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Connect and divide: on the history of the Kiel Canal.


In 1896 Ernst August Lamp, a professor at the University of Kiel, addressed the problem of determining the distance of fixed stars. 'Imagine', he invited the members of a scientific association, '[that] you are standing at the Kiel Canal but cannot cross it'. (1) The remainder of Lamp's talk is not important here--what is significant is that the waterway was perceived as the very symbol of an obstacle.

Transport infrastructure can certainly block journeys, forcing detours. Major rail lines or highways cutting through neighbourhoods may be as impossible to cross as Professor Lamp once found the Kiel Canal. It is only via special installations, such as bridges or tunnels, that transverse access is possible. All of us have also leisurely lounged in a train or a car, rushing comfortably and fast on these trunk route infrastructures, going from here to there, distances of hundreds kilometres turned into the equivalents of some hours. In a more metaphorical sense the project of building new connections is often accompanied by political, military, economic and other rivalries. Also in this allegorical sense there are countless examples of new links producing divisions. The cases of the Suez and Panama canals are convincing cases in point. Not only did they facilitate global transport, they also lay at the centre of colonial expansion and competition between the imperialist powers in the nineteenth century. Later, they were again at the centre of strategic struggle and armed conflict in the twentieth century. (2)

An 'affirmative, sometimes fascinated' focus on the connecting and accelerating aspect of infrastructures dominates historiography, is the diagnosis which Jens Ivo Engels offers. Too often they are 'still seen as agents of linear processes of growth--growth of prosperity, communication and, recently, of European integration'. (3) Yet the notion that transport infrastructures often create divisions is also not a novelty. Engels lists a number of works that wrestle with infrastructures in contexts of power and hierarchy. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, for example, reflects on the 'estrangement' (Entfremdung) from the natural environment and the loss of scenery a passenger feels when riding on the straight cut lines of a railroad. (4) Paul Cezanne's painting 'La Tranchee' (c. 1870) of a railroad cutting is reminiscent of a fresh wound in the country. As Andreas Braun shows, the cuts made by transport infrastructures in European landscapes were also perceived as destructions by nineteenth century commentators like Lord Byron and Charles Dickens. (5)

The ambivalence of connections and divisions is not necessarily a fundamental aspect of transport infrastructure, but it can be a powerful narrative. To simultaneously stress the facilitation of transport and its complication helps to avoid (re)telling the story of progress. Authors such as David Blackbourn have shown the importance of counter-narratives (6) when writing about infrastructures in order to recognise change as the advent of the new and also the loss of the old. As he shows, 'nature' would be another narrative to understand the story of infrastructures: what unites different hydro-technical projects was 'the basic idea that nature was an adversary to be manacled, tamed, subjugated, conquered and so on through a dozen variations'. (7) Nature, in all its complex meaning, certainly plays a part in the Kiel Canal's history: it involves arguments about the waterway as an improvement of nature, about the necessity to destroy even picturesque landscapes in the name of progress, and about the severe unintended ecological effects on the adjacent and regional environment.

Between 1886 and 1895 an impressive 100 km canal, 70 m wide and 9 m deep, was cut through Schleswig-Holstein (Figure 1). Today, over a century later, sea-going ships still pass through the lock at the mouth of the river Elbe and exit at another lock into the bay of Kiel, and a seemingly ever-growing number of bridges, ferries and tunnels allow crossings. This paper tells the story of the Kiel Canal through the various connections and divisions it produced between harbours, nations, classes and landscapes. (8)

Two publications from the time of the Kiel Canal's construction have provided the central narratives (9) that have been retold a number of times. The latest example is an edition published for the 100th anniversary of the Kiel's inauguration. (10) These texts are showcases of affirmative histories of infrastructures. They are inadequate texts in various ways. Generally, writing the pre-history of the Canal only as a list of canal projects does not take a broader transport history into account, where the question of transit between the seas initially involved road and railroad projects. In addition, conventional and celebratory historiography fails to reflect the environmental history of the canal that had repercussions into the 1970s. Standard texts also fail to explain the Kiel Canal's cultural history through its various changing interpretations. Finally, and most important for this paper, the more routine Canal histories do not expose the ambivalence of transport infrastructures.

This history of equivocal modernisation is told here in several episodes, in roughly chronological order. The starting point is the Kiel Canal's preopening history. Its construction reflects on questions of technology and labour. When the Canal was opened in 1895 it constituted a global media event that was charged with the same national divisions as the waterway's thorough modernisation before 1914. The economic history reaches back into the early decades of the nineteenth century but also tells of the effects on commerce and trade of the Canal's completion. The final section of the paper reflects on the environmental impacts of the construction that were unexpectedly severe and perceptible until well into the twentieth century.

This story of the Kiel Canal is somewhat kaleidoscopic, but focusing on its concurrent divisive and connective aspects allows diverse interpretations of a single piece of infrastructure. In order to understand the history of the Kiel Canal through the changing meanings it had for contemporaries of different decades and centuries, 'connect and divide' is taken as the thread that sews diverse patches together.

Prelude: connect seas, divide towns and nations

At least since 1398, when the Stecknitz Canal allowed relatively easy communication between Hamburg and Liibeck, transport history on the Jutland peninsula in northwest Europe was characterised by transit between the seas. (11) Histories of the Kiel Canal, however, have so far only offered different lists of successful and unsuccessful projects. (12) In order to understand the early debates about a new waterway between the North Sea and the Baltic, it is necessary to be aware of regional transport in general.

