On the one hand, water is a natural substance. Water accounts for the greater part of the Earth's surface and most of the mass of the human body. It is the basis of life on Earth. On the other hand, water is a historical topic. Water played a large role in daily life, and not just in "water cultures"1 such as Venice and Holland.2 Water is characterized by a social ambivalence due to its dual aspect as a "life source and a danger to life".3 In spite of its great importance, water has to date not been a research object of European history. Histories of materials and environmental histories – such as those that exist for wood, for example – have not yet been written for water.4 This may partly be down to the fluid nature of the object. Its natural form changes depending on the temperature. Strictly speaking, the term "water" only refers to the liquid state. When frozen, this substance is ice. In its gaseous state, it is steam. It also crosses borders as a constituent part of the environment. Rivers, lakes and seas do not adhere to national boundaries.
In the 1930s, the sociologist and sinologist Karl August Wittfogel (1896–1988) found a succinct term to encapsulate the social significance of water. He coined the term "hydraulic society". Wittfogel's theory was intended to give the "Marxist worldview a worldwide dimension"5 by also incorporating non-European societies and their forms of production. His argument was that irrigation systems had promoted the development of non-European high cultures. The establishment of artificial irrigation systems required centralized control, he argued. The implementation of these projects required a bureaucracy that employed forced labour and aspects of which were despotic. He elaborated on this thesis of a "hydraulic bureaucracy"6 in his work Die orientalische Despotie (Oriental Despotism) published in 1947. The hydraulic society that formed along the great Asian rivers (Euphrates, Indus, Yangtse and Nile), he argued, formed the basis of the centrally-organized "oriental despotism" that existed almost unchanged in Asia into the 20th century.
Today it is clear that Wittfogel's view owed more to western projections than to the local conditions, as examples of water usage from "Holland to Sri Lanka" demonstrate.7 In a broader sense, however, Wittfogel's term "hydraulic society" points to the great importance that water and water usage had in human history. In order to demonstrate how the natural substance water became visible, was appropriated and was utilized in the respective society, this article describes a selection of functions that water performed in European history. Initially, the focus is on the emerging image of water in the natural sciences and how this process of scientification can be traced in the historiography. In a second step, three different facets of water in the human lifeworld are presented: bathing water, drinking water, and water as a source of energy. The subsequent sections deal with the special tasks performed by water at specific sites. First the focus is on its role as a transport medium and on aquatic infrastructures, specifically with reference to rivers and port cities. The article is concluded by a section demonstrating how water interacted with political power.
Water as a Substance and Research Object
From the 19th century onward, various disciplines emerged that dealt with water as a substance. Between 1904 and 1919, Daniel Webster Mead (1862–1948) and Adolph Frederick Meyer (born 1880) wrote foundational texts of hydrology against the backdrop of contemporary hydraulic engineering projects, such as the development of the water supply system.8 In the first half of the 20th century, August Thienemann (1882–1960) and Einar Naumann (1891–1934) discovered inland waterways (ponds, pools, lakes, rivers, inland sees) as limnological objects of study.9 In the last third of the 19th century, oceanography or marine science became institutionalized and brought together different fields of interest from marine biology to marine geology.10
These scientific disciplines have in common that they translate the substance water into the human life horizon. Depending on their methodological arsenal, they emphasize the properties of water as a biotope, as a geographical natural environment, as a system controlled by physical and chemical processes, or as a component of the anthropogenic lifeworld or life environment.
The first international hydrographic congress was organized in 1853 on the initiative of the American officer Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806–1873).11 Beginning with the circumnavigation of the globe by the British corvette Challenger (1872–1876), large-scale expeditions surveyed the world's oceans.12 In the last third of the 19th century, scientists established marine biological stations with state funding. Among the first of these was the German facility in Naples (1872).13 Using special tools such as dredges and nets, it was possible to collect samples of sea water, which could then be analysed on the spot or in laboratories set up for the purpose.14 Microscopes made details of the water visible, such as the structure of a waterdrop or the organisms living in samples from specific waterways. This fundamental research was incorporated into data sets and tables, which formed the basis for larger-scale models. This scientific engagement with water was connected with social, economic and political aims. The interest in all aspects of the oceans was linked to economic concerns, as demonstrated by the foundation of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (1902), an early industry representative body for high seas fishing.15 In addition to marine biological stations, limnological stations were also established, in which scientists investigated the water quality of rivers and lakes.16 Water was now not just a research object, but also a component of the human lifeworld.
