The Danube—If Only It Could Talk!
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN GERMANY
For over a century and a half, the most famous Germans of all time have gazed steadily—but blindly—down upon the Danube River. How is that possible? In 1842, Bavarian King Ludwig I completed the Valhalla,* a Doric marble temple designed to honor prominent deceased Germans.
OVERLOOKING the Danube from a hillside near Regensburg, Germany, this German hall of fame—copied after the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens—contains scores of busts representing men and women of fame.
The setting is appropriate. These princes, poets, artists, politicians, scientists, and musicians—including such luminaries as Beethoven, Einstein, Goethe, Gutenberg, Kepler, and Luther—knew the Danube well. Many of them lived on its banks, crossed its waters, or sang its praises. What a story the Danube could tell—if only it could talk!
More Than Just Running Water
“Rivers to the geographer are the bearers of sediment and trade,” writes historian Norman Davies. He notes, however, that “to the historian they are the bearers of culture, ideas, and sometimes conflict. They are like life itself.” The Danube flows through or borders on ten different countries—Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine—so it has seen its share of culture, ideas, and conflict. Not surprisingly, many communities along the Danube have played major roles in European, even world, history.
Take Vienna, the capital of Austria, for example. This city has long been one of the undisputed cultural centers of the world, rich in opera houses, theaters, museums, historic homes, and libraries. For centuries it has also been famous for its coffeehouses and taverns. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is considered one of the world’s finest. The University of Vienna, founded in 1365, is the oldest in the German-speaking world.
As for ideas, The New Encyclopædia Britannica calls turn-of-the-century Vienna “a fertile breeding ground for ideas that—for good or bad—were to shape the modern world.” Among the individuals who were, to some degree, influenced by the years that they spent there are Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism; Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis; and Adolf Hitler, who needs no further description.
Dividing “Civilization From Barbarity”
“In ancient times, the River Danube represented one of the great dividing lines of the European Peninsula,” says Norman Davies. He explains: “Established as the frontier of the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD, the Latin Danuvius . . . divided civilization from barbarity.”
Several Danube cities played leading roles in the history of the Roman Empire and, later, of the so-called Holy Roman Empire. Bratislava, for example, a cultural center in Slovakia and today its capital, served as the capital of Hungary from 1526 to 1784. And for a time a majestic castle, perched some 300 feet [100 meters] above the Danube, was a residence of the Austrian royal family. When Vienna was threatened by French and Bavarian troops in 1741, Maria Theresa, who later became empress, fled there for protection.
Maria Theresa was of the House of Habsburg. This sovereign dynasty—one of Europe’s greatest—is well represented among the busts in the Valhalla.* This remarkable family, which can be traced back to the 10th century, rose to power in the 13th century and eventually held sway over much of Central Europe—often because of strategic marriages. Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914, causing the spark that set the world aflame.
Empires have come and gone, subjecting the Danube to continual political change. It was the border of the Byzantine Empire of the 11th and 12th centuries. Later, for most of its length, it flowed within the Ottoman Empire, as Danube cities such as Belgrade and Budapest were swallowed up by the Turks. Even Vienna was unsuccessfully placed under siege in 1529 and again in 1683.
Small wonder, then, that German author Werner Heider says: “No other river in Europe matches the Danube in its historical importance.” Another author notes that in the past it served as “the major invasion route to Europe from the east for the Huns, Tartars, Mongols, and Turks.”
The Danube has also been violated in wars of more recent vintage. Author William L. Shirer writes: “[In 1941] on the night of February 28 German Army units crossed the Danube from Rumania and took up strategic positions in Bulgaria.” In 1945, four years later, “the Russians, having captured Vienna on April 13, were heading up the Danube, and the U.S. Third Army was sweeping down that river to meet them.”
The Danube’s story of culture and ideas has too often been a story of conflict, and its waters have too often been sullied by the blood of mankind’s wars. But it has been sullied in other ways as well.
No Longer Blue
When Johann Strauss, Jr., composed the waltz “The Blue Danube” in 1867, the waters evidently faithfully reflected the blue, sunlit sky. But today?