Leaving aside older roads and canals between the Hanseatic towns Liibeck and Hamburg, there were three important innovations before the 1860s: the Eider Canal, the road between Altona and Kiel, and a railroad between those two cities (Figure 2). The construction of the 34 km Eider Canal--inaugurated in 1784--facilitated regional and transit traffic. With a depth of 3.5 m and a bottom width of 18 m, it connected the bay of Kiel with the town of Rendsburg. After entering the Canal from the Baltic, a ship would rise through three locks until reaching the Eider in the Flemhuder Sea that also served as the waterway's reservoirs. From here it would descend through another three locks on a stretch of canal that mostly replaced the old river, until it reached the lower Eider in Rendsburg. Now it would follow the river's course a meandering 120 km to the North Sea. (13) Handling an average of 3000 ships annually in the 100 years before it was replaced by the Kiel Canal, the Eider Canal was an important element of the regional transport infrastructure. (14) The second innovation, the road from Altona to Kiel, was inaugurated in 1832. It reduced the travel time between the cities from more than a day to a mere ten hours, and led to increased shipment of goods. (15) The third modernisation was a railroad that from 1844 connected both towns and also increased exchange significantly. (16)

These years of growing connectivity were accompanied by divisions springing from deep-rooted rivalries. Before the Danish-German war of 1864, the King of Denmark also ruled over the legally independent duchies of Schleswig-Holstein. Not part of this pre-national conglomeration of territories were the independent Hanseatic towns Lubeck and Hamburg, the most important ports in the region. From the eighteenth century, Copenhagen tried to support its own trade while damaging its rival's. Altona was installed as Hamburg's competitor for North Sea trade, while Kiel played the role as Lubeck's opponent.

When the Eider Canal was planned, a sharp eye was kept on building far away from Lubeck in order not to give away any benefits. (17) Later, the dukedoms and Copenhagen successfully delayed Hanseatic infrastructure projects. A road between Lubeck and Hamburg was held up for years, and when it finally opened in 1839, transit tolls became obligatory for the first time. (18) A direct railroad was also prevented for many years. As early as 1831 investors were ready to start the enterprise, but to no avail. (19) The first rail link became a reality in 1846, but only via the line between Hamburg and Berlin, where a branch line to Lubeck could not be prevented due to Prussian interests. The direct railroad took until 1865 to be realised, when Schleswig-Holstein was no longer under Copenhagen's rule and political obstacles were finally resolved. (20)

New connections were accompanied by divisions. Until late in the twentieth century, some historians attacked Denmark's preventive policy. One view is that the war of 1864 had finally 'put an end to the gross and deliberate injustices of Danish transport policy'. (21) Another scholar judged that ' Danish policy' was ' extremely short-sighted and destructive for the development of the regional traffic-infrastructure' and that is was 'damaging Schleswig-Holsteins interest themselves'. (22) Yet another opinion was that 'Danish interests ... [were] aimed against German and Hanseatic interests'. (23) Yet, the alleged 'Danish' policy was in accordance with the interest of German speaking towns like Kiel and Altona. In fact the railroad policy was the object of heated exchanges of brochures, mostly in German. (24) The cited historians took the position of the understandably enraged citizens of Hamburg and Liibeck. But there was no special Danish venom; rather there was the regular matter of competing states.

Another example, structurally comparable, has received less attention in historiography, probably due to the lack of embedded national rivalries. Hanover prevented a direct connection to Hamburg for decades. From 1847 to 1872 the line from the south ended in Harburg on the Elbe's south bank; the clear purpose was to promoting Hanover's port at the expense of Hamburg's harbour on the north bank. (25)

With the age of nationalism the Danish-German chasm became the leading political topic in Schleswig-Holstein. Its first climax was in 1848 when the revolution rolled over Europe and the dukedoms. It led to elections, liberal reforms and a war between the new German republic and Copenhagen that became a Danish civil war when the German revolution faltered. On the opening day of the first freely elected German parliament, a pamphlet was circulated in Eckernforde, a town on the Baltic. 'German fleet German canal' was its provocative headline. (26) The document is important for two reasons. First it was part of patriotic fleet enthusiasm in Germany. The revolutionary parliament in Frankfurt started to build up a battle fleet soon after the elections. Backed by public opinion it reacted to the fact that the small kingdom of Copenhagen was beaten swiftly on the battlefield, but its fleet blockaded Germany's coasts and secured the Danish isles. (27) Second, the leaflet also illustrates a change in the meaning of transit infrastructure in Schleswig-Holstein: a new canal between the seas now signified a national project. It was supposed to make the would-be fleet independent from the situation in the Danish straits and to facilitate German sea traffic, as well as trade in general. This new set of arguments was here to stay, regardless of the concrete proposed line. Just as older transit-connections can only be understood as reflecting the rivalry between neighbouring towns, now national divisions became an integral part of a new link.

In the following decades, projects for a canal between the seas reappeared. Starting in 1848, Prussian officials--especially in the ministry of trade--had dealt with this question continuously. After a thorough gathering of data, the ministry decided that a canal would never be profitable for investors, even with generous subsidies. (28) Accordingly, the Kiel Canal was finally realised as a state enterprise. On 19 October 1885 the Prussian government decided to build the canal and subsequently the parliaments backed the legislation to invest 156 million marks into the new connection.

Under construction: build the connection, secure the division

Simply listing canal projects does not adequately outline the pre-history of the Kiel Canal. Something very similar can be said about its construction. Recounting detail such as the astonishing amount of machinery used (hundreds of locomotives, dozens of steam dredgers) and the vast size of the workforce is only partial history. Instead, the ambiguity of connecting and dividing that is inscribed into canals on a fundamental level offers an analytic tool to better understand the enterprise of constructing a canal. Canalisation separates a landscape, yet it also separates the water inside from the solid surroundings.

What may appear self-evident is difficult to achieve. Along the line of the Kiel Canal were marshes, moors and fine sands, elements that behaved more like liquids than solids; like groundwater they tended to flow into the construction pit. It was vital to secure the sides of the new cut. This can be seen in the western part of the waterway, where it passed though low-lying land. Here, the high water level inside the canal is more than a meter above its surroundings. Accordingly, dykes had to be erected. But the surface was unable to bare the weight of the earth which sank slowly. To build a robust and impermeable embankment, earth was hauled in by rail, until the original material was completely displaced (Figure 3). Thereafter, workers and dredgers could start to dig the trench. The newly erected, solid and impermeable embankment and the dykes it bore still separate the canal water from the surrounding countryside. (29)

The simultaneity of connections and divisions also characterised the workforce. This story is one of geographical and social mobility. Unfortunately, it is not possible to reconstruct the origin of the workers with accuracy, but some facts are known. A local newspaper registered the yearly migration of Italian workers to Schleswig-Holstein. (30) It is also clear that many workers were Poles, (31) but whether they came from Germany, Russia or the Danube Monarchy is impossible to tell. It is also impossible to quantify if they constituted a quarter or half of the work force or even more. As the workers who came to work along the canal were forced to move into the state-run barracks, it seems that only a minority were local residents. (32) All the facts indicate that the Kiel Canal workforce had the regular patterns of work migration of its time. The heavy labour produced a group of workers that followed the sites, where the transport network expanded. (33) During the nineteenth century the national origins of the migrant workers changed when Germans gained better possibilities within the ever-expanding industry and Poles especially took over their jobs. (34)