Water and Lifeworld
Since classical antiquity, a healing effect has been attributed to water. In the early modern period, restorative stays at domestic medicinal spas was a privilege of the high aristocracy.17 From as early as the second half of the 18th century, spa guests – primarily from the nobility – travelled to the seaside to have their melancholy and anxiety cured by exposure to the cold, salty water. In the 1820s, bathing resorts were established on almost all European coasts on the initiative of members of the high nobility, state officials and physicians.18 The marinas of Sicily served as a model.19 Large medicinal and seaside spas such as Bath, Dieppe and Scarborough not only heavily influenced a leisure infrastructure that was initially directed at the needs of the high aristocracy, and later also those of the upper middle classes: they also contributed to the emergence of modern bathing beaches.20 In this way, the socio-cultural function of water shifted from a restorative to a leisure medium. During the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, seaside tourism experienced two leaps of democratization. In 1841, the railway line to Brighton opened. In other European countries also, the development of modern means of transportation made travel to the beach possible for a wider range of social groups. Members of the aristocracy and the wealthy middle classes holidayed there for a number of weeks each year, while working-class people could usually only afford day-trips to the seaside.21 The second great democratization of the seaside holiday occurred in the era of the totalitarian systems of the 20th century, as the National Socialists recognized the subliminal propaganda value of leisure and entertainment options.22 The organization "Kraft durch Freude" (Strength through Joy) planned five large-scale seaside resorts on the Baltic coast, on the island of Rügen, in Konigsberg, in Kiel and in Danzig. With each resort having capacity for 20,000 tourists, this would make it possible for five million visitors to have a two-week seaside holiday each summer.23 Alain Corbin (born 1936) stated that, in the 19th century, desires gave rise to architectural trends. This was even more true of the second half of the 20th century. During this period, hotel complexes were built on the coasts of the Mediterranean and at other popular holiday locations in the tropics. Together with package holidays and the invention of the all-inclusive holiday, the restorative effect of seawater became a modern mass consumer commodity.
From the 19th century onward, water also became increasingly available in domestic life. Until well into the 19th century, wells, water tanks, rivers and streams met the drinking water requirements of European cities and towns.24 In the second half of the 19th century, cities began to establish central water supply systems for reasons of hygiene. The water required came from the surrounding countryside. For example, the drinking water for the city of Munich was piped in from the Mangfall valley. In tandem with this, European urban planners developed sewer systems in order to cope with the volumes of clean water and wastewater. In London, the construction of the sewer system already began in the 1860s. While German cities started building sewer systems comparatively late, about 90 percent of households in Berlin were connected to the sewer system by 1885. The expensive decision to build waterborne sewer systems as permanent wastewater infrastructure was justified by planners and health experts by citing the miasma theory, according to which noxious gases and vapours were the cause of diseases such as cholera. This made the removal of wastewater a public health imperative. However, the waterborne sewer system resulted in long-term environmental problems that could not have been predicted by contemporaries. The discharge of wastewater into nearby waterways polluted lakes, rivers and streams. Consequently, the first wastewater treatment plants, which were made even more necessary by the installation of water closets in dwellings, were constructed in the 1880s.25 Through the technologization of cities and households, water not only became a daily commodity, but also performed a role in energy generation.26
Already in the medieval and early modern periods, humans had used the power of rivers, streams and other watercourses to drive mills. However, in order to ensure continuous operation in spite of seasonal deviations in water volumes, reservoirs and dam systems emerged, and with them an early network of water-powered facilities. This in turn meant interventions in the landscape of waterways, for example the straightening of rivers.27 However, it was during the restructuring of rivers by modern engineering in the 19th century that dams and hydroelectric power stations were constructed in greater numbers. The discovery of turbine technology in the middle of the 19th century made it possible to utilize the water power of the Alpine rivers, the glaciers and meltwater. Through the development of power transmission in the 1890s, the power generated could be used in the surrounding region.28 In 1892, the German civil engineer Oskar von Miller (1855–1934) built a hydroelectric power station in Schöngeising. The nearby district capital of Fürstenfeldbruck was consequently one of the first cities in Bavaria to have electric streetlighting. Between 1918 and 1924, von Miller managed the building of the Walchensee power plant, the largest water storage power station at that time.