From its source in the Black Forest of Germany, the Danube winds its way southeast for some 1,770 miles [2,850 kilometers] to the Black Sea. After the Volga, it is the second-longest river in Europe. Its drainage system encompasses 315,000 square miles [817,000 square kilometers]. However, the construction of the Gabcikovo Dam, part of a hydroelectric project located on the Danube between Vienna and Budapest, has had an effect on the environment. According to one source, the dam “has caused a serious drop in the water table along the Danube, dried out thousands of hectares of forest and wetlands and reduced fish catches on some stretches of the lower Danube by 80%.”
If it could talk, the Danube of today might well hesitate to tell how human ignorance and greed have turned it into both culprit and victim. Along with the other three major rivers emptying into the Black Sea, the Danube has helped to make the Black Sea “the most polluted sea in the world,” according to the Russian newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta. The same journal speaks of the Black Sea as “undergoing an agonizing death,” noting that during the past 30 years, it “has become a sewer for half of Europe—a place for the disposal of huge amounts of phosphorus compounds, mercury, DDT, oil, and other poisonous refuse.”
How sad the story of what has happened to the Danube delta! Around Izmail, Ukraine, near where the river loses itself in the Black Sea, the ecological damage is horrendous. The pelicans once typical of the area have become scarce. The German magazine Geo says that the permanent preservation of the area’s “opulent variety of plant and animal life . . . is a test case for international environmental control.”
A Better Story on the Way
In 1902 a new resident arrived in Tailfingen, a town located about 35 miles [60 kilometers] northeast of the Danube’s headwaters, on one of its tributaries. She was Margarethe Demut. “Demut” means “Humility” in German. Because she preached about an imminent “golden age,” local residents were soon calling her Golden Gretle. Shortly thereafter, Tailfingen had one of the first congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany.
In 1997 the 21,687 of Jehovah’s Witnesses serving in 258 congregations in Danube communities, which are in ten countries, were unitedly preaching this same message of God’s established Kingdom.
Since God has decreed that the earth will last forever and will be inhabited, the Danube could well flow on indefinitely. (Psalm 104:5; Isaiah 45:18) If so, how gratifying that after a centuries-long story of imperfect cultures, faulty human ideas, and bloody conflicts, this river will finally have a more welcome story to tell. Happy and healthy people will be living along its banks, no longer divided by political boundaries or by language. All will be lifting their voices in praise of the Grand Creator. And no longer will there be any need for a Valhalla honoring dead humans, since all worthy ones will have been restored to life.—John 5:28, 29.
The thought of such a joyous Danube may well remind us of Psalm 98:8, 9, which says: “Let the rivers themselves clap their hands . . . for [Jehovah] has come to judge the earth. He will judge the productive land with righteousness and the peoples with uprightness.” Imagine the thrilling story the blue Danube, once again beautiful, would then be able to tell!
In German mythology, Valhalla was the dwelling hall of the gods; in Norse mythology, it was the hall of slain warriors.
Maria Theresa, Rudolf I, Maximilian I, and Charles V are all so honored.
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ALONGSIDE THE DANUBE
In 1879, Albert Einstein, whose scientific discoveries helped shape recent world history, was born in Ulm. It is said that he was “recognized in his own time as one of the most creative intellects in human history”
The astronomer Kepler died there in 1630, long after the Danube was spanned in the 12th century by the Steinerne Brücke (Stone Bridge), at that time considered to be a marvel of construction
This small community on the Danube was the site of a Nazi concentration camp. Some among the tens of thousands of people incarcerated there were Jehovah’s Witnesses, including Martin Poetzinger, who later became a member of their Governing Body
Geopress/H. Armstrong Roberts
The World Book Encyclopedia says that Belgrade experienced “political and military struggles” that lasted “for hundreds of years.” Invading armies “conquered and destroyed Belgrade more than 30 times”
This town was an important stronghold after the Byzantine emperor Heraclius founded it in 629 C.E. In 1396 the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I defeated King Sigismund of Hungary there, thus beginning five centuries of Turkish rule
In 1869, Romania’s first railway line connected Giurgiu with its better-known neighbor Bucharest, some 40 miles [65 kilometers] to the north. In 1954 a bilevel highway-railway bridge across the Danube connected Romania with Bulgaria and was optimistically named Friendship Bridge
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Once known as Queen of the Danube, Budapest consists mainly of Buda, on the west side of the Danube, and Pest on the east side. By 1900, nearly one fourth of the population was Jewish—a community almost totally annihilated during World War II