This mobility was accompanied by a discourse in the Reichstag and mainstream-press that aimed to achieve the stabilisation of class society through social policy. Here the workers' spatial mobility co-existed with a policy aimed at reducing social mobility. The conservative 'patriarchal state'35 was the leitmotiv for this debate. For the Kiel Canal, the fundamentals of the established social policy were formulated by a prominent figure of German Protestantism, Friedrich von Boldelschwingh (1831-1910) who believed in 'good order and discipline'. (36) On the one hand the workers were paid well and supplied with proper housing, hygiene and food. On the other they had to live in the barracks and accept a regime modelled on the military. Retired military personnel ran the barracks. The practice was praised in some quarters. 'Everything made a pleasant impression', recapitulated the illustrated magazine Gartenlaube. (37) A pointed approval came from a member of the Reichstag, Joseph Lingens of the Catholic Zentrum-party. The 'difficult task' of building the canal was done 'in best harmony' between entrepreneurs and workers, he said in 1893. (38)

How the navvies perceived their own living and working conditions did not become a part of this discourse. The few existing sources indicate 'hate and disgust with life in the barracks'. (39) Accordingly, social policy seemed to offer the possibility of realising a conservative vision that gave the workers fair living conditions without transgressing social class. This patriarchal policy was not emancipatory but it instead targeted the stabilisation of a society that seemed to be torn between socialism and untamed capitalism. Labour's spatial mobility was accompanied by a political debate that idealised a stable social order. An 1893 novel set in the construction site showcases the hierarchic and patriarchal ideal: an engineer exclaims that ' Payment is good, food and housing are good, treatment is almost too good'. (40) A contractor in the novel speaks these words: 'As if they'd known what to do with more freedom! Would them gladly grant it then!'. (41)

The Kiel Canal building site was a place of connections and divisions. The borders between the Canal and its surroundings had to be fortified to provide a stable connection between two seas. Workers migrated there in vast numbers, yet they became part of a discourse that locked them in their 'proper' social place to consolidate a hierarchical order with clearly divided classes.

Inauguration: celebrate connection, cement enmity

'We connect two seas.... Seas do not divide. Seas connect. The connecting seas are connected by this new link for the mercy and peace of the nations'. (42) With these words Kaiser Wilhelm II celebrated the opening of the Kiel Canal. The inauguration of the Kiel was a notable event in Hamburg and Kiel, and along the waterway. After thousands of workers and dozens of steam dredgers had dug their way through the peninsula, approximately 200,000 tourists, hundreds of dignitaries from the Reich and foreign powers --including the Kaiser and his family--as well as squadrons of warships from European countries and beyond, came to Germany's north. (43) The German press interpreted the new connection as a symbol for peace and growing trade. 'More accurate', commented the Vossische Zeitung on the Kaiser's address, 'no sovereign could have outlined what is in the souls of the German people'. (44)

The British press was more sceptical about the peaceful character of the event. They wondered particularly how the 'ore-armoured power, that had been convened in Kiel's harbour, shall be ... a symbol of peace', as Wilhelm had expressed in Hamburg. The Spectator, a British weekly, formulated its doubts pointedly: 'An ironclad has no meaning, unless it is a mighty engine of slaughter'. (45) The general public mood held no enmity against the Reich yet (that would only develop later) and the Times brought a rather neutral coverage of facts. As Jan Riiger has shown, British society participated in a turn-of-the-century European culture that practiced the 'cult of the navy'. Without this irrational moment, Riiger argues, maritime armament at the turn of the century cannot be understood. (46) These sentiments were evident at Kiel in 1895, where an ironic review of this state of modern civilisation was expressed by Henry W. Lucy:

   [H]arbour and approaches filled with fleets of all nations, every
   ship bristling with guns, and longing to be at somebody. For the
   closing years of the nineteenth century of the Christian Era, this
   is [...] most encouraging. It is the completest achievement, the
   proudest thing civilisation has to show us. (47)

Perceptions in France were completely different. The inauguration of the Canal and the participation of French warships became part of the antagonism with Germany. Simultaneously the relations between Paris and St. Petersburg were for the first time denoted by the word 'alliance'. In this sense, the occasion marks one of the first steps towards the system of treaties that set up one of the preconditions for the First World War. The mobility of politicians, tourists, journalists and ships was accompanied by the divisions between the European powers that were to widen and deepen in the years before the First World War. (48)

The fact that the French government sent ships to Kiel generally found approval. Only a hand full protested in print, in parliament and at a minor demonstration in Paris. The majority of the press viewed the dispatch of the squadron as necessary 'politesse'. Nevertheless, this approval coexisted with ritualised 'Jamais oublier!' The controversial intellectual newspaper Gil Blas reminded its readers to never forget' the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. Le Temps, one of the Third Republic's leading tabloids, commented that acts of courtesy--sending ships--did not change any inner feelings. L'Eclair noted that even though France was participating at the international fleet review, we will not cease to hope for the unification with the lost provinces'. (49)

The French government found a way to formulate its own Never forget! ' message. Officials arranged for French ships to unite with the Russian squadron outside German waters and then steam into the bay of Kiel in unison. The elegant solution respected the politesse of international relations, while an offensive foreign policy was formulated that pointed at German worries about a two-front war. The statements of the French foreign minister Gabriel Hanotaux in May and June 1895 became occasions of great public interest. When Hanotaux spoke on 10 June about the voyage to Kiel, his use of the word alliance' to describe the relations with Russia created public turmoil. It was the first official hint at what was later called the Franco-Russian Alliance' that preceded the Triple Entente. Considering this reshaping of European alliances, the arrival of a joint Franco-Russian squadron in Kiel was a powerful symbol. Le Figaro wrote that the festivities became mere decoration' for the joint arrival of the fleets. (50) German officials were worried about the political implications too. Having witnessed the Franco-Russian demonstration, the influential diplomat Friedrich von Holstein told the Kaiser's close friend Philipp zu Eulenburg that the international fleet review would probably cause more damage than anything else. (51)

Again, the Kiel Canal emerges as transport infrastructure that produced connections and divisions. On the one hand, the enthusiasm for the festivities point to an impressive mobility associated with the artefact. Supporting this picture was the German interpretation of the inauguration that stressed benefits for trade and peace. On the other hand, the international situation as well as the military character of the canal and the festivities had their share in the increased division of Europe before the World War One.

