Rivers do Not to be Borders – The Phenomenon of the Danubian Culture (a comparative reflection in cultural history of Europe)


Author: Cirila Toplak, at the time of writing this article: European Center for Ethnic, Regional and Sociological Studies, University of Maribor, Slovenia

Editor’s note: This is a republished article from the now out-of-print Danubius No. 3-4/1997

A Short History of the Danube River

Danube – in Greek: Istros, latinised Ister, in Latin: Danuvius, in Celtic: Danu, in German: Donau, in Slovakian: Dunaj, in Serbian and Bulgarian: Dunav, in Hungarian: Duna, in Romanian: Dunarea – is one of the most important European rivers. It has been important from navigational, commercial and military point of view at least from the beginnings of the Western civilization. The Danube has related, as a true European diagonal, the Atlantic cultural influences with those from the Central and Eastern Europe and even Asia, the Nordic influences with the Mediterranean ones, directing and forming ethnic currants and even civilizations as a meeting point of interpenetration.

Ancient Greeks navigated on the Danube up to the Iron Gate already in the 7th century before Christ. In this context, historians also take into account, to a certain extent, the mythological episode of Jason and his Argos voyage from Greece to the Adriatic sea by rivers and land. In Roman times, Danube was the border river with military bases in Ulm, Regensburg, Passau and Vienna. On this right bank a strategic road was going from Singidunum (Belgrade) towards East which named Via Traiana after famous Roman emperor. The emperor Trajan built in years 105-106, according to the plans of Apolodorus from Damascus, the first bridge over the Danube which remains can still be seen today by Turn Severin. Later on, the Romans also built a channel on the Danube near by the village of Sipo.

After the fall of the Roman empire, commerce and travelling in Europe declined for several centuries for reasons of global economic crisis, decomposition of the Roman traffic system and the consequential lack of safety on the European roads. Only in the high Middle Ages more important navigation on the Danube was restored. At the time towns like Ulm, Regensburg, Passau and Vienna became centres of commerce and shipbuilding.

In the times of the Crusades, Danube was an important waterway towards East which served for transportation of military forces as well. Danube was the main reason why the crusaders also frequently voyaged through the Balkans in spite of the length of the travel compared to the sea journey from Italy or France to the Holy land: Danube shortened the voyage importantly and it was safer than the Mediterranean sea which was at that time full of pirates.

When the Turks started to invade the Balkan peninsula, the lower Danube navigation lessened. With the Peace of Belgrade in 1739 the Ottoman empire recognized the freedom of navigation on the river. In the 1794 the Privileged Hungarian ship company was founded as the first ship company on the Danube. Slowly, all Danubian countries had their ship companies and after World War I, they also all disposed of Danubian fleets.

In the 19th century many countries, Danubian ones as much their neighbours were interested in regulation and international security on the river. Austro-Hungary and Russia at first strongly opposed such attempts, the first one wanting to protect its navigation monopoly and its second one giving preference to its Black sea ports like Odessa. That was the main reason why the Congress in Paris in 1856 created a special regime for the mouth of Danube. A Danubian commission was formed in order to make the mouth more accessible to larger ships. Membership in this commission was for many non-Danubian countries an important means for spreading their political and economic influence in this part of Europe.

After the World War I the Danubian water regime was settled again “permanently” by the appointment of two commissions, the European Danubian commission and the International commission, formed by representatives off all Danubian countries (representatives for Germany were from Bavaria and Wurtemberg) and those non-Danubian countries were represented in the European commission. Its authority spread to the entire internationalized part of the Danube (from Braila to Ulm) and some of its effluents (Morava, Dya, parts of Drava, Tisa and Mures). Germany which withdrew from the commission in 1936, interrupted the work of both commission at the beginning if the World War II and attempted to create a new water regime by agreements with the Soviet Union and Romania (the latter also became a Danubian country through the invasion of Besarabia).

After the end of the World War II new negotiations ended up in the Danubian conference in Belgrade and the new Danubian convention, signed in Belgrade on August 18. 1948. It was stated in this convention that navigation on the Danube and its regulation had to be agreed upon only by the Danubian countries.

Danubian Culture and Modern Historiography

This very concise account of the history of the Danube appears above all as the political history of navigation on the river. But profound and complex cultural inter-penetrating also resulted from close contacts among people using the river for transports. If the official history of the Danube is that of politics and navigation mostly, this is not a consequence of absence of evidence in other domains, but rather that of absence of consequential historiography. Evidences of cultural interference along the banks of the Danube are various and numerous, going from houses and clothes to social practices and popular culture. The cultural parallels among the Danube countries become obvious if only one cares to make a real or literary voyage on the Danube from its source to its mouth. The cultural similarities flowing by on its banks, from one region to another, are striking.

