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Boundary between the Orient and the Occident

Throughout many centuries, the Danube formed a natural boundary between Romans and barbarians, Christians and pagans, and also served as a barrier against the “class foe”. Some dividing influences have remained until the present day

With a watershed covering roughly 805,000 square kilometres, the Danube has always impacted the lives of millions of people. Today, the Danube Basin proper is the home of 76 million people in nine countries, including ten cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants. Its diversified landscapes and cultural varieties make the Danube one of the world’s most impressive streams.

The Danube is often cited as a river that unites peoples of different countries. While this bond is becoming stronger now, it did not exist for a long time in the past. In contrast to other large rivers between Ural and Biscay, the Danube has never been “owned” by one single country or one people. And yet, in spite of any geopolitical obstacles, the river has always preserved its impartial serenity.

For a long time, however, separation used to prevail over unification. The Danube served as a transport route at all times, with people navigating the river by rafts and ships or shipping alongside the riverbanks. Despite the wilderness, swamps and rapids, people went foraging the area or were in search of new space for building their settlements.

Almost any major section of the river is associated with a famous battle: at Mohács, the knights of the last Hungarian king Louis II waged a brave battle against the army of the Turkish sultan Suleiman II before being devastatingly defeated in 1526. During the religious wars of the 17th century and the Napoleonic Wars of the 19th century, every bridge head along the Bavarian and Austrian Danube sections was conquered and recaptured several times.

The Danube Basin, which since the Neolithic Period has always attracted settling populations, gave birth to a so-called “Danube culture” that developed in the region around 4,500 B.C. But the domestication of the horse in the eastern steppes and the resulting permanent invasions of equestrian nomads coming from the area north of the Black Sea put an end to this; and so the Danube Basin quickly became a common meeting ground for nomadic tribes from the steppe regions.

This led to the fact that for a long time not even the most rudimentary urban settlements could flourish in the area. Around 750 B.C. the Cimmerians migrated from the Crimea across the Caucasian Mountains to the south and west. They were followed by the Scythians, who together with the Thracians reached the Pannonian Plain and the regions south of the lower reaches of the Danube. At that time the large Dacian, Geta and Thracian tribes began to establish themselves in those areas where the Roman historians were to find them. South of these areas the Macedonians extended their power from the 4th century B.C. and Greek colonies developed in the coastal areas of the Black Sea.

The Scythians, inhabiting the area between the 7th and 4th century B.C., were driven away by the Celts coming from the west, whose rule over the region ended when an independent Dacian culture emerged in the 3rd century B.C. Up to that time many migrant tribes swept across the lands but didn’t settle, hence the area was of no supraregional relevance.

In the 7th century B.C. the Greeks, coming from the Black Sea, navigated the Danube upstream past the city of Tomis (today’s Constancia), but were stopped at the Iron Gate, a rocky section of cataracts and abysses. This natural obstacle made it impossible for them to continue their journey via the Southern Carpathians and the Serbian Mountains lying on the current border between Romania and Serbia.

During Roman times, nearly the entire length of the Danube, extending from its source to its estuary, functioned as a natural frontier to protect the area against invasion by the barbarian tribes in the north. Furthermore, the river served as a transport route for military and food supplies destined to reach the settlements further downstream.

From the year 37 A.D. until the reign of Emperor Valentinian I (364–375) – with only few interruptions –, the Danube limes was the north-eastern frontier of the Empire. It took the Romans two battles in 102 and 106, respectively, to cross the Danube after building a bridge near the garrison town of Drobeta at the Iron Gate. This victory over the Dacians gave rise to the Province of Dacia, which was again lost in 271.

In the ninth century, the Danube was used as a hiking trail by the Magyars, an Asian shepherd tribe that migrated upstream to the region which today is occupied by Hungary; together with the Slavic forerunners they founded the Hungarian nation under King Stephen I in the 150 to 200 years to come. The Route Charlemagne, which had already been used by Gottfried of Bouillon’s army during the First Crusade between 1096 and 1099, followed the course of the Danube extending from Regensburg down to Belgrade.

Some 340 years later the Ottoman troops headed in the opposite direction on their expedition through South-East Europe, using the Danube as their central route for the transport of manpower and provisions. The river allowed them to forge ahead rapidly, and so in 1440 they fought their first battles over Belgrade at a distance of 2,000 kilometres from the river estuary. Eventually, it took them until 1521 to conquer the city; only few years later, in 1526, the Ottoman army destroyed the Hungarian kingdom in the first battle at Mohács. King Louis II died in this battle, and so Hungary came under the rule of Hapsburg Austria. At that time the seeds of the Danube Monarchy were planted.