Modernisation: increase access, deepen the gap

Twelve years after the inauguration of the Kiel Canal, engineers, workers and dredgers came to Schleswig-Holstein a second time. From 1907 to 1914 they deepened and widened the Canal, and built new locks considerably bigger than the originals. The reason for the modernisation was obvious to everyone. The maritime arms race at the turn of the century led to ever bigger warships. As early as 1904 Alfred von Tirpitz demanded a modernisation according to military needs. (52) When the Reichstag discussed the modernisation in 1907, all parties agreed on the military necessity. Even the Social Democrats approved: One has to agree--if one wants to be honest --that the interests of national defence gave the first impulse'. As the construction would have some benefits for trade, they decided to vote in favour of the construction works anyway. (53) The modernisation of the Kiel certainly strengthened the connection and facilitated mobility between the seas. Seen in this context of military rivalry and growing political tension in the years before World War I, the project was shaped by growing European tensions as well.

The increasingly strained international relations were also reflected in the representation of the workers. While their multinational origin was rarely perceived as a problem during the original construction phase, it now became a major political issue. Again, there was an active social policy, but it no longer held the former visionary aspects. Instead nationalistic ideas dominated. If the workers now appeared in the press at all, the public guidelines for employing workers gave the general direction of interpretation: If possible, German workers are to be preferred for works at the canal. For employing foreign workers, a special permission by the canal-administration is necessary'. (54)

Economy: new trade routes, new obstacles

How would the new connection intervene in the existing networks of trade? Virtually all publications from the late nineteenth century agree that the Kiel Canal would open the Baltic directly to the world market. The Canal bill passed in the Reichstag almost unanimously also underlined the significant shortening of the sea routes' and the resulting benefits for trade. (55) Representations of this argument that seemed so convincing to contemporaries are revealed on maps. (56) An 1893 rendition (Figure 4) shows the old route around Skagen marked in fine lines, and the new connection in thick lines. The associated text states that the economic significance of the canal is in the considerable shortcut' it provided. (57) This idea was first formulated in 1784, when a writer commented on the consequences of the Eider Canal. Displaying a map of the Baltic and the North Sea--without the lines of a century later--just a glance would persuade everyone about the results for trade: the old routes from the Thames to St. Petersburg, from Riga to Amsterdam, from Scotland to Danzig, from Konigsberg to Bremen and from Liibeck to France, all of them around the Danish straits, would be replaced by a route between the seas. (58)

The depiction of the short-cut argument on a map does not represent the development of trade routes as it was noticed later. The new connection changed the patterns of trade, but not in obvious ways. Even in the 21st century, ships rarely sail from France directly to Lubeck. One early hint that the supposedly self-evident value of the new and shorter connection was misleading came from this Baltic harbour. When in 1864 a Prussian private corporation planned a canal, (59) the senate asked the Lubeck Board of Trade for its opinion. The merchants were pessimistic: a canal meant that a part of the transit-traffic between Hamburg and the Baltic port will be inevitably lost for our place forever'. (60) Steamships and sailing boats could reach Hamburg as fast and easily as Lubeck. Hamburg could serve the needs of the Baltic towns for the same tariffs as Lubeck and accordingly no trade would be directed there anymore. As if answering to the evidence' of the map, the report noted that in geographic turns there can be no doubt' that Lubeck gets a direct connection to the North Sea, just like the canal turns Hamburg into a Baltic port. But Lubeck could not compete with the larger trade, fleet and financial power of Hamburg. The only chance was to become the eastern end of the canal. In that case, shipbuilding might compensate for lost trade.

Lubeck was only one of the towns that feared Hamburg's economic weight would be multiplied by the Kiel Canal. (61) Especially intense were the discussions in Copenhagen where worries were fuelled by national rivalries. Plans for a free-port date back to the 1840s, but it was the decision to build the Kiel Canal that finally gave the momentum for its realisation. Carl Frederik Tietgen, celebrated as probably Denmark's most visionary businessman of all times' (62) paved the way at a business meeting in September 1885, giving a presentation entitled: The position of Danish shipping in relation to the canal between the North sea and the Baltic'. (63) After years of debate the monarch signed the relevant law on 31 March 1891. How intensely this discussion related to the Kiel Canal was reflected in the title of a publicity brochure for the new harbour: The North-Sea and Baltic Canal and the Free Port of Copenhagen'. Besides worries about Hamburg, Copenhageners were mainly troubled by the fear that a canal would marginalise them from the main trade route. The brochure even came to the conclusion that one of the main reasons for Germany building the Canal was the urge to damage Danish business. (64) Again, the new connection was interpreted in terms of national rivalry and the fear of being driven off old markets.

Hamburg certainly benefited enormously from the Kiel Canal. Even before its completion in 1895, by 1888 the city was a major gateway for Baltic trade. (65) With the opening of the Canal in 1895, the town's ship owners organised liner trade through the new connection. (66) By 1899 the merchants were pleased with their commerce in the Baltic and judged that the new connection was important for the growth of their businesses. Looking back on the previous century of economic development, one author wrote in 1901 that Hamburg had increased his trade with the Baltic significantly after the inauguration of the Kiel Canal. (67) By 1908 research concluded that Hamburg had turned the Baltic into its hinterland, the Canal being one of the reasons for this economic success. (68)

Back to the map that opened this chapter: if the shipping lines that use the canal were drawn on paper the picture would be different. A large line would come from the West to Hamburg--and to a lesser extent to Bremen --and from there thinner lines would connect to smaller ports through the canal. This correlates with the picture one gets today, standing at the gate of Hamburg's port. Here, on the shore of the Elbe, big container freighters passing seemingly at arm's length. They come from distant ports in Asia and the Americas and leave for long voyages again, while a fleet of small feeders hurries up and down the river and the canal to call at Hamburg and the small harbours of Europe's north.

