The written record of the human history of the Rhine dates back to the Roman Republic. The Rhine appears as a key geographic figure in classical records, known as the “Rhenus” in Latin and “Rheonis” in Greek. The Romans viewed the Rhine as the outermost border of civilization, beyond which were mythical creatures and “wild” Germanic tribesmen.
The first urban settlement along the river, called Oppidum Ubiorum, was located on the grounds of what is today the center of Cologne, Germany. It was founded in 38 B.C. by the Ubii, a Germanic tribe. As civilizations developed along the river, the Rhine would become a pivotal political and linguistic figure in European history.
Establishing “natural borders” on the Rhine was a long term goal of French foreign policy dating back to the Middle Ages. French leaders such as Louis XIV and Napoleon Bonaparte, tried with varying degrees of success to occupy lands west of the Rhine. In 1840, the French interest in expansion across the Rhine intensified. In response, the German poem and song, “Die Wacht am Rhein” (“The Watch on the Rhine”), was composed, calling for the defense of the western bank of the Rhine against France. During the Franco-Prussian War, it earned de facto status of national anthem in Germany.
At the end of World War I, the Rhineland was subject to the Treaty of Versailles. This decreed that it would be occupied by the Allies until 1935 and after that, it would be a demilitarized zone, with the German army forbidden to enter. The Treaty of Versailles, especially this particular provision, caused much resentment in Germany and is often cited as one of the factors that precipitated World War II. During the war, the Rhine presented a formidable natural obstacle to the invasion of Germany by the western Allies. The Rhine bridges at Arnhem, Nigmegan and Remagen, immortalized in many wartime books and films, were the scenes for many pivotal battle and turning points.
In more recent history, a 1986 chemical fire near Basel, Switzerland dumped more than 30 tons of pollutants into the waters of the Rhine. This environmental tragedy spurred unparalleled international cooperation and commercial regulation, resulting in a massive clean-up of the river. Those protections are still in place today, ensuring that the Rhine River will continue to be a thriving ecosystem for centuries to come.
It is believed that viticulture was brought to this area by the Romans in the 2nd century. The high cost of transporting wine north from Italy or across the Vosges Mountains from the vineyards in Gaul made it impractical. The ROmans considered creating a canal between the Saône and the Rhine before ultimately deciding to plant vines in the area. Wine-making was certainly flourishing in the area by the 4th century when the Roman poet Ausonius wrote about the beauty of the Moselle valley at harvest time.
In the Middle Ages, many “wine villages”–called “Winzerdorfs”–were established in the region and included paths from the town center up to the area’s vineyards. At the center was a community wine cellar where all the area’s growers could store their wines. Toward the end of the 17th century, the Moselle began to identify with wine made from Riesling grape. That tradition continues to this day, with Riesling comprising more than half of the grapes harvested along the river.
After Napoleon lost the Hundred Days War in 1815–and with it the lands west of the Rhine River–the Moselle region became part of the Kingdom of Prussia. This marked the beginning of a golden age for Moselle wine producers since they benefited from tax-free export of their wines to Prussia. The prosperity was short-lived, however, as an unfavorable Prussian tax policy in the 1830s coupled with bad weather sank many Moselle vintners into poverty. Karl Marx, born and raised in Trier, was appalled by their suffering. He criticized the government, violated press censorship requirements and eventually was forced to leave in exile.
The Moselle River would go on to become a pivotal crossing during World War II and a strong connecting force in post-war Europe. Today, the Moselle’s crisp white wines signify the mellow, simple pace of life in the region. The villages along its banks happily welcome visitors even as they cling dutifully to their rich culture and history.
Main River (pronounced Mine)
Although the heyday of the Main River region wouldn’t come until much later, Celtic architecture dating back to 1000 B.C. can be found along its shores. By the time of the Roman Empire, settlements along the Main were flourishing. Mainz was established as early as 13 B.C with other cities popping up along the river’s shores in the 1st century A.D. As time wore on, the Main River would rise in status as a critical trade route for the expanding empire. Charlemagne even left his mark here, investing in canal construction and erecting the mammoth Würzburg Cathedral in the eighth century.
The Main would prove to be the springboard for inventions and political advances in use to this day. The Frankfurt Trade Fair, unique in its time, was first mentioned in 1150. Johannes Gutenberg invented his world-changing printing press in 1436 in Mainz. The seat of German democracy, Frankfurt, was where kings and emperors were elected from 855 to 1792.
During World War II, the cities along the Main were especially hard hit. On March 16, 1945, about 90 percent of the city of Würzburg was destroyed by some 225 Lancaster bombers in 17 minutes by a British air raid. Frankfurt’s expensive medieval city center was completely ruined and Mainz lost 80 percent of its buildings. Bamberg is on of the few cities in Germany that was not destroyed by World War II bombings because of a nearby artillery factory that prevented planes from getting near it.
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