The Danube

(by Professor Ian Beckett)

Though the Volga is longer, no other European river evokes the full panoply of the continent’s history quite as much as the Danube, flowing as it does for 1,770 miles from Germany through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary,  Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova (briefly), and the Ukraine to the Black Sea.  The famous melody of Johann Strauss the Younger calls to mind most readily the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the 19th century and the Habsburgs, a dynasty that dominated the history of central Europe from the 13th century until 1918.  But the story of the Danube begins much earlier for this was a Neolithic trade route around 6000 BC.  The river is navigable for barges as far as Ulm in southern Germany while the completion of the Main-Danube Canal in 1992 enabled sea-going vessels to navigate a full 2,170 miles from the North Sea to the Black Sea, traffic from northern Europe entering the Danube at Kelheim.  It was a project first envisaged by Charlemagne in the 8th century.

Equally, the completion of the hydroelectric project and dam at the Iron Gates in 1971 between Rumania and what was then Yugoslavia tamed a fearsome stretch of water through the Carpathians that, according to Appollonius Rhodius, Jason and the Argonauts supposedly successfully passed on their way back from Colchis.  The road on the northern bank of the Danube at this point was constructed in the 1830s but, in 103 AD, Trajan had completed an earlier road here, first begun by Tiberius when the Danube marked the northern frontier of the Roman Empire.  As commemorated by Trajan’s column in Rome, the Emperor had gone on to bridge the river and defeat the Dacians, giving Rome control of the whole river. The Dacians themselves had been but one of a series of Germanic tribes that had supplanted earlier Celtic inhabitants of the Danube corridor. Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade were all Roman settlements, while Ruse in Bulgaria was the headquarters of the Roman riverine fleet.  The river was thus established as the natural corridor between central Europe and the Hellespont.

Emperor Gallienus defended the Danube frontier successfully against the Goths at Nis in Serbia in 269AD.  As the Empire declined in the fourth and fifth centuries, however, Goths and Huns swept across the  Danube. Slavs established themselves in Bulgaria in the sixth and seventh centuries, and Magyars in Hungary in the 10th century: between them came other now dimly remembered groups such as the Gepids, Avars and Pechenegs.  The Magyar, Arpád, emerged as the dominant figure in the 10th century.  His descendants  converted to Christianity in 975 AD and his great grandson, Stephen, later canonised, was crowned first King of Hungary at Esztergom in 1000.  The Arpád dynasty was struck a near fatal blow by the Mongol invasion in 1241 and the dynasty died out in 1301, the kingdom only gradually restored by the Angevins, notably Lajos the Great.

Already, however, Islam was encroaching from the east. The ‘People’s Crusade’ passed along the Danube corridor in 1096, as did Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa’s German army enroute to the Third Crusade, only for the Emperor to drown in Cilicia in 1190. Richard the Lionheart of England, who had offended Duke Leopold V during the crusade, was then captured in Vienna on his way home in 1192 and imprisoned in Dürnstein Castle until ransomed, legend suggesting the King’s prison was located by Richard’s minstrel, Blondel.  The crusading army in the ‘Last Crusade’ of 1396 led by King Sigismund of Hungary also passed down the Danube, only to be destroyed by the Ottoman Turks at Nicoplis (Nikopol) in Bulgaria.  In 1444, the Turks defeated King Wladislas of Poland and János Hunyadi at Varna and, having taken Constantinople in 1453, the Ottomans used the same route in reverse to penetrate into the heart of Europe. Hunyadi halted the Turkish advance at Belgrade in 1456.  Hungary, however, fell to the Turks after the defeat of Lajos II at Mohács in 1526, with Buda captured and burned, and the Turks besieged Vienna unsuccessfully for the first time in 1529. Charles of Lorraine, Eugene of Savoy and King Jan Sobieski of Poland lifted a second Turkish siege in 1683.

Hungary was re-conquered from the Turks by 1699 and the wars against the Turks helped transform the Habsburg monarchy into a great power in Europe for the first time since Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had simultaneously, but briefly, held the Imperial, German and Spanish thrones between 1519 and 1556. Indeed, between 1740 and 1780 under Maria Theresa, most of the peoples of the Danube region were united under Austrian rule though, through its own expansion into the region, the Russians wrested the Danube delta from the Turks by 1829.   It was a series of Russo-Turkish Wars, indeed, that led ultimately to the independence of Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria in 1878, Romania having enjoyed effective autonomy from Russia since the end of the Crimean War in 1856.

Napoleon dissolved the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 and Austria was to lose its remaining influence in northern Germany to the rising Prussian state that led to the unification of Germany in 1871.  In that same year, Italy also became unified at Austrian expense, the rising tide of nationalism having already confronted the Habsburgs with near disaster in the revolutionary year of 1848, and compelled the establishment of the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary in 1867 in the aftermath of Austria’s defeat in the Austro-Prussian War. 

Nationalism remained the bane of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as Poles, Czechs and Slavs sought their own independence from Austrian or Magyar rule. Notwithstanding the rich cultural milieu centred upon Vienna and the personal affection for the long-reigning Emperor Franz Joseph, the Empire’s increasingly desperate attempts to survive manifold challenges precipitated the crises that led to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.  That catastrophe swept away the Empire and saw the creation of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (known as Yugoslavia from 1929) as separate states.  Of course, the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938 and Czechoslovakia was dismembered in 1938 and 1939, with Hungary and Rumania becoming partners of the Nazis and Yugoslavia invaded in 1941.  The Soviets then occupied all in 1944-45, not evacuating eastern Austria until 1955 and only losing their grip on the remainder between 1989 and 1991.  With the restraining hand of communist dictatorship removed, older nationalism then resurfaced with Yugoslavia dissolving between 1991 and 1999.

Back in 1932 an economic union of Danubian nations was proposed and, in one sense, the admission of Hungary and Slovakia to the EU in 2004 and of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 – with the Ukraine also seeking membership – has realised much of that vision. Moreover, the International Danube Commission to ensure free navigation on the river has existed since 1948, comprising the ten states through which the river flows, and Russia.  The peoples of the Danube, however, remain ethnically diverse, reflecting the complex intermingling of the past along this great European highway.

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