While these debates discussed interregional exchange on large scales, the Kiel Canal also had an impact on local trade and traffic. When the seas were connected, the new Canal had to be bridged for its part, as the artificial waterway broke the continuity of transport lines. Four railroads and many more major and minor roads were divided by the canal. Two bridges high enough for ships to pass underneath, four rotating bridges, one pontoon-bridge and sixteen ferries connected the newly separated shores. Also a number of streams were intersected by the new installation. Here, locks and steam pumps secured the continuous transport of goods and water. (69) The new connection Kiel Canal produced the necessity for new installations that bridged the various divisions the waterway had produced.

Nevertheless, the new divisions and connections produced problems for the residents. Generally, farmers were paid compensation if their estates were divided by the canal. To get these, they had to file their protests before certain deadlines. A shoemaker from a nearby village, who like many craftsmen from rural Germany relied on subsidiary farming, (70) had not done so and as a result his small field of 0.65 hectare was cut in half. He later pleaded for compensation, noting that it now took him two and a half hours more to reach his meadow. (71) Also cut in half was the small canal that connected the village of Burg with the Elbe close to Brunsbittelkoog. It was used to drain the lowlands, but also for transportation. Agricultural goods or turf were shipped to the Elbe and from there to Hamburg, fertilisers and finished goods were brought back. In 1866 the few hundred residents of Burg had 85 barges that supplied the region. (72) In 1896 a local newspaper printed the letter of a bargee, who complained that the Kiel Canal had ruined his business. The new way to the Elbe through a lock and the Kiel Canal proved impractical and most of his trade was lost. (73) So while a great deal of traffic passed through the Kiel Canal, its history cannot only be told only as a story of growth and connection.

Environment: divide a river

One of the most important as well as long-lasting impacts of the Kiel Canal's construction was its impact on the environment. These ecological aftermaths were a direct result of the division of the Eider river into three indented streams when the new connection between the seas was built.

The Kiel Canal lies at sea level: its locks protect it only against storms and the tide of the North Sea. It traverses relatively flat land, but in the east it cuts through hills that reach 32 m. Where the canal met the Eider river, the biggest in Schleswig-Holstein, the old riverbed was still 7 m above sea level. Here, at Lake Flemhude, the immense impact of the Kiel Canal is evident. Instead of covering the five meter decline on the 50 km to Rendsburg and the last two meters gradually further into the Sea, the upper Eider now drops in a single seven meter step into the canal. Further east in Rendsburg, the canal now lies two meters lower than the river once used to. Here the lower Eider starts its meandering way to its mouth. Had there been no artificial separation of this lower river, this remaining part of the stream would change direction and flow into the canal.

This sectioning of the river into three independent pieces had especially severe results for the lower Eider. As early as 1898 the impacts of the Kiel Canal became obvious. The newspaper Kieler Zeitung noted that everyone expected that the construction of the Kiel Canal would have a variety of aftermaths ... but no one would have guessed, that they would be so drastic'. The newspaper report described the lower Eider as 'a long and narrow cut into the land, a bay that is not filled with flowing, but with standing water'. (74) By 1917 the hydraulic engineer Timmerann prepared a report, in which he systematically exposed the results of the construction of the Kiel Canal and its division of the Eider: with the construction of the Kiel Canal the water conditions of the lower Eider have been changed completely ... Consequently the lower Eider has lost the character of a river and now is only a bay, exposed to low and high tides'. (75) The lower Eider had already lost a number of tributaries due to hydraulic engineering in previous centuries, starting with dam-building at the mouth of the Treene in 1573. (76) These dammings kept the frequent high tides out of the tributaries, sparing them the associated flooding. But for the remaining river the result was that the water rushing in from the North Sea had less place to spread. The constrictions resulted in higher tides. The construction of the Eider Canal and the Kiel Canal robbed the remaining lowland the bigger part of tributary water. A vicious circle started: high waters on the sea carried more sediments into the Eider, while less fresh water reduced the river's power to wash out these sediments. The result was a constant aggregation that let water-levels and sedimentation rise. The residents responded by constructing new dykes, thereby adding to the problem. With every new dyke, there was less space for rising water to recede during high tides. The upstream currents grew stronger again and transported sediments even further upstream. (77) This division of the Eider after the construction of the Kiel Canal and the subsequent technological interventions into the landscape created an environmental crisis.

The engineer Timmermann advocated technological solutions for the troubles the region was facing. He made two proposals to handle the difficulties of the Kiel canal. Either one could construct a dam north of the town of Friedrichstadt, roughly in the middle of the lower Eider. The second solution consisted in the proposition to completely cut off of the river from the sea with a dyke in the Eider's mouth. The two technological interventions were undertaken serially. When in 1926 thirty-eight dykes broke and the lowlands were flooded for kilometres, newspapers called for political action. Under the headline 'Storm at the Eider!' a local gazette described the destruction and noted in bold letters that we have to ask the provincial and national government with more vigour and energy than ever, to search and find a solution for the Eider-problem as fast as possible'. (78) In 1933 the construction of a dam close to Friedrichstadt was decreed. With the inauguration of this third division of the river, in 1936, the Nazis claimed that they had succeeded in mobilising the power of the state in order to achieve a victorious termination of the bitter fight against the forces of nature'. (79)

Of course, the triumph over nature had been declared prematurely. For the lowlands behind the dyke, the fear of storm floods had indeed disappeared. Yet for the section of the Eider remaining under the influence of the North Sea tides, the problems became even more severe. There remained possibilities of sedimentation and rising tides. In the big flood of 1962 this became obvious again. In Schleswig-Holstein more than 70 km of dykes were destroyed, several along the Eider. On 3 August 1965 a contract was signed between the federal and the national state to completely seal off the Eider from the North Sea. When the construction was inaugurated in 1973, (80) a technological solution answered the environmental challenges which the construction of the Kiel Canal and the division of the Eider had unintentionally created.

