The Rhine: a German national symbol dying of thirst Culture | DW

Germany is now looking at the Rhine with great concern. Even if the situation eases a bit after heavy rains in southern Germany, people are horrified by the impact of climate change on their longest run. After all, the Rhine is a German national symbol that has attracted poets and painters like no other. Romanticism was the pinnacle of the Rhine – if only because of the many deserted walls along the river’s course.

Low water on the Rhine near Remagen (08/16/2022)

In 1816, the English poet Lord Byron was so fascinated by the castle ruins at Drachenfels near Bonn that he immediately took up the pen. He wrote the famous verses “Drachenfels Castle”. He wrote enthusiastically that he would love to rest at the foot of the crowned Drachenfels Tower for the rest of his life.

Through his poems, he unleashed an avalanche of nature-loving poetry – and even made tourism run down the Rhine. Today, the Siebengebirge Museum in quiet Königswinter near Bonn brings romantics’ fascination with Germany’s most famous river once again. The gallery house is in just the right place: anyone who gets off the train at Königswinter can experience up close how Drachenfels and Drachenburg stand out majestically against the sky.

The Drachenburg: “A Magical Picture”

So the small town on the Rhine is still a popular destination mentioned in every travel guide. Not only poets such as Heinrich Heine, Clemens Brentano or Josef von Eichendorf used to come to the region. Many painters also traveled to explore and photograph the river and its diverse landscapes.

“The artists were fascinated by the mix of this area,” says Elmar Schoren, former director of the small museum in Königswinter. “On the one hand, it was the landscape that could be beautifully painted, and on the other hand, the activity of people.” Evidence of this activity are the castles on the right and left of the Rhine, which can still be admired.

Romance of the Rhine |  William Turner Ryan Falls 1841

William Turner: “Rhine Falls near Schaffhausen” (1841)

In the Middle Ages, they were built as military fortifications along the popular trade route, but over the centuries they became useless: new weapon technologies made them redundant and not useful as dwellings. It is even surprising that a huge number remained at all, because some of them were used as quarries – for example to build churches, according to Schoren. Cologne Cathedral’s stones also come from the Rhine. Until the 19th century, drachte, the gray stone, was mined at Drachenfels, and delivered to Cologne.

The Rhine – Desolation Cult and National Feeling

For the Romantics, the ruins along the Rhine offered the required level of lust they needed for their art. Of course, they were also welcome political symbols and signs of a growing sense of nationalism in the 19th century. On the one hand, it was the untouched wild nature that inspired the artists, and on the other hand it also included signs of civilization and progress in their images.

Romantic Rhine Gallery

Johannes Jacob Diesler: “Niederlahnstein and Chapel-Stolzenfels” (1830)

For example, Johannes Jacob Diesler painted Niederlahnstein und Kappellen-Stolzenfels (1830): an ideal painting – but only at first sight. If you look closely, you will see that the painter was not only interested in beautiful landscapes. It also shows modern infrastructure. A steamer sails across the Rhine, viticulture can be seen on the bank, and a wagon takes travelers to the river. “For them, the cultural landscape was the landscape itself,” Schoren explains.

Lorelei’s invention

The romantics had a lot of imagination. They exaggerated the landscape and expected a lot in it. This is how the famous legend of Lorelei came into being. Prior to the nineteenth century, Loreley was nothing more and nothing less than a slate rock near Sankt Goarshausen near Koblenz. Because of the shallow water in the passage, the passage was dangerous and there were many shipwrecks.

Romance of the Rhine |  Lorelei near Sankt Goarshausen on the Rhine

“Loreley”, a color lithograph after watercolor by Karl Philipp Christian Koehler (1827-1890)

The legend of the mermaid, who sat there combing her golden hair and captivating sailors with her song, first appeared in 1801. In the song “In Bacharach am Rheine” Clemens Brentano described a sorceress in the village of Bacherach. The Rock didn’t play a role at all at this point. Heinrich Heine didn’t pick up Lorelei’s story again until the 1820s: He laid the witch from Bächerach on the rock – and combed her hair. “It perfected the legend,” Schoren says.

The story of Siegfried, the dragon slayer, was similar. “Fighting with the dragon was pure fiction. The story first appeared in the 18th century. The debate continued for a few years, and then it became a myth that still affects us today.”

dream and reality

What did not exist was invented without further ado. Views of the Rhine River by Swiss painter Ludwig Bleueler show the contrast between dream and reality: a view of Mainz shows a park with pedestrians through which a locomotive is driving. “The railway on the left bank of the Rhine was planned only at that time,” Schoren explains. “When it opened, Bleuler had been dead for three years.”

Romance of the Rhine |  View from Heiligenberg Castle to the Rhine Valley

Johann Heinrich Schelbach: “View from Castle Heiligenberg to the Rhine Plain” (1846)

Advanced mechanization is not only changing the image of the Rhine. At the end of the 1820s, thousands of tourists flocked to the area. Exclusive photo production lends itself to mass consumption. A Steamboat trip helps make travel more affordable. Even members of the English royal family – not least drawn to the verses of their national poet Lord Byron – have visited the much-vaunted river. The popularity of the Rhine reached its peak in art at the end of the 19th century. In the 20th century, long-distance travel replaced vacation on the Rhine.

However, the famous river has not been completely forgotten: the 350-meter Drachenfels is said to be the most climbed mountain in Europe.

This article originally dates from 2013, and has been updated to reflect the lower level of the Rhine in the summer of 2022.

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