed, for each sector was responsible for its own paving.
Another contested place, marked by the colour of the bitumen. And I’m not even getting started on Berlin. Other people’s contested ideologies always seem trivial in retrospect, and no doubt our own foibles will seem just as silly one day.
Meanwhile, a story both happy and sad. Salmon used to breed in the up-waters of the Elbe, particularly in its small streams and tributaries, but industrial pollution, dams and locks eventually destroyed their breeding streams and their migration patterns, and the last salmon was caught in the Elbe in 1954. After reunification, the German government began to clean up the river, and in 1994/5 the first salmon fingerlings were released. By 2001, the first breeding adults arrived back, and since then, the population has risen to the point where line fishermen are allowed to catch salmon for private consumption only. Salmon are now reaching the Czech Labe, above the lochs. The river is clean.
But it is clean because industry has gone elsewhere. We passed a ruined factory just near a salmon stream. It used to employ 700 people building furniture packs for Ikea, but costs got too high, and the factory moved to Romania. But at least the salmon are back.