These long-term effects of the construction of the Kiel Canal, as well as the subsequent technological subjection of the river, need to be seen as an integral part of the waterway's history. It would be a mistake to claim that one could overlook this environmental history of a piece of transport infrastructure especially as a connect- and-divide theme offers a simple integration into the storyline: in order to build the connection, the river Eider was divided but for these divisions there was a price to pay that lay beyond trade, military strategy or political symbolism. (81)


The history of an object is--in many ways--how its meaning changed with the passage of time. In order to write such a story about a piece of transport infrastructure, the ambivalence of connections and divisions serves as an effective narrative device. The scope of themes presented is wide. Even before the political decisions to build the Kiel Canal, transport history in Schleswig-Holstein was characterised by struggle about transport connections. A history of the building process underlines the significance of securing the waterway's borders. The Canal's inauguration celebrated the connection that was also characterised by divisions between the European powers. The economic impacts of the new connections were ambivalent and different from most expectations. Finally, a river that was divided in order to build the new connection proved defiant until it was tamed by a big barrage, subjugated by technology.

Almost 120 years after its completion, it is still easy to feel the ambivalence of connections and divisions of the Kiel Canal. This is so even long after it has stopped upsetting world politics or regional hydrology. Taking the train or the E 45 from Hamburg on a route north towards Aarhus in Denmark there are outlooks that hold the ambiguity of transport infrastructures. The tracks or the road slowly rise, the view obscured either by trees or noise barriers, until suddenly the obstacles are left behind and it is easy to see the horizon. From a vantage point 70 m above the almost perfectly flat land patchy fields and houses come into view, but what really draws the eye is the waterway beneath. There may be a glimpse of feeder ships on the water, remarkably small from the distance, before the view is blocked again. From the road under the railroad bridge however, queues of traffic must wait for the ships to continue on their shortcut between Hamburg and the Baltic and make way for the ferry. The wait provides a grasp of the deep division of the landscape that is the result of the connection of the seas. The obstacle is not completely impassable, as Professor Lamp had his audience imagine in 1896, but the Kiel Canal was and remains a facility and a constriction, a connector and a divider. 10.7227/TJTH.35.2.5


I would like to thank Chloe Jeffreys for her valuable comments.


Heine Stuttgart University


(1) Schriften des Naturwissenschaftlichen Vereins, Kiel 1898, Minutes of the meeting on 11 May 1896, p. 26.

(2) See for the nineteenth century e.g. Matthew Parker, Panama Fever, The Epic Story of the Greatest Human Achievement, The Building of the Panama Canal (London, Doubleday, 2007); Zachary Karabell, Parting the desert, The creation of the Suez Canal (New York, Knopf, 2003). For the twentieth century see e.g. John Lindsay-Poland, Emperors in the Jungle: The Hidden History of the U.S. in Panama (Durham, London, Duke University Press, 2003); Denis Lefebvre, L'affair de Suez (Paris, Leprince, 1996).

(3) Jens Ivo Engels, Machtfragen, Aktuelle Entwicklungen und Perspektiven der Infrastrukturgeschichte, Neue Politische Literatur 55 (2010), 51-70.

(4) Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Geschichte der Eisenbahnreise, Zur Industrialisierung von Raum undZeit im 19. Jahrhundert (Frankfurt a.M., Fischer, 2007), p. 27.

(5) Andreas Braun, Tempo, Tempo, Eine Kunst- und Kulturgeschichte der Geschwindigkeit im 19. Jahrhundert (Frankfurt a.M., Anabas, 2001), pp. 50ff.

(6) Michael Bamberg and Molly Andrews (eds), Considering Counter-Narratives, Narrating, Resisting, Making Sense (Amsterdam, Benjamins, 2004).

(7) David Blackbourne, The Conquest of Nature, Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany (New York, London, Norton, 2007), p. 5.

(8) The waterway's German name 'Nord-Ostsee-Kanal' has been used for most of its history. Only between the inauguration in 1895 and the end of World War I as well as during the Nazi-regime was it called 'Kaiser-Wilhem-Kanal'. During the Weimar Republic, the latter term was also used regularly.

(9) Carl Beseke, Der Nord-Ostsee-Kanal, Entstehungsgeschichte, Bau, Bedeutung (Kiel, Lipsius & Tischer, 1893); Carl Loewe, Geschichte des Nord-Ostsee-Kanals, Festschrift zu seiner Eroffnung am 20 /21. Juni 1895 (Berlin, Ernst & Sohn, 1895).

(10) Rainer Lagoni, Helmuth Stefan Seidenfus and Hans Jiirgen Teuteberg (eds), Nord-OstseeKanal 1895-1995, Festschrift (Neumunster: Wachholtz, 1995).

(11) Gerd Stolz, Kleine Kanalgeschichte, Vom Stecknitzkanal zum Nord-Ostsee-Kanal (Heide, Boyens, 1995); Walter Asmus, Grundzuge der Verkehrsentwicklung Schleswig-Holsteins vom Ende des 18. Jahrhunderts bis zum Ersten Weltkrieg, in Walter Asmus (ed.), Die Entwicklung des Verkehrs in Schleswig-Holstein 1750-1918 (Neumunster, Wachholtz, 1996), pp. 17-52, 17.

(12) The most complete list: Manfred Jessen-Klingenberg, Erste Vorlaufer und Projekte fur eine kunstliche Wasserverbindung zwischen Nord- und Ostsee vom fruhen Mittelalter bis zum 18. Jahrhundert, in Lagoni, Seidenfus and Teuteberg (eds), Nord-Ostsee-Kanal 1895-1995, pp. 15-32.

(13) For the history of the Eider canal see Aage Rasch: Ejderkanalen (Abenra, Historisk Samfund for S0nderjylland, 1978).

(14) Its significance for transit-transport is doubted though. See e.g. Manfred JessenKlingenberg, Der Schleswig-Holstein Kanal, Eiderkanal, Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft fur Kieler Stadtgeschichte, 85:3 (2010), 113-23; Jessen-Klingenberg, Erste Vorlaufer und Projekts, in Lagoni, Seidenfus and Teuteberg (eds), Nord-Ostsee-Kanal 1895-1995, pp. 15-2.

(15) Walter Haas, Bestrebungen und Mafinahmen zur Forderung des Kieler Handels in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart (1242-1914) (Kiel, Lipsius & Tischer, 1922), p. 169.

(16) Schienen zum Fortschritt--150 Jahre Eisenbahn in Schleswig-Holstein, Austellungskatalog zum Jubilaum der Eisenbahn in Schleswig-Holstein (Heide, Landesarchiv Schleswig Holstein, 1994).

(17) Rasch, Ejderkanalen, p. 29.

(18) Karl Hedrich, Entwicklung des schleswig-holsteinischen Eisenbahnwesens (Altona, Hammerich & Lesser, 1915), p. 13ff.