But again, it is not essentially the lack of appropriate historiographical efforts that one could regard as a reason for absence of global perspective regarding the Danubian culture. It appears more as if the micro-historical approach has been given preference in the period when globalist views did not posses the necessary correctness.

On the contrary, numerous researches have actually already been made on the Danubian culture, although yet not identified as such, from literature and theatre, from revolutionary discursive analogies to and above all, folk literature and folk culture in general which prove that Danubian culture can actually be spoken off. Important literature in that domain has been produced where many scientists published very valuable works. Perhaps simply nobody the necessary distance to consider them as a whole and relate them to other similar phenomenon, such as Mitteleuropa.

Danubian Culture and Mitteleuropa

The Danubian culture could actually be considered as a phenomenon quite similar to Mitteleuropa although at present less studied and popular. If one analyses the “roots” of Mitteleuropa, the latter appears closely related to the evolution of ideas of nationalism and in particular, the idea of nation-state. Mitteleuropa had been invented already at the beginning of this century, designing a para-political and cultural unity within the Austro-Hungarian empire. Austro-Hungarian empire was from nowadays perspective an interesting federation of nations with various degrees of autonomy for particular nations certainly, but nevertheless it was a supranational state which functioned for a long period of time. Inherent to its structure was also the “spring of nations” and the rise of modern European nationalism. At present, we are returning to similar administrative structures with the European Union and other forms of unions of interest which do not rely to nation-state borders. The idea of Mitteleuropa was born out of the will for cultural re-identification as the Communism started to lack all “identificational” credit in the 1980s. It resulted in a new wave of nationalism, but it still represents a potential for a supranational cultural identification which can be again taken into account when the national ambitions of peoples in post-Communist Europe are fulfilled.

It is fortunate that Mitteleuropa has been researched so far because relevant comparative studies can be accomplished regarding the Danubian culture. If one remembers what a scientific, cultural and political factor of the Mitteleuropa became more than a decade ago and the role this phenomenon played in the democratization process in the Central Europe from the perspective of national re-identification, the Danubian culture should neither be neglected from the point of view of the actual processes of European integration which countries of the lower Danube are also involved in.

The Danube as the symbol of linkage of cultures could represent an important potential for yet another possibility of identification or better, of search for cultural identity, especially in the case of the “new” nations, still developing a mature identificational mentality. In the specific recent political circumstances in Central and Eastern Europe, the easiest solution has been to find refuge in nationalism which makes a closed border out of the Danube as well.

Future Prospects

No European river would link such great lands and geographically different areas as the Danube does and yet, one is free to sail everywhere on it. If the commerce has already taken profit from this potential in spite of the present rather serious global economic situation, there are still possibilities for expansion in the field of the most quickly expanding industry on the globe, which can not do without nature nor culture: the tourism. If many tourist ships already sail on the upper Danube and this way of travelling becomes more and more popular in the Western Europe, the Central and Eastern European Danubian countries still have not profited enough from this possibility not only of economic progress but also of approaching Europe of democracy and well being. Cultural tourism can finance preservation of cultural heritage. Through cultural tourism, a general economic and scientific interest for the “Danubian region” as a whole can be spurred which can provide theoretical grounds for concrete ideas of further linkage and development.

Recommended readings

Danubius – das Mitteleuropa Magazin, Wien: Wiener Journal Zeitschriftenverlag, 1990.

Der Donaurum: Zeitschrift des Institutes fur den Donaurum und Mitteleuropa. Thaur bei Innsbruck: Wort und Welt, 1956.

Günther Blühberger, Dolf Scheweder. Wie die Donau nach wien kam: die erdgeschichtliche Entwicklung der Landschaft des Donautals und der Nebenflusse vom Ursprung der Donau bis zum Wiener becken, Wien: Bohlau, 1996.

Peter Vodopivec (ed.) Srednja Evropa, Ljubljana: Mladinska knjiga , 1991.

Szucs. J. Les trois Europes, Paris: Harmattan, 1985.

Rupnick. J. L`autre Europe, Paris: Editions Odile Jacob, 1993.

Lignes no. special 10 – Europe Centrale – nations, nationalites, nationalismes, Paris: Editions Hazan, 1990.

Zweig. S. Die Welt von gestern: Errinnerungen eines Euriopaers, Wien: S. Fisher, 1952.


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