In 1529 the Turks approached Vienna, thus reaching the hub of Central Europe, but were defeated. This put a halt to Ottoman expansion along the Danube, and in the wake of the battle at Mohács in 1687 they gradually relost much of their power and territory. The Turks were slowly but persistently driven back on the initiative of Austria-Hungary, which gained strength out of this development, even more so as they were concurrently expelled from the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

Along with Austria, the Ottoman Empire was to remain the most important political force in South Europe until it was finally deprived of its Balkan regions during the Russian-Turkish Wars (1768–1774) and the Balkan Wars of 1912/13. In this context, the Danube was not only a military and commercial artery, but also served as a political, cultural and religious boundary between the Orient and the Occident.

After World War II, Europe was forcibly divided into East and West. Until the breakdown of Communism in 1989, the Danube was as a heavily guarded frontier with the “class foe”, yet still remained an international waterway. Austria was a neutral country but nevertheless committed to the western system of values; so the authorities had to proceed very carefully yet determinedly in all border patrol and policing matters.

After the Allies left the country in 1955, two Danube patrol boats were built at the shipyard of Korneuburg; the first by the name of Oberst Brecht – 12 metres long and weighing 10 ton-nes – was put into service in 1957. Like its big sister, the 73-tonne-heavy Niederösterreich starting its service in 1970, this boat is armed with machine guns and cannons as well as bazookas. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, disaster aid missions (including the installation of oil barriers) have assumed growing importance.

After World War II, a new legal instrument governing navigation was established (1946), replacing the Paris Agreement of 1921. All riparian states, except Germany and Austria, were allowed to participate in the conference held in Belgrade in 1948. Along with the Belgrade Convention an appendix was signed, granting Austria subsequent membership of the Danube Commission.

The Federal Republic of Germany, however, was at first denied involvement in the Convention and the Danube Commission due to Soviet reservations against German co-determination; in March 1998, almost 50 years after signing the Belgrade Convention, Germany was finally granted membership.

The peoples living on the right and left banks of the Danube found it difficult to coexist alongside the river, which had all the typical features of a boundary. The first attempts at international communication were made in 1856 and have since then continued with varying success. Yet one thing remains clear: the “absolute border” is a notion of the 20th century; borders as we have them today did not exist up to the Middle Ages.

In the Treaty of Budapest (1977) signed by former Czechoslovakia and Hungary, the two countries agreed to build a huge dam for jointly extracting energy from the Danube between Gabcikovo near Bratislava and Nagymaros in Hungary. The first planning phase dates back to 1946. Hungarian and subsequently also Austrian experts soon found that the dam project was threatening to leave its detrimental marks on the nearby alluvial plains and wetlands of the Austrian Danube section, the landscapes and settlements alongside the Slovakian-Hungarian border and the water supply situation in Budapest.

A campaign launched by the Hungarian Danube Circle received strong backing from the public; 140,000 people signed a petition to ban the construction of the dam. In the course of the political upheavals that took place in the Eastern Bloc countries, Hungary finally withdrew from the project in 1989.

Czechoslovakia (and from 1993 Slovakia) proceeded with the construction of the hydropower station on a different site and filed a case against Hungary before the International Court of Justice in 1993, and again in 1997, demanding that the clauses of the Treaty of Budapest of 1977 be fulfilled. Hungary countered by suspecting Slovakia for extracting water from the Danube and bypassing it into the newly built Gabcikovo Canal.

The Court of Justice basically reconfirmed the validity of the Treaty of 1977, urging the two countries to find a common basis for fulfilling the relevant clauses. Failure to enter into an agreement has overshadowed the neighbourly relations between Hungary and Slovakia up to the present day.

In the small Ukrainian town of Wylkowe, the Bystre Canal was reopened on 27th August 2004. Since the canal forges its way through the pristine woodlands of the Danube Delta and hence a decrease in water level would cause irreparable damage to the unique flora and fauna in the area, various environmentalist groups, the Romanian government and the EU Directorate General for the Environment protested against the project.

The governmental authorities of the Ukraine in turn argued that the complaints were spurred by economic interest on the part of Romania, traditionally holding a sort of navigation monopoly to the Black Sea. They consequently turned down any interference with their domestic affairs and, in spite of the protests, started their construction activities.
(Source: aqua press Int. 2/2006a)


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