(19) Historical overview, Ibid. 11f. The leading proponent of the intended line was Emil Muller. See his book: JJber die intendirte Hamburg-Altona und Lubecker Eisenbahn zur Verbindung der Nordsee mit der Ostsee (Leipzig, J. J. Weber, 1835).

(20) Grafimann, Antjekathrin: Lubeckische Geschichte (Liibeck, Schmidt-Romhild, 1997), pp. 621ff.

(21) Gerhard Ahrens, Von der Franzosenzeit bis zur Verabschiedung der neuen Verfassung 1806-60, in Jachmann, Werner and Hans-Dieter Loose (eds), Hamburg, Geschichte der Stadt undihrer Bewohner (Hamburg, Hoffmann und Campe, 1982), pp. 415-90, 464.

(22) Walter Asmus, Grundzuge der Verkehrsentwicklung Schleswig-Holstein vom Ende des 18. Jahrhunderts bis zum Ersten Weltkrieg, in Walter Asmus (ed.), Die Entwicklung des Verkehrs in Schleswig-Holstein 1750-1918 (Neumunster, Wachholtz, 1996), pp. 17-52,25.

(23) Ruth Federspiel, Verkehrsinnovation und regionale Entwicklung: Die Eisenbahnen Schleswig-Holsteins 1844-1914, in Walter Asmus (ed.), Die Entwicklung des Verkehrs in Schleswig-Holstein 1750-1918 (Neumunster, Wachholtz, 1996), pp. 187-204, 188.

(24) Two examples out of the many pamphlets: Georg Hanssen, professor at the university in Kiel, argued in two volumes--in Danish and German--for the line between Altona and Kiel: Holsteinische Eisenbahn Den holsteenske Jernbane (Kiel 1840). A late example of Hanseatic outrage is the anonymous publication Die Verkehrs-Protection in Holstein und die directe Lubeck-Hamburger Eisenbahn (Hamburg, Perthes, Besser & Mauke, 1858).

(25) Von der Franzosenzeit Ahrens, p. 464ff.

(26) Pamphlet in: Stadtarchiv Kiel 4209.

(27) Thomas Elsmann, Flottenpropaganda 1848, Johann Georg Kohl Fur eine deutsche Flotte',inDeutsches Schiffahrtsarchiv 29 (2006), 307-16. For the general history of the dukedoms within Danish history see Claus Bj0rn, Carsten Due-Nielsen: Fra helstat til nationalstat (Copenhagen, Danmarks Nationalleksikon, 2003), pp. 83ff.

(28) E.g. Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preufiischer Kulturbesitz I HA Rep 120 CXVI 1, Nr 32, Bd 1.

(29) For technical details Johann Fulscher, Der Bau des Kaiser Wilhelm-Kanals (Berlin, W Ernst, 1898).

(30) The Brunsbuttelkooger Zeitung (earlier called Canal Zeitung) regularly published snippets, noting the arrival and departure of Italian workers (e.g. 23 April 1892, 4 April 1893).

(31) For example, the MP Joseph Lingens told the Reichstag that at the start of construction most workers came ... from regions of Polish tongue' (Minutes of the Reichstag, 14 February 1893, 1251,, 10 April 2013).

(32) At the end of 1889 3000 of 4600 employees lived in the barracks (Die Gartenlaube 1889, 846).

(33) For an introduction see the still very instructive Jurgen Kocka, Arbeitsverhdltnisse und Arbeiterexistenzen, Grundlagen der Klassenbildung im 19. Jahrhundert (Bonn and Berlin, Dietz, 1990), especially chapter 6 about railway workers.

(34) E.g. Stefan Schubert, Saisonarbeit am Kanal, Rekrutierung, Arbeits- und Lebensverhdltnisse ausldndischer Arbeitskrdfte beim Bau des Mittellandkanals im Osnabrucker Land 1910-16 (Frankfurt am Main and London, IKO 2005).

(35) Thomas Nipperdey, Machtstaat vor der Demokratie, 1866-1918, Deutsche Geschichte Vol. 2 (Munchen, Beck, 1993), p. 471.

(36) Bodelshwingh, Friedrich von, Die Fursorge fur das leibliche und geistige Wohl der Arbeiter beim Bau des Nord-Ostseekanals besonders auch bezuglich ihres Zu- und Abzugs, Referat gehalten auf dem 11. Jahrestreffen des Landesvereins fur innere Mission in Schleswig-Holstein zu Neumunster am 15 September 1886, p. 9.

(37) Die Gartenlaube 1889, 847.

(38) Lingens address to the Reichstag, 14 February 1893,, 13 April 2013.

(39) Gustav Kufiner, Was sind wir unseren Kanalarbeitern schuldig? Im Auftrag des Deutschen Vereins gegen den Mifibrauch gesitiger Getrdnke (Leipzig, Grimme & Tromel, 1905), p. 2.

(40) Otto Fesling, Im Sturmesbrausen, Ein Kunstler-, Liebes-, u. Streik-Roman v. Nordostsee Kanal (Berlin, Freund & Jeckel, 1893), p. 157.

(41) Ibid., p. 124.

(42) Address given at a banquet in Hamburg on 19 June 1895, cited in Kieler Zeitung, 20 June 1895, evening edition.

(43) Archiv fur Post und Telegraphie, July 1895.

(44) Vossische Zeitung, 20 June 1895, evening edition.

(45) The Spectator (London), 22 June 1895.

(46) Jan Ruger, The Great Naval Game: Britain and Germany in the Age of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). See also Robert J. Blyth (ed.), The Dreadnought and the Edwardian Age (Farnham, Ashgate, 2011).

(47) Henry W. Lucy, The Log of the Tantallon Castle (London, Sampson Low, Marston & Co, 1896).

(48) In Germany Einkreisung' (encirclement) became the shrill narrative for the confrontation of European powers, see e.g. Ute Daniel: Einkreisung und Gotterddmmerung, Ein Versuch der Kulturgeschichte vor dem Ersten Weltkrieg auf die Spur zu kommen, in, Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger (ed.), Was heifit Kulturgeschichte des Politischen? (Berlin, Duncker & Humblot, 2005), pp. 279-328.

(49) Gil Blas, L'Eclair and Le Temps, 1 March 1895.