Hydroelectric power played a central role in the urban power supply in the 20th century. According to UN estimates, hydroelectric power constituted a quarter of the power supply of the European continent in the years after the Second World War.29 With the development of nuclear energy, hydroelectric power became less significant in Europe and North America, but it remains the most important means of power generation in the global south.30
Infrastructures and Transport
Water was also a means of transportation. In the early modern period, shipping goods on water was cheaper and, in some cases, more practical than transportation over land. For example, timber could be transported from one place to the next on the current of a river without any additional mechanical or financial resources. Rafts and ships transported goods and people.31 To connect the continents, the large trading companies, such as the British East India Company and the Dutch Ostindienkompanie, developed trans-oceanic routes.32 These overseas shipping routes fulfilled a threefold function. Firstly, they were the trading connections between European states and the world outside Europe. Secondly, they had a socio-cultural significance in that, as travel routes and postal routes, they connected people on different continents and enabled communication across the oceans. Finally, ships also transported animals and plants. The American environmental historian Alfred W. Crosby (1931–2018) coined the phrase "Columbian exchange" to refer to this exchange, which intensified after the discovery of the two Americas in particular. Crop plants from the New World, such as the tomato and the potato, came to Europe along the shipping routes. Conversely, animals and plants – as well as pathogens such as the smallpox virus – were also transferred from Europe to America.33
While global shipping traffic increasingly became concentrated on the Atlantic and the Pacific during the 19th century, even the Mediterranean, which had experienced its heyday in the early modern period, experienced increased activity.34 Thus, the economic boom of the 1850s to the 1870s and steam shipping enabled the integration of the eastern Mediterranean, the Levante, into the global economy. For economic and trade reasons, a number of canals were built during the 19th century, such as the Panama and Suez canals.35 The Suez Canal, one of the largest construction projects of the time, was completed in ten years in spite of cholera epidemics among the workers and diplomatic tensions between Great Britain and France. It was heralded at its ceremonial opening in 1869 as a great feat of engineering. It connected the Mediterranean with the Red Sea, thereby creating a direct connection for shipping between the (North) Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.36
However, the great international canal projects of the 19th century had less-well-known forerunners on the European continent. As early as the medieval period, rivers had been connected by artificial canals. The Stecknitz Canal was constructed in the 1390s to enable salt to be transported by ship from Lüneburg to the Baltic Sea, and timber to be transported in the opposite direction to Lüneburg. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the ruling houses of Europe built several canals. For example, the "Great Elector" Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg (1620–1688) ordered the construction of the "New Trench" (Friedrich Wilhelm Canal), which connected the Oder and Elbe rivers. The Canal du Midi, which was constructed in the 1680s, was a 240-km water route connecting the Mediterranean with the Garonne River via Toulouse. Friedrich II of Prussia (1712–1786) ordered the building of the Plaue Canal (1743–1745), the second Finow Canal (1743–1746), the Storkow Canal (1746), the Werbelin Canal (1765) and the Ruppin Canal (1786–1788). In so doing, he created the Brandenburg inland waterways network as a transport infrastructure.37
During the 19th century, canals were constructed on almost all of the large waterways of Europe. In 1846, the Bavarian king Ludwig I (1786–1868) commissioned the building of a canal connecting the Danube and Main rivers. From the 1950s, this canal was extended to make the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal. Between 1887 and 1895, the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal (now known as the Kiel Canal) was built to connect the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. Already in the 19th century, there were protests against canal projects on the grounds of nature conservation and the conservation of local heritage. In the mid-20th century, however, these critical voices increasingly gained public attention through the media and experts. The Rhine-Main-Danube Canal was a subject of much controversy right up to its completion in 1992. Opponents and supporters of canal projects cited expert reports to support their respective positions. In the 1980s, large hydraulic engineering projects were no longer viewed as great feats of engineering, but as an expression of human hubris. This is illustrated by a comment made by German Federal Transport Minister Volker Hauff (born 1940) quoted in the Spiegel magazine, in which he described the construction of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal as "ziemlich das dümmste Projekt seit dem Turmbau zu Babel".38 However, rivers such as the Danube and the Rhine not only played a role in wastewater disposal projects, but also performed functions with far-reaching significance for European (urban) histories.
The Flow of History
Rivers were an essential factor in the founding, growth and subsequent existence of many – one can probably even say most – European cities. The most important European cities established in the medieval period were located near the fording points of rivers – Frankfurt-on-Main is a classic example – or at another important point in the course of the river.39
Rivers played an important role in the development of cities, but they also gave rise to myths and legends.40 Almost all of the great capitals owe their development to a river. Vienna owes it to the Danube, and London to the Thames, which connected the city via early transport networks to the hinterland. Even the history of early civilizations was connected with rivers. The rise of Mesopotamia was fed by the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Ancient Egypt's development was dependent on the Nile. Rivers played a central role in arid regions in particular – such as the American west and the Russian east – where their water made landscapes fertile.41
Three metanarratives dominate the historiography of rivers. A cultural-historical tradition thematizes the romanticization of rivers, which in some cases sees them being laid claim to in nationalist discourses. A second trend writes the history of rivers as a kind of history of civilization, in which the demands of humans reshape the nature of rivers. Thirdly, with the emergence of modern environmental history, the interaction between humans and rivers is analysed more closely.42
In the romantic tradition, which has its origins in the late-18th and 19th centuries, rivers are viewed as natural primal forces, as sources of life and destruction. Thus, the topos that water writes history, which exists up to the present, was coined by historical descriptions of rivers. Willi Rickmers (1873–1965), who toured and researched Central Asia around 1900, was prompted by visits to the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand to describe the Zarafshan river as the source of life and origin of the old civilization: "The Zarafshan is the very essence of life to Samarkand and Bokhara … This is the end, that was the beginning, and between them is the life-time and the work of a drop of water; between them are generations of men."43
These travel impressions are not only a prime example of late-romantic hyperbole regarding rivers, but also of the fact that rivers are closely associated with the cities whose existence was determined by the course of the river.44 In the age of nationalism, rivers that ran along the border between states could be used as arguments in propaganda, as happened with the Rhine during the Napoleonic Wars and the Rhine Crisis.45 Max Schneckenburger (1819–1849) wrote the bellicose patriotic song "Die Wacht am Rhein" (Watch on the Rhine) and Nikolaus Becker (1809–1845) wrote the song "Der freie deutsche Rhein" (The Free German Rhine). These heroic slogans were reactivated as topoi in the 20th century, for example in the anti-French propaganda of the First World War.46
Beyond this cultural-historical and history-of-ideas approach, in recent decades there has been an increasing focus on rivers as historical environments.47 The early 19th century is viewed as a turning point in this context. Prior to the large-scale hydraulic engineering projects of the 19th century, rivers were impervious to human planning due to their power. They constantly changed course and, depending on water level, new side channels emerged. Rivers were thus also a source of local conflicts when changes in their course changed the water supply to the surrounding communities. Rivers could even alter state borders. In the early modern period, "Landkarten waren immer Momentaufnahmen, und die Kartographen des 16. Jh.s. stellten Flüsse entsprechend ihrer Bedeutung meist überdimensional dar".48 However, the large engineering projects of the 19th century established the navigable, standardized canal as an ideal for rivers also.49
While rivers such as the Danube, the Rhine, the Thames, and the Rhône have their individual histories, there is nonetheless an identifiable pattern: in the 19th century, they became subject to increased human control.50 In addition to monarchs, the actors in this history were engineers, entrepreneurs, water experts, biologists, fishermen, politicians, diplomats and industrialists.51 International commissions monitored the restructuring of rivers.52 The construction of canals and dams, the transformation of watercourses due to the development of forestry, the construction of embankments and the realignment of rivers through urban development became much more frequent occurrences. The detrimental effects of these interventions quickly became apparent. The pollution of rivers was a common contemporary theme, as illustrated by the descriptions of the pollution of the Thames by Charles Dickens (1812–1870) in his novels Oliver Twist and Our Mutual Friend.53 Each type of human intervention in rivers also changed the ecosystem and reduced biodiversity. Due to this ambivalence between the mission to improve and the damage that it caused, anthropogenic transformations of rivers were perceived on the one hand as a triumph of engineering over nature, but on the other hand as the desecration of nature.54 The ecological turn of the 1970s affected the rivers of Europe in two ways. Rivers became the object of environmental protection campaigns, such as the project to restore salmon to the Rhine. This in turn changed the perception of human interventions. In the 1980s, critical environmental history referred to what it called the extermination, silencing and rape of rivers.55
Against the backdrop of modern environmental history, which in recent years has emphasized the dynamic interaction between humans and nature, a third narrative emerged. Works such as Richard White's (born 1947) Organic Machine56 and Mark Cioc's Eco-Biography of the Rhine River emphasize the interrelationship between rivers and society. Rivers are now viewed as spaces that exist in a constant relationship of exchange between nature and humans. They are shaped by this interaction, but they also shape human society. Narratives of the destruction and conquest of rivers have thus been replaced by histories of co-evolution and adaptation.57 In their long-running research on the Danube, Verena Winiwarter and Martin Schmid (born 1974) overcome the dichotomy between nature and culture by investigating the practices and arrangements through which the river and the city of Vienna have shaped each other over the centuries.58
Cities located on rivers performed similar socio-cultural functions to port cities. Port cities that were situated along shipping routes were node points of diverse exchange relationships and transfer processes. From the 17th century onward, processes of state formation and the striving for naval power were particularly concentrated in port cities. Amsterdam and Rotterdamwere the first port cities to emerge in northern Europe. In the absolutist monarch of France, the planning and construction of port cities assumed the character of a national project. Cities such as Lorient, Rochefort, Brest and Sète were militarily important ports and significant maritime centres. From the time of mercantilism, seaborne trade connected port cities with coastal settlements, which served as intermediaries for the hinterland. Josef W. Konvitz (born 1946) described French port cities as "metropolitan colonies, recognizably dependent in purpose and fortune upon the French state".59 In the 17th and 18th centuries, ports played a central role in the growth of European cities involved in Atlantic trade.60 The cities of Liverpool, Bristol, Hull, Cardiff, Newcastle and Manchester owed their growth and their character to their connection to the sea.61
In the 19th century, port cities developed into cosmopolitan outposts of the European middle classes. This had consequences for multi-ethnic empires in the eastern Mediterranean, such as Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. From the research perspective, continental port cities offer new perspectives on the history of the European land empires. Examples such as the city of Thessaloniki in the Ottoman Empire may prove that processes of national integration and state-building were connected with processes of the disintegration of multi-ethnic empires.62 As gateways to the world beyond Europe, port cities illustrate that even classic continental empires such as Austria-Hungary had multi-layered relationships with the sea. Trieste tied Austria-Hungary into a global trade network that ran between central Europe, North Africa, the Cape Colony, Argentina, Brazil, the Middle East, China and Japan. Port cities not only created the basis for the global world, but were also bases of an informal imperialism.63
The example of Trieste also demonstrates the way in which the economic ambitions of the actors (primarily traders and officials) were connected with a cosmopolitan image of themselves:
Bohemian manufactured goods, Viennese capital, and polyglot Habsburg subjects bearing expert knowledge and European civilization would integrate the Levant, East Asia, South Africa, and South America into the greater Austrian economy. (...) The terrestrial empire was, of course, centered on the imperial capital in Vienna … The maritime empire, on the other hand, was championed by the imperial port city of Trieste. Trieste, the Habsburgs' gateway to the world, sat at the center of … international trade … and transoceanic mobility in the late imperial period.64
Through these exchange processes, two types of empires emerged on land and at sea. From a social and cultural perspective, ports developed a specific type of "city" that had three characteristics. In port cities, there was an increased risk of epidemics, and the demographic development was characterized by high birth rates and a dependence on migration flows. The economy of ports was dominated by shipping, with a very large number of unskilled and casual workers, who were prone to seasonal and cyclical unemployment.65 Along with these economic and social-historical factors, port cities were characterized by a marked cultural vibrancy. The following description of port cities as cosmopolitan places that gave rise to new forms of business and coexistence comes from 1935:
Port cities function most effectively in movements of peoples and their wares, in fusing ideas, institutions, and cultures distinctive of their hinterlands and markets.… Thus do the port cities of the world assume the cosmopolitan qualities that generally characterize and distinguish them, blending the effects of diverse lands and environments in an alchemy of culture that produces new phases of social and economic activity, new industries as well as ideas, new concepts of high and right living, new ways of progress.66
This interpretation of the phenomenon of the city by the sea has endured up to the present. In the academic literature, port cities are depicted as sites at which processes of economic and social globalization blend with a "global imaginary", that is, concepts of what global society consists of.67 London, Tokyo, New York City, Mumbai, Buenos Aires, Amsterdam, Singapore, Hong Kong, Hamburg, New Orleans, Copenhagen, San Francisco, Shanghai and Los Angeles, almost all modern global cities were previously port cities.68 Due to these diverse interpretative horizons, port cities have become classic research objects of global history.
Water and Power
In The Conquest of Nature, David Blackbourn (born 1949) stresses that power relationships and power fantasies were characteristic of the role that water played in history. This role could seem unpolitical in some cases. From classical antiquity, water served to display power and luxury in the form of water features and fountains.69 Like all natural resources, the use of water created and re-enforced power relationships, or caused a shift in existing ones.70 Starting with the land reclamation projects of Friedrich the Great and continuing with the straightening of rivers, the draining of moors, and finally National Socialist infrastructural planning for after the intended conquest of eastern Europe, all of these projects can be analysed as a series of "water wars"71. The struggle against nature was not the sole leitmotif of hydraulic engineering projects. Social relationships were also reflected in these projects when opponents and advocates confronted each other in a context of uneven power relationships. The implementation of water projects bore the signs of the open exercise of force when political or military coercion was employed as a means of enforcing change. Within Europe, courts, parliaments and authorities increasingly exercised force in a civilized form during the course of the 19th century.
Additionally, the authority over water was linked with questions of epistemic power, and connected to modern forms of knowledge, such as maps, tables, theories, and the practical skills of hydraulic engineers. It was not only wildlife and plants that disappeared as a result of the transformation of waterways. Local knowledge about watercourses and their flora and fauna was also marginalized during the course of these projects.
However, the history of water in Europe was not only characterized by conflicts, but also by the approval that united politicians, officials, opinion-makers and the population when projects for the benefit of the general good were involved, such as the supply of drinking water. Already in the 19th century, however, a growing number of people emphasized the environmental damage done by dams, river realignments and hydroelectric projects. Four strands of argumentation can be identified. Pragmatic opponents feared from an early stage that the consequences of the interventions could not be predicted, and that interventions in the water balance of the Earth could trigger natural disasters. The second group of critics mainly stressed aesthetic issues and pointed out that the beauty of nature was adversely affected by hydroelectric power stations, dams, and canals. The third strand was religious objections to a form of human arrogance that sought to improve on creation. Finally, a growing number of people expressed opposition to the transformation of ecosystems and the pollution of waterways, as well as the reduction of biodiversity triggered by these.72 These voices still exist today in environmental debates. The history of water is therefore also a history of political, social, and economic conditions: "An der Art und Weise, wie die … Wasserwege umgeleitet wurden, zeigt sich deutlich, wie die Linien der Macht verliefen. Die Beherrschung der Natur durch den Menschen verrät uns viel vom Wesen der menschlichen Herrschaft."73