(50) Le Figaro (Paris), 18 June 1895.

(51) Holstein to Eulenburg, 17 June 1895, in John Rohl (ed.), Philipp Eulenburgs Politische Korrespondenz, Vol. 3 Krisen, Krieg und Katastrophe, 1895-1921 (Boppard a. R., Boldt, 1983), p. 1509.

(52) Volker Berghahn, Der Tirpitz-Plan, Genesis und Verfall einer innenpolitischen Krisenstrategie unter Wilhelm II. (Dusseldorf, Droste, 1971), p. 449.

(53) Dietz address to the Reichstag, 7 May 1987, 1482., 19 April 2013.

(54) Arbeiterwohlfahrt beim Kaiser Wilhelm-Kanal, Grundsatze fur die Beschaffung der Arbeiter und die fur sie zu treffenden Wohlfahrt-Einrichtungen bei dem Erweiterungsbau des Kaiser Wilhelm-Kanals, bearbeitet vom Kaiserlichen Kanalamt in Kiel (Berlin, Heymann, 1909).

(55) Entwurf eines Gesetztes betreffend die Herstellung eines Nord-Ostsee-Kanals, Bundesrat 1885, 1 November 1885, here: Begrundung p. 5.

(56) There is a rich debate about the suggestive power of maps in history, see e.g. John B. Harley, The New Nature of Maps, Essays on the History of Cartography (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press 2002); Dennis Cosgrove (ed.), Mappings (London, Reaktion 1999).

(57) Beseke, Der Nord-Otsee-Kanal, p. 15.

(58) Georg Bruyn, Aufforderung an meine Mitburger zur Theilnehmung an dem Canal-Handel (Altona, Eckhardt, 1784), p. 25.

(59) Several records in Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preuiischer Kulturbesitz, e.g. I HA Rep 84, Nr 4866.

(60) Gutachterliche Aeufierung der Handelskammer zum Senats-Decreete v. 18. Juni 1864, die Anlage eines Kanals von der Nordsee nach der Ostsee betr., Statdtarchiv Lubeck ASA Int. 288805.

(61) Another example from the North Sea is Husum: Zur Beleuchtung der Canal-Linie zwischen Eckernforde und Husum, von einem Auschui-Mitgliede, Schleswig: Serringhausen 1848.

(62) See entry on Tietgen in, Den Store Danske Encyklopcedi, Danmarks Nationalleksikon (Copenhagen, Nationalleksikon, 2001).

(63) For Danmark and the freeport see Arthur G. Hass0, Kobenhavns Frihavn, Tilblivelse og virksomhed 1894-1944 (Copenhagen, Kj0benhavns Frihavns-Aktieselskab, 1946), p. 36.

(64) The North Sea and Baltic Canal and the Free Port of Copenhagen (London, Smith & Ebbs, c. 1894), p. 4

(65) A. Dullo, Gebiet, Geschichte und Charakter des Seehandels der groien deutschen Ostseepldtze seit der Mitte des Jahrhudnerts (Jena, Fischer, 1888).

(66) Report from April 1895, Verein Hamburger Rheder; Berichte des Verwaltungsrats, Hamburg, Library of the Staatsarchiv Hamburg.

(67) Ernst Baasch, Hamburgs Handel und Verkehr im 19. Jahrhunderts (Hamburg, Neue Borsen-Halle, 1901).

(68) Walther Ludicke, Die Entwicklung des Verkehrs im Kaiser-Wilhelm-Kanal und sein Einflui auf die Schiffahrt der deutschen Ostseehdfen innerhalb der Jahre 1895-1905 (Cothen Anhalt, Schettler, 1908), p. 97.

(69) Hans Michelsen, Cronik des Deich- und Hauptspielverbandes Dithmarschen, Vol. II, Darstellung des Entwdsserungswesens, Vorfluter, Deichsiele und Schopfwerke, Naturschutz und Landschaftspflege (Abwasserbehandlung, Verbandsverwaltung, Hemmingstedt: Deichund Hauptsielverband Dithmarschen, 2008); Heiner Helms, Hans-Joachim Schroder and Alexander Tesar, Brucken uber den Nord-Ostsee-Kanal, Faszination der Bruckenbaukunst im Laufe der Zeit (Kiel, Nieswand, 1995).

(70) Kocka, Arbeiterexistenzen, esp. chapter 3.

(71) H. Letter Schnoor to Landrat Brutt, Heidemarschen, 13 January 1889, Landesarchiv Schleswig-Holstein Abt 309 Nr 1850. It is not known what happened to this plea.

(72) Hans Szymanski, Die Ever der Niederelbe, Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der deutschen Schiffahrt und zur Volkskunde Niedersachsens (Hamburg, Ed. Maritim, 1985), p. 291.

(73) Brunsbuttelkooger Zeitung, 31 August 1896.

(74) Kieler Zeitung, 5 July 1899.

(75) Denkschrift des Regierungs- und Geheimer Baurat Timmermann betr. die Wasserverhaltnisse in der Untereider vom 20. Detember 1817, Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preuiischer Kulturbesitz I. HA Rep. 77 F Nr 4184.

(76) Michelsen, Chronik des Deich- und Hauptspielverbandes Dithmarschen, p. 125ff.

(77) Ibid., 40.

(78) Schleswig-Holsteinische Landeszeitung, Rendsburger Tageblatt, 15 October 1926.

(79) Rudolf Stademann: Geleitwort, Westkuste, Archiv fur Forschung, Technik und Verwaltung in Marsch und Wattenmeer, 3 (1933), unnumbered.

(80) Uwe Hollmer, Eider und Eider-Sperrwerk, Vorgeschichte, Bau, Betrieb (Garding, Eiderstedter Werbe- und Verlagsgesellschaft, 1992).

(81) A striking fictional meditation on the long term environmental effects in a watery environment' is Graham Swift's Waterland (London, Heinemann, 1983). A study of interwoven railroads, trade, nature and landscapes is William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York, London, Norton, 1991). For the severity and uncertainties of the environmental impacts of dams see e.g. Patrick MacCully, Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams (London, Zed Press, 1996).


Eike-Christain Heine, University Stuttgart, Department of History, Section for the History of the Impact of Technology, Keplerstr. 17, D-70174 Stuttgart. E